“Memories of Los Angeles? Um, let me think . . . ”
It takes Mike Skinner, the mastermind behind U.K. hip-hop act The Streets, a few beats to recall his own personal L.A. story. “It’s all pretty hazy, really. We did a really long press day once after being up all night, and I was able to do most of the interviews floating in the hotel pool. I really like the weather, but the people are a bit hard to work out sometimes.”
Yes, Skinner, wordsmith extraordinaire and the man who single-handedly elevated British hip-hop from punch-line status, is trading in easy clichés today. Which gives us license to trawl in a few of our own, like the one that says Brits can’t rap. Historically lousy with affected New York accents (and attitudes) — and lyrics about drive-bys and other subjects of which Brits know little, U.K. hip-hop has perpetually wallowed in a murky mire. That is, until the advent of Skinner’s band The Streets, which finally had the common sense to subscribe to hip-hop’s golden rule: Go with what you know. On his 2002 debut album Original Pirate Material (Vice), Skinner rapped in a thick cockney accent about what really happens during “the day in the life of a geezer,” which includes lots of weed and PlayStation and getting dissed by girls down the pub. His Ecstasy-enhanced emotions and chopped-sample beats appealed to indie kids and post-ravers equally, and the album was nominated for the vaunted Mercury Music Prize that year. With such a conspicuous launch, Skinner surged to become a bona fide pop star in his home country, while maintaining a respectable career stateside with ’04’s ambitious concept album A Grand Don’t Come For Free. All the while, Skinner maintained credibility in the underground, shining early light on new artists like Kano, who sprang from the so-called grime scene that gave Skinner his first break.
But it’s his star status in the U.K. that fuels the almost painfully confessional third Streets opus, The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living (Vice), where he describes in detail the benefits and pitfalls of public acclaim. As he shifts through a myriad of bombastic hip-hop beats (and the occasional emo ballad), Skinner proves that beyond lyrics, his ear for sticky pop melodies is what gives his songs their strength.
“The album’s about living the dream, and the dream comes from my childhood,” he says, describing the record’s blunt emotional honesty — and the pastel-colored lens through which it’s filtered. Living the dream includes looking the part: His new image is pure Crockett & Tubbs; he admits, “When I was a kid, I watched Miami Vice and had posters of Ferraris on my wall.” And that Rolls-Royce featured on the album cover? That’s his, too. “Being a pop star is better than winning the lottery, because you get more respected,” Skinner theorizes. “Plus you can get away with a lot more.”
In his case, he’s gotten away with everything from a financially debilitating gambling habit to copious drug consumption. First single “When You Wasn’t Famous” describes an evening he spent smoking crack and having sex with an unnamed British pop star, then watching her ply her milk-fed image the next day on U.K. kiddie music show CD:UK. British tabloids have had a field day with the song, with claims that it’s about either former S Club 7 singer Rachel Stevens or Cheryl Tweedy, vocalist for equally sugary pop group Girls Aloud.
“I will say that the person that the tune is about didn’t mind it at all,” is his only comment on the subject. In the same song, he laments the advent of camera phones, since they hinder his ability to “do a line in front of complete strangers.”
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“I’ve chilled out considerably on that stuff this time out,” he admits. “It’s harder touring without it in some ways, but it’s also easier, since there’s a lot less of that roller-coaster effect mentally. Things are a lot more stable.” When asked to name his current drug of choice, he replies without a moment’s hesitation: “Caffeine.”
Skinner’s also taken a softer approach to women these days, despite the acidic “War of the Sexes,” which was inspired by Neil Strauss’ notorious tome on “scoring,” The Game. “Leo, one of the guys in my band, swears by the Chris Rock idea that men are only as faithful as their opportunities. Guys are flawed in that way. The book went around the tour bus really quickly. I’d love to meet Neil, actually. Think you could hook that up?” he adds with a wry giggle.
Currently on tour with much-hyped Brit-rapper Lady Sovereign, Skinner’s unfazed by her status, instead playing the role of wise older brother to the young up-and-comer.
“She’s more about America right now, which I think is the key to her potential success,” Skinner muses. “It’s all about her breaking stateside. And as much as I like America, I’ve never based my situation on making it there. It’s most important that my music speaks to British youth,” he says. And it does: British kids still hold him in high regard, even as he rises far beyond his working-class origins. “Those are my people, man!”