Counterbalance: The Streets - Original Pirate Material
Geezers need excitement. If their lives don't provide them this they incite violence. Common sense. Simple common sense. So here's the very exciting UK hip-hop debut of the Streets. An early aughts phenomenon is this week's Counterbalance.
Mendelsohn: There are two things I find odd about the Great List. One, the lack of hip-hop. I’m not going to get into it -- the rockist nature of the Canon is what it is and will change slowly over time. I get that. Two, I’m a dumb Yankee and finding the odd record that only made it in the UK sitting near the top of the Great List always catches me off guard. It was weird and exhilarating to find Massive Attack and Portishead in the Top 100. On the flip side, there are also two Oasis records in the Top 100. Sometimes the UK giveth. Sometimes the UK shouldn’t have.
What’s the point? How about a hip hop record from the UK, sitting at no. 189 -- The Streets’ Original Pirate Material This is weird and exhilarating, Klinger. A hip-hop record, from the UK that got almost no play in America, camped out in the Top 200. I’m ecstatic. Back in my younger days I was a bit of an obscurest wanker and snapped this record up when it hit stateside in the fall of 2002. I was impressed by the East Coast hip-hop filtered through the driving garage beats. Mike Skinner, the man behind the moniker, had a way with words, painting vignettes of violence and humor from across the pond, offering a quick link to a world nearly identical to mine. I still enjoy the record. It doesn’t have nearly the same pull it did a decade ago, but then neither do I. What do you think? Are you going to be a stand up geezer or are we going to get paralytic and fight?
Klinger: Yes, I am a stand up geezer when it comes to Original Pirate Material. I wasn't terribly familiar with Mike Skinner's oeuvre apart from a few tracks I heard back in 2003 or so. (I will say that even though I wasn't following the others onto smack that year, "Stay Positive" was in heavy rotation in my car as I was going through a divorce.) So really paying attention to this record in its entirety was an enlightening experience.
Listening to this album is a bit like being plunked into a Zadie Smith novel. That's a compliment, so bear with me. Much in the way that Smith at her best can get inside the head of a seemingly endless array of characters, Skinner seems to embody every role he's playing here, from the back and forth between lout Terry and weedhead Tim in "The Irony of It All" to the yob philosopher in "Geezers Need Excitement". Even though I get the sense that Skinner is a far piece smarter than most of the fellows he gives voice to, he convinces you that he fully gets them, and in the process he reveals their humanity.
Mendelsohn: And that is the real strength of this record. It’s a snap shot of a certain English social scene in the early 2000s, but Skinner is such an adept story teller that the cultural ephemera falls away to reveal a universal truth about being young and dumb. This record is fun and serious — tongue-in-cheek while addressing the social ills plaguing society. It’s a fine line to walk but Skinner treads it with ease and, as you noted, that points to a level of intelligence far beyond his contemporaries. He understands the perils of youth, the uncertainty that drives his peers to drink to excess and fight in an effort to feel in control of the situation even if they are completely out of control, and he mines that for all its worth. Original Pirate Material isn’t all drinking and fighting, although alcohol certainly has a starring role. “It’s Too Late" is an excellent narrative of a failing relationship. “Stay Positive” is a rallying cry for the young and disaffected, the main character studies of this album, to move beyond the perils of reality without chemical supplements. And, my personal favorite, “Let’s Push Things Forward", a classic, braggadocio-fueled rant, tempered by Skinner’s unflinching self-awareness.
I am a bit surprised by your enthusiasm for this record. Original Pirate Material has a very distinct sound, thanks to the driving garage beats, which are a slower, choppier version of jungle/drum ’n’ bass electronica that has roots in dub reggae. Being that it is a bit obscure, having faded from public mind in favor for the newest electronica flavors, I was a little worried that you might be put off by the beats. It can’t just be Skinner’s lyrical prowess propping up this album’s ranking, can it?
Klinger: I'm on record as not knowing much of anything about the latest flavors of electronicas, and I'm also on record as not being too overly concerned about that fact. You could be telling me that this record is hypnotech with elements of mumblebop mixed in and I'd just not my head at you and order another beer. But yes, it is Skinner's presence on the record that makes Original Pirate Material for me. Like I said earlier, he has a writerly ear for dialog, making it hard to say just how immersed he is in the milieu he's chronicling — my best guess is that he's been inside enough to know what's really going on, outside enough to be able to recognize it for what it is (and be able to write about it).
The danger in being able to write so well about the folly of youth, though, is that eventually you have to grow up. The Streets' albums have been generally well-received by critics over the years, but only this and his follow-up, A Grand Don't Come for Free, are found on the Great List (the latter sits at a respectable No. 520). Is it possible that Skinner is something of a victim of his own skill set? While we may respect him as an artist, are we less likely to allow him to capture our imagination and follow him into adulthood? Are we enshrining Original Pirate Material as a part of our youth (or your youth, anyway — I was in my thirties when this record came out.)?
Mendelsohn: Pop music is the folly of the youth — be it rock and roll or hip hop, it’s a game for the young. No one wants to listen to a record about paying mortgages, climbing the corporate ladder or changing diapers. But no matter what point you might be in life, we can all relate to being young, we all understand the uncertainty and fierce drive to do something — anything — that might help us make sense of the world. It is this rallying cry that both the listener and the critic understand and why we see so many young bands hit high on the Great List with an amazing debut but suffer from diminishing returns as the musicians grow older. Some artists can only capitalize on that visceral feeling of being young and dumb. Some bands can transcend and address the human condition on a much broader level that isn’t dependent on telling stories of unmitigated risk that comes with being young and dumb.
The Streets wasn’t able to transcend the baseness of youth. It is surprising, really, because Skinner has an incredibly keen insight into what makes us tick. He nearly sums it all up in “Weak Become Heroes,” as he acknowledges the pull of being young but then seems to grow up and draw the line that connects all of us as his youth starts to slip away from him. If anyone could have made an extended run at the Canon, it should have been him. Maybe he lost the thread, maybe the public’s tastes just changed as garage beats lost out to the next new electro hypnobop. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. The Streets’ Original Pirate Material was able to capture a slice of time and allowed all of us to relish in the folly of youth again, if only for a brief time.