The wry urban poet Mike Skinner is more influential than ever in 2019, with British hip-hop thriving. Now Skinner’s groundbreaking project The Streets is back on the scene eight years after he resolutely retired it. And, fresh from moshing at Glastonbury, he’s bringing his band’s celebratory set to Australia for Splendour In The Grass and side-shows.
Skinner introduced a distinct idiom to UK hip-hop in the early 2000s, experiencing both critical and commercial success. Growing up in a working-class family who’d transplanted from London to Birmingham, he mucked around with music-making from a young age. Skinner was briefly distracted in his late teens, trailing a girlfriend to Sydney. Returning to London, he committed to music, laying down what became The Streets’ seminal 2002 debut Original Pirate Material – his very first single, ‘Has It Come To This?’, a hit.
Skinner – a self-contained vocalist, instrumentalist and producer – hybridised hip-hop, indie and ska with the booming UK garage. But, most immediately, he presented himself as a relatable storyteller – rapping about a lad’s daily life, larking and incremental disenfranchisement. Emerging at the same time as Roots Manuva, Ms Dynamite and the grime Dizzee Rascal, Skinner – a white kid from Brum – helped challenge mainstream presumptions of British hip-hop as being less credible than American. He also foreshadowed leftfield acts like Lily Allen, Raleigh Ritchie and slowthai.
The hip-hop anti-hero consolidated his legacy with the conceptual A Grand Don’t Come For Free, banking beloved singles such as the punk pub anthem ‘Fit But You Know It’. However, The Streets’ third album, The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living, found him lamenting the strains, and hedonism, of celebrity – basically doing a geezer Drake. Ironically, there was much tabloid speculation about the identity of the female pop star smoking crack in ‘When You Wasn’t Famous’. Alas, Skinner gradually lost his spark.
Skinner farewelled The Streets with Computers And Blues in 2011. In fact, he performed some of his last shows in Oz at Parklife. At the time, Skinner’s ambition was to move into film (he DID cameo in Doctor Who as a hapless security guard). But Skinner didn’t disavow music. Instead he re-surfaced as a DJ/promoter. Skinner likewise initiated the lowkey vehicle The DOT with Rob Harvey, ex-frontman of The Music. He’s also directed music docos for Vice.
In 2012 Skinner, a sometime blogger, published a candid, poignant and juicy autobiography, The Story Of The Streets. Among the backstage revelations, he alleged the existence of a dance music super-feud: “Blur and Oasis had nothing on The Chemical Brothers and Basement Jaxx.” Plus, Skinner dissed Aphex Twin as “an absolute knob-jockey”.
Then, in 2017, Skinner announced a Streets U-Turn: reviving the band for UK gigs that quickly sold out. He’s since aired several new tunes as The Streets – the latest the grime banger ‘Call Me In The Morning’ with Chip and Grim Sickers.
Skinner – at 40, a family guy – is chuffed to hear that even jaded entertainment industry-types on social media are buzzing over The Streets’ tour Down Under, jokingly preferring them to “a load of fashion bloggers walking around with their outfits made of chocolate bars.”
Music Feeds: I interviewed you years ago, ahead of the Big Day Out. I think I got you hungover, because you did not talk at all – I felt I was imposing. What do you remember of that period – and what kind of headspace you were in? Because it was a high-pressure time for you.
Mike Skinner: It was wildly different every day, you know. Continuing things were going so well. I would sort of have amazing days and horrible days. I think the first thing you wanna do when that happens to you is to say, “Oh, hang on, I’ve spent my whole life trying to do this and actually I don’t feel any different.” But, at the time, people aren’t really ready to hear that. But nowadays everything’s just kind of the same, in a good way. I’m just getting on with it. But it’s just youth, really, isn’t it? I was only young. I was mad, really.
MF: Actually, reading your memoir made everything click. But what did you learn about yourself in putting that together? It’s a bit like therapy almost.
MS: Yeah, it was a bit like therapy, I guess. But I think that’s what time is. It’s just sort of going from thing to thing… I mean, I’ve never been very good at looking back, really, and that was probably the only time that I had done that and maybe ever will. It’s a bit like doing homework, isn’t it? You don’t wanna do it but, when you do it, sometimes you actually enjoy it. Not that I didn’t enjoy making the book, but it’s that thing of looking back. It just feels like a bit of a waste of time.
MF: You had a huge impact on particularly the UK hip-hop movement. A lot of UK artists used to bag their own scene. But, after you came along, there was a sense of pride. It was almost as if artists started to feel validated. I wondered if you got a sense that perceptions changed at that time?
MS: I think I definitely had an influence. I think it was gonna go that way, anyway. But I actually think I influenced rock music more than I did rap, in a way. But, no, it had its place. It was just another chip in the sculptural shape of British rap – ’cause you draw from the past, don’t you, and you sort of say, “I like that and I like that.” But I think it’s important to say that it’s luck. And, when I say “luck”, I think when people say “luck”, they think you mean that you made your music and luckily people heard it. I don’t think that’s right. I think, if you make something that’s really good, then it will find the people. So I’m not saying that it was lucky that it found the people. I’m saying it was lucky that I made it – because making songs, and the decisions that you take when you make songs, is luck. You have an idea and then you get feedback. It could have been snuffed out, The Streets, quite easily, but it didn’t and it took on its own momentum. So, yeah, [Original Pirate Material] was an important piece of music, but it was luck really that I ended up doing it.
