As Original Pirate Material celebrates its 15th anniversary, we look back at how Mike Skinner embodied the re-emergence of an urban voice that was distinctly UK
They say that Britain and America share a common language, but things often get lost in translation. Take the unfortunate case of The Streets’ Original Pirate Material. When it was released 15 years ago, Pitchfork’s review bemoaned the “very proper-sounding” and “formal” enunciation of Mike Skinner – the face, beats, and voice of The Streets – while alt-rock bible Spin dismissed him as “a pub-hooligan Marshall Mathers.” It probably makes sense that the Americans didn’t get it. Original Pirate Material was, after all, the sound of British urban music cementing its identity, embracing rather than disguising its nationality.
Skinner was always keen to distance himself from US hip hop. “I don’t think rap music ever really spoke to me,” he told The AV Club. “I never felt like any rappers were me.” Although he was a fan of Nas, Skinner didn’t try to imitate the New York rapper’s sound as much as take his approach to storytelling and apply it his own experiences. “I’ve taken urban music and made it about my culture, not urban culture as such,” he said. It’s an important distinction. British urban music is a term that carries all sorts of connotations. In the music industry, ‘urban’ is (somewhat awkwardly) used as a catch-all term for black music, whether that’s R&B or grime; at the same time, this diverse spread was the sound that Original Pirate Material channelled the most. Starting in the late 90s and gaining momentum into the millennium, a nascent movement began to gatecrash the mainstream: the embryonic strains of dubstep, the increasing dominance of UK garage, and the advent of grime.
At first, UK garage made more of an impact in the charts than grime did. Garage was more palatable to general audiences, able to easily mesh with radio-friendly R&B, while grime had a habit of hovering around the upper echelons of the charts (Wiley’s “Wot Do U Call It?” reached number 31 in the Official UK Top 40 Singles Chart, while More Fire Crew’s punchy, addictive “Oi!” charted at number seven). Urban music was at its peak, but then it always had a firm influence over British music. West Indians who arrived on British shores during the postwar era brought with them the sound clashes and “toasting” (the uniquely Jamaican MCing style pioneered on 80s dancehall) that inspired urban music’s sound. The Streets were audibly part of this tradition, as the reggae bop on “Let’s Push Things Forward” makes clear.
To describe Original Pirate Material as ‘UK hip hop’, then, would be a mistake, but at the same time it wasn’t the stern, cutting thrust of grime or UK garage either. “This ain't your archetypal street sound,” goes the mission statement on “Let’s Push Things Forward”, “This ain’t your typical garage joint.” Indeed, Skinner thought it was unwise to travel down that route. “My experience of listening to UK garage, which was huge, was in people’s cars and houses,” he told the Guardian in 2009. He was enamoured with the music but alienated by lyrics about glugging champagne on the dancefloor. Namechecking London boroughs (“Barnet, Brixton, Beckenham”) and Tube stations (“Mile End to Ealing”), Skinner rhapsodised about the hotspots of a burgeoning grassroots culture: “As London Bridge burns down, Brixton’s burning up.” As he put it, Original Pirate Material came from “someone who was on the one hand very English, but at the same time a bit like Nas,” spinning yarns about “all the weed that gets smoked and all the little adventures that you go on.” This was hip hop storytelling grafted on hopscotching, garage-inspired beats you couldn’t really dance to: “This ain’t a club track, pull out yer sack and sit back.”
However many British teens might’ve been enthralled by Jay Z’s early tales of hustling in Brooklyn, it probably wasn’t relatable to anyone living in the UK, but Skinner’s vignettes were. “Around here, we say birds not bitches,” sums it up fairly well. His music was informed by a grand tradition of English literature, even if it didn’t know it: “Turn the Page” is an epic, Milton-esque soliloquy; “Irony Of It All” is superb Swiftian satire; “Don’t Mug Yourself” sees Skinner receiving advice about women from a mate over a plate of full English breakfast. Quintessentially English turns-of-phrase (“Gotta see a man about a dog” on “Same Old Thing”, “I walk the beat like a policeman” from “Sharp Darts”) chafed against beats cribbed as much from south London clubs as they were fostered in council estate bedrooms amid clouds of marijuana smoke and piles of Nintendo 64 cartridges.
