Music

Mike Skinner's Blues: Traversing The Streets of Anglo-America

Iain Ellis

Noticeably absent from Streets stories are the guns, bling, fast cars and ho's that so many American rappers invoke to establish their credentials. Where U.S. rappers emulate the fast-paced content of American action films, The Streets is more in tune with the Mike Leigh sensibility in his scenes of working class desperation and blank nothingness.

The 00's have seen few British alternative acts crossing the Atlantic to much U.S. success. Besides Franz Ferdinand, The Darkness, and The Libertines, U.S. critics and consumers have largely resisted recent U.K. rock exports. Furthermore, the outlook suggests no burgeoning British invasion on the horizon. Despite such States-side resistance (or paucity of attractive British output), one upstart English artist has managed to carve out a niche in the hearts and minds of certain American musical constituencies: The Streets. The Streets is Mike Skinner and Mike Skinner is The Streets, a 1-man band with 2 critically acclaimed albums in the last 3 years. The success, popularity, and appeal of The Streets have been broad and passionate on both sides of the Atlantic, though in often very different ways. To many in Britain, The Streets' quasi-rap style makes him an American-inflected artist, whilst in the U.S. he is perceived as the embodiment of the cheeky, sarcy, Cockney wide-boy. Critic Roland White quipped that he's "more chip shop than hip hop".

The variable perceptions of The Streets are not only geographically-based, either. Along gender lines, many see a quintessential lad expressing the everyboy stories of other typical urban working class youth. Conversely, others have gravitated to the emotional, vulnerable components of his narrative sagas, recognizing a sensitivity and "male femininity" of the Nick Hornby school. Along lines of race, generation, social class, and genre, one further recognizes schisms and dichotomous readings; Skinner performs a black-dominant musical style to a largely white demographic; he is hailed as the "latest voice of a generation" (Hugh Porter), yet is revered by ageing rock critics and fans; his milieu is the urban working class but his audience is predominantly suburban middle class. So, will the real Mike Skinner please stand up?

Though apparently an indeterminate figure, Skinner/Streets is not so much a schizoid-polarizer as he is an artist who embraces opposites, or at least oscillates between meaning sites. The success of The Streets has come not so much from meaning something, as from operating as an open signifier, accessible to divergent, negotiated, and sometimes contradictory readings. Skinner projects a semiology that is flexible and fluid; his sign language multiplies meanings rather than fixes them. Ironically, this gymnastic achievement of being many things to many people arises from the very fundamental simplicity of his art. Like the blues, The Streets writes simple, direct tales, candid everyman stories that speak variously to the primitive soul in us all. Skinner's Brit-hop blues have enabled him to do what few contemporary British acts have been able to do: traverse between the U.K. and U.S., touching myriad facets of reception by transgressing the borders of our expectations and experiences.

Skinner was born and raised in Birmingham, England, a bland industrial metropolis in the midlands, distinguished by its "spaghetti junction," a tangle of highways that float up and around the city's concrete skyscrapers. He grew up in what he calls the "Barratt class," a reference to the British house building company responsible for his era's wave of homogenized low-cost satellite estates; neither rigidly lower or middle class. Such housing has been largely inhabited by young, upwardly-mobile working class families.

The story goes that, as a youth, Skinner felt debilitated by the parochial constraints of British suburbia, a condition that helped foster an imaginary America of the mind. For his generation, the magnetic musical other was rap. His musical interests started inauspiciously with some keyboard doodling at the age of 5, but by his early teens his bedroom had been transformed into what he called "rap central," complete with 4-track recorder and closet-as-microphone booth. Soon, school studies took a backseat to an emerging passion for U.S. rap music, and Mike and his mates indulged their American fantasies, reconstructing their own versions of De La Soul, Tone Loc, and the Beastie Boys. As he matured into his late teens, Skinner came to recognize his wanna-be efforts as dead-end streets; why make second rate versions of second-hand music, he mused, when you can bring your own experiences and cultural roots to the songwriting? Sensing the possibilities of a new style and mired in a no-hope job at Marks and Spencers, Skinner fled England for Australia in pursuit of a lost girlfriend. Given space and distance from his old ways, particularly from the expectations of the formulaic London alt-music establishment, Skinner began to envision a more personalized musical approach, one that would reflect his passion for U.S. rap and U.K. garage, but would be beholden to neither. As might befit the Skinner blues, he was ultimately unable to retrieve the girlfriend, but returned to England with the clarity to fulfill his musical mission.

