Being young, British, and male is a syndrome seemingly reviled in every corner of the planet. If you haven’t witnessed this firsthand, just check in to any international hostel. Odds are, there will be a few British lads huddled around a table in the lobby, clucking about the finer points of “spliff engineering” while sprinkling their Amsterdam hash into an emptied Benson & Hedges. Watch while one lights it as they start their little game of skill. One of them lays a piece of paper over a cup and places a coin onto the center. Each puffs the joint and then takes a turn burning a hole in the paper with the ember, careful not to cause the coin to fall. When one finally does, the others have a jolly laugh — he’s got to make tea for the rest!
They do this every day. Notice that no other guests, not even the Australians, go near their table.
British youth culture, made up of strange rituals like this, remains obscure in America. Maybe that’s why the market for British crime films and rappers has historically been quite small, and probably for good reason. Gangster flicks and hip-hop get by on the supposition that life in the places they chronicle is rough. Let’s face it: A country with gun control and drug dealers who say “Cheers” upon receiving payment isn’t exactly badass. Nobody wants to hear about being chased by unarmed cops, and rhyming in the King’s English sounds more like the Brothers Grimm than Brotha Lynch Hung.
The decision, then, of 23-year-old Mike Skinner from Birmingham to stop aping Run-DMC in slang and inflection and start rapping about his “days in the life of a geezer” in his native Midlands parlance shouldn’t matter to many people in the States, should it?
Warner Music UK, which released his debut album Original Pirate Material under the name the Streets, was so sure of its inherent Britishness that it had no plans to market the record in America at all. The album is the unapologetic confessions of a not particularly rich, not particularly poor, semi-dissatisfied, Nike-wearing bloke delivered over speed garage beats. The Streets seemed doomed to be lost in translation.
Even Skinner himself saw little promise of a crossover outside the Commonwealth. “If I was American, I wouldn’t want to listen to the Streets,” he says frankly, over the phone. “The music has nothing to do with life in America at all.” On microphone, Skinner is all nimble-tongue and laser wit, but in interview mode, he mulls over every question before hatching abrupt, cliff-hanger statements like these. He figures he won’t sell here, yet he’s embarking on a tour that will bring him to San Francisco next week and then again in the winter. “The album’s doing really well in England,” he states plainly, “so one day [someone from my label] phoned me up and said people in America might want to hear it. So I’m here.”
To American ears, listening to Original Pirate Material for the first time leads you to instantly look up from whatever you’re doing, pause, furrow your brow, pause again, and then crack an uncertain smile.
What the fuck is this?
In a tone that sounds as if he’s having a chat at the local pub about last night’s football match, a very, very British-sounding young man begins conjuring bizarre images of celebration and apocalypse. In a single train of thought, “Turn the Page,” blends images of geezers raving (“geezers,” or blokes, factor into just about every track), the sky turning white, and a figure (pronounced “figga”) that emerges from the wastage, eyes transfixed with a piercing gaze, one hand clutching a sword, raised to the sky. Is it King Arthur meets Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels? Some sort of pop-culture-smeared fifth coming of the English Romantic poetry tradition? Then in the next breath he disses an MC for having “rhubarb and custard” verses, whatever those might be. [Editor’s note: Possibly a reference to Roobarb and Custard, a British ’70s cartoon show with very wobbly animation.] So is it hip-hop? Albeit a very pasty-faced version?
After a few minutes of confusion, though, the invariable conclusion becomes that you can’t believe no one’s done it before. After all, the last fifteen years of UK dance music has remained almost totally voiceless and figurehead-free, the result of the British inclination for privacy supporting a culture of studio shut-ins. But the Streets breaks this tradition. Skinner was the first to marry British club and street music with tales from the club and street culture that created it, acting as spokesman for the kids who aren’t hard in hip-hop’s view but who don’t resonate with Oasis either. There is very much a lifestyle wrapped around the club and pub scenes, exemplified by things such as the joint-burning rite. The only way to learn about it before was through DJ-fetish publications like Mixmag and lad mags FHM and Maxim.
His outsider’s perspective on the traditional subjects of hip-hop songwriting may be the stumbling block for many rap fans here — his lyrical version of misdirected youth, for instance, is “Sex, drugs, and on the dole.” But even in his homeland, his steez, or style, was so unprecedented that audiences took a while to warm to it. “A lot of people in England didn’t know what to make of it,” he says, “but they all got used to it eventually and everyone knows it now.” In the eight months since its British release, Original Pirate Material has moved close to 200,000 units and was nominated for the UK’s Mercury Music Prize.
Much of the initial confusion stemmed from his dragging two-step garage out of the private club spaces where it had been bingeing on champagne and coke, and into his zone — afternoon living rooms with shades drawn, where “videos, televisions, 64s, and PlayStations” dominate.
