“It’s like a dirty old shag that keeps sneaking up on you!” laughs Skin, trying to put the enduring legacy of her band, Skunk Anansie, into words. She’s sitting in her local Hackney pub, dressed in top-to-toe black with a pair of Dr. Martens, flashing a shy smile as the guy behind the bar recognises her. In person, she strikes an endearing balance between girlish giggler and the sweary punk powerhouse you might recognise. 2019 marks 25 years since Deborah Anne Dyer became Skin – the rock performer who, after trying and failing to be “the girl next door”, went on to become the frontwoman of one of the most unforgettable bands of the 90s.
“We were the best live band anyone had ever fucking seen in decades,” recalls Skin, and she’s not wrong. Her band was rawer, more avant-garde and radical than the then-pervasive ‘four white men with guitars’ model of Britpop – and by the time that scene imploded, Skunk Anansie remained, going on to make six albums, finding success on America’s live circuit and building a lasting cult following. Lazy critics of the time might have thought that Skin was destined for momentary shock value, but it was really her achingly visceral insights into heartbreak on early tracks like “Hedonism” that saw her become a beloved artist for a generation of outsiders. Skunk Anansie made you feel it, and Skin made you run to your bed and lose yourself in the tear-stained thrill that somehow, someone else had also felt your sting.
In the racist cultural climate she came up in, Skin was doubly visible: a black woman in a music industry teeming with whiteness, and a black artist that leaned into ‘otherness’, by refusing stereotypical expectations of playing soul or R&B to instead play rock. When I ask whether the band might have been more initially successful had she not been the frontwoman, she leaps to answer: “Fuck yeah!” This is Skin’s charm – a refusal to submit that means her legacy is of someone who has always spoken up. (The week we meet, she posts a response on Instagram to Wireless festival’s proposed swearing ban, writing “Seriously???? Fuck those Mary Whitehouse anti-grime, anti-youth, buy-your-gentrified-house-off-black-folk-then-complain-bitches!”, swiftly putting an end to the debate).
In another life, Skin might have been an interior designer, off the back of the degree she studied for at Teesside before joining the band. It makes a strange kind of sense: imagining spaces that don’t exist yet, to create something beautiful. Twenty-five years ago, she laid the blueprint for a music culture that hadn’t been born yet, in a band that became history. As she celebrates 25 years of Skunk Anansie with a career-spanning new live album, 25LIVE@25, Skin talks Afropunk, “clit-pop”, and that one time her signature Alexander McQueen bumsters caused a moral panic.
You once described yourself as ‘the living nightmare of every conservative suburban house owner’. What did you mean by that?
Skin: I was quite shy growing up; my mother was religious and I was always trying to conform. I had a very abusive boyfriend, and at that point I realised if I didn’t come out of this timid, shy shit I was gonna be a housewife with 15 kids. Later I realised that I was just not the girl next door and I was never gonna be. There was just something weird about me – a lot of that was sexuality, because I wasn’t the normal black girl going to church with the long perm. I tried to look like that, but I wasn’t like that inside. Once I became OK with that, my confidence really grew, in myself (and) in my performances onstage.
Did your parents get what you did?
Skin: I don’t think that they really got it. I mean, I got the university degree and all that for my parents and then when I went out and started working as an interior designer I was like, ‘I hate this.’ I’d done all the goody-two-shoes stuff that I should be doing for my mum and dad, to make them proud. My mum complained and complained until she saw (me on) Top of the Pops – and then she was like, ‘Ooh, she’s on TV, she must be successful.’ She hasn’t complained since!
They must have been part of the Windrush generation – how does the Tory government’s current agenda of deportation make you feel?
Skin: That was... a stab in the back and a stab in the heart at the same time. I felt very much betrayed because that’s my mum, you know? That’s my aunt. It was like, ‘You’ve been sending Jamaicans back who have been here for 50, 60 years.’ They begged us to come here then they turned round and were like, ‘Yeah, actually you’re not supposed to be here, we’ll send you back.’ It shows how short the memory is. I think that we’re living in really racist times right now. Brexit has taken us back, the Trump thing has just given (the racists) wings, it’s given the wrong people a sense of power. Like, ‘Oh, it’s our time now, we can do something here, we can get all these blacks kicked out.’ I have a song called “Little Baby Swastikkka” (from Skunk Anansie’s 1995 debut, Paranoid & Sunburnt) – all those songs we wrote back in the mid-90s because it was quite a racist environment at the time. Brixton wasn’t the lovely, gentrified, white area it is now. It was boarded up, there were riots in ’91 and ’95 – it was riotsville. They didn’t care, they didn’t give a shit.
“The point of Afropunk is that blackness is so much bigger than what we’re perceived as. It’s like how we were (in the 90s) – it didn’t matter who went where, or what sexuality someone was” — Skin
Later on, when you formed the band, you were based in Kings Cross. Was there a black community there?
Skin: It was very multicultural, (especially) later. We were all hanging around rehearsing and the Splash Club was kind of our home. There was Echobelly, Elastica, us and Asian Dub Foundation, Dub War... There were all these bands in Kings Cross. When you’re a kid you don’t realise that not everyone else is like that. It was only when we got signed and started touring that we realised we were really weird and our little scene was very alien.
What did your scene think about Britpop at that time?
Skin: We were anti-Britpop! We didn’t like it; it made things really difficult for us because we weren’t like that. There was no diversity in that scene; it was literally just four white boys playing guitars. Magazines like the NME used to make scenes up – but we were real and overlooked. Then, when Britpop started to die, we exploded, because we were the alternative and so we all started doing really well in America. We identified with Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against the Machine, Marilyn Manson... All those bands loved us.
