Mike Skinner: The Realist

Words: Sam Davies

The Streets was never a solo project. Mike Skinner is often thought of as a one-man band: he started The Streets in the early 2000s and recorded his debut album, Original Pirate Material, in his bedroom in Birmingham, stuffing his wardrobe with duvets and using it as a vocal booth. Over the next decade, four more Streets albums were released, all of them written and produced by Skinner.

But he was rarely the only voice. On 2002 single “Don’t Mug Yourself”, Skinner was counselled on how not to chirpse when hungover by his real-life mate, Calvin Bailey. 2004’s lairy pop hit “Fit But You Know It” featured Teddy Mitchell, one half of The Mitchell Brothers—a criminally overlooked rap duo signed to Skinner’s label, The Beats. The same was true of the next three Streets albums—which were less consistent but featured numerous gems—with vocalists such as Rob Harvey, Kevin Mark Trail and Sharlene Hector making guest appearances.

None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive, the first full-length Streets record since 2011 (though officially billed as a mixtape) features no fewer than thirteen other artists. Some are established names: Tame Impala, IDLES, Donae’O. Many are ascendant talents: Ms Banks, Jesse James, Dapz On The Map, Hak Baker—all artists who bear signs of having listened to The Streets growing up, and further proof that Skinner truly loves the UK rap scene. And it’s always loved him back: Bashy sampled “Blinded By The Lights” on his Chupa Chups mixtape; Kano’s described Original Pirate Material as possibly “the best album ever written”; Roll Deep, Jammer, Ghetts and D Double E have featured on official Streets remixes; and the influence of Skinner’s pubbish, quintessentially British lyricism can be heard everywhere from CASisDEAD to King Krule.

So our conversation, held over Zoom, was less about him and more about his unique perspective: on racism in music, transformations in rap, and London being hotter than New York (musically, of course).

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“Music’s always been the business of young rebellion. It’s a massive, multibillion dollar industry built off the back of a few years of youth rebellion.”

I’ve seen you describe the new record as both a mixtape and a duets album. Is it still about you?

It’s about me in the sense that I made it and I think the stuff I’m saying is good. But I realised at a point that people kinda wanna hear about themselves. I used to think that I was supposed to be honest, but probably my most honest music is my least popular… The mixtape thing was more for my benefit than anyone else’s. You have this weird thing where you’re stopping yourself overcomplicating it and I think calling it a mixtape helped me do that.

Did you have to be careful walking the line between giving opportunities to emerging artists and being a sort of musical magpie, choosing to work with whoever’s cool?

No. I don’t worry about that, at all. I also think, with this mixtape, it was fairly obvious who would be right for it and who wouldn’t. And the rest is just chaos, speaking to people and sort of accidentally ending up with songs. It sounds really cynical but I can’t really do a Streets song with a super, like, drill guy or…

—you did make that track with 67’s Dimzy, though.

Yeah, that’s a good point. Although that song, he reached out to me and we got to know each other a bit on a documentary that I made. And the song was a bit wider than the hardest-kid-in-the-school type stuff—which I love. I just don’t do it very well.

You’ve been around UK rap for 20 years now. What are the biggest differences between now and then?

It’s completely unrecognisable. Probably the most important element is that genuinely nobody has got America in their mind. I think if rappers were honest—and I was guilty of this before The Streets maybe—in the back of your mind, you were always thinking: “What would someone from America think of this?” And that is obviously not the way to go. Now it’s like, rappers like Aitch are really just thinking about maybe what people from London think, but probably what people from Blackburn think, or Liverpool, or Chester.

Did you ever feel like you were a top boy in UK rap?

Er, no. I think maybe people at the NME thought that, but I think I’m more of a thing in rap now than I ever was. Obviously, it’s based off what I’ve done before, but I’m much more conservatively accepted in rap—by rappers, by the rap world—based on my old music becoming accepted into what it’s OK to like, and also the collaborations that I’ve been doing now. I think rap is more conservative than people think.

Do you think the industry treated you differently because you were white?

Yeah, I think the society that served me and someone like Dizzee, yes—massive, massive difference. The music industry is led by numbers, really, isn’t it? Like, who are the kids loving at the moment? But I think as a white rapper—like, say, Aitch now—there’s a bigger audience in a way. Ultimately, it comes down to being compassionate, tryna have genuine empathy and trying to use the benefits of your thing to sustain rap in another way. But it comes with its own benefits and challenges.

Did Keith Lemon’s Craig David impersonations on Bo Selecta play a part?

I know people who really, really hated Keith Lemon for that. But I don’t think it put garage in a box.

It was modern-day minstrelism when you think of it.

Yeah, and Little Britain the same. We do censor history. We like to think we don’t but we sort of choose the bits we agree with from history. The racism bit is slightly different for me to the one where he basically turned Craig David into a joke. Which I think… There’s a racist element but it’s a slightly different thing. But I don’t think that killed garage. I think what kills all of these scenes is probably the greed of musicians more than anything. Because we’re so small, we jump the shark much quicker than, say, America. We just crack on with it; everyone starts getting No. 1 records, and then someone says: “You know what? This is actually shit.” It happened with dubstep and it happens with everything. I mean, there’s some pretty rubbish drill records now, which there weren’t really before.

Why do you think UK garage crashed and burned so spectacularly?

I think everything we come up with in this country crashes and burns. Because we’re such a small country, a new trend can come along in a year or two.

Did you ever have issues with police locking off your gigs, as has happened with black artists in drill, grime and garage?

No, no. I interviewed a few people about the [Form] 696 stuff… Actually, the closest I came to my gigs getting locked off was when I went onto a list after making the documentary about gigs getting locked off. Promoters were saying I was on this list, but it was never a problem for us.

You signed three acts to The Beats label: Example, Professor Green and The Mitchell Brothers. Is it a coincidence that the two white artists went on to mainstream success and the black artists didn’t?

Er… No, I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I think it’s important to say that both of them kinda went on to do something different, to a degree. I guess Pro Green less so. I think there’s probably a socioeconomic reason why Example and Green went on to success and The Mitchell Brothers didn’t. I think when you’re white, you are in the majority—culturally—and I think it would be easy to forget that in music because it’s so dominated by black culture. But I think it’s also worth saying that black music is performed by black people. We’re not at an Elvis point. Rock & roll was subverted and taken, in a way, from black people. But I do think the lesson was learnt there, across black society as a whole.

“I think Britain has systematically racist elements and yes, I don’t think it’s as bad as America and probably not even as bad as France, but it’s there, for sure.”

“Two Nations” seems a particularly relevant Streets song right now—is the UK rap scene better than the US at the moment?

I think London is hotter than New York, yes. Added up, I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but we’re definitely punching massively above our weight. I was watching the Akala thing last night and he was saying London is way less segregated along racial lines. If you look at garage, there was a really strong Turkish and Cypriot element coming from the pirate radios, which isn’t to say it isn’t black music, but it’s more of a mixed bag in this country. And in terms of violence, Americans are definitely learning that England isn’t all about drinking tea, that’s for sure.

It seems like for all the negative press around drill, it’s already the most popular rap sound we’ve ever produced…

I think the controversy is part of the same thing. Music’s always been the business of young rebellion. It’s a massive, multibillion dollar industry built off the back of a few years of youth rebellion. And that obviously doesn't answer everything about music, but it’s definitely the guiding force at all times. The controversies are what makes the music powerful, from punk to Amy Winehouse. You can’t have one without the other.

Speaking of controversy: what would you do if Wiley sent for you on Twitter?

I would feel like I’d arrived, to be honest. I think he’s absolutely fantastic. I mean corona[virus] probably hasn’t been his finest hour, but he’s… He’s just so honest. He says… No, I’m making him sound like some bon viveur—he’s just got no filter. Most of us are highly filtered and we hide the opinions that aren’t shared by everyone else. He doesn’t.

What if he dropped a diss track on you?

I don’t think I would make another song. Maybe I would, or I might mention it, but I’ve never been that into beef actually. I can see why it’s entertaining, but I’m competitive in a different way, I guess.

Have you been to any Black Lives Matter protests?

No. I sort of decided… It gave me a lot of resolve; it made me proud of things that I’ve done and it made me not proud of things. So, for instance I’ve been going up to Birmingham and putting together meetings for people like Despa, who manages Jaykae—I feel proud of that stuff. And then I don’t feel proud that we performed at Colston Hall, when Massive Attack were saying “we don’t play there”, because of Edward Colston being a slave owner. I guess I just thought, “What good could I do?”

Do you regret playing there now?

Yeah. Yeah, I do. I mean, I don’t think it would have necessarily changed anything but it would have made me feel a bit better. But now’s the time when finally people are saying, “No, let’s not have statues of slave owners in public places.” My relationship to black culture is a very long-term thing. I’m not gonna be short-term, personally, because I’m not really doing a lot for the environment. I’ve never been able to help the gay community significantly. So all those things I take as they come, on social media, whereas Black Lives Matter I think about in a much more long-term way, and this doesn’t really change that. I mean black business ownership, Birmingham, those are things that have always been on my mind.

Is the British music industry institutionally racist?

Er, I think systems are way more racist than people can be. And that’s the beautiful thing about now, that we’re finally starting to unpack that stuff. I think Britain has systematically racist elements and yes, I don’t think it’s as bad as America and probably not even as bad as France, but it’s there, for sure. Other people say it’s worse because it’s not so obvious and I think I agree with that as well. But music… You can look at it both ways. You can either say it reflects the racism, and it certainly does, but I think the idea that people need black people to be singing about violence and all those things, I think that’s driven by the market, because all musicians are really doing is reacting to what works. I think the music industry is pretty capitalist really, and so in that sense it’s colourblind, or just sees the green of money. So I think everybody has to navigate that.

But music’s become so decentralised now. The labels are still the only people that spend money—that’s an important thing to say; no one else spends money. So I don’t think they’re really going anywhere until someone else spends money. Secondly, if you look at something like rap, you’ve got these portals like GRM Daily, which are now record labels as well—it’s quite decentralised. So you haven’t got some guy in the office saying, “Oh we’ve spoken to radio and we think it could really…” Now a lot of music is kinda left to be what it is.

It’s a good time for UK rap, isn’t it?

It’s the best it’s ever been. People are making history with music right now and, hopefully, it will carry on. I mean, it doesn’t carry on—it never does—but hopefully, it will carry on for longer than it doesn’t. It’s still funded a lot by majors. When it was, like, Skepta and those people saying “we need to be more independent”—it’s slightly gone under the radar now, so people don’t really admit to being signed when they are. But the A&R has definitely moved out of the building, I think, which is probably the most important bit. And that is only a good thing for black music.


Posted on July 10, 2020