Sometime in the early 2000’s I got really into The Streets. If you’re reading this from the UK or Europe you’re probably nodding your head right now, “Yeah, yeah, The Streets…that bloke Mike Skinner.” But, if you’re reading this in the U.S., you may be already bored. You may not have heard of The Streets. I don’t say this to be elitist (but you can accuse me of that if you feel so inclined). I say this because there was no one else that I personally knew here in the U.S. who was taking a ride on the UK garage train at that time (Streets message board folk-you don’t count-you existed only online).
Based off of internet researching I did between 2000 something and 2007 I gathered that Mike Skinner was a big deal in the UK. Top of the Pops performing, BRIT Awards winning, Reading festival performing, beloved by NME big. Side note: I miss Top of the Pops (loved that show). I knew nothing of garage music, UK or otherwise. Consequently, The Streets sounded extremely fresh to me, totally new and unfamiliar in the best of ways. While I’ve always liked to think I have/had broad musical tastes the truth is I like a lot of rock n’ roll. Guitars, drums, G-Em-C-D chord progressions, verses and choruses….that whole bit. Original Pirate Material (“OPM”) was like the key to an entirely new land of music that I never even knew existed.
That’s not the only reason I got into The Streets. There were other factors. For one thing, a young Mike Skinner is easy on the eyes. He had/has that classically British droopy eye thing going for him. Paul McCartney had/has it too. I’m pretty sure it is uniquely British. Is there a name for it? Dreamy bloke disease? Geezer syndrome? It’s possible that you people in the UK take it for granted. You may not even realize it is a thing. Let me be the first to tell you that it is most definitely a thing.
But, Mike Skinner’s droopy eyes aside, OPM is really a most amazing album. Bias disclosed: I’m a real sucker for musicians who hole up alone, creating albums that have input from others but seem to mostly develop out of their own isolation. Per Wikipedia, “The recording of Original Pirate Material lasted over a year, with Skinner recording the bulk of the album in the room he was renting in a house in Brixton in south London. The instrumental tracks were created on an IBM ThinkPad, while Skinner used an emptied out wardrobe as a vocal booth, using duvets and mattresses to reduce echo.” An emptied out wardrobe serving as a vocal booth!?!?!?! Yes, please, always! Mike Skinner if you ever offer a recording class that teaches the intricacies of using wardrobes, duvets, and mattresses, I will be the first to register.
If you pretend that “Sharp Darts” and “Who Got the Funk” were tracks that somehow accidentally slipped onto the album, the rest of OPM is flawless. All of it clever, none of it boring despite it’s a day in the life focus, and most importantly (at least to a non-UK-er) so very very British. Per this article, Mike Skinner wasn’t very optimistic about Americans accessing his music. Let this letter stand as a counter point to that idea. You don’t have to be British to be obsessed with The Streets.
Bias disclosure number 2: I have always been obsessed with “British things.” Case in point; fell in love with The Beatles beginning in 2nd grade, watched the cartoon Danger Mouse religiously as a child, got into The Young Ones as a teen, and then—the final straw— lived in London for a semester during college. It’s true. Most certainly that study abroad experience is what built the bridge between my American mind and my receptivity for The Streets. When I first discovered it around 2004 or so, OPM served as some type of nostalgia for me as not that long ago I had lived in Kensington, just a short walk from the Baron’s Court tube stop. It was in 2000, the doomsday year when everyone thought society would come crashing to the ground because of the Y2K problem a.k.a. the Millennium Bug.
Ah, but Millennium Bugs are overrated!
The winter/spring of 2000 was glorious in London!
For those few short months it was all visiting Peter Pan statues, exploring night clubs, picking up our weekly stipends and spending them on the dark chocolate covered Hob Nobs and/or buying Crunchie bars from the vending machines in the tube stations, Pimm’s cups, buying platform boots in Covent Garden, eating our first knickerbocker glory ice cream sundaes, seeing Hefner live at a University, learning about buskers, getting used to brusquely being told “keep right” by locals, enjoying the sights and smells at Brighton Beach, seeing Belinda Carlisle lip synch at a frequently visited gay club, dancing wildly at this club in platform boots bought in Covent Garden, traveling to Kings Cross to see an all-girl punk band called Vyvyan, briefly co-hosting a show on the local University’s radio station with my “flat mate,” laughing with this flat mate about how it always seemed that the “bloke” who assisted in setting up for the show seemed to regularly leave a silent but deadly fart in his wake before leaving the booth, and finally Alice Deejay. Lots and lots of Alice Deejay as far as the ear could hear. You couldn’t escape this song in London in the year 2000. It would hunt you down and force you to love it. And, I did.
But, hold it down; it seems my head’s getting blurred. My experience in London was certainly that of an outsider. I cannot lay claim to truly understanding the culture. I do not use the phrase “go on” in my day to day life (but oh how I would like to!). I am used to drinking lemonade that is not carbonated. Oy is not part of my vocabulary. And yet, still, The Streets made sense to me because OPM was like an audio portal capable of transporting me right back to that gloriously grey and moderately temperate place that I had enjoyed so fully despite the fears that pervaded regarding the beginning of the millennium.
I saw The Streets perform in 2006 at the Intonation Music Festival in Chicago. I was so into them at that time (yes, my obsession lasted years) that I flew to Chicago, went to the festival, and then flew out of Chicago the following day. Lady Sovereign was an opening act and I was so sure that UK rap was going to break through into mainstream American music. Did it? Does Lilly Allen count? Kate Nash? Nope. I think I’m just grasping at straws here.
OPM, A Grand Don’t Come For Free, The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living – these albums changed my perspective on music. They broadened it. Mike Skinner had a radio show on the BBC where he would play, and talk about, music he liked. I listened in (thank you internet) and was exposed to Reggaeton. Again, my musical tastes grew. Here’s an oldie but goodie from that genre/time.
Music is amazing in this way isn’t it? Mike Skinner openly shared that he was exposed to “American rap” and that this music was what inspired him to create OPM. I got into OPM, despite up until then being a pretty diehard rock music fan, which then led me into other genres of music like Reggaeton (which is rap, yes? No? Would you like to write on that topic for this very blog?). The U.S. and UK have this lovely little relationship connected to music don’t they? UK people appreciate the music and artists that we either ignore or take for granted (blues, Jimi Hendrix, too many artists to list). Then they make their own version of it and sell it back to us (The Beatles, The Stones, pretty much all of the British Invasion, Led Zeppelin, Mike Skinner). We eat it up. We can’t get enough. Because after all, they’ve got droopy brown eyes and use terms like “chuffed.” What’s not to like really?
Thank you Mr. Skinner for your witty lyrics, clever rhymes, and (former) bare bones recording techniques. I miss your music. A British Rap Invasion awaits. I’m certain of this.
Addendum: While writing this letter I revisited A Grand Don’t Come For Free. That album will make you fall in love with Mike Skinner/The Streets, guaranteed. If you haven’t listened to it (ever) (recently), please make it a priority. You won’t regret it (he rhymes naught with out and makes it work).