It’s a cartoonishly dull day in London. Heavy raindrops spatter windows, buses splash unsuspecting pedestrians, Uber prices surge astronomically as trails of red lights stand still in traffic. Ashley Walters, on the other hand, has just cruised into the Time Out office on a robot. The 38-year-old south Londoner is here to guest-edit a special issue of the magazine championing Blackowned businesses in London. And it’s clear he’s already at ease with the idea of making a statement.
Within minutes of his arrival, Walters is in his socks, lugging the wet AI-enhanced segway across the room to a wall socket while animatedly telling the story of how he got it to an amused crowd. He picked it up from ‘one of those GoFundMe companies’. He even invested in it. Then the brand went bust, meaning that the toy – which occasionally declares ‘I cannot find you’ when you’re stood out of sight – is, in a sense, a limited edition.
‘When I bought it they said “do not use in the rain”,’ Walters pauses, stroking his chin for dramatic effect. ‘So the whole way over here I was just wondering… “Why not?”’ Thankfully, there is no spontaneous combustion before we sit down for our chat.
The fun one
Damp and adrenaline-filled, there’s a lightness to Ashley Walters off duty. He stands up to act out stories and teases me (falsely) for being too young to know about the rappers and actors he’s talking about. It’s a wildly different energy level than you might expect from the So Solid Crew rapper-turned-actor, given his catalogue of past characters.
In the 23 years that he has been on British screens, there has often been silent but stirring darkness to the roles he has inhabited. Walters played Antoine in 50 Cent’s ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin’’ and Ricky in 2004 indie ‘Bullet Boy’, but he’s most famed for his work as Dushane in London gang drama ‘Top Boy’, a calmly cunning kingpin whose every move is considered.
Currently in rehearsals for the next season of the show, Walters is getting back to grips with playing a character so different from himself. ‘Yesterday it was me, [and my castmates] Kane [Kano] and Micheal for five or six hours. I was just like: I’m done with this guy,’ Walters says of Dushane. (His husky voice adds the same gravity it carries on screen, making it hard to tell whether he’s joking or not after a particularly deadpan delivery. In this case, the answer is both.)
Walters’s Dushane fatigue is partly because: ‘I have none of the fun on set.’ While the show’s more volatile scenes have included the likes of a ‘Joker’-esque prison escape, Walters’s character doesn’t often get to – for want of a better phrase – lose his shit in the same way as some of the show’s less-hinged cast members. ‘I’m like a referee,’ he laughs. ‘Every day is like “yeah, go there, collect the food. And then go back there. Oi, talk to my man”.’ It’s the opposite of how he really is: comfortably the centre of attention without ever really demanding it. In fact, he emphasises with fake incredulity, and a finger to his chest, that, out of everyone on set, ‘I’m the fun one!’
Black British representation
When he’s not cracking jokes with his team, one thing that Walters does take very seriously is championing Black British stories. Particularly through realistic tales of the capital. He thinks that a lot of the issues Black people face are economic. ‘I don’t really care about slurs and monuments and statues,’ he says, ‘I just want a fair shot.’ And by that he means: ‘I’m strong enough to hear you call me a n***er. It doesn’t affect me, because I know who I am. But when it comes to the system being rigged in a way that disadvantages me? That’s an issue.’
It’s why he’s taken on this guest edit and, he explains, part of the reason why he’s supporting the initiative Black Pound Day, founded by his So Solid crewmate Swiss. He thinks that Black and non-Black Londoners have a duty to ‘wake up and understand that we’ve got to help each other to climb up the ladder’.
For him, personally, that also means staying grounded here, while many Black British actors journey across the Atlantic to Hollywood. Instead, he – alongside friend and actor-producer Noel Clarke – is determined to carve out spaces for those kinds of voices within the UK industry.
The pair star together as detectives in the Clarke-penned Sky buddy-cop drama ‘Bulletproof’. ‘Noel’s whole thing was, when we were younger, we all loved “Knight Rider” with David Hasselhoff. He was a detective and he had this car that talked and had gadgets or whatever. And the car was black...’ He pauses. ‘So in the playground, as kids, we would be... the car.’ For Walters, the best part of playing his ‘Bulletproof ’ character, Ronnie Pike, is helping to populate that void. ‘We want to create people that [Black] kids can be like: family- oriented, moral and in a healthy relationship with a Black woman’ he says, listing off his character’s best qualities. ‘And we did it under people’s noses,’ he smiles.
We’ve got to help each other to climb up the ladder
As a prime-time show with two Black leads that isn’t about race, featuring Black men not as the fugitives, the production hasn’t come without resistance. It took eight years of being told by TV executives with certainty that the show ‘just wouldn’t work’. He quotes the feedback: ‘One of you has to be white. Make one of the characters Tom Hardy, make one of them Benedict Cumberbatch.’
These words make me wince visibly, but Walters looks back blankly as he reflects on that time, like he couldn’t roll his eyes back far enough in his head if he tried, so why bother? It was a different story when he was in the midst of it, though. Clarke even told Walters he was glad to have attended the meetings without him, scared of what his response might have been. Walters deadpans, ‘I probably would ripped someone a new one.’
In 2018, the show’s first episode garnered the biggest Sky One audience of the year to date, with a total of 1.6 million viewers. But the image of these two strong Black leads seemed to evoke a reaction in people. Like when a billboard featuring Walters and Clarke as armed police officers went up in Walthamstow to advertise the first series. Walters lets out a half laugh, half sigh before recounting what happened next: ‘Two white fathers from the area covered up the guns.’ He explains slowly: ‘So they took the time to get a ladder, climb up to the billboard and cover them up. And they had MP Stella Creasy backing them.’ He was livid, he says. ‘There are so many posters of white men with guns that are never covered up.’
