Mike Skinner’s impact on British hip-hop cannot be ignored, and his influence on UK pop culture exports still reverberates throughout the country like the skittish beats and murky basslines that first broke him out of Birmingham.
Releasing five albums in just under a decade as The Streets, Skinner took UK hip-hop from virtual obscurity, and brought it to the world stage. At a time when British rappers were using American accents to blend in and American hip-hop concentrated on breakbeats and 70’s soul samples, The Streets approached the genre in a radically different way, rapping instead over UK garage. A sect of electronic music characterised by manipulated vocal speeds, the anxiety-inducing stutter of cut-and-paste beats and the muddy sputter of maxed-out, low-end bass lines, the genre was localised to England and considered to be dance music, not hip-hop backbeats.
A multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and producer, Skinner rapped matter-of-factly, with a staggered cadence and a cool sexy swagger rhyming about day-to-day living, and later the occupational hazards and decadent detours along the path to fame. His songs were autobiographical, or so they seemed. And unlike the tough guy mentality that dominated hip-hop back in the USA, Skinner inserted introspective tales of insecurities and indecision. He was refreshingly fallible and that, along with the beats he sang over, made his unique brand of hip-hop universally accessible, while remaining remarkably exotic to the rest of the world.
Skinner discontinued The Streets back in 2011 to work on a movie—a movie that was eventually scrapped—later finding his niche as a touring DJ. Fast forward eight years, and The Streets are back for a handful of festival dates and an upcoming album, which will be a companion piece to a different movie Skinner is making—a movie about DJ’s.
Well, I guess we should start with why now? Why are you getting The Streets back together?
Well, I mean I really stopped doing the Streets because I wanted to do a film. But also, subconsciously, I didn’t really know what music I liked. Being a DJ really forces you to know what you like, and to really, really like what you like. Looking back, I got out of touch really. Being in nightclubs night after night really changes all of that and makes you have younger tastes I think. Well, not young, it just makes you passionate. But I stopped doing The Streets to do a film and I spent years putting it together and then not really knowing what I was going to do. Then one day I thought, ‘What do I know the best?’ And I had actually got to know DJing pretty well. So, I suddenly knew what I could write about. You have to know about what you’re writing about; those are the only times I’ve ever succeeded. Then it was obvious to make the movie into a musical. So, at the same time, I was really just trying to make stuff that sounded good. It’s very easy to know that when you DJ. The three or four songs that have become part of the story have all come about through that confidence. When you make something that isn’t good, it is instantly obvious. But when you make something that is good, it’s also instantly obvious. It kind of zaps your confidence in certain ways, but it also boosts your confidence when you get it right.
You’ve said why your music has changed, but how different is the sound of your new material from your early work?
I think it is all about understanding the nightclubs. When I started The Streets, it wasn’t about that at all because I never really went to nightclubs. I only listened to music in cars. That’s the main difference. I don’t think my voice has changed that much and I don’t think it’s possible to change that much, but it’s definitely more clubby, I think.
Your lyrics always had an autobiographical feel to them. Is that something we can still expect in the music you’re making now?
I’m about to finish my mixtape, which is sort of a ‘duets’ album really. I did it with everyone I could pull in that I think is really exciting. It’s all really new artists. Nightclubs aren’t very introspective, they tend to be more outward-looking. But that said, the music from the film that we are making will be out next year. I’ve finished that and that is more introspective because, even though it’s about DJ’s, it’s more in my head, you know? The mixtape is just that really. It’s a collaboration album and that will come out at the end of summer. The mixtape is just about having fun and The Streets album is a bit more introspective.
Do you want to talk a little bit about the movie?
Yeah, so it’s just me and I’m a DJ. The music is the voiceover if that makes sense. It’s not like La La Land where we start dancing around a lamppost, but maybe I could get to that. It’s really just about all the different DJ’s I know. It’s a very cynical story, a caper really, because you are very close to getting into different kinds of trouble. You’re walking into the backdoor of a nightclub in the middle of the night and it is what it is, you know? It’s kind of like ‘What could go wrong really?’
Do you prefer performing as a DJ to being on stage rapping?
I’d say it’s more creative, if that doesn’t sound a bit weird. When you’re singing all of your own songs, you’re just copying all of the songs you made when you were creative. That in itself is not creative. I have a bit of a complicated relationship with DJing. When it’s good, it is very creative, but it’s also very hard and it’s taught me a lot. It forces me to get into it emotionally because you have to really entertain people. To put it another way, they’re not really there to see you. Sometimes they are, sometimes they’re not. It’s hard work. I have a lot of respect.
Now that you are revisiting your music after all these years, do you feel your songs have aged well? Are you happy with how they’ve held up, or is it hard to sing these songs? Are they still relevant?
I mean, I definitely play the old songs. Well, they’re not old… I mean they are old… but that’s just what The Streets is. Just like being a DJ, I don’t believe in not giving people what they want. I mean, they don’t feel old. I think in the end, it’s music about being young and you’re performing for a mixture of people who are young and people who were young. I think I’m lucky because I think certain people are still drawing from that, and I’m trying to sort of enjoy that.
Tell me about the evolution of hip-hop in the UK. How has it changed over the years? When you started out, it seemed like it wasn’t something that was previously marketed to other parts of the globe, now it’s definitely on the worldwide stage.
I mean, it’s completely unrecognisable. It’s wild. It’s amazing. When I was young, when I was really young, people used to put on American accents and then that sort of changed. Then it was like, is this really dance music? Similar to Germany where you have guys who rap in German and guys who rap in English. It forces you to say, what is this guy really about? There was always that thing when I was younger, like ‘Maybe people from American might like this.’ No one was really being themselves because they couldn’t be. Whereas now, people are being themselves and all they care about is getting big in their area, and then maybe being big in the country, and maybe getting big in Europe and America. Now it’s sort of like its own self-fulfilling thing. It’s beautiful to watch.
Do you feel partly responsible for it happening?
I mean that would be great. It wasn’t something I was thinking about at the time. I could have just as easily chosen something other than music and gone and done that. I was very lucky. Sometimes it works to be young and stupid.