‘He was laying all cards bare’: 20 years after its release, young pioneers from the UK garage scene unpack the legacy of Mike Skinner’s groundbreaking debut
Original Pirate Material sounds like simpler times. When Mike Skinner rapped ”Imagine the world's leaders on pills / And imagine the morning after” on “Weak Become Heroes”, it was intended as an absurdist joke – nowadays, it seems closer to reality. In the 20 years since The Streets’ debut was released, the world has changed markedly. However, the record’s captivating combination of 2-step garage rhythms, socially-conscious lyricism, and sharp UK wit means it remains one of the 21st century’s defining albums.
From the spine-tingling string sample that opens “Turn the Page” to the bleak, stuttered piano sequence that closes “Stay Positive”, Original Pirate Material has a knack for sparking the rawest emotions. Translating the UK garage sound to LP format in a totally unique way, the record paid tribute to the scene’s pirate radio roots on cult classics like ”Has It Come To This?“, with its ”lock down your aerial” hook. So, for the album’s 20th anniversary, it was only right that we caught up with some of the UK’s contemporary garage pioneers to reflect on The Streets’ groundbreaking legacy.
”It captured the pirate radio essence,” says DJ Smokey Bubblin’ B, who is currently making waves via DJ EZ’s NUVOLVE label. “Even down to the mix-downs, the quality of the mastering, it was very raw... I just remember thinking that I’d never heard anything like that before. Mike Skinner basically translated British culture into one album: the stuff that he was talking about, like garage raves, Mike Tyson posters, and Novas, it was stuff that was a part of our normal everyday lives.”
Original Pirate Material is caked in the language and spirit of the late 90s and early 00s garage scene: from the grainy late-night shot of an Old Street tower block etched on the album’s cover, to its references to “gold teeth, Valentinos and dreads”. But like all great music, Skinner’s debut transcends effortlessly into this world, too. He invites you in, offering snippets of lyrical conversation – timeless, accessible observations of British culture – as if he’s inviting you to prop up a stool next to him at the bar.
“It’s really real, and conversational, with no bullshit,” suggests Bklava, one of the leading young DJs in contemporary UK garage. ”It’s like you’re talking to your mate… you feel like you’re there. There’s so much imagery, and it’s so descriptive. It’s like reading a book."
It’s true that story and narrative dominate the album, from start to finish. For Skinner, each track was theatre; an opportunity to embody a new character; to completely transport the listener deep into the life of another faintly recognisable British archetype. When Peckham MC and dance-rap pioneer Pinty first heard Original Pirate Material as a young kid, this element of the record had a massive effect.
”Musically, listening to tunes like ‘Too Much Brandy’ or ‘It’s Too Late’ – which capture stories in like two or three minutes – had a big impact,” he remembers. “I found it interesting as fuck. [Mike Skinner] guides you through this atmosphere and this world that he created. It’s fun to play around with seeing the world through another person’s eyes. He was able to do that because he was a bit of an outsider… it’s his take on this world that he’s been placed in, but isn’t fully immersed in.”
Transplanted from Birmingham to London, Skinner was able to view both the UK garage and rap scene in a completely fresh way, rejecting the things he didn’t like and offering up a new perspective. “Turn The Page” encapsulates this pioneering style: its title invites you to open the leaves of a shared story, but its strident beat swiftly shows that Skinner isn’t waiting around for stragglers. He embellishes everyday street visions with the language of epic poetry, rapping ”Memories fading, soldiers slaying / Looks like geezers raving”. Innovative lyrics like ”There’s sense in what I say, I'm 45th generation Roman” lock in Skinner’s status as a fearless narrator. A spine-tingling intro track that merges ancient war imagery with hopeful suggestions that ”a few men maybe scored today”, ”Turn the Page” captures the essence of The Streets.
“[Mike Skinner showed you] the world through another person’s eyes. He was able to do that because he was a bit of an outsider… it’s his take on this world that he’s been placed in, but isn’t fully immersed in” – Pinty
Skinner’s playful inventiveness also comes through via the world of “stinking student lamo” Tim in ”The Irony Of It All”, a witty swipe at the absurdity of UK drug laws. Lines like ”I pose a threat to the nation” sit alongside ruminations on quantum physics and the philosophy of Carl Jung, while ”law abider” Terry shouts about exercising his right to get smashed and assault people. The stoner-drinker juxtaposition is undeniably on the nose, but knowingly so. It was an approach that was unlike anything else at the time.
”Things were kind of stagnant [back then], everyone was making the same old thing and putting it out because it was easy,” recalls Smokey. “Mike Skinner came along with this album and kind of changed the way everyone worked. It had a massive impact, and it definitely contributed to where the scene has gone today... He shook things up, for the better.
According to Bklava, whose own take on garage is heavily vocals-oriented, Mike Skinner ”definitely had an impact on a lot of young rappers and producers in both the dance world and the rap world. It’s nice to blend those sounds together and make something fresh.” For fellow lyricist Pinty, there was a vulnerability that distinguished Skinner from other rappers.
”It’s so raw, so introspective and exposed,” he says. ”You can hear the innocence in his voice… he was laying all cards bare. At that time, in the garage scene, you heard about people wearing thousands of pounds on their clothes and popping champagne. And I guess if you’re some broke kid who’s just moved to London, you can’t afford to be doing all that.”
”Who Got The Funk?” sees Skinner describe his project as ”a day in the life of a geezer”, and it’s this man of the people persona that has made Original Pirate Material such a cultural staple. Shifting between complex debates about the decriminalisation of cannabis, elaborate portraits of 3AM kebab shop fights, and heated greasy spoon disputes about the politics of phoning a girl the morning after, Skinner captures the light and dark of British working-class life. Intertwining rap and dance music using a voice that people all over the UK could relate to, Original Pirate Material was able to tap into something special. As today’s UK garage scene testify, its legacy will endure for many more years to come.