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The Streets: Mike Skinner’s “Cult Classic, Not Best Seller” Legacy
Edd Westmacott
In Depth

The Streets: Mike Skinner’s “Cult Classic, Not Best Seller” Legacy

With a natural wit and ear for everyday language, Birmingham MC Mike Skinner, aka The Streets, has been the voice of real-life Britain for two decades.

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When Mike Skinner sent a demo tape of self-produced tracks into a North London record store back in 2001, nobody would have predicted that the 22-year-old rapper from Birmingham would go on to become a household name, under the moniker The Streets. Across five studio albums, Skinner’s signature self-deprecating raps covered all topics, ranging from picking up girls in a kebab shop, to coping with the passing of his father. After calling it quits in 2011, The Streets returned with a new full-length mixtape, None of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive. The days of rapping about starting fights and getting high in clubs are behind Skinner – now aged 41 and married with kids – but he still finds a way to resonate with listeners through quirky yet poetic lyrics that feel just as relevant now as they were at the start of the millennium.

When you wasn’t famous: early years

Growing up in Birmingham, Skinner had a normal childhood, something he doesn’t shy away from in his lyrics: “I’m just spitting, think I’m ghetto?/Stop dreaming,” he rapped on his debut single, 2001’s Has It Come To This? At age 19, after following his then girlfriend across the world to Australia, he found himself single in a foreign country when their relationship promptly ended. Skinner stayed in Australia for the next year, before moving back to London, setting his sights on a career in music.

Encompassing a variety of genres, from garage to grime, jungle to soul, Skinner started creating music under the name The Streets, blending it all together through his own production and unique lyrics. Skinner has always shone when juxtaposing summaries of the mundane young British experience while also dropping deeply poetic metaphors, stories and references. This was what helped The Streets stand out creatively, as listeners enjoyed hearing of the trials and tribulations of his nights out, as on Too Much Brandy (“We eat junk food, sat drink on the Tube/Every time the train clunks, I feel like puking/Wonder whether that beautiful bird’ll ring?”). But listeners were also hooked by lyrics that were profoundly layered (“A new baby’s born every day, few men may be scorned today, but look at things the other way, ‘cause it may well be your final day” – Turn The Page).

Let’s push things forward: Original Pirate Material and A Grand Don’t Come For Free

The Streets’ debut album, Original Pirate Material, was released in March 2002, peaking at No.12 in the UK charts. Hype was building around, but as Skinner anticipated in songs like Let’s Push Things Forward, he was a “cult classic, not bestseller”. But he had the nation’s attention, and Original Pirate Material earned him his first Mercury Prize nomination.

Skinner raised the stakes for The Streets’ second studio album. Instrumentally, he stuck to what he knew best – garage beats blended with violin crescendos and club basslines – but lyrically, Skinner created a narrative that connected his tracks. The end result, released in 2004, was the album A Grand Don’t Come for Free: a “rap opera” concept album that told the story of a protagonist who, after seemingly losing £1,000 from his house, attempts to make back his money, gaining and losing friends and relationships in the process. It would be Skinner’s first chart-topping record, but his world was truly transformed following the release of the album’s second single, Dry Your Eyes, which hit No.1 in July 2004.

A lot of The Streets’ tracks are humorous, high-spirited and braggadocious, but Skinner has proved his ability at writing more heartfelt lyrics, with Dry Your Eyes being the prime example. In A Grand Don’t Come for Free, the protagonist is struggling to cope with his new girlfriend breaking up with him, despite his own difficulties at remaining loyal (as detailed in the boisterous Fit But You Know It). The lyrics are relatable to anyone who’s experienced a break-up – or any form of heartbreak – with Skinner perfectly describing the intricate thoughts and emotions he felt during the end of the relationship: “I look at her, she stares almost straight back at me/But her eyes glaze over like she’s looking straight through me/Then her eyes must have closed for what seems like an eternity/When they open up, she’s looking down at her feet.” The timing of the track’s release further helped to boost its popularity, as the nation was in collective heartbreak at another football failure, after Portugal sent the England national squad home from Euro 2004.

Blinded by the lights: The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living

After finding fame with his first two album, The Streets’ third, The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living, delved into the drinking and drug use that came with it, as well as Skinner’s own struggles with celebrity culture. The album opens with the lines “I get back from touring and suddenly it doesn’t seem like much fun/To be off my face at a quarter to eleven A.M.,” from the track Prangin’ Out, as Skinner grapples with his new place in the spotlight.

The first single released from the project, When You Wasn’t Famous, also grabbed the British public, who loved trying to identify the mystery pop star Skinner sang of having a fling with (particularly the lyrics “Considering the amount of prang you’d done/You looked amazing on CD:UK” – a reference to a popular kids’ music TV show of the time). The album’s most impactful song, however, grappled with the death of Mike Skinner’s father: Never Went To Church. The pure emotion and grief is powerful as Skinner raps “If you were still about, I’d ask you what I’m supposed to do now, I just get a bit scared every now, I hope I made you proud”. Being able to so effectively encapsulate emotions, be it jubilation, apathy or suffering, is easily one of Mike Skinner’s biggest strengths as a musician and what has made him so relatable to listeners over the years.

Doing nothing better: later years

With The Streets’ fourth album, 2008’s Everything Is Borrowed, Skinner tried to leave his reliance on pop-culture references and descriptions of monotonous British life behind, but returned to his more traditional style on 2011’s Computers And Blues. In public, Skinner declared that, after The Streets’ fifth album, he would call it quits. Though feeling he’d done his job with the project and wanting to avoid overstaying his welcome, he left the door open to The Streets’ potential return. Over the next decade, Skinner pursued other musical avenues, including a project called The D.O.T, with singer Rob Harvey, as well as taking his DJ set to clubs around the world. Most of his releases throughout 2010s were remixes released under his own name, but in 2020, after a few teaser singles, Skinner announced that The Streets would return once again, with None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive.

 

The mixtape features Skinner’s classic mundane British bars, but updated for 2020. From rapping about Instagram woes (Phone Is Always in my Hand: “You’re ignoring me/But you’re watching my stories”), to namechecking the UK’s exit from the EU (Call My Phone Thinking I’m Doing Nothing Better: “Brexit breakfast, Day-Glo stars, I am baggin’ and dashin’”) as well as throwing in the typical Streets-style lyrics of stumbling through relationships on You Can’t Afford Me (“But she talks about her ex so much, even I miss him”), the most noticeable difference between The Streets then and now is that Skinner now spotlights featured artists. Each song on the 12 track-mixtape features a different collaborator, with Skinner bringing in big names like Kevin Parker of Tame Impala, Joe Talbot of IDLES and bassline DJ Chris Lorenzo, while also giving up-and-coming artists like Kasien, Jesse James Solomon and Oscar #Worldpeace a major co-sign and a platform for their talent.

It’s still unclear what we can expect from Mike Skinner and The Streets in the future. During the near-decade-long hiatus in between The Streets projects, Skinner spoke about his plans to create a feature-length movie, with an accompanying soundtrack of The Streets’ music, supposedly already finished and recorded. Given that None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive peaked at No.2 in the album charts, it’s clear that there is still interest in the Birmingham MC. Nearly two decades after transforming the UK music scene, Mike Skinner will continue to adapt, remaining as relevant as ever as the world around him changes.

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