The Streets’ Original Pirate Material:
Who Dares Wins
IN a couple of weeks’ time…
The Streets’ incredible debut, Original Pirate Material, will be fifteen. It seems frightening to imagine an album getting to that age. Every time I play it, it sounds fresh and current. That is the reason I wanted to (prematurely) celebrate its birthday. If it is a year away from leaving school, in many ways, it is the teacher that keeps imparting wisdom to the new generation. Excuse my sloppy analogies and metaphors but that is why the album hits so many people: completely right and directed at what is happening in the world right now. Mike Skinner’s songwriting, on the album, documented the reality of modern life and a less-glamorous side to the streets – the council estates and messy takeaway dinners; the drunken nights are annoying characters we all chance upon. Skinner’s opening salvo to the music world is groundbreaking because, up until that time, it provided a unique take on the U.K. Garage scene. Until that point, we had artists like The Artful Dodger – name-checked in Let’s Push Things Forward (The Streets writes bangers; The Artful Dodger pens anthems, as it is told) – and that sort of act. Although they were at the more credible and inspiring end of the spectrum; nobody like The Streets had been heard of. There was no idealistic romance and cliché themes. What we got was an album as eye-opening and strange as it is familiar and real. It is an album that made its way into the poll-markers’ list of best albums from the decade (the 2000s) and, in some cases, the best albums of all-time. It is not surprising to hear that because of the legacy the album has created. I’ll come that a bit later.
When writing the album, Skinner looked to the U.S. for inspiration. Artists like Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon and RZA; the rappers on the East Coast – Nas’ Illuminatic was a big influence – and the acts that emerged from the Garage scene in the late-1990s. Keen to distance himself from the lyrics and subjects of the Garage scene but employ that late-‘90s sound in his work – what you get is insight into Mike Skinner’s world with some familiar and relatable music backing it. The Streets, as the moniker suggests, wanted an album that reflected the adventures and broadness of the city: the tenement blocks and pubs; the dodgy characters and crazy nights. What Skinner hated was, and what we still hear today, is British artists trying to be American. Yes, Skinner borrowed from U.S. Hip-Hop and Rap but did not pretend to be Nas or Wu-Tang Clan. At the time (2001/2002), we heard a lot of British acts mimicking their U.S. cousins. It is quite sad hearing someone from the Home Counties thinking they’re Q-Tip or Biggie Smalls. Skinner knew this and rebelled against it by being who he was. Although a Birmingham lad, Original Pirate Material has a (faux) London accent running through it. Original Pirate Material is the sound of the streets but is quite London-centric – the perfect canvas for anyone trying to represent the many sides and avenues of modern Britain. Garage, through the 1990s and early part of the 2000s, was confined to basements and underground clubs. It was not a genre privy to the mainstream and popular stations. Perhaps too raw and new; I feel it was a little too real and honest for the public to handle. So much club music, back then and now, reflects the ideals of Pop and mainstream music: personal romance and keeping reality at bay. Acts like The Streets came along and told you what life was like outside your bedroom walls – something that has been sublimated and submerged by many. Not all Garage acts conformed to the counter-culture: The Streets was a leading example of Garage’s best: those songwriters who took attention away from bedroom-drama and put the microphone on the pavement – capturing the sounds, smells and earnest honesty of everyday people.
Mike Skinner, in a knowing wink, acknowledges Garage music’s secrecy and role in the title, Original Pirate Material. The contradiction nods to the fact Garage was mainly heard on pirate stations and beneath the mainstream but acknowledges how fresh and new the sounds and lyrics were. In 2002, the album was like nothing else out there. Forwarding things to 2017, you can still hear elements of the album in contemporary artists. It is hard to see just how influential and scene-shifting the record is. It certainly helped popularising Garage and bringing it into the spotlight. British Hip-Hop, often a jokey term, was being taken seriously. The Streets proved he/they could mix it with the most authoritative and reputable artists of the U.S. market. Whilst his transatlantic peers talked of braggadocio and bling; the drama of American streets – The Streets provided a uniquely British take on Hip-Hop. If Q-Tip and Wu-Tang Clan looked at gangs, violence and a rather perilous predicament – it may sound stereotypical but they did address other themes – Skinner’s debut album talked more of boozy lads and late-night thoughts. It is as though you are walking through the streets of Brixton after a heavy one; maybe just walking the pavement to clear the head. If American alternatives, at that time, had boastfulness and a sense of aggression – there is something charmingly polite and restrained about The Streets’ work. Skinner talks of eating chips and making ends meet. Songs like Let’s Push Things Forward is a direct response to the chart sounds and need to shake music up – as it is told, we moan things are the same, then we go buy it anyway. Opener Turn the Page is an exciting and exhilarating trip inside the mind of a truly original street poet. The compositional elements, bare but primal, reflect the sensations of the city.
