When Mike Skinner composed the masterful album Original Pirate Material under the moniker The Streets, it was a watershed moment for young, British, Caucasian, hip-hop enthusiasts. With his homemade beats and laid-back, cor blimey rapping style, Skinner weaved a poetic spell on listeners, bringing them down with him to street level, leading everyone on a tour of his world, a world of Playstations, pot, booze, killing time with friends, and the honor of at least trying to transcend that mundane urban life, to find some sort of meaning amidst the boredom. A genuine, wryly funny, heartfelt, spot-on perfect commentary about life as a young man in Britain circa 2001/2002, and you had the feeling it was only a matter of time until the influx of similar-sounding artists rolled in.
Enter the next contender in what will likely be a whole slew of white English rappers, Audio Bullys. Hailing from the West London suburbs, the duo of producer Tom Dinsdale and vocalist Simon Franks have tried to bring their own version of Skinner's message across, but with a considerably different sound. The dub-meets-punk aesthetic (think "This Is Radio Clash") is still there, but the emphasis is less on current UK garage and two-step beats, and more on heavier, simpler beats and a handful of ace sample work thrown in as well. The band's official bio compares their sound to the Happy Mondays' "Wrote for Luck" and the Specials' "Too Much Too Young", and you definitely hear aspects of both songs on Audio Bullys' debut effort, Ego War; the dark, menacing house beats of the Happy Mondays and the exuberant ska feel mixed with menacing, confrontational lyrics that the Specials pulled off so brilliantly are both very noticeable on this new album. Ego War's extra dash of sonic intensity works so superbly at times, it masks the album's weaknesses well, and becomes the duo's saving grace.
"There's things I haven't told you / I come out late at night / And if I was to tell you / You'd see my different side," sneers Franks in his best Cockney accent, teasing and jeering the listener with his sing-song melody: "We don't care what you think / Cos in this world / It's swim or sink." Not the most clever thing anyone has written, but when it's bolstered by the pummeling beats that Dinsdale provides, including a scintillating, funkified breakbeat-style middle section, it's as infectious as any song you'll hear this summer. And if that weren't enough, Franks pulls off the best Shaun Ryder imitation we've heard in ages when he slurs, "Wot the faaaahhhck!" The dry "100 Million" is the closest thing to a Streets imitation on the album, with its simple synth line and Franks's interjection of a sloppily-sung chorus, not to mention the funny tale of being stoned in front of one's mother ("Still had a joint so I puffed / Shouldn't have, cos it got me stonnnned / And my mum just moaned / "Simon, it's time to get a job / You're 20 years old and you're living like a slob"). Album opener "Snake" boasts both a sinister synth line and a contagious, head-bobbing beat, along with some ominous lyrics from Franks ("Got this feeling in my head / Won't go away, no"), while "Ego War" has a killer, ska-infused beat, while Franks serves up a simple lyrical pastiche of street life "Heaven hell and drugs to sell / Suburban ego war."
Unfortunately, that's pretty much as strong as Franks gets on the album. He's not trying to imitate Skinner, and tries to create his own style, but it's impossible to wonder how good Ego War would have been with an especially clever lyricist working with Dinsdale's phenomenal beats. Instead, we're stuck with a few songs that get painfully bland and banal; in "Real Life", for example, Franks says, "It don't matter who you know / Cos this is real life," but that's basically all he says, he doesn't elaborate. It's like being told a story by an inarticulate pothead, and the song becomes an interminable bore.
In the end, though, Dinsdale comes to the rescue more often than not, and makes the album's annoying bumps like "Real Life" and "I Go to Your House" seem more tolerable. "Way Too Long" is only just over two minutes long, but it's a spectacular single; as Franks tells the tale of a dude in serious money trouble, Dinsdale drops a jaw-dropping sample of a tiny little guitar lick from Elvis Costello's "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea". It's mesmerizing. Meanwhile, the instrumental "Face in the Cloud" is built entirely around one single line from Joe Cocker's old tune "Marjorine", and Dinsdale takes center stage, weaving that sample in and out of a cool, garagey beat and quirky piano lick. "Hit the Ceiling" is a great dance tune that utilizes snippets from Level 42's 1987 song "Runnin' in the Family".
Ego War is all over the place musically: there are the Skinner-esque minimalist hip-hop tracks, thunderous, in your face anthems, and smooth house tracks, but it's the latter style that really shows Audio Bullys' potential, something that you hear instantly on "The Snow". Over a slick, danceable, hi-hat accented beat, Dinsdale throws in a two-bar horns sample that provides the songs primary riff, and Franks's vocals are less thuggish, and actually take on a smoother, Ian Brown quality. Audio Bullys might lack the poetic insight that could make their music especially great, but it's the sublime moments like "The Snow" that make the album a fun one.