English Beat

For a rapper, Mike Skinner is awfully reticent. Coaxing an answer out of the English artist is like pulling teeth--which is ironic, given that his recent album is so lyrically thick that many critics seem to have overlooked the music entirely. Original Pirate Material, Skinner's debut recording as the Streets, is one of the wordier records to come along in ages, with the artist's thick accent plastered over every one of its 14 tracks. But speaking by phone from New York, where he's in town for his first-ever American press junket, he's about as talkative as a sullen teen-ager awaiting punishment in the principal's office.

Maybe his silence is a cultural thing. The 23-year-old's entire image is based on being stereotypically English, and from his room in the Chelsea Grand he sounds a bit like a fish out of water. Setting aside his ironing--yes, he not only likes his shirts ironed but also does it himself--Skinner offers this assessment of New York: "It's all right, a bit different to what I'm used to, really." And then silence. Asked how his previous night's pub crawl was, he musters the reply, "To be honest, I only stayed 'round for one drink. I went back to the hotel." One drink? This sober behavior from the artist who wrote the hilarious song "Too Much Brandy," featuring the rousing refrain, "Get fucked up with the boys"?

"I don't really know anyone out here, to be honest," demurs Skinner. "I tend to do it"--get fucked up, presumably--"on my own turf, on my own corner." And then silence again.

Since the dawn of rock and roll, performers have used the press to fine-tune their images. Maybe Skinner has plenty to say and only is holding back to reinforce his rep as an average guy. After a while, though, it becomes apparent that his reserve is genuine, more a matter of vague unease at finding himself off his own corner, combined, perhaps, with a particularly English incuriousness about anything not English. For anyone who loves Original Pirate Material, this realization is followed by a curious sinking feeling: The chance of the Streets succeeding stateside looks mighty slim--which is a shame, because Skinner's debut is one of the most exciting releases to reach these shores in a long time. Alternating between quick wit and deadpan melancholia, the record sidesteps dance culture's insider cul-de-sac with richly textured beats and an Anglocentric outlook that's unlike anything in hip-hop or electronica.

The Streets first appeared in 2001 with the single "Has It Come to This?" an instant anthem in England that combined Skinner's monotone voice-over with the "garage" style (a British-born hybrid of house, R&B and speedy reggae). In a nasal, Birmingham drawl, Skinner sketched a novel picture of inner-city England, one far removed from American thug life. "This is the day in the life of a geezer [everyman]," rapped Skinner. "Videos, televisions, 64s, PlayStations...a few herbs and a bit o' Benson." The tune was a salute to the underemployed youth of urban England, and a lower-middle-class take on rap and garage. Where the latter culture had been growing increasingly obsessed with the most gaudy trappings of hip-hop--diamond jewelry, Cristal champagne, fast cars and gang violence--Skinner's quotidian focus reclaimed the art form for regular Joes too poor for a proper night out. His heroes and his audience alike were the everyday blokes you'd find scarfing down greasy chips or rolling spliffs in a government-subsidized flat.

When the full-length Original Pirate Material appeared early this year, it worked with the same topics--Skinner and his mates going out for pints and kebabs, smoking weed, mastering Gran Turismo and discussing the starlet Gail Porter. British music magazine NME declared Skinner "the English Eminem," but that was hardly accurate, considering how Skinner raps about women with a lovesick earnestness, remarking, "'Round here we say 'birds,' not 'bitches.'"

When asked about the Eminem reference, he blows it off with characteristic understatement. "I don't think I am [like him], really. I just think it's that I'm quite lairy [rowdy] and I speak my mind. Eminem's the other person who does that people would know about."

In fact, the comparison makes no sense. The track "Geezers Need Excitement" might sound tough, but the narrator walks away from a fight rather than inviting the "Jackie Chan scene it could've been." Instead of hotheaded hooliganism, Skinner offers cool pacifism.

Still, the rapper does echo Eminem in the way he brings class politics to the music. (Given that garage is considered "black music" in England, one might find another parallel as well, but Skinner downplays any racial politics, claiming garage's mixture of whites, blacks and Asians is more integrated than the hip-hop world.) But despite the grainy image of council flats on the cover of Original Pirate Material, Skinner isn't from the projects; he describes himself as "like lower middle class," having grown up in humble tract homes.

"There's a fair amount of grime where I'm from, but I didn't come from a household where I had to fight for food on my table," Skinner says. "But I wouldn't ever want anyone to think that I'm coming out like I'm saying, 'I'm this grimy bastard,' you know?"

His mother works in a hospital and his father is a retired salesman, but there's little talk of jobs anywhere in Skinner's music, lending it an air of Thatcher's England, when every punk was on the dole. Skinner, who worked in a mail room packing envelopes before his career took off, denies that there's a political edge to his music. "A lot of people do read political stuff into it. But, um, I don't really. I don't really know a lot about politics." Still, there's no denying the sociological bent of his poetry: Less polemical than, say, Black Flag's classic "TV Party," Skinner's songs nevertheless offer a detached portrait of a dead-end culture.

Not just lyrically but also musically, Original Pirate Material seems almost unprecedented. At first the Streets' tracks sound curiously thinned out, especially compared with the full-spectrum sweep of club-oriented garage. But Skinner's bedroom-produced beats and keyboard string parts carry a surprising emotional punch; in ignoring the trends set by big-time producers like Timbaland and the Neptunes, he's created a profoundly original fusion of electronic soul and spoken word. Skinner's rapping is different as well: Instead of the Jamaican-inspired fast toasting of garage or the syncopated rhymes of hip-hop, he merely speaks in a pleasant, conversational tone, wrapping his syllables ever so slightly around the beats. The effect is a very white take on the traditional black music of the English and American inner cities, an assessment supported by Skinner's lush horn arrangements, reminiscent of the 2-tone ska movement of the early '80s.

"Has It Come to This?" reached No. 8 on the British pop charts. More astoundingly, Skinner and his album were nominated for 2002's prestigious Mercury Prize, awarded annually to a groundbreaking U.K. pop release. Even with these distinctions, the very English Original Pirate Material would've remained unknown stateside had Vice magazine not met with Atlantic Records about a potential line of Jackass-inspired DVDs. During that conference, the Vice team admonished Atlantic's A&R people for not releasing the Streets' album in the States (Atlantic's affiliate Warner UK owned the record's rights overseas), and the major-label reps suggested that Vice release it.

Despite a massive press push and the enthusiasm of writers and editors nationwide, it's debatable how well the LP will translate to an American public. Vice Records label manager Adam Shore is convinced that it's a sure bet. "The commercial marketplace is not waiting with their arms open," he concedes, "but with music in a dead-end state, especially dance music and [commercial] hip-hop, I think the real, open-minded music buyer, whether they're dance, hip-hop, indie or just someone who shops at [New York's] Other Music and [the Bay Area's] Amoeba, the person just searching for something new is going to find this record."

As for the CD's U.K. success, Skinner believes it's because "it could be anyone's life, really; that's why it's so powerful in England." But for U.S. listeners, Skinner isn't so sanguine. "I don't think Americans really want to hear an English bloke talking about English stuff," he says. "But it's good fun coming over here and getting a free flight."