Do you think you would have had more British success if you weren’t the frontwoman?
Skin: Fuck, yeah! Absolutely. I mean, where were all the other Skunk Anansies? This country suffers from a lot of inverted racism. If you’re white and you’re doing what black people do, people will love it, but if you’re black and you’re doing (something that) white people are doing – like rock music – everyone will hate it. If I was going to be a grime artist then I would be fine. But I’ve never been into rap in my life! I cannot sing reggae! It’s ingrained in the British press: ‘If you’re doing this, we’re going to big you up and we’re going to love you, but if you’re not, (you should) know it’s going to be a bit harder for you.’ I knew I had to be better than everyone else put together. I have to sing better, I have to be more crazy, I have to write better songs. It was just about being better. We were so good we would just astound people.
The present-day Afropunk movement seems to have had a huge impact on ideas of blackness.
Skin: Yes! We played Afropunk in New York and I loved it, because there’s a whole philosophy and cultural identity. The point of it is that blackness is so much bigger than what we’re perceived as. For me, it’s like how we were in Kings Cross back in 1992 – it didn’t matter who went where, or what sexuality someone was.
What were some of the stranger things you read about yourself when you started getting press?
Skin: If you Google (press from) back in the day, the first line of literally 95 per cent of interviews starts with ‘six-foot, black bisexual, Amazonian lead singer of Skunk Anansie’. I was described as this kind of cliche. I’ve got to be Amazonian, I’ve got to be super-sexual, I’ve got to be really tall. Then people met me and they were like, ‘Oh, you’re not that tall’ and I was like, ‘I never said I was tall.’ And I’m not that aggressive, I’m actually quite softly spoken.
‘Clit-pop’ was used as a genre classification for a while in the 90s, and it’s rumoured that you coined it. Is that true?
Skin: I remember doing an interview where they said, ‘So what do you think about Britpop? Wouldn’t you want to be a Britpop band?’ and I said, ‘We’re not fucking Britpop – we’re our own team, clitpop.’ I just made it up on the spot. Then the whole thing just went crazy. Other bands were saying they were clitpop and I was like, ‘There’s no such thing! I made it up! We were the only clitpop band and now it’s over.’
“(Skunk Anansie) were anti-Britpop! There was no diversity in that scene; it was literally just four white boys playing guitars” — Skin
How political did you set out to be?
Skin: We never thought, ‘We’re going to write a political song.’ It was always important to us to write songs about something important – but we didn’t restrict ourselves to being a political band at all, you know? But if you write one political song – you become dangerous and ‘political’. It’s just so they can put you in a box and throw you away, because actually the establishment doesn’t want you to say anything political – or if it does, it wants you to say it in a way that’s not gonna hurt anyone.
What were the tracks that provoked this kind of reaction?
Skin: With ‘Little Baby Swastikkka’, I saw a little baby swastika on the wall that looked like it was done by a four-year-old child and wrote about it. Then there’s (1996 track) ‘Yes It’s Fucking Political’ – I mean, it’s not like I’ve written an Adele song there, have I? We just wanted to be a great band. We didn’t even want to be a stadium band; we had no ambitions there. We don’t really write pop songs. Our biggest one was like, number 13 (“Brazen (Weep)”, which reached number 11 in the UK charts in 1997).
You were a spiritual muse to Alexander McQueen. How do you feel about that?
Skin: Alexander McQueen was my introduction to fashion, really. I think I was the first person to wear bumsters on TV, on TFI Friday! Your bum was like a bit of cleavage; they were really low and really tiny, and when I wore them it was a big fucking deal. Every time I turned around they would edit it out! Lee actually used to live near me, on Wood Lane (in west London), so we were neighbours. I used to go round to his house and try not to walk on his white floor. He gave me some great advice – he would say things like, ‘Don’t hang out with those guys, they all fuck each other when the doors are closed and stab each other in the back.’ He didn’t give a shit, he was just an East End boy and not changing for these people. The saddest thing for fashion is that he’s not around.
Your clothing archive must be pretty special – do you have any favourite pieces?
Skin: I’ve got suits, and I’ve got the original bumsters. My favourite thing I have of McQueen’s is the original rose thorns. They came up in auction in New York and my girlfriend bought me these solid silver thorns as a birthday present, so they’re in my safe!
I heard that you were invited to Nelson Mandela’s 80th birthday because of your popularity in South Africa?
Skin: Yes, we were invited to go to Nelson Mandela’s night of a thousand dinners (charity event) and 80th-birthday concert (in 1998). Me and Cass (Lewis, Skunk Anansie’s bassist) were standing there at the end of the night, after dinner. They started introducing people to come up and shake hands with Nelson Mandela. Somebody would go, ‘Nina Simone’ and Nina Simone comes up, ‘Danny Glover’ and Danny Glover comes up, ‘Stevie Wonder’, ‘Michael Jackson’... So I leaned over to Cass and went, ‘Skunk Anansie!’ and we both started giggling because it was so ridiculous, we were laughing our heads off. Then they said ‘Skunk Anansie’ and we were so busy giggling they had to say our name three times. We were like, ‘Is that us?!’ So we went up and shook Nelson Mandela’s hand. It was a surreal moment in my life.
Skunk Anansie’s 25LIVE@25 is out today
Make-up Ciara O’Shea at LGA Managment, photography assistant Ryan Connolly, styling assistants Hannah Hetherington, Kat Ambroziak, Ayaka Matsuda, special thanks Gas Studio