MF: The UK establishment has often been threatened by musical movements such as rave, UK garage – So Solid Crew, there was so much tabloid hysteria surrounding those guys – and now drill. What are your thoughts on that?
MS: Yeah, I speak to [drill artists] – I mean, social media is good for that, ’cause you stay in contact a bit more than you would [otherwise]. I made a documentary that was basically about drill, with Vice. It was called Don’t Call It Road Rap. But it’s difficult to get across to people that, for a certain type of person, there aren’t many opportunities. Sports is an opportunity and music is an opportunity. It really comes down to where you’ve got guys that were supposedly in criminal gangs – and I’ve seen it and I’ve been around that – where they literally decide to do music and then manage to have a good influence on society.
I think ‘violent music’ plays a different role for different sections of society. So, for young suburban kids, violent music is kind of a way of saying “Fuck you” to their parents for a certain period of time. The parents, listening to it, are like, “Wow, who’s making this music?” Whereas, for the guys in the city, for them, it has a completely different function. When you misunderstand that, when you think, “OK, he’s the bad guy” – it doesn’t work like that. He’s the good guy. It just depends where you are. Like [the group] 67, who are from Brixton Hill, [and] who were probably like the first successful UK drill [act] – you could say Section Boyz [now Smoke Boys] were drill, but 67 were probably the first big drill artists in the UK – and, if you go to Brixton Hill, there aren’t a lot of opportunities there. So 67 are this beaming example of what’s possible. You can travel the world and you can buy a nice house and you can do all this without committing any crime – do you know what I mean? They’re also often very involved in the community. Musicians aren’t generally involved. They’re a quite selfish bunch, really, most musicians. [But], actually, rappers half the time are.
MF: What are your plans for The Streets? Because, with Brexit and everything else going on in the UK, it feels like the right time for an album. You’ve had a few tracks out there, of course. But where will you take the project from here?
MS: Well, one of the reasons that I started it again is because I’ve written a film, which is about a DJ. And the album that I’ve written is kind of a musical; it’s part of the film. So I’ve had that album – I did that about a year ago – but we have to follow the fine line of the film. We’re gonna be shooting that hopefully in October and that will be out at the end of next summer. While that’s happening, I’m doing a mixtape, which is a collaborations album – and that will be out hopefully at the end of the summer. That’s kind of like a Streets duets album.
MF: You remixed Cassius’ ‘Thrilla’ (featuring Ghostface Killah), [off 2002’s Au Reve] – and, of course, tragically Philippe Zdar just died. What do you recall of making that? Because it’s two styles, two worlds, colliding, in a way.
MS: I’m doing the same thing as I always was, really – which was to be into dance music and rap music. It’s odd how that hasn’t really changed. I’ve been DJing every weekend for, well, since I stopped doing The Streets [in 2011]. It’s never really gone away – there’s always a place where people play rap and then mix it, make it more dancey; give it more energy. I don’t think I’ll ever stop doing that. But, yeah, [with Zdar] it’s very sad… French house music was probably my favourite form of dance music at that point in my life – you know, Daft Punk and Alan Braxe… There was a swagger to it that a lot of other house music didn’t have.
MF: Have you ever DJed in Australia?
MS: No. You know, I nearly did, actually. I think about two years ago I very nearly did a DJ tour of Australia. But, with these Australia and Asia tours, it’s very difficult to make the numbers add up, really. So, yeah, it got pulled at fairly short notice. But I do mainly Europe, UK, and then America – like LA. There’s some good clubs in LA.
MF: You were saying how you’re not inclined to look back. That’s what surprised me when The Streets returned – because I thought, There’s going to be so much nostalgia surrounding this. I don’t see you as someone who’s overly nostalgic or who repeats themselves. So how do you balance that sentimentality with your desire to do something different?
MS: Well, I think what people see is different to what I experience – and what I’m experiencing is making a film and working on this mixtape thing. Ultimately, you only really get nostalgia when something works. But you don’t stop trying to make things that work. Also, for me, there’s something quite ‘in the moment’ about doing a show, because it’s something that you have to try and do well and it’s happening ‘now’. But most of my life – most of my energy, really – is going into this film and pretty much two albums that I’m releasing in fairly quick succession.
MF: I imagine you have multiple generations of fans, anyway. Is that something you’re observing on tour, that you’re getting kids who might have discovered you through parents or older siblings?
MS: Yeah! We’ve done two Streets tours in the UK and the second one was actually younger than the first one – which was strange. But I think that it took a little while for the music to sort of run through to people. They’re very simple stories that I think some of them have just stayed with people. So I’m lucky.
The Streets return to Australia this week for Splendour In The Grass and a string of headline sideshows. See dates below.
The Streets Splendour 2019 Sideshows
Supported by The Avalanches (DJ set)
Tuesday, 16th July
Metro City, Perth
Tickets: Secret Sounds
Thursday, 18th July
Festival Hall, Melbourne
Tickets: Secret Sounds
Friday, 19th July
Enmore Theatre, Sydney
Tickets: Secret Sounds