There is wit and wisdom; one-liners and some profound thoughts. The brilliantly-observed vignettes look inside the kebab shops, dirt-cheap pubs and skanky side of life without gloss and apology. When I was nineteen, when the album came out, I was about to move from London (to Cambridge) and say goodbye to Woolwich – a part of the capital that could easily fit into Original Pirate Material. I was listening to chart music and new albums that ignored the reality of city life and what was going on by my doorstep. Suddenly, there was an album that witnessed my life – not that I was as exciting as anything that happened on the album – and spoke to me. As someone familiar with the emerging Garage scene; there were so many new artists taking notice and stunned by what they heard. It was not all about drinking and drunken nights. Even songs like Too Much Brandy, which, as the title suggests, is about resisting the temptation to self-destruct, has incredible bounce and lyrical brilliance – our hero settling into his drinking trousers as the barman holds a glistening bottle of Champagne aloft. The Irony of It All sees Skinner play too parts: a drunken lout that is aggrieved he’s been arrested and is vilified; the other, a pleasant weed-smoking character called Tim finds it ironical his hobby his criminalised whilst drunken louts cause mayhem. There is nothing average or familiar in those songs: each is brilliant and wonderfully realised; a stunning talent with no limits and equals.
There is a smattering of The Specials’ Ghost Town in a lot of the music. That same Brixton-riot eeriness and the ghoulish sound effects; the melting of Ska and Punk/Garage that sound concurrently British and universal. What really struck critics was Skinner’s delivery and production. Whilst most British/American Hip-Hop/Rap artists had a distinct flow and dynamic: Skinner was more a Spoken Word artist. His lyrics were delivered like poetry; with that London accent and real character. He was not trying to be American or anyone else. It is amazing listening to Original Pirate Material and how the words come to life and get into the head. No artists like him had come before – we have not seen anyone like him since. It is a running commentary and pontification that provided the music new angles, accentuations and nuance than there would have been otherwise. Skinner was the boy-next-door able to blend the different worlds of British Garage with U.S. Hip-Hop without sounding out of his depth. Hilarious, profound and always intelligent: an album that contains so much treasure and memorability. It is that intellect that extended to the production. Rather than race into a studio and produce a glossy and polished debut; The Streets’ debut is a bedroom-made record that employs a bit of laptop and some homemade studio. You get something tangible and physical; a raw and sparse album that still manages to sound alive, scintillating and jam-packed. Beats are varied and inventive; the electronics/samples are constantly engaging and original – an album that brims with genius and brilliance. The Streets would continue to amaze and impress on the even-finer sophomore album, A Grand Don’t Come for Free. This is where it all began, thought. Nearly fifteen years ago, British music witnessed something truly unheard of and vital: an album that shook the foundations and introduced an incredible talent.
Mike Skinner proved he had as much heart and soul as he did wit and confidence – the closer, Stay Positive is emotional and inspiring in its messages of strength-against-darkness and turning the corner. I am playing the album and instantly transported back to 2002. Even this many years on, Original Pirate Material sounds unlike anything else. I am surprised more haven’t tried to replicate the sound of The Streets. Maybe that is the mark of any truly great album/artist: you can’t touch it because it is that unique. I have been looking at Basement Jaxx’s debut album, Remedy. That was released in 1999, and, up until that time, British Dance and Electronica was a sterile, close-minded and linear. The British duo created something open, colourful and hugely experimental. It brought something new to British Dance and changed the game. In the same way, Mike Skinner’s The Streets changed the face of British Hip-Hop and Garage. It remains a masterpiece and benchmark that, I hope, many will try and equal. In a music scene where there is too much predictability and little surprise, look back at Original Pirate Material and see…
HOW things should be done.