Outflanking British rock culture's historic love/hate (either/or) attitudes to U.S. hip-hop culture, Skinner journeyed above the fray, taking a path not previously traveled: he created what critic Grant Moser called "a parallel universe" to American rap, one as much characterized by British ingredients (accent, dialect, stories, beats) as by U.S. rap conventions. Just as, in 1976, many perceived the Sex Pistols as bastard offspring to The Stooges and The Ramones, so one came to see a genealogical connection to rap, but clear geographical distinction, in The Streets' initial offerings. Those early releases culminated in the release of the debut album, Original Pirate Material, in 2002, and its sophomore follow-up, A Grand Don't Come For Free, in 2004. Both albums have enjoyed transatlantic critical praise, plus steady commercial success thanks to the radio and MTV exposure afforded their core singles, "Let's Push Things Forward," "Fit But You Know It," and "Dry Your Eyes." The latter hit number 1 on the U.K. charts in July, 2004, and has also been a staple of U.S. college radio. Despite his media inaccessibility (rarely giving interviews or attending awards ceremonies), and tagged as something of a square peg in a round hole when it comes to stylistic categorization ("I've never been able to fit into a genre," says Skinner), The Streets is fast-emerging as a phenomenon in contemporary alternative music: Anglo-American in identity and genre-deconstructing in artistry.

In some respects it is remarkable that there have been so few recent artists embodying both Anglo and American features. Historically, the success of groundbreaking British bands in the U.S. has been based largely on how effectively they have incorporated the latter's facets and features, whether Cliff Richard in the '50s, The Beatles and Stones in the '60s, Led Zeppelin and The Clash in the '70s, or U2 in the post-'80s. At the geo-political level, observers have long spoken of the U.K.-U.S. "special relationship," and (less positively) as the U.K. being the 51st state of America. Indeed, a cursory glance down any British city or town high street would reveal a plethora of American-identified shops, clothing styles, and advertising billboards for American TV films, and music. The Streets captures this Anglo-American psycho-geography. "It's Maccy D's or KFC," he says in "Weak Become Heroes," marking his Brit-slang onto the American fast food options of Anglo-kids living an Americanized reality. This transatlantic argot is a natural development, born of a British youth growing up under economic imperialism, no longer homegrown, but U.S. corporate. The musical by-products are becoming visible in a new internationalized vanguard fore fronted by The Streets, and followed from the underground by newcomers like Dizzee Rascal and M.I.A.

If the momentum of The Streets should continue, an assist must be given to media critics on both sides of the Atlantic, whether from the music magazines and journals or the "serious" newspaper dailies. Few artists in recent years have received the sweeping critical acclaim that has befallen The Streets, and much has come from unlikely sources. In both the U.K. and U.S., the rock music weeklies were quick to recognize Skinner's fresh innovations, N.M.E. voting Original Pirate Material its number 3 album of the year and Rolling Stone crowning it number 1 debut album in 2002. U.S.A. Today and Entertainment Weekly both placed it in their top 5 albums of the year, and less predictably, newspapers such as the New York Times, The Independent, and The Guardian have been similarly enthusiastic in their Streets features. The latter hailed Original Pirate Material as the second coming of Never Mind the Bollocks and Freewheelin'. Intellectual art critics everywhere have been liberal in their use of the "p" word, as they have gushed with hyperbolic glee over Mike Skinner's poetic penmanship. Indeed, in their enthusiasm to jump on The Streets bandwagon, one cannot help but see a critical anxiety in the media's determination not to miss the next pioneering "taste maker". So, one might forgive these critics for invoking comparisons to Bob Dylan, though their references to Dickens, Dostoevsky, Chaucer, and Samuel Pepys takes some citation stretching.

