The Story of Pop: 2002 (Chapter 34)

Always revisiting the UK chart movers and shakers of two decades ago every Thursday at 9am, we bring you this week’s instalment of The Story of Pop: 2002. This week: how ten Walthamstow schoolboys landed a number one debut with a cover of an old 90s hip hop track…

  • Artist: Blazin’ Squad
  • Song: Crossroads
  • Released: 19/08/2002
  • Writers / Producers: Ernest Isley / Marvin Isley / O’Kelly Isley / Ronald Isley / Rudolph Isley / Anthony Henderson / Steven Howse / Chris Jasper / Charles Scruggs Bryon McCane II / Cutfather & Joe
  • Highest UK Chart Position: #1
  • Weeks on Chart: 19

When South London collective So Solid Crew – who included Oxide and Neutrino of “Bound 4 Da Reload (Casualty)” fame amongst their number – crashed in almost from nowhere to the top of the UK charts in the summer of 2001 with “21 Seconds”, it was the high watermark of the UK Garage movement that had kick-started two years previously.

It also marked the moment that, having started out as quite a more commercially appealing genre (see “Sweet Like Chocolate“, “Re-Rewind“), that it switched up to becoming the genesis of grittier genres that are still around today, including Grime and Dubstep. For So Solid Crew themselves however, their moment in the sun was just that.

They never did repeat that number one success they had with that breakthrough single, and spent the vast majority of the rest of their career being in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, as they dragged some of the less salubrious parts of their lifestyles into the industry – and ultimately, in some cases, to serving time at her Majesty’s pleasure – thus bursting the mainstream UK garage bubble for good. In fact, within a year, more members were embarking on solo careers (Romeo and Lisa Maffia for two examples) then were not.

But with pop music starting to gravitate towards “cooler” genres of music – UK garage being one, but R&B and hip hop being two others – it was inevitable that record companies would be on the search to create and find bands that would tap into these genres quite heavily. When viewed in that light, it was only in August 2002 that this week’s artist could ever have possibly broken through.

Formed from school mates in Walthamstow in East London, Blazin’ Squad were a ten piece group of rappers and singers – Kenzie, Flava, Strider, Freek, Rocky B, Melo-D, Reepa, Krazy, Spike-E and Tommy B, who had been working in bedroom studios together for a couple of years, producing demos that were heard on the multitude of pirate radios that could be heard in and around the outskirts of London on any given weekend.

It was one of these demos that found its way to the ears of an A&R rep at EastWest, a division of Warner Records, and would eventually form what was to become a track called “Standard Flow”. Released as a limited white label in early August 2002, it just missed the top 75, peaking at #78. But it was mere warmup for what was to follow as their first full official single.

And it was a song that would utilise a common trick in the “How to launch an all male fronted pop act” trope book in the late 90s and early 00s; namely, to cover a lesser spotted US R&B / hip hop track and hit UK chart payola with it in the process. It had started as far back as 1996, when fellow Walthamstow residents East 17 covered Shai’s “If I Ever Fall In Love” as “If You Ever” with Gabrielle, making #2 in November of that year.

But it was when Another Level covered Silk’s baby making bonkfest “Freak Me” in 1998 and Blue re-versioned Next’s ode to unintentional boners “Too Close” in 2001, that both subsequently topped the UK chart and thus provided canon examples of how to make such a formula work.

Although it didn’t work for everyone admittedly. 3SL, the three piece boyband who were brothers of Lisa Scott-Lee from Steps, tried the same trick around the same time Blazin’ Squad launched, by covering Case and Foxy Brown’s “Touch Me Tease Me”, and were rewarded with a dismal mid top 20 placing and being shown the door by their record label.

Fortunately for the Squad, because of their relative youth to their peers at the time and still being at school, a slightly less ruder but in some cases equally adult offering was chosen. Originally recorded and released by Cleveland, Ohio hip hop group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony as “Tha Crossroads” in 1996, it was a touching tribute to their mentor and late rapper Eazy-E, who had passed away from AIDS a year before. A US Billboard chart topper, it had made #8 here in the spring of that year.

With only the original chorus remaining and new verses freestyled by them, the group recorded their version as simply “Crossroads”. Once released in mid-August, it took many by surprise, going straight in at number one to give them a chart topper with their debut release.

It proved to be a double celebration too, as they topped the UK chart the very same week that most of the Squad got their GCSE results. However, there’s no way to sugarcoat the fact that with just over 50,000 copies sold in its first week, it was one of the lowest selling number one hits of 2002, and masked what was to be a wider problem marketing them long term.

For over the next 18 months that followed, Blazin’ Squad’s career would aspire to but not quite reach the same heights as the impact their debut made. They were possibly too street to be a “boyband” in the conventional sense like East 17 before them, but equally were not taken seriously by their teenage male peers who were probably more enthralled with the likes of Eminem, 50 Cent or Nelly.

Caught in this bind, as well as having a devoted mostly female following, whilst their next five singles all went top 10, they were the dictionary definition of being a fanbase concern, with poor chart runs for the likes of “Flip Reverse” and “Love On The Line” beyond week one, and neither of their two albums – 2002’s In The Beginning and 2003’s Now Or Never – ever sold much to make them serious contenders to say, Blue or Westlife.

Some of this quite possibly lies at the feet of websites at the time, like that of ChavScum, a – heavily classist and xenophobic with hindsight – page that named, shamed and down right projected hatred at those in the public eye who were from working class backgrounds that were partial to wearing sportswear and chains and were perceived as being “delinquent” as Blazin’ Squad often were. They thus became key targets of vitriol to as equally voluble a sector of the public as their own fanbase was crazy about them – as odd and unrealistic a proposition for young teenage boys as they were at the time as it is now 20 years later.

Without any chance of widespread crossover, it thus meant that come 2004, they were dropped by their record label. Bizarrely, it was actually after they split that they found some wider appeal, albeit outside of music, with Kenzie going onto come second in the 2005 series of Celebrity Big Brother, whilst Rocky B – under his actual name Marcel – was a finalist in the 2017 series of Love Island.

Long term, the Squad would also prove to produced some long lasting, globe hitting talent. Flava and Strider, under their real names James and Mus, formed the production team Mojam, which has been subsequently responsible for both BRIT and Grammy Award winning singles and albums by the likes of Emeli Sandé and Sam Smith to name but two in the last decade. Proof that the groundwork in their bedrooms paid off, at least.

“Crossroads” however, and its affiliation with the top of the charts two decades ago, is a reminder of how pop music at the time tried to adapt as wider tastes changed and shifted. Blazin’ Squad were neither the best or worst example of how it navigated this change, but hitting number one was a building block in what direction pop ultimately took for the rest of the 00s to come – even if they were to not witness it.

Don’t forget to follow our brand new playlist on Spotify – updated weekly so you never miss a song from the story of pop in 2002. And you can leave your memories of the songs below in the comments, Tweet us or message us on Instagram, using the hashtag #StoryofPop2002.

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