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Cheat Sheet: The Streets

Cheat Sheet is a regular feature of MIMO designed to give you the low-down on some of today’s hottest and most influential artists in hip-hop. In this edition, we give you the facts about The Streets.

Who: While still far from a major force in the hip-hop world, the United Kingdom has at least made strides toward closing the credibility gap, most of the credit for which can be laid on the shoulders of one Mike Skinner, a.k.a The Streets.

A native of Birmingham who began his hip-hop career after moving to London, Skinner built a reputation on the basis of his choppy, spoken-word flow and off-kilter sense of humor. With a cockney accent as thick as molasses and the lyrical sensibility of a perceptive soccer hooligan, Skinner helped to pioneer the hip-hop sub-genre of “grime”, along with fellow UK rapper Dizzee Rascal.

The Streets’ debut album, Original Pirate Material, dropped in 2001 to widespread critical acclaim. After a decade of working dead-end jobs and bumming around in London’s hip-hop underground, Skinner became an international star, a position to which he would prove uniquely suited.

A large part of The Streets’ appeal lay in Skinner’s snotty willingness to do whatever the f**k he wanted, whenever the f**k he wanted, both inside and out of his musical endeavors. In the years following Original Pirate Material, Skinner became notorious for his drunken, incoherent performances and combative public persona. After releasing two albums (A Grand Don’t Come for Free and The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living) that hewed close to the model set by Original Pirate Material, Skinner ditched his abrasive production and diary-mining lyrics for a bizarrely optimistic album that outlined his fuzzy, personal conception of metaphysics. Despite all odds, that album (2008’s Everything is Borrowed) met with further critical praise, and even though Skinner returned to a more abrasive production style on 2011’s Computers and Blues, a good deal of his positivist philosophy still persisted.

In a typically out-of-left-field maneuver, Skinner retired The Streets after Computers and Blues. He is currently peddling The Story of The Streets, a memoir that expands his storytelling abilities into a surprisingly capable book-length form.

 

The Sound: The Streets’ lyrics are so immediately distinctive that even when Skinner began monkeying with his production style, his singular flow kept the material instantly recognizable. Skinner has a slouching wit that allows him to mine humor and minute observations from subjects as diverse as UK racial politics, the merits of weed and the difficulties of returning an overdue video.

The Streets functions best when relying on the gritty, pounding production that typified Skinner’s formative years in the UK garage scene. But, as Everything is Borrowed amply proved, Skinner is able to make do with different tonal pallets as well.

 

Essential listening: The Streets’ first album remains his most well known and tracks such as “Has it Come to This?” and “Weak Become Heroes” still hold a place in the cultural lexicon. “The Irony of it All” still pops up from time to time, but it’s really more of a novelty track than anything else.

“The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living”, from the album of the same name, is a good example of Skinner’s mature period and “Everything is Borrowed” serves as a good introduction to his curious, late-period optimism.


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About the Author

on MUSIC IS MY OXYGEN WEEKLY.

Shane Danaher's affection for pop music has peppered his adult life with a variety of aesthetically rewarding and financially disastrous decisions. After moving to Portland, Oregon for college (because that's where he heard Modest Mouse was from) Shane has wound up participating in the music world in roles ranging from 'drummer' to 'promoter' to 'bathroom floor scrubber.' He has toured without money, written about almost every band ever to have come out of the Pacific Northwest, and one time traveled all the way to Los Angeles just to see a catch hip-hop show. He currently resides in Portland, where he writes about hip-hop, pop and rock music for a variety of publications. He still plays drums. He wants to meet Kanye West.

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