By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Photos by Ewen Spencer
Pills, pubs and cell phones; tabloids, text messaging and teeming raves; KFC and Macca-D’s; kebab shops, snakebite, boredom & brawling, PlayStation, pot, soccer, superstrength lager, Chinese takeout, cars, curry, nights out with the boys, ogling the girls, chips, trips to (and in) Amsterdam, nights in with the girlfriend, hung-over greasy-spoon breakfasts, looking for love, dealing with dealers: Not since the Specials and the Jam has anyone corralled the gritty collage of British suburban youth culture into four-minute capsules like upstart rapper the Streets (a.k.a. Mike Skinner), whose debut album, 2002’s home-recorded Original Pirate Material, made him a chart-topper in Blighty and a name-to-drop cult act stateside.
For those encountering the words British and rapper in the same sentence for the first time, the Streets’ kaleidoscopic sound, lately tagged “high-rise” (for the grim apartment towers that still blight many British cities), is a hard-to-tame mongrel: Beneath the H-less Birmingham-London lilt of his almost spoken-word delivery (Skinner’s style often recalls slam poetry) lurk ska, Jamaican dub, hip-hop, raw drum & bass rhythm sections, house music’s hard loops, and nods to the monster half-time bass lines and disco discipline of U.K. garage.
Where so much Brit-rap slavishly emulates American sounds, Skinner, despite being chiefly influenced by U.S. and Jamaican artists, is “passionately British”: He rhymes in an unaffected native accent, and his poetry is smothered in Limey colloquialisms (“Round ’ere we say birds, not bitches,” he proudly announces in “Let’s Push Things Forward”).
“From the start, I always felt like I couldn’t get away with tryin’ to be anything I wasn’t. I didn’t want to answer to anyone, defending why I wasn’t ‘me,’ and I suppose the paranoia of that kept me real . . . everything has to have happened to me at some point.”
Skinner’s slang traverses decades-old lingo — geezer (young man), chuffed (happy), barmy (insane) — and more recent Brit youth-speak — rude (sexy), rough (unattractive), mad (extremely) as well as a plethora of Brit-specific brand and place names. So how will the Streets’ wordplay translate across the pond?
“We’ve been listening to American music for years and learning what the slang is, so I think universal stories travel really well. But no, I never expected the Americans to wanna buy the Streets, and I think there’s always gonna be a ceiling on what we can achieve in America.”
Lazily labeled “the English Eminem” for his street-level white-boy viewpoint and sardonic wit, Skinner demonstrated a three-dimensional lyricism on Pirate Material alien to His Emness. While Skinner loves to bluntly chronicle life’s mundanities, he’s also able to tackle issues both micro and macro, grinding and grandiose, often within the same song. Pirate Material covered everything from loutish late-night antics in shabby ethnic restaurants to the hypocrisy of the British drug laws, using language from everyday brevity (“Your bird might fuck off or you might lose your job”), to tired MC chest-beating, to crudely cinematic Roman imagery reflecting Skinner’s unlikely fascination with greatness and discipline (“In the afterlife gladiators meet their maker/Float through the wheat fields and lakes of blue water”).
With a bigger budget at hand and great expectations to meet, Skinner would’ve been forgiven for further indulging his more bombastic designs with A Grand Don’t Come for Free (just released in the USA), but instead the album is disconcertingly underwhelming. Though it enters with, literally, a fanfare, the lyrical content immediately grounds any epic expectations: “Just take back the DVD/Withdraw that extra money/Tell mum I wouldn’t be back for tea.” Skinner delivers a depressingly detailed biographical work: numerous mentions of ATMs, ashtrays, broken TVs, and enough cell-phone minutiae to fill a T-Mobile manual. No panoramic worldviews this time, no puffed-up self-promotion. Grand is something of a lowbrow rap opera, starring Skinner, his mates down the pub, his missus and a missing thousand quid. It’s hardly The Wall, but it might be a new-millennium Quadrophenia, paranoia, betrayal and all. Back home, the Streets has the allure of those dour Brit soap operas and a market share to match: See, where American audiences tend to crave images of wealth and glamour to aspire to, Brit equivalents are drawn to portrayals of the everyday, finding reassurance in characters no better off than themselves.
But Grand’s revisionism is neither accident nor master plan: “Just to be different,” he mulls via phone in his chirpy yet pensive tone. “I always want to feel like I’m not repeating myself, and I don’t think that I’ll do personal experiences again.” The new release apparently chronicles the dilemmas of a maturing male (Skinner’s now 25), negotiating that tricky time when girlfriend prevails over mates, and the saminess and security of domestication beckon. But in fact the record was two years in the making, and Skinner’s personal life has changed little since his debut: “I think it’s more the story I’m tellin’ rather than the way I’m changin’. I mean, I’ve never been one for being single much, anyway.”