Less likely to trace such literary touchstones, general listening audiences have likewise enthused over Skinner's brand of provocative Brit-hop. Rap music has never been received without skepticism in the U.K., and its indigenous scene has long been beneath the critical and consumer radar; however, Streets songs have garnered strong commercial popularity across a demographic that spans race, gender, and generation. A Grand Don't Come For Free entered the U.K. charts at number 2 and its break-up ballad, "Dry Your Eyes," was the summer blockbuster of 2004. Though less receptive to Skinner's garbled rap grammar, more purist U.S. audiences have warmed to him, though within a more particular demographic. Whereas un-schooled Brit buyers see The Streets as rap, in the U.S. he is regarded more as an alternative rock act. Consequently, the principle outlet for The Streets has been college radio, and occasionally MTV 2, and the constituency that has embraced him has been "White college kids raised on rap but more comfy with the underdog pinings of post-punk rock," claims Newsweek's Lorraine Ali. One further perceives a more specific anglophile element to U.S. advocates, one that finds a quaint romanticism in Skinner's essential Englishness, which, when fused with hip hop familiarity, arrives States-side in the form of "some exotic distant cousin," as critic Hugh Porter has postulated.

The unfamiliar is rarely understood immediately; often, an innovative artist will appear alien to the ears, and his/her new language will take time to decipher, the utterances time to translate. One might consider how strange the Sex Pistols first sounded before the contexts for their music became apparent. The Streets is such an artist, peculiar on initial listenings, but soon recognizable as embodying familiar sources. As the fog has cleared on The Streets, he can be seen in a clearer light, as a postmodern amalgam of many previous influences, though paradoxically distinct from them all. The Streets does not so much fit a category as he does locate himself as the "distant cousin" of many simultaneously. One hears certain British traditions in his parochial working class vocal styling, self-deprecating wit, and bleak scenarios: from British music (Blur, Pulp, Squeeze, Ian Dury); from British humorists (John Cooper Clarke, Jilted John); from British drama (Mike Leigh, Guy Richie, and 50's Kitchen Sink Drama films); from British literature (Irvine Welsh, Nick Hornby). From these traces, Skinner has carved out his own "slice of life" lyrical tales, ones pertinent to the alienated beat-boys of Blair's Britain: full of aimless anger, drug dependence/withdrawal, and an expressive inarticulateness of inertia. As such, some have connected The Streets' sagas to punk's minimalist tales of boredom and self-destruction. However, in Streets songs, apathy succeeds punk's rage and the mundane is stripped bare of any socio-political connotations.

The Streets' brand of nothingness also has antecedents that take us back to U.S. territory and its own artistic traditions. At the macro-level of his narratives, The Streets shares much in common with the 1990's Generation X movement, a U.S. "slacker" equivalent to the U.K.'s "chemical generation." Its voluntary escapism and depoliticized entropy are found in Douglas Coupland's novels, Seattle grunge music, and movies like Singles and Slacker. At the more micro-level of Skinner's rhetoric, his penchant for the throwaway detail, a sign couched in a broader context of nihilism, suggests writers such as Charles Bukowski, or even comedians like Jerry Seinfeld. The Streets' perennial couch/T.V. slumming and details of distracted banalities, such as peeling labels off of beer bottles (a practice on both albums), evokes the minimalist aesthetics and wry humor of these American artists.

In the context of contemporary music culture, The Streets is most often compared to Eminem. Besides the convenient connections of being white, hip rebel-rappers within a predominantly black genre, both have been extolled by high and low-brow critics alike as wordsmiths of wit and imagination. And though Skinner lacks the rage and gangsta affectations central to Eminem's oeuvre, both artists have shown their ability to transcend boundaries of style and reception. Besides garnering praise from critics of all stripes, each has appeal beyond geographical, racial, generational, and gendered borders, despite the fact that both artists have molded their respective personas in terms of regional, white, young male identity. It is this capacity to elude definition at the level of projection and reception that makes The Streets one of the more enigmatic of recent alternative artists.

