:: The Streets :: Fox Theatre :: June 14 ::
By Sean Foran
The British rapper Mike Skinner (a.k.a. ‘The Streets’) sounds calm, settling in while his personal driver cruises through London to pick up a friend from work at Marks and Spencer.
Long before music became a lucrative vocation, Skinner was employed by the same department store in his hometown of Birmingham and even wage-slaved at a local Burger King. “I never spit in anyone’s food. I never took it out on the customers. I did steal from the tills, though,” he laughed, and I imagined a shifty smile lighting up the mug that’s looming large on billboards across Chicago courtesy of a Reebok shoe endorsement.
One thing Skinner never did since bursting from the U.K. garage scene to the cash register ring of three million albums, is shed his English skepticism. Looking out from a pint glass half-empty view of the gray London sky, he’s made his lyrics the battle cry for every sorry lad in line for a dole check (unemployment check). “My goal for making music was to pay the bills,” he said. “That’s still my goal in a way. I’m just trying to make sure I never have to get a normal job again.”
His goal crystallized like a crack rock after Skinner’s spare beats and Cockney logic produced Original Pirate Material in 2002. The album was the output of home (specifically his mom’s) recordings produced on a laptop in his bedroom. Listen close to the song “Turn The Page” and you can hear her telling him to turn the music down. At the time, U.K. garage vocals were either hyper raga chanting or a female lead with sultry pipes. Skinner’s street-smart spoken flow turned the genre upside down, giving a voice to all the aimless “geezers” who call their girls “birds not bitches” while drinking and drugging their boredom away in the lager ridden liver of England’s pub culture.
Next came A Grand Don’t Come For Free in 2004. A concept record in the vein of the Martin Scorsese movie After Hours, Skinner spun a flowing narrative about losing a thousand pounds (the monetary kind) and all the headaches, bookies and “bird” related troubles he encounters crossing the city to track it down. He snagged his second Mercury nomination with the release but lost to Lady Sovereign. Another kiss from the critics, however, held little sway because The Streets were now a record label rainmaker and that pays the bills. “As I’ve gotten older and more experienced, I realize how political those awards can be so I don’t take notice who’s winning them,” said Skinner. “That doesn’t mean they’re not important, but I’ve already got a sense of the people’s perception of my work and I don’t need an award for that.”
The Streets latest, The Hardest Way To Make an Easy Living, reveals the rapper grappling to maintain his sanity and contemplating what fame does to a bloke’s soul. The pharmaceuticals (“Pranging Out,” Skinner slang for hoovering up the booger sugar), the women (“War of the Sexes”), and even faith (“Never Went To Church”) get dissected as Skinner lifts his nose from the powdered mirror to take a long, hard look of self reflection. He’s finally getting his first sub par reviews, many of which focus on the lack of “go for broke” brilliance that burst from the first two releases. “Part of my success in the beginning was because I was the classic English underdog,” explained Skinner. “I can’t claim that now, but I think people still respect my abilities.”
What hasn’t changed is his penchant for stirring up lyrical controversy. The track “When You Wasn’t Famous” turned the British press away from Pete Doherty long enough to put an APB out on the unnamed female celebrity Skinner raps about smoking cocaine with on the track. Asked if she’ll eventually be discovered, he laughs warily, “Hopefully not. I think if it ever comes out and it could, that will cause me some trouble.” Skinner almost found it by dedicating the song to Girls Aloud singer Cheryl Tweedy, on the BBC’s “Top of the Pops.” “That was a bit of a joke because people were saying it was her,” he remembered. “I probably shouldn’t have said that. My manager had a right go at me.”
The record also features the song “Two Nations”— a witty breakdown on the dichotomy between the U.S. and U.K. rap industries. Summing up the response for every British act that graced the cover of the London-based magazine NME but fell in line with the faceless fraternity of stateside indies, Skinner raps, “Understated is how we prefer to be. That’s why I’ve sold three million and you’ve never heard of me.” The track was originally slated to accompany the P-Diddy-produced Biggie Smalls tribute album but got nixed at the last minute. “He invited me down to the studio in New York when he was putting the album together,” recalled Skinner. “He asked me to send something in over one of their beats. In the end it wasn’t suitable for that kind of release.” With a line like “I’m proud we gave you people like John Lennon, even though you shot him as well,” I can see why.
The Hardest Way may emit a similar vibe to other “been there, done that, now I’m burned out” records like Eminem’s Encore or The Happy Mondays Yes, Please, but Skinner reminded me he’s focused. He’s avoiding the “tour support” (Skinner’s other name for the nose candy) on the road and is staying busy with business affairs at home. “I’m keeping my head down,” he said. “Just trying to get the job done each night. I’ve always had goals and at the moment, it’s getting the label off the ground.” Said label is The Beats, which has produced albums for up and coming artists The Mitchell Brothers and Professor Green. “I’m involved in the Grime scene a lot and I grew up in that world, so I’m really pleased to be accepted there,” said Skiner. “I sell a lot of records but I put back a lot in that scene. I’m able to give other rappers a lot of opportunities.”
The man-child who calls himself ‘The Streets’ has come full circle and although the present Mike Skinner owns the Rolls Royce he’s leaning against on the new album’s CD jacket, he’s still the same geezer at the chip shop. Skinner still goes unnoticed at his local pub and gets genuinely excited about a compliment. “I don’t think anyone’s ever going to expect me to be a role model but that’s the great thing about being British. I think we like all the trouble over the charity events.”
:: The Streets :: Fox Theatre :: June 14 ::
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