The Streets - Biography
By David Downs
Hip Hop act The Streets emerged out of 2001 London with single "Has It Come To This" on respected UK garage and 2-step label Locked On, before topping the charts in the UK and U.S. with three LPs Original Pirate Material (2002-679 Recordings), A Grand Don't Come For Free (2004-679 Recordings), and The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living (2006-679 Recordings). Headed by young London producer Mike Skinner, The Streets' first and second album earned him nominations for the UK's highly regarded Mercury Prize, largely because of his unique melding of UK electronic dance music sub-genres garage and 2-step with a literate, narrative delivery unlike any other rapper on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. Both A Grand Don't Come For Free and The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living combine crowd-pleasing beats with novel-like short stories that detail the day-to-day minutiae of young, urban, middle-class Westerners. Such Westerners responded, taking A Grand Don't Come for Free to eighty-two on the Billboard 200 and The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living to number sixty-eight. Skinner states he will return with fourth album Everything Is Borrowed in 2008. His goal for the record includes avoiding any type of reference to contemporary technology or culture in favor of more timeless content -- a bold conceit from an artist ever-concerned with pushing things forward.
Mike Skinner was born in 1978 and grew up in north London as well as Birmingham, the youngest of four siblings. It was a classic middle-class life, Skinner says, not struggling, but not rich either. By the young age of six years old, his older brothers' De La Soul and Beastie Boys records trickled into his life, followed by a taste for indie music, house and later jungle. Skinner began to dream of being a producer and made his first tracks by age fifteen. He learned guitar, ripped off Rage Against The Machine in Birmingham practice studios, and discovered LSD and ecstasy in the burgeoning rave scene at the time. By the end of his teenage years, Skinner was making techno, trying to start a label, mailing demos of his own tracks, and working service industry jobs. He recruited some MCs to move into live music, gigging Birmingham as Skinner's beat-making skills grew. The group did not go anywhere, however, and a depressed Skinner decamped to Australia for a year.
Just as Skinner was broadening his horizons, electronic music was diversifying as well. By the mid '90s, UK fans of aggressively up-tempo, sample-heavy arrangements coalesced around two loose terms -- jungle and garage -- often involving synthesizers and drum machines with additional MCs to rhyme over the arrangements. Ragga vocals, spin backs, R&B vocals, shuffled beats, syncopated drum patterns and vocal sampling also became features. Skinner returned from Australia and incorporated such aspects into a new kind of English Hip Hop much more accessible than any of the sub-genres it pulled from.
Working with friends who added writing to his beats, Skinner independently produced "Has It Come To This" in 2001, instantly noticeable due to its contrast of crisp electronic beats and easy-going piano. In between the title chorus, Skinner's understated verses celebrate recreational drugs and video games without the typiccal aggression and posturing associated with rapping. His wordplay, delivery, and accent simply had no peer and "Has It Come To This" came out on twelve-inch vinyl on UK garage label Locked On in Summer 2001. Follow-up single "Don't Mug Yourself" offered a bouncing club counterpoint and introduced a singular narrative construction to Skinner's work. Third single "Let's Push Things Forward" became a reggae-themed manifesto for experimentalism -- claiming he was a cult classic not a best seller. Skinner's singles also coincided with an historic explosion in the availability of music through Internet file-sharing. Skinner became one of the first download sensations in history.
All three songs appeared on Original Pirate Material (679 Recordings-2002) released in March of 2002 by Locked On, then Vice Records in the U.S. Some reporters called it a distillation of what it felt like to be young and British at the start of the new century. Skinner said the album was different at the time because it was so normal. In the never-ending search for authenticity, and real-ness, rap had decayed into braggadocio and ghetto fantasy. Original Pirate Material brought the whole enterprise back to street level and electrified it. "Weak Become Heros" flashes through a typical first-time experience with MDMA, while "It's Too Late" tackles a young break-up. "Same Old Thing" looks at middle-class routine itself. The album went gold in the UK, hitting number thirteen on their charts.
