Mike Skinner, a.k.a. The Streets, is the hottest British rapper since, well, ever.
Pressed to name other English MCs who've paved the way for his Mercury Prize-nominated debut, Original Pirate Material (October 8), Skinner is at a loss for words.
"There's the So Solid Crew," the 23-year-old said of the thuggish, 30-man posse known as much for their rap sheets and gangsta posing as microphone skills. "But really I'm the only one doing it this way."
And by "this way," the unassuming North London rapper means a wholly original, authentic blend of the U.K. underground garage dance scene's skittering, double-time beats and a thick-as-kidney-pie lyrical delivery that's undeniably English, even as it pays homage to trailblazing American rappers. U.S. audiences might need subtitles to follow Skinner's stories, but there's no denying the power of his keenly observed snapshots of life as a bored "geezer" in the U.K. club scene.
Like a lot of 20-year-olds, Skinner grew up listening to his older brother's records: Run-DMC, Beastie Boys and the like. But it wasn't until he turned 17 and discovered the Wu-Tang Clan that Skinner realized what he wanted to do with his life. It was also then that he made the stylistic choice that would earn his status as a voice worth listening to and inspire the English music press to dub him "the first English rapper."
"When you're younger, you copy the people you listen to and you put on an American accent," Skinner said of his fascination with the Wu-Tang's dark musical beds, kung fu obsessions and lyrical delivery. "But no one takes notice of you if you do that because it sounds completely false. And this is just the way we talk. It's just as easy as trying to sound American." Replace Shaolin with ancient Roman warriors, Strong Island with grimy London pubs and the "n" word with "geezers" and you have The Streets.
After trying his hand as a working-class stiff at Burger King and sweeping floors at a gas station, Skinner set up a recording studio in his parents' home inside a wardrobe, using stolen microphones. Programming the beats and splicing the music together by himself, Skinner emerged with an album that immediately drew attention in the hyped garage scene. By relying on a decidedly British sensibility ("My crew laughs at your rhubarb and custard verses"), songs like "Turn the Page" mix Skinner's thick-accented, gladiator-themed boasts with violins and dance beats.
Though Skinner claims that "Has It Come to This?" is "not a club track," the hard-partying rhyme bubbles along on an insistent garage beat and a smooth-jazz keyboard riff. The song, with its cut-up beats, is Skinner's take on what one of his hip-hop idols, DJ Premier, might do if he made a garage track.
It's one of more than half a dozen slice-of-life tracks that chronicle the often inebriated existence of Skinner and his fellow "geezers."
In some ways, it's there that Skinner has the most in common with his American counterparts. From the sound of it, Skinner and his boys frequently indulge in "Too Much Brandy," as evidenced by that Dr. Dre-influenced car crash of fat, froggy beats and basslines, and a sing-songy chorus.
"'The Real Slim Shady' was in my head when I wrote it," Skinner said of his catalog of illicit activity. "Even though it sounds a bit like that record, it's a hell of a lot more that's mine. I'd go toe-to-toe with Eminem anytime."
The song, which is all true, according to Skinner, is a sometimes scary look at the R-rated hi-jinks he and his crew get up to when they go out. "Six of us lads came to New York last year and got thrown out of three places," Skinner boasted. "When we drink beer, some of my mates get hectic. One of them ended up starting a fight with the security staff, and in England they give you a proper beating down if you do that. Here they just tossed us out. It was a flashy place with proper people with proper haircuts. We didn't really belong. These are all stories that are taken from my life, rearranged a bit."
Skinner knows he's not likely to woo American audiences with his club-conscious rhymes, but, as is typically the case, he couldn't be bothered to care.
"In America they have this [negative] association in their mind with dance music or the rave culture," he said. "But it's been our street culture for 15 years. I've made a record in England for English people. One day they phoned me up and said, 'Do you fancy going to New York and talking about yourself and getting free trainers?' So, I can't understand why anyone in America would want to get into it. Americans are insular — they don't need to go outside America for anything. They're not ready for it."