South of the river
Photograph: Udoma Janssen
The Walthamstow poster wasn’t the first time in Walters’s career that he has broken a ceiling impenitently and faced a backlash in return. In 2011, ‘Top Boy’ was similarly antagonising. The show told stories of an inner-city underbelly that many would rather have kept in the shadows. The result? ‘We got shut down by a lot of people. Hackney Council didn’t want us to film in a lot of their locations. And when the Olympics came [in 2012], they were against ‘Top Boy’ because it showed that area in such a bad light.’ (He’s visibly tickled as he imagines Olympic tourists curiously searching ‘What’s Hackney like?’, only to be greeted with clips of Kano’s character cutting off the finger of one of his rivals.)
Though his ‘Top Boy’ alter ego was east London born and bred, Walters grew up in Peckham. Back then, the area’s dicey reputation preceded it. ‘I always felt safe,’ Walters shrugs, ‘but if you told someone to come to Peckham, they’d be like “huh?”’ Now based in north London, he finds it strange to return and see how much it’s changed. Like the time rapper Joe Grind invited him to a show he was doing at an old West Indian bakery off the high street, sponsored by Wray & Nephew. Walters stares at me and says, ‘And there were no Black people in there. I was like, this is a bit mad?’ He raises an eyebrow and lists: ‘It’s Wray & Nephew... It’s rum... It’s Joe Grind, a Black hip hop artist... and it’s in Peckham. And there were no Black people?’
Walters grew up good mates with Grind and his brother, the rapper Giggs, going to all-dayers in the park and hearing artists perform. His teenage years were consumed by music, watching Biggie Smalls, Camp Lo and Jay-Z on ‘Yo! MTV Raps’ –‘I think that was the first time I saw people like me represented in the mainstream media’ – and listening to pirate radio stations like Supreme FM and Delight FM. That’s how Walters discovered hip hop crew So Solid at 18. First as a fan, then as a member, under the moniker Asher D.
He looks back on the time with the crew fondly, but there’s one particular memory that stands out... ‘Brian McFadden’s gonna hate me for this.’
The Brit Awards 2002
The year is 2002, the event is the Brits, and So Solid have just won Best Video for ‘21 Seconds’. Brian McFadden is sat with his then- girlfriend Kerry Katona. ‘Everyone had been drinking,’ says Walters. ‘We had to walk past his table to go collect this award and you can imagine like 35 of us, walking in our leathers, gassed up, with our bandanas and that.’
Walters remembers the boyband member heckling them repeatedly, saying, ‘you don’t deserve it!’
‘Next thing, one of our guys says, you know, “shut up”. And then someone throws champagne, and then someone throws a glass, and then,’ he claps his hands, ‘it becomes this mass brawl.’
It wasn’t all punch ups, the collective had been working away at shows on pirate stations for a while before they took the music industry by storm. With the release of chart-topper ‘21 Seconds’ they soon became the voice of the inner-city underdogs. In many ways, Asher D and the rest of So Solid Crew became that same kind of beacon for young Black people as the stars of ‘Yo! MTV Raps’ had been for him: Britain’s own street rock stars.
The indeterminately large ensemble managed to blend UK garage and hip hop with a dystopian aesthetic as they rapped (and sang) in an unapologetic manner that was fairly new to the British mainstream. There was a grit and chaos to them that either enticed or enraged all who witnessed it.
With the group ascending to fame at a time when gang violence and crime were on the up in the UK’s major cities, So Solid found their lyrics blamed for incidents occurring across the nation. Most sadly, there was the death of two teenagers caught in crossfire in Birmingham in 2003, and a violent incident that took place after one of their shows in Luton, where a fan was beaten to death in an attack.
‘I’m not stupid. We were getting caught with guns,’ Walters is measured as he clarifies. (He was sentenced to 18 months in a young offenders’ institution for possession of a gun.) ‘So there is definitely something to be said about that. But I don’t think they [critics] fully understood it.’
There’s a ring of déjà vu when comparing the group’s treatment to the current over-policing of drill artists, by both the media and government at the moment, as an alleged driving force for London’s knife-crime crisis, rather than a symptom of it. So a thriving career amid all the controversies became untenable. They had to cancel a tour halfway through. Walters thinks for a second, ‘I suppose they call it being blackballed?’
Photograph: Udoma Janssen
Now a dad of eight, with more than 20 years of experience navigating British music and TV, Walters has found a passion for discovering and mentoring new talent. Whether it’s a wannabe actor who approaches him in his local park in Crouch End or a student at Kingdom Drama School, which he runs with film producer Najan Ward, he hopes to inspire young Black talent.
His biggest piece of advice: it’s going to be hard, you’re going to hear a lot of ‘nos’ and it’s going to take forever to succeed. ‘Only 20 percent of it is going to be bliss,’ he says. ‘So actually, the part you need to embrace is the 80 percent: the hardship. That’s what’s going to shape you and mould you.’
Given the chance, would he live through all the hardship he experienced again? He’s at his most earnest as he poses the question to me, and possibly himself too: ‘How can someone like me go to prison, at the height of my career, for nearly a year, be in all the papers, but still come out and be sitting here today doing what I’m doing?’
Answering before I can: ‘There’s a positive in every negative in life, so just...’ he screws his face up in a playful scowl, ‘...fucking find it!’