The Streets Original Pirate Material, 2002, Locked On/679 Recordings
Turn the Page
Has It Come to This?
Let's Push Things Forward
Same Old Thing
Geezers Need Excitement
It's Too Late
Too Much Brandy
Don't Mug Yourself
Who Got the Funk?
The Irony of It All
Weak Become Heroes
Who Dares Wins
Hailing from Birmingham but living in south London when he made his debut album, Mike Skinner performs with a variety of collaborators under the name The Streets. A forerunner to Grime, a little bit Dubstep-y, often (in my view incorrectly) considered Garage, the difficult to define genre he brought to the mainstream has also been called alternative Hip-Hop and since we are all about the alternative, I think it deserves its place here. The album was recorded in Skinner’s flat in Brixton using his laptop. It was certainly influenced by the Garage scene on pirate radio but also by US Hip-Hop artists such as Wu-Tang Clan, NWA and by the storytelling rap style of Nas.
The opening beat of Turn the Page instantly draws you in. It’s a war story inspired by the film Gladiator. The use of the string sample is beautiful and you know straight away that you are dealing with something fresh. It segues seamlessly into breakthrough single Has it Come to This? A track that, despite its obvious ode to 1980s hair rock deals with far more prosaic lyrical themes. This feels exactly like the kind of music someone makes in their own flat but it will resonate with anyone who has grown up in a British urban environment. Single release Let’s Push Things Forward is the album’s anthem, and the album itself in microcosm. Distancing itself from the Garage scene with its catchy tune and lyrics it shows that Skinner is truly trying to do something different with urban music. Sharp Darts continues this theme while attempting to preempt accusations of theft through sampling. Same Old Thing bemoans a boring life that revolves around going to the pub. Lyrically, there are shades of The Jam here, although the relentless beat has more in common with standard Hip Hop. Geezers Need Excitement explains the British penchant for going out on a Friday night, getting drunk and having fights. It’s another slice of life song. It’s Too Late is a melancholy love story set to a euphoric beat. Skinner laments ruining a relationship by simply not doing enough to maintain it. The crux of the song can be found in the lyrics; “We first met through a shared view, she loved me and I did too”. Too Much Brandy is the story of a drink and drug fuelled night out clubbing. You sense that what happens here is in no way an unusual occurrence. Frenetic single Don't Mug Yourself is a conversation between two friends about how to handle a potential new relationship with a woman. Skinner’s friend encourages him not to look too keen and to play it cool while Skinner insists that he can take or leave the relationship. Who Got the Funk? Is basically just a list of shout outs but the beat is funky as described. The Irony of It All compares alcoholism to marijuana use, espousing Skinner’s view that marijuana causes far fewer societal problems than alcohol. On the gentle Weak Become Heroes Skinner almost starts singing his love song to Ecstasy, house music, raves and the super DJ’s of the late ‘90s. It would have been a perfect way to end the album, but there is still Stay Positive, a song that epitomises its title as Skinner lists bad situations (mostly drug related) that the listener could get into and how important a positive outlook is to getting through them.
It’s very, very British and very very of its time. The downbeat realities of urban life in the early 2000s set to incessant pounding beats. It definitely felt fresh when I first heard it in 2002 though and it still feels unique now. I remember feeling very strongly that this was an album made for teenagers like me. It doesn’t have the swagger of Britpop or the Americanised excess of Garage and it name checks so many realities of urban youth. UK Garage was attracting a significant youth audience at this time but Garage MC’s didn’t have much respect in the wider music industry as the ease with which anyone could spin records meant it wasn’t seen as a proper skill. Skinner’s sound takes the Garage beats but brings the lyrics down to earth. If you were fed up with So Solid Crew or Artful Dodger (remember them?) then this was revelatory. On this album’s release he was called “The British Eminem” but other than the speed with which their lyrics are delivered the two could hardly be more different. The main criticism is always that he’s just talking but there is a lot of subtlety in the delivery if you can just accept the fact that he’s not about to sing to you. It’s an album full of stories where nothing much happens but that’s why it’s resonant. He’s talking about his listener’s lives not the lives of people in some glamorous, far away place.
It would be easy to write a lot of the tracks off as banter, but the lyrics are clever and Skinner clearly knows that his audience are more intelligent than they are given credit for. His delivery is controlled throughout and the gentle introspective ballads really show his lyrical talent.
The influence of this album is still clearly felt across the UK Grime scene, however it has transcended boundaries of genre. The Arctic Monkeys and The Ordinary Boys are very clear examples of bands whose music is totally different but who owe a great deal to The Streets.