To follow it up, Skinner continued down the path of the pedestrian narrative -- interjecting his personality into the story of a young, urban Brit who loses one thousand English pounds, ostensibly in drug money. He then gains a new girlfriend, then loses both his girlfriend and friends. The story ends in two different ways. Instead of piling the production on, Skinner strips out anything extraneous and gives the album its spontaneous feel. Similarly Skinner aims for the simplest lyrics possible, playing with unique, colloquial phrases delivered off-beat. The rough sound only became more memorable.
A Grand Don't Come For Free's concept begins with the triumphant horns of "It Was Supposed To Be So Easy", and the initial conflict of lost money and a friend as a suspect. "Could Well Be In" astutely dissects the beginnings of a relationship, while "Not Addicted" details the gray area around full-blown gambling addiction. Nightclubbing and ecstasy use, unmarried cohabitative bliss, relationship squabbles, vacation debauchery, infidelity -- all are featured in Skinner's off-beat verbal landscape. "Dry Your Eyes" gave the artist his first number one hit song in the UK. Its rather traditional arrangement of horns and strings, acoustic guitar and a spare beat. is juxtaposed with Skinner's not quite rapping, not quite talking, but always acutely detailing the tiniest gestures of a breakup. Skinner reinvigorates the tired pop trope, and it earned him worldwide respect.
That respect led to millions of records sold, and the grounded Skinner soon lost his way. This wayward period and the loss of his father comprises his follow-up record The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living (2006-679 Recordings), which was less enthusiastically received. If Skinner's third LP found less favor than his prior two outings, it was likely because he kept being honest and life simply got weird. Skinner's production and lyrical skills remain tight, but the narrative is deliberately frayed.
Hectic, aggressive, and confused -- opening track "Prangin' Out" screeches and crashes with post-tour paranoia and addiction. "War Of The Sexes" details the cold calculus of bedding strange new women. Here, Skinner is mercenary, conflicted and a little unhinged amid record advances, tour infidelity, and conspicuous consumption. The buried core of this malaise is addressed in "Never Went To Church" Skinner's favorite song and a ballad for his recently deceased father with vocals by Laura Vane, and The Wayne Hart Singers. Despite or because of the material, Skinner broke new sales records for himself in America and since then the ever-reclusive Skinner has found some measure of peace.
Skinner's fourth album will be called Everything Is Borrowed, and started out as parables, he states. He also says he made a promise to himself to avoid referencing modern life without sacrificing his personal style. The album will have a "peaceful, positive vibe", Skinner has states, compared to the disturbing tracks on the prior album. Skinner has also said that a fifth and final The Streets record will be dark and futuristic.
In terms of side projects and a personal life, Skinner has a label The Beats and is working on some video projects for the web. He updates his MySpace.com profile regularly. Skinner also says he is a gadget freak. Skinner has epilepsy, beginning at age seven. He considers the disorder something that set him apart as a kid, forcing him to be less social throughout the period and turning his attention to music.
In closing, the final chapter is not written on the literary, artful dodger of UK Hip Hop known as Mike Skinner and his group The Streets. While his middle-class, urban life was the subject of his early work, Skinner proved so deft at describing it that he was set apart from it. The fame and fortune attendant with the smash success of Original Pirate Material and A Grand Don't Come Free introduced Skinner to the posh world of hard drugs, fast women and even faster cars. It was the exact type of material that his early work eschewed. The same quest for authenticity that had Skinner rapping about returning DVDs, forced him in The Hardest Way to confront his addictions, his male chauvinism, grief, and discontent with his own success. The album ends with him yelling at his own audience, a sentiment returned in kind by some critics. However, career tracks like "Has It Come To This", "Fit But You Know It", "Dry Your Eyes", "Never Went to Church", and countless other Skinner productions clearly represent the voice of a once-voiceless majority in 21st century Hip hop. In 2008 he released Everything Is Borrowed, followed by Cyberspace And Reds and Computers and Blues, both in 2011.