| A testament on inner city culture delivered in a language the inner cities knows best, not since Grandmaster Flash's 'The Message' has a song define the nuances of a developing culture so well. What's possibly even more surprising is that this was constructed by a hip hop nut who spent most of his formative years in Birmingham, away from the bubbling pirate garage consciousness that has come to dominate the nightlife of the capital and slowly consolidate a presence in the charts. |
By the time he was nine, Mike Skinner knew he wanted to make records. Always a fan of keyboards, he'd spent his life since he was the age of five 'just fiddling' with keyboards. "No training or grades or anything," he says. "Just an intense, passionate fiddling."
Back then, he was tuning into the De La Soul and Beastie Boys records his brother owned, and by the time he was 15 was convinced that his future lay in some combination of fiddling and hip hop. So he bought an Amiga, built a vocal booth out of a cupboard and an old mattress, and turned his bedroom into 'rap central'. "It was good!" he laughs. "A good, dead sound. Everyone would came to put down their tracks."
Fortunately, his folks saw the positive side and didn't complain too much about the incessant thump upstairs the constant in-out of Brummie MCs through the front door. Soon, Mike diversified his interests and by the age of 18, was living and breathing house music and the early adventures of UK garage, then still referred to with the clumsy 'speed' prefix.
At 19, he went to Australia, taking a sampler with him, to work in bars for a year. By now you can probably appreciate why the sound of The Street's has about as much in common with 2001's generic garage output as Rolf Harris does with Masters At Work. "I've never been able to fit into a genre," Mike says. "My music is about the garage scene away from London. Mostly, garage is a club thing, a raving thing. For me, when I was in Brum, just after travelling, it was an in-car and at-home thing."
"We had clubs, yeah, but not the glamour thing of London; we didn't do the Spanish Holiday thing either. For me, so many people are too close to the scene and nobody's taken garage in a radically different direction."
Enter The Streets, then. Originally conceived as a posse project, when many his early consorts were interested in taking part; The Streets became Mike, and his gently voiced eye on the urban culture, since no one else could be bothered. As for the name, it came easily.
"It's such a good name," he says, "because it's just what you see wherever you go; It's just working-class England. It's not about trying to be ghetto; it's just normal for me. I never lived in block of flats but I wasn't born with silver spoon in my mouth either."
Mike might have directed garage away from its brash urban origins in the direction in more subtle, considered mindset, but hasn't done so at the expense of rocking the spot. The debut appearance of Has It Come to This was on the Stanton Warriors' superb Stanton Sessions' mix, paired up with Mr Reds body-rocking rave groove.
But still, as MCing quickly runs the number one activity of Britain's inner-city youth, the dazzling insights and vignettes of Has It Come To This will quickly establish Mike as garage's premier lyricist. "The natural inclination with a garage beat is to go really fast and chat over the top. But I wanted that laid-back New York sound. There were a few moments I got it really wrong. Now I got it right."
Bristling with lyrical hooks just begging to be sampled (there are just so many: 'original pirate material/lock down your aerial'; 'I'm giving your bird them feelings/touch your toes and touch the ceiling; 'come rains or snow the boodah flows/stand on the corner watch the show, cos life moves slow'; we walks the tight rope of street cred, keep my dogs fed/all jungle and garage heads') the track has, unsurprisingly, been bootlegged to bits already. But Mike's quite happy about that.
"I sample a lot" he says. "I grew up in the digital age and for me sampling is just like playing a guitar. If someone samples me, it's flattery. I take it as a compliment." Come the release of 'Original Pirate Material' there'll be 13 tracks of lyrical genius set to pirate beats and basslines, expanding and detailing Mike's unique perspective into garage's first fully-realised long-player. Forget the one-track-mind jiggycentric mix albums that are currently clogging up the record store racks. "What I do is more like a commentary," says Mike.
"There's going to be an divergence in garage - it's already splitting into street and club, and I think So Solid crew and Ms Dynamite are going in the same direction I am, turning it into our version of hip hop." So, do like it says on the track: make yourself at home, sit back on your throne, turn off your phone, cos this is our zone. "That's what the Streets is all about," Mike concludes. "If you left that behind, you know you'd miss it."