Growing up well outside London, Skinner’s experience of the music was not as a dance floor soundtrack but as an “in-car and at-home thing,” as he puts it. Production-wise, he kept the shuffling drums, weepy synthetic strings, and simple piano loops of garage intact — elements which normally prompted listeners to expect an American R&B-styled singer to begin crooning about the lavish life. No one was ready for a 23-year-old geeza from tha hood to rap over these beats an ode to “deep-seated urban decay.” The effect was similar to the first publishing of the Vulgate Bible — dance music for those who can’t get into clubs; rhymes about kids that hip-hop has mocked or ignored. Like all good fiction, Original Pirate Material offers a window into a way of living previously alien to its listeners. As with William Burroughs and his junkies, Skinner isn’t an advocate for listless hooligans so much as their chronicler. It’s a warts-and-all depiction, from the serotonin-depleted disillusionment that comes at the end of a druggy night out (“Weak Become Heroes”), to the macho imbecility of hooligan culture (“Geezers Need Excitement”), to his own narcissism (“We first met through a shared view/She loved me and I did too,” from “It’s Too Late”).
Whether you love it or hate it (and those are the only two options), listening to the Streets’ crisply enunciated but urgent prattle again and again will tweak your worldview.
“It’s quite clearly a perspective that no one here’s heard before,” says Adam Shore, the manager of Vice Records. Vice, the New York-based shock-button tastemaker magazine, was so enamored of Original Pirate Material that it founded a label just so it could bring the album to the United States. “If you go over to England, they’re all obsessed with everything American, and so is Mike Skinner,” he continues. “But in America, we don’t know anything about England. I’ve learned more about England listening to Original Pirate Material than anything I’ve read or listened to in years. Hip-hop is supposed to be the ultimate absorber of all musics and people and lifestyles — it makes sense that there’s finally someone from this different background that’s giving their take on the culture.”
Shore says he considers what Skinner does to be hip-hop, essentially; Skinner concurs. But it’s doubtful whether many aligned with the American urban music continuum will resonate with the Streets — the identity politics will be meaningless to the mainstream’s big-baller mythos (Skinner is adamant that he’s not representing the ghetto), and those from the underground will quibble about the technical proficiency of his rhyming. The closest analogy to Skinner’s MO is the peculiar voice-over style MCs and DJs adopt for London pirate radio broadcasts. Wedged between the handful of giant BBC signals, these underpowered shows waft in and out of clarity, giving the rolling bass lines of the two subgenres pirate radio engendered — drum ‘n’ bass and speed garage — an even more ebbing and flowing feel. Their hosts toast over the ceaselessly mixed programming in lilting monologues that served as introductions to the records and testimonials on the rawness of the station, with some silly wordplay thrown in.
“Most of the people [on the radio] aren’t really MCs, but they do little bursts of MCing,” Skinner explains. “The rest of the time, it’s like they’re talking. It’s like the early hip-hop days, before they started making commercial kind of releases and writing out rhymes about this and that.”
No one considered this a freestanding art form until Skinner juiced it up with the visually vivid poetics of classic Wu-Tang and the storytelling finesse of Slick Rick and Nas. He’s able to cover a wide swath of terrain, from the frivolous to the intimately revealing, without violating the consistency of his tone as a narrator. He switches between doing station IDs for himself on the title track (“You’re listening to the Streets, lock down your aerial”), waxing nostalgic about his first E pill on “Weak Become Heroes” (“This ain’t tomorrow, so now I still love ya”), and spilling his guts about the insecurity he’s wracked with after an aborted love affair on “It’s Too Late.”
One of Skinner’s mightiest feats so far has been getting the Anglophobic US music press to reevaluate and get excited about the young British outlook for the first time since the advent of punk. Spin and the Village Voice are busting nuts over the album, rating it a nine out of ten and christening it “England’s first great hip-hop album” respectively. If he can stir the same intrigue among domestic consumers, it will be a major coup — Americans are typically as receptive to foreign viewpoints as our current president is.
The worst thing the Streets could be potentially responsible for is a bum-rush of lads suddenly empowered to pick up mikes and go for theirs. “Does this mean we’re going to see a British Bubba Sparxxx or a British Fun Lovin’ Criminals?” Shore wonders. “People could easily dumb-down his style and make it more popular, but I think Mike’s only going to get smarter and more poetic.”
Indeed, what Skinner started is destined to earn someone a platinum payout, even if he’s not the one to redeem it. It’s possible that his imagery proves a mite too oblique for true mass consumption, and his big-upping of those who “chase brown and toot rock” (that is, smoke heroin and crack) raises the bar even from Eminem’s endorsement of Vicodin and ‘shroom-munching. Hip-hop has long sanctioned the selling of addictive hard drugs, but has stopped just short of tolerating their use. Ultimately, this may be the sticking point for Americans weaned on ghetto polemics — Skinner’s heart often lies on the losing side of the dealer/buyer and aggressor/victim relationship. The hero of his stories, played by himself, is most often not the player but the consumer.
And there’s also the fact that many listeners reflexively abhor Brits rattling on about themselves, and that’s not going to change. Skinner is invigorated by the resistance he’s running into, though. “A lot of people really hate it when they hear it,” he concedes. “When you get that, I think you know you’re doing something right.”