“Original Pirate Material was as British as it got, but unlike Britpop a decade earlier, it wasn’t an aggressively patriotic celebration of Albion that came striding in with a Union Jack-adorned guitar”
Original Pirate Material was as British as it got, but unlike Britpop a decade earlier, it wasn’t an aggressively patriotic celebration of Albion that came striding in with a Union Jack-adorned guitar. No one who describes themselves as “45th-generation Roman”, as Skinner does on “Turn the Page” with sly wit, believes in pure Britishness; if anything, they’re drawing attention to the absurdity of such an idea. Original Pirate Material was the lives of common people as told by one of their own, shot through with deadbeat realism – no wonder it struck a chord with so many. Skinner intelligently examined the ritualistic lifestyle of “sex, drugs and on the dole” with a sympathetic eye. Everybody knows a Terry, the loutish moron on “The Irony of It All”, emboldened by alcohol: “I down eight pints and run all over the place / Spit in the face of an officer, see if that bothers you.” Terry, the target in Skinner’s merciless crosshairs, is exactly the type of bloke who gets drunk on lager and “Wonderwall” karaoke-singalongs, the sort of hooligan stereotype portrayed in the media by the riots at Marseilles beaches during the France 1998 World Cup; Skinner’s Britain, meanwhile, is multicultural, a place where you can meet both rudeboys and foreign strangers on E in clubs, as on the elegiac “Weak Become Heroes” (“I known you all my life but I don’t know your name / The name’s European Bob, I’m sorted anyway”).
The album soundtracked the beginning of a decade – recovering from the Britpop hangover and comedown from New Labour euphoria – but also defined it. If you weren’t old enough to be one of the stoned night-owls playing Gran Turismo or “discussing how beautiful Gail Porter is” (in “The Irony of It All”), then your older brother and his mates definitely were. The poignant “Stay Positive” explored the despondency of a generation bitten by drug-induced paranoia and inner-city brooding: “You’re going mad, perhaps you always were / But when things was good you just didn’t care”; the point at which “weed becomes a chore (...) so you follow the others onto smack.” Mundane things became loaded with significance, like the choice between “Maccy D’s or KFC” or busting moves in your Reebok Classics.
The album was of its time, and it’s hard to imagine something like it existing now – in 2017, club closures, the high cost of living and gentrification are leaving the sort of audience Original Pirate Material embraced in its day poorer and even more marginalised than before. The pangs of nostalgia that arise from “Has It Come to This?”, a bass-heavy wobble flexing with skipping 2-step rhythms and cannabis calm, might leave them wondering: what has it come to? Furthermore, today’s dominant sound is no longer Skinner’s, despite grime’s resurgence: pop is far too scattershot and diverse for breakthrough records that catch the nation’s imagination.
Original Pirate Material wasn’t British urban music’s year zero, and treating it as the epochal moment would be whitewashing the history of a movement populated overwhelmingly by black people. Nevertheless, its legacy is immeasurable. From Kano’s reinterpretation of “Has It Come to This?” to Skepta’s tribute Twitter status, the album is a landmark in British pop culture. Later, with a Mercury nomination under his belt, Skinner won plaudits for 2004’s chart-topping A Grand Don’t Come for Free but experienced dwindling critical acclaim thereafter. Since disbanding the Streets in 2011, Skinner has kept a relatively low profile, occupying himself with sporadic DJ appearances and production work with The D.O.T., Tonga Balloon Gang, The Rhythm Method, and Oscar #Worldpeace. That Skinner remains in demand for emerging talent serves notice of his considerable talents and reputation.
If one image from the Original Pirate Material era sticks in the memory, it’s a moment from his appearance on the music television show Later... with Jools Holland. Mid-way through his performance, Skinner checks his phone. It’s a casual display of distinctly British ordinariness, his insouciant swagger undermining hip hop braggadocio. American audiences probably wouldn’t understand it, but it was what makes Original Pirate Material essential.