n recent years, both hip-hop and UK garage have developed a culture of duality. When the either/or dichotomy is actually ignored, the results are too often clumsy hybrids that wear their formulas so well that one can practically see the stitches. Even some inspired genre benders can still be summated by mathematical formula (e.g. Prefuse 73 is IDM + hip-hop).
The MC-led dark side of UK garage seemed at first a brave new world, but instead has cowardly aped American hip-hop. For all of its claims to be the voice of Souf London, its beats and rhymes arrived in Brixton via the Bronx. So Solid Crew -- London’s leading garage collective -- broke on the strength of a few brilliant singles, but on more recent releases the sound of these pirates isn’t the work of outsiders but plunderers.
Enter Mike Skinner, the 21-year-old Midlander who records as the Streets. Rather than defining genres, Skinner explores them, intersecting garage and hip-hop with rave, reggae, and even a twinge of bedsit indie. He connects the dots between styles rather than merely fusing them, performing in the spaces between and in the process creating a wholly unique sound.
Skinner’s Original Pirate Material isn’t inceptive but inventive, and he’s asking for the same from more of his contemporaries. “This ain’t a track / It’s a movement”, Skinner proclaims over breezy Specials-like horns on "Let’s Push Things Forward". On that track, he goes on to chide the monolithic habits of record buyers (“You say everything sounds the same / And then you go buy them”) and the tendency for fellow Brit MCs to xerox American flow, style, and slang (“Around here we say birds / Not bitches”).
The album’s primary strength is Skinner’s expert storytelling. His sharp, pointed observations show a keen eye for detail and a sharp wit -- most obviously when Skinner is sketching his own life. “My life’s been up and down / Since I walked from that crowd”, Skinner admits on the glorious nostalgia-resisting post-rave track “Weak Become Heroes”. Whether under the spell of E or sitting in a café, he knows that life oscillates between good and bad days but ultimately there are “No surprises, no treats / The world stands still as [his] mind sloshes around”.
And Skinner is right. For the most part, life is dull. It’s uneventful, but his take on a life on dancing, drinking, and screwing because there’s nothing else to do offers multiple surprises and treats in each tracks -- thanks in part to his willingness to admit his faults and take chances. Unlike most MCs, he flits between moments of confidence and vulnerability rather than maintaining a single personality -- just as well all do in our lives -- and does so convincingly. Still only 21, he’s comfortable challenging an entire industry behind the mic while sitting in his mother’s house -- where much of the album was recorded -- but outside his bedroom he needs advice from friends on how to deal to with a girl he recently met.
Ultimately, this is the sound of a guy stepping into adulthood with his eyes alternately wide, rolled, bloodshot, and staring at his shoes. On Original Pirate Material, Skinner combines the boy-next-door DIY of U.S. garage rock with the sound of U.K. garage and displays an alchemic ability to turn the humdrum of everyday life into a record that is at times empowering, hilarious, melancholy, awkward, and charming. With any luck, it’s not just an album but a movement.
Reviewed by: Scott Plagenhoef
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01