October 19, 2012 by Johnathan Guest
The genre U.K. garage (rhymes with carriage when using the British pronunciation) came about through the introduction of Chicago house music in London in the early 1990s. Soon it became house’s restless younger cousin, with faster tempos and skipping rhythms. The genre has since been warped and succeeded by offshoots such as Grime, 2-step and dubstep, but in the late ’90s, U.K. garage was a strange mix of commercial relevance and underground presence. Garage duo The Artful Dodger had four top-10 hits in the span of two years but also released several mixtapes around that time. One of the artists featured on those mixtapes was The Streets. The garage and hip-hop project led by Mike Skinner was a little late to the London scene but quickly became its biggest star with his debut album, “Original Pirate Material,” released in the U.K. in March 2002 (the U.S. release wasn’t until that October).In the late ’90s and early 2000s, U.K. garage and its offshoots had reached their commercial peak and were becoming stale. The genre had its roots in nightclubs and mostly stuck to that subject matter. At the same time, it had been mixed with U.S.-style hip-hop, but the two elements had not gelled. From the get-go, Skinner took a much different tact. To start, he spent most of the ’90s moving to and from London trying to get his big break. Skinner had plenty of experience as a struggling inner-city musician during this time, attempting to form a record label while working at fast-food restaurants. In 2001, Locked On Records discovered Skinner through pirate radio and released “Has It Come to This?” on the label. The song is far from typical U.K. garage; instead of partying, Skinner reflected on the decaying urban neighborhoods and related lifestyle that he inhabited. A somber, twinkling electric piano line and sudden bursts of chopped vocals make the backing track both reserved and cinematic. The music media — most notably the famous U.K. magazine NME — quickly hailed The Streets as a great new arrival, and the hype began to build.
Artists who find that their work is highly anticipated overnight usually do not live up to the hype. After all, one song does not make an artist great. Yet the hits kept coming, as three more singles (“Let’s Push Things Forward,” “Weak Become Heroes” and “Don’t Mug Yourself”) cracked the U.K. top 40. Now, no one could deny that The Streets were much more than a one-hit wonder. The Streets’ recording career would only last 10 years (Skinner officially retired the project last year), but it was immediately clear that he had found something refreshing and original. The first thing you notice about “Pirate Material” is the aforementioned musings and stories about “street” life. Sometimes Skinner is the protagonist or playing a character (Tim in “The Irony of it All”). Other times he is literally the streets, carefully observing and commenting on the crumbling surroundings. No matter the angle Skinner takes, it feels authentic and emotionally resonant. As a result, “Pirate Material” is sad, funny and triumphant all at once, displaying complicated emotions associated with his experiences as an inner-city youth. Of course Skinner parties, smokes weed and plays video games, but the grim reality of the streets always threatens to crush him.
Another factor in the greatness of “Pirate Material” is its stunning ability to incorporate elements of hip-hop into U.K. garage. To call Skinner a rapper is very misleading, especially in the stylized American sense of the word. He is not charismatic or boastful, nor does his phrasing particularly follow his beats. Instead, Skinner takes a conversational tone and runs with it, creating his unique take on rap and beat poetry where every guy is a “geezer” and every girl is a “bird.” Many hip-hop fans are probably scoffing at that idea right now, but his style grows on you. It helps that his down-to-earth lyricism and recognizable sound — in part due to the do-it-yourself nature of “Pirate Material” — give the listener something to latch on to. Finally, the percussive Garage beats and elegant piano lines or string swells (“Weak” and “Turn the Page,” respectively) give Skinner a wonderful foundation that was quite unique for its time. As a whole, the album is electrifying 10 years later and stands as Skinner’s quintessential statement. As “Let’s Push Things Forward” suggests, he was going all out with “Pirate Material,” pushing the boundaries of his genre with great success.