The heartbeat of The Streets is an everyman reach and appeal rooted in narrative candor. His tales of love, loss, deceit, cruelty, pain and manipulation are made bearable by their instrument of delivery: self-effacing humor. Ever the unreliable narrator, Mike the character is never the jack-the-lad he thinks he is, and his fated misery is only matched by the pleasure we derive in our empathetic recognition of his naïve blunders. He emerges from his financial, female, and friend melodramas in fetal position, alive, but without epiphanies or maturation. His pseudo-philosophical mood in "Empty Cans," at the conclusion of Grand, is excruciatingly hilarious in its self-delusion and defensiveness: "No-one's really there fighting for you in the last garrison/No-one except you that is," Mike the character bemoans. And in case we don't fully realize how little Mike the character has learned, Mike the writer has his character switch back to his mundane haze in no time with "My jeans feel a bit tight/ Think I washed them a bit high". This telling, humdrum detail offers a lovely touch of comedic juxtaposition and reveals his broader thematic terrains of male egotism and arrested adolescence.

Noticeably absent from Streets stories are the guns, bling, fast cars and ho's that so many American rappers invoke to establish their credentials. Where U.S. rappers emulate the fast-paced content of American action films, The Streets is more in tune with the Mike Leigh sensibility, in his scenes of working class desperation and blank nothingness. In "Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way," Mike the character eschews the adventures of going to the pub with his mates to "flip some beer mats." Instead, he says, "I sit here on the sofa….chatting shit….roaching a spliff watching the TV….eat my TV meal…. just sit here and chill". Early in his career, and early on his debut album, Skinner does venture into the US-patented genre of the "boast rap." In these opening songs, The Streets introduces himself to the world in bombastic, declarative style. But even here, Skinner brings a self-effacing humor to his boasts that ultimately deconstructs the form and its conventions of combative egotism. In "Turn the Page," the bravado of his own unveiling is riddled with quant Anglo-slang: "You can't do half/My crew laughs at yer rhubarb and custard verses". Later, he concedes with pride, "I produce this using only my bare wit". In "Sharp Darts," more tongue-in-cheek boasts are thrown out: "Shut up I'm the driver, you're the passenger….Ask yer girl to sing and she'll sing this….In 500 years they'll play this song in museums". Such lyrical content exudes a characteristically British wit, but one gaining further ironic bite from appearing within the US rap form, a genre defined by American urban dialects. As is so often the case with The Streets, it is his capacity to adeptly traverse Anglo-American poles that gives him his trickster guile and distinction.

At the heart of the trickster tradition, both in its European and African manifestations, are a dexterous independence and individuality, and an unwillingness to be pinned down and made sense of. The trickster is not only fluid and elusive in representation, but he multiplies his potential readings rather than eludes them. This has strong relevance to artistic identity in 2005 Anglo-America, with its multiculturalism, progressive integration, and postmodern fusions. White and black are not either/or propositions for the rock and roll trickster, whether in the U.S. or U.K. Elvis Presley, the white boy who stole the blues, navigated through the worlds of white country and black blues, not as dichotomous options, but as opportunities for synthesis and expansion. As John Leland says in his recent Hip: The History text, "What the white negro wants is not to be black but to be both." Eminem characterizes his own trickster race-maneuvers when he asks/exclaims, "How the fuck can I be white?" Mike Skinner, also, is the beneficiary and seeker of the "twoness" or "double consciousness" available in the racial flux that is contemporary popular culture. In the age of the sample, identity is just one more fragment thrown into the mix. And in the hands of the trickster, 1+1 exceeds 2, as a polyglot of images and expressions are spawned by the new center-less identity. A collaborator with black artists throughout his career, Skinner now heads his own label, The Beats, which hosts a roster of artists of various ethnic pluralities. Like Eminem, The Streets is an artist who doesn't try to be black, but easily incorporates aspects of multi-ethnic youth cultural expression without condescension.

