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It seems obvious to compare Mike Skinner, sole proprietor of the Streets, to Eminem or the Beastie Boys: He’s basically a non-African-American party boy whose heart belongs to hiphop. But the 22-year-old Skinner probably deserves to be labeled as another Chuck D: He’s also a mouthy, intelligent word slinger with a unique sense of timing and a fresh worldview. U.S. hiphop needs him, if only for the culture shock.
Original Pirate Material, the Streets’ Brit-crit darling of a debut disc, arrives stateside as a curiosity, but back home in the United Kingdom it’s been treated as a stylistic wake-up call equivalent to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. And for good reason: Original Pirate Material is a point-blank analysis of the young, urban U.K., although the disc isn’t as politically astute or as sonically pugilistic as Public Enemy’s masterpiece. Chuck drew on decades of the black struggle for his group’s suffer-no-fools sound. Skinner makes tunes that are equally cocky, but he’s a different sort of activist. As he proclaims on
the Specials-influenced “Let’s Push Things Forward,” “I make bangers/Not anthems.”
So the disc focuses on what Skinner knows: The wisdom at the bottom of a pint, the existential puff of a joint, the conundrums presented by the opposite sex, the intricacies of PlayStation culture, the hypocrisy of Her Majesty’s criminal-justice system, and the sense that the U.K. on the whole could turn a corner if everybody stopped acting so bloody stuffy. The words arrive as a mass of bloked-out Birminghamese that rarely tumbles along with the beat. Cute and clever couplets be damned—colloquialisms and hard consonants are king here. Nonetheless, if Stateside listeners are willing to let him, the baby-faced Skinner can probably rock the suburbs triumphantly through 2003. The reason is simple: Although it’s obviously foreign-sounding, Original Pirate Material does a bang-up job of describing the current version of late adolescence, here, there, and everywhere.
But Skinner is also infinitely smarter than your average mopey American rap-rocker. One track’s narrative begins with a spillage of first-person pub chatter that’s loaded with half-baked internal rhymes: “Whose round is it?/Down that beer quick/Smash my glass back down/Fall over the table/All rowdy and pissed/Seems the only difference between midweek shit and weekend is how loud I speak/And whether I try and pull a girlfriend.” But the song’s title is “Same Old Thing”—it’s not intended to be a glorification of conspicuous consumption. If Skinner loves his laddish culture, there’s some toilet-hugging self-loathing to go along with the romance. “Can’t lounge in the boozer all day/Got maneuvers to make/Got to see a man about a dog/Can’t be late/I’m always late…/Rock and roll/Four to the floor/Like last night, yesterday morning, and the night before/And the night before,” he raps toward the end of the track, which speeds along on electronic percussion and terse synths that take the Dr. Dre model and shove it through a disco template.
And maybe that’s what purist American heads will find most distasteful about the Streets. Skinner’s computer-driven beats, which take their cues from the hepped-up hiphop flavors of U.K. garage—though certainly not the wussy Craig David version—lack Dre’s grandeur or the Neptunes’ polish. And Original Pirate Material isn’t El-P-grimy or DJ Shadow-complex, either. The Streets formula involves assembling forceful, unadorned layers of electronics that maintain a weird sort of rave-scene familiarity. (Paul Oakenfold, Nicky Holloway, and Danny Rampling all get fondly recalled here—as does Skinner’s “first E.”) When that approach doesn’t provide the right kind of contrast with his lyrics, Skinner can be oddly delicate, too.
The clickety-clack rhythms and chipper string-section tones of the disc’s opener, “Turn the Page,” could turn off anybody who has been raised on bass. For about 40 seconds, the song reeks of posh London clubs. But then Skinner’s snarl wipes the slate clean: “That’s it/Turn the page on the day/Walk away.” (Skinner likes saying “That’s it”—it’s like his own pale-face, wise-guy version of the ubiquitous “word up.”) And check the clipped-up piano riff behind “Has It Come to This?” and the melodramatic synth sweeps of “It’s Too Late.” Both songs feature cold-sounding wordplay, but the grooves ensure a human touch. Pure machismo seems to be passe for Skinner; crooked sensitivity is far more interesting.
Like Eminem, Skinner occasionally likes to play moralist, if only to prove that he’s using all parts of his brain. The rough-night-out story “Geezers Need Excitement” puts Skinner’s yarn-spinning talents to the test, though non-Anglophiles—or anybody who hasn’t paid attention during a Guy Ritchie flick—might need a quick lexicon to get the gist: “geezers,” Skinner’s favorite piece of slang, means, by turns, “dudes,” “slackers,” “homeboys,” or “roughnecks.” Anyway, it starts with a simple provocation by a guy in a bar: “By now you want to level this twat/And forever you’re gonna regret that/Your choice of path/So mash ‘is head up, and your girl’s now fed up/But stop to think, and it’s never gonna be the Jackie Chan scene it could’ve been to end up.” Simple decision, really: Instant rowdy fun vs. a sore eye and an angry date. The chorus puts it more precisely: “Geezers need excitement/If their lives don’t provide them this/They incite violence/Common sense, simple common sense.”
The dilemmas of women and controlled substances yield less conclusive arguments. “Don’t Mug Yourself” is a quick-witted conversation between a bunch of mates at the breakfast table. Don’t sell out to the chick, Skinner’s boys say. I can handle this, he replies. Against an uncommonly buoyant beat, eggs are eaten, bullshit is spoken, and life goes on. He’ll probably call her. Sucker.
“The Irony of It All,” likewise, is a tit-for-tat classic that pits Terry, a heavy-drinking, “law-abiding” football lout who finds his manhood in the suds, against Tim, a bong-hitting aspiring engineer who just wants to be left alone. Terry gets a menacing beat; Tim gets a cute little bit of cowpoke electronica. Terry doesn’t want the “student lame-o”s living off the tax money paid by regular folks like him. So Tim retorts, “Well, actually, according to research, government funding for further education pales in insignificance/When compared to how much they spend on repairing very drunk people at the weekend/In casualty wards all over the land.” Terry takes the argument ad hominem, of course, and although Skinner’s sentiments are obviously with Tim, it’s suggested at the end of the song that the stoner gets a smackdown.
Like the rest of Original Pirate Material, it’s not necessarily deep, but it’s vividly blunt and true-to-life. It’s also a reminder that Skinner’s lyrical outlook has been shaped by circumstances that have parallels across the pond. He claims to have spent years absorbing the nuances of U.S. hiphop, yet he’s a singular creature when compared to most of the current bunch of American rhymers and groove-makers. And it’s not because he’s British. It’s because he views the materials of hiphop theoretically, not as a set of rigid components. Beats, rhymes, and life: The combination may have been born in the South Bronx and nurtured primarily on American streets, but Skinner sends it home with more than just a funny accent. CP