Stepping into Asher Senator’s music studio in Stockwell there is a real sense of calm. Tucked away in the Springfield Estate in Union Road, Code 7 is one of the several units in the Springfield Community Centre and is a safe haven for young people to come along and record their music.
Although it’s about 10am there is hardly anyone there. But Asher assures me it will soon be a hive of activity as he welcomes youngsters, many of whom have been in trouble with the police, kicked out of school or been in gangs but who have a passion for rapping, DJing and creating music.
Asher has run the studio, with almost no public subsidy, for 20 years and during that time has been responsible for changing the lives of hundreds of young people.
In fact he has won praise from both the police and Lambeth council for the work he has done to keep kids off the streets, out of trouble and channel their energies and passion into music.
And this passion is something Asher can identify with. Indeed anyone growing up in the 80s and who was obsessed with music will be familiar with his name thanks to his partnership with one of the most recognisable reggae artists of that decade - Smiley Culture.
The pair were practically inseparable during those years famous for their fast chat style of DJing, and producing two of the most critically acclaimed reggae singles of the decade - Cockney Translator and Police Officer.
Smiley died aged just 48 in March 2011 during a police raid on his home and it’s clear that Asher is still devastated by the loss of his close friend.
But in an effort to remember the good times and introduce Smiley the man to another generation, Asher has written and published a book about his friend.
Smiley And Me is a heartfelt and honest look at the man, his music and how his legacy lives on amongst his friends and fans. Spanning three decades it tells the story of how they grafted their way to the forefront of the British reggae scene and recalls events and incidents that happened to both of them during that time.
“It has been an amazing journey writing this book,” says Asher. “Smiley was such a cool guy. Funny, warm, mad and so passionate about music. He was also brave and courageous - although he hated mice and spiders!
“He was always into something, a project or money making deal but he was always loyal and very generous.
“He had such amazing charisma and presence and the more time goes on the more I miss him.
“So I wanted to write about me and Smiley, about our lives and the people in them. It took me all in all about two years to write with my friend Ricardo helping me structure it.
“Now here it is and I’ve already sold several hundred copies. His spirit is in this book and I’m very proud of it.”
And so he should be as it’s a great read - heartfelt and funny featuring anecdotes, lyrics and pictures and immerses the reader in their lives totally, to the point you almost feel you were there with them.
There are plenty of references to the places in South London where they lived, worked and socialised not to mention the musicians and artists who they met and worked with during their hey day.
As well as painting a vivid picture of what their lives were like back then and being a terrific read - and not just for music lovers - I tell Asher it would be great as an audio book.
His eyes light up and he beams. “Yes, it would! I have been told that by a few people so I may consider that - it would be my longest record!
“We were just two DJs from Brixton and I just wanted it to be something that would tell our story, truthfully and faithfully and be fun to read at the same time.
“It was an amazing time back then and being with Smiley - we had such a good bond and we were so close, always together, writing, recording, touring and just hanging out. We met so many amazing people, got on Top Of The Pops, the music scene was buzzing and there was so much going on. Looking back I just think ‘wow’. I know he’s looking down on me now.”
Although they were always close, towards the end, they began to do different things.
“Smiley wanted to go on some money making expedition and wanted me to go with him but I wanted to focus on my music company,” says Asher.
“Although he loved Code 7 he kept asking me to go with him but I knew I didn’t want to do it - I had people relying me. I tried to dissuade him but that was the thing about Smiley, he always was off doing something and being a money maker!”
Asher continued with his studio after Smiley died and although the youngsters who come through its doors probably don’t know or appreciate his not inconsiderable part in the history of reggae music in this country, he commands a level of respect that most would find hard to replicate.
But it has taken a lot of work, sweat and a fair few tears to not only get the kids involved but keep Code 7 going.
As well as allowing them the time and space to express themselves through music, they are also mentored by Asher and his small team of volunteers, enabling them to learn other skills such as production, writing business plans, letters and reports, song writing and marketing.
They come to Asher via word of mouth and he says there is no shortage of young people who want to see what’s going on.
And despite working on next to no budget, Asher has scored remarkable success, something he puts down to his positive energy, passion and commitment.
“When I set up my music company I didn’t know anything so I learned what to do and how to do it,” he explains. “Code 7 was born in 1996 and came about as a result of that but has always been about development, mentoring and training.
“There is a lot of talent out there and my job is to try and channel that in a positive way. I also try and instil positive lyrical content in the raps or songs rather than the hard stuff they have done on the streets.
“They start off by coming in and talking about guns, who’s looking in their zone and stuff like that but after a while of being here, and listening to me, they start talking about other more positive stuff.
“However, although no one who comes through the doors has to pay to use the studio I do insist on punctuality and respect.”
Friendly, chatty, yet quietly spoken and with a warm smile, it is hard to imagine Asher getting angry or how he deals with the sometimes difficult attitudes of these young people.
However, he shrugs and insists he “takes no shit”. “If they don’t turn up on time or are not respectful to me or the volunteers who work here they don’t get to use the studio,” he says. “It’s as simple as that.
“The real problem is the funding and trying to make sure we have enough to stay in business. I have to fundraise and then deliver and it’s hard work - most people don’t realise how hard it is. We try not to get political though.
“But saying that we have been here a long time, seen the industry change from it being records to CDs and now it’s all instant on the internet.
“We’ve had our ups and downs and then you look at their faces, the change in the young person is just beautiful and it makes it all worthwhile.”
But he admits there have been a few hairy moments along the way - times when he has narrowly averted a fight in the centre’s foyer, or the time he realised one of the young men he was mentoring was about to get ambushed by a gang the moment he left the building and so had to get him out secretly via the back door.
But he insists it’s worth it and says he plans to stay as long as he can.
“If you had told me back in the 80s that I would be here now, writing business plans, keeping kids off the streets, making them do something positive and writing a book about Smiley and me, I would have laughed,” he chuckles.
“But here I am - and it’s good.”
Smiley And Me by Asher Senator is out now and costs £15. Visit www.vitowmedia.com to buy a copy.