Ever since The Beatles checked out Chuck Berry and liked what they heard, our mates across the Atlantic have been jacking American sounds and making them their own. Twenty-two-year-old Brit Mike Skinner was weaned on, among other things, hip-hop minted stateside. At the same time, he was exposed to a native club scene. This intercontinental nexus of sounds makes Original Pirate Material, his debut as The Streets, riveting and completely unpredictable.
Skinner was young, coming of age in Birmingham, England, when his brother first played him the Beastie Boys and De La Soul. After that, he watched, and listened, as drum 'n' bass rose and fell, gave way to house, which evolved into garage and then, most recently, 2-step. His album is founded not only on these latter-day musical incarnations and amalgamations, but tellingly, on the reference points they were derived from: disco, punk, funk and reggae. It's clear, upon sifting through the record's notable influences, that Skinner is as attuned to the past as he is the future.
Original Pirate Material, while far from perfect, represents the moment when an artist takes all that's come before him, absorbing what he can as a student of the times, and re-imagines a combination of sounds completely correct and, until now, undone. Skinner gets it right with the appropriately titled "Let's Push Things Forward."
His release has been classified as garage or 2-step, but it's not that simple. About half the tracks are based on uptempo clickity-clack 2-step beats and R&B-influenced garage-style vocal loops. With the other half, Skinner deftly straddles drum 'n' bass, house, dub and, most importantly, hip-hop. Original Pirate Material might be composed of limbs salvaged from the detritus of disparate dance floors, but its surging blood can be traced back to ancestors like Run DMC and A Tribe Called Quest. Skinner's voice the one consistent link throughout his game of genre-leaping musical chairs tells the album's real story.
With his lispy, thickly accented monotone, no one can rightly declare that Skinner flows like a British Eminem. His delivery is more indebted to the Massive Attack school of spoken rap. Only in contrast to the Massives (who are always chilled out), Skinner is young, on the run. His intention's clearly stated on "Has It Come to This?," when he raps that it's the story of "a day in the life of a geezer" (a "geezer" = "everyman," "a bloke," according to Skinner). Original Pirate Material is not told from the back of a dark smoky club. Skinner and his characters have places to go, people to see. Listening to the album, you feel Skinner's restless energy.
The great thing about the hip-hop artists that influenced Skinner the reason the De Las and the Beasties remain cornerstones is that their rhymes, both real and surreal, are captivating. Their stories compel you to complete the journey started by pressing play or dropping the needle. Aside from suburban wannabes babysat by Carson Daly on TRL, and apparently The New Yorker's editors, who really cares about P. Diddy's triumphant, irrelevant, fairytales of Fashion Week and firearms? Skinner's made a point with his writing to ignore the "bling bling" lifestyle so celebrated by mainstream rappers and London's "ghetto fabulous" club kings. He doesn't drop lines about Gucci or "gats." It's not caviar and Courvoisier, but kabobs and Kronenbourgs.
He's kept it gritty, urban, street-level. In "Has It Come to This?" he raps: "If you don't know/ Stand on the corner/ Watch the show/ 'Cause life moves slow/ Sort your shit out then roll/ Sex, drugs and on the dole/ Some men rise, some men fall/ I hear your call/ Stand tall now."
As the album's tracks unfold fusing 2-step and dancehall on "Let's Push Things Forward," RZA-style strings and beats on "Geezers Need Excitement," straight drum 'n' bass with "Don't Mug Yourself" and house on "Weak Become Heroes," an exuberant ode to E and raving at 16 Skinner represents the sights as well as the sounds he encountered on his way to recording this debut.
Original Pirate Material was produced, for the most part, on a laptop at Skinner's mum's house. There's a visceral quality to the material, but the sharp production (check "It's Too Late," a distant cousin to Massive Attack's classic "Unfinished Sympathy") never betrays its modest origins. In the midst of its 14 tracks, there are a couple that, if taken on their own, would qualify as throwaways. But the way the album should be heard, as a whole, each piece works with the others. The city and its characters, portrayed as a vividly imagined jigsaw puzzle by an artist whose energy is charged from the ground up. A portrait, from a young man with a lot to say and a gift for taking the sounds that made him and making them his own.