The trickster is also, as the word suggests, skilled in image craftsmanship; he's a mask wearer, a self-server. This is apparent in all aspects of The Streets' image and identity. His aversion to critics' pigeon-holing is demonstrated by his sharp responses to media tags of "poet" ("It's a wank and it's arrogant"), "artist" ("I prefer craftsman"), and Grand as a "concept album" ("pretentious"). Skinner's preferred image lies, not surprisingly, in "geezer" territory. His nom-de-rap, The Streets, embodies the "keep it real" ethic of hip-hop culture, and the down-to-earth everyman/place nature of his subject matter. Underscored by his debut album, the title Original Pirate Material suggests the "noise thievery" of his trickster game, as well as the fresh air he intends to bring to "push things forward". The album's cover features an every-city tower block set against the dark night. It foreshadows the themes of working class alienation, loneliness, and boredom charted in the songs therein.

The original common man individualist image that keeps the categorizers at bay can also be witnessed in the unfamiliar vocal styling, the lo-fi production that grounds Streets music, and his less-than-glamorous live shows. Complementing his "grime" lyrics, Skinner raps with a learned laziness patently at odds with the disciplined flow of his U.S. counter-parts. He uses what one might call drunk-timing, a deconstructive delivery that calls attention to a conversational authenticity rather than a performative expertise, thus accentuating the words' meanings over the articulation. Moreover, just as punk anti-singing called attention to the formulaic constructions of mid-70's rock songs, so Skinner's anti-rapping reminds listeners of the D.I.Y. lure that marked hip-hop's original street energies. Skinner further strips the pomp out of rap's recent lush productions through his neo-Luddite lo-fi sampling, a combination of harsh 2-step beats and minimalist drops of raw musical fragments. Simplistic and barren, the musical landscape of Streets songs implicitly describes the characters and their antics within. Conversely, his rhythms are diverse, drawing from a range of urban genres: house, rap, garage, punk, ska, funk. The Streets' inter-textual postmodernism is thus back-to-basics in philosophy, whilst uncontained in its proliferation of styles that merely multiply through mutation.

Much of The Streets clearly reminds one of the ethics of the punk revolution, which sought to create the new by both pilfering the past and interring much of what it had become. This principle is playfully dramatized by The Streets' live performances, which have been few in number, but contentious in nature. The institutionalized rap performances of today are often comparable to Broadway shows, full of polished synchronized dancing and dazzling light displays. They reflect how far (away) hip-hop has traveled from its original streets. Again, the punk parallel is pertinent. Just as the original punk performances (whether at C.B.G.B.'s or the Nashville) deconstructed the stadium rock theatrics of the likes of Elton John, Yes, and Peter Frampton, so The Streets' bare-bones shows strike a sharp contrast to contemporary hip-hop showmanship. Most Streets shows consist of a drunk Skinner (and sidekick) stumbling through a brief set, periodically interspersed with insulting banter back and forth with the audience. Skinner calls these shows "a party element of my life," and regards them in general as "silly ego kicks". Though this attitude has not always endeared him to the paying punters, it bespeaks an unpretentious honesty and anti-elitist candor; it also symbolically erases the growing separation of artist and audience in rap shows, reflecting the everyman persona of the Streets' act.

The "bullshit detector" antenna that guides the 25-year-old Mike Skinner has led him quite a distance from his Brummie bedroom to Anglo-American hip celebrity. His seemingly universal critical acclaim continues to hold with Grand avoiding the sophomore jinx. Whether he will manage to maintain his persona of grounded authenticity as he rises up the ladder of success presents the perennial challenge that many alternative and hip hop artists have failed to overcome. However, my money is on the Anglo-American trickster, an adept maneuverer who is a lot smarter than he would either like to be seen or heard.

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