Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
A bored hip-hop fan can have endless amounts of fun at Rap Stats, the section of Rap Genius that allows users to search for words and phrases and generate line graphs showing how frequently they’ve shown up in lyrics over the years.
More than just a way to kill time, Rap Stats is educational. By plugging in words like “crunk,” and “chronic,” it’s possible to trace how the popularity of certain slang terms has coincided with various regional trends. Before 1998, “sizzurp” didn’t register a blip. From the tail end of the decade through 2006, it got higher and higher and higher—just like the increasingly popular Southern rappers who dared sip codeine cough syrup mixed with soda.
One word that hasn’t fared particularly well is “geezer,” a favorite of Mike Skinner, a.k.a. The Streets. Initially dubbed the “British Eminem,” Skinner came on the scene in 2002 with Original Pirate Material, a record about smoking herb, getting pissed, taking E, pulling birds, and messing around with a PlayStation. It’s a “day in the life of a geezer,” as Skinner puts it, repping for the everyblokes who live in giant apartment buildings, subsist on takeaway junk food, and likely take advantage of the British government’s social safety net. Skinner’s tagline for this lifestyle: “sex, drugs, and on the dole.”
Musically, The Streets’ debut crosses fidgety U.K. garage and related forms of electronic music with the U.S. hip-hop Skinner also grew up on. That novel fusion offered American rap fans something similar to what acts like NWA, Outkast, and DJ Screw had: a fresh, hyper-localized take on music that supposedly values freshness and local character.
Hip-hop is all about those things, but as Original Pirate Material illustrates, only to a point. While critics raved about the record and heralded Skinner as the rhyme-spitting equivalent of observational British songwriters like Ray Davies, Paul Weller, and Damon Albarn, mainstream American audiences never bought in. To some extent, this is because the album arrived via Vice and was pitched more at indie kids and anglophiles than it was at the millions of Top 40 listeners who’d made hip-hop America’s preeminent form of popular music.
That a relatively small number of people were exposed to The Streets was only part of the problem, though. Many rap fans did hear songs like lead single “Has It Come To This?” and responded with something along the lines of, “Has it come to this?”
That’s because for all of hip-hop’s celebrated regional diversity, it remains fairly xenophobic. Jazz, blues, rock ’n’ roll, and soul have all traveled overseas and been transformed by innovative Europeans into products Americans are willing and eager to buy. Hip-hop is the exception—a profitable export with crazy import protections. You can bellow like Chuck D, drawl like Snoop, slur like Lil’ Wayne, or bark like DMX, but you’d better not sound like Sherlock Motherfuckin’ Holmes, Holmes.
In a review of Original Pirate Material for Pitchfork, Rob Mitchum gets at the heart of the problem, writing of how “the stubborn British habit of perfectly enunciating every syllable makes things sound rather, well, formal.” He’s not alone in thinking this way, even if Skinner’s “Brummie” Birmingham patter ain’t exactly the King’s English. British accents scream posh and proper to Yankee ears, and given hip-hop’s emphasis on working-class toughness, this was always going to be a barrier for The Streets.
The same goes for his delivery—a chatty anti-flow that sometimes obscures the clever construction of his lines and invites that oldest of rap criticisms: It’s just talking. In a 2004 interview with Elsewhere, Skinner spoke of the troubles he’d faced breaking through in the States.
“The more open-minded hip-hop guys are getting to it, but it’s a cultural difference we are never going to get over,” he said. “It’s the same everywhere I’ve taken it. I’ve taken urban music and made it about my culture, not urban culture as such.”
By choosing the name The Streets, Skinner knew he was going to throw some people off, since “it probably makes you think of the Wu-Tang Clan in New York or something,” as he told the Guardian. “Whereas I suppose what my music is all about is saying life’s not like that for most people.”
He’d have had an easier time sticking with U.K. garage. Rap, he admits in his 2012 memoir The Story Of The Streets, “was not seen as accessible because it was inherently American.” But Skinner was a poetic geezer with ambition and some stories to tell, and that led the onetime garage DJ (and Burger King employee) to reinvent himself as an MC and begin producing his own records.
In another passage of his memoir—one he makes sound almost like a Streets song in this YouTube clip—Skinner details the making of Original Pirate Material. Contrary to what anglophobes might imagine, he didn’t cut the tracks in between swigs of tea and bites of crumpet on some professional mixing desk situated inside Buckingham Palace. Skinner worked on a basic Logic setup in his dingy London flat. Were it not for his use of words like “duvet” and “wardrobe,” the DIY picture he paints in his book might recall Eminem’s desperate 8 Mile scribbling or that scene in Hustle & Flow where “Whoop That Trick” comes together.
“I wanted to make our version of U.K. hop-hop, with a U.K. beat, and a U.K. voice,” Skinner said in a TV interview from around 2001. “That’s all I was really thinking.” Replace “U.K.” in that sentence with Compton or Houston or Atlanta, and it’s a statement any American hip-hop fan can get behind. Unfortunately, where this genre is concerned, there seems to be a line between valid artistic variation and perceived cultural appropriation, and it runs through the Atlantic Ocean.
Outside of maybe Iggy Azalea, there’s never been a massively successful crossover rapper from outside North America, and it’s not like Iggy’s rhyming with an Aussie accent about kangaroos and Vegemite. In terms of U.K. artists, neither Dizzee Rascal nor Tinie Tempah have turned overseas buzz into Stateside name recognition, and the less said about Lady Sovereign, the better. As for the notorious M.I.A., she doesn’t affect an urban American accent like Iggy does, but she also doesn’t make straight hip-hop, and she’s never really broken beyond the indie scene, her high-profile Grammy and Super Bowl performances notwithstanding.
Skinner retired the Streets moniker in 2011 after four lesser LPs, so he might never get his due as a rapper. But Original Pirate Material stands as a fantastic achievement. However unpalatable to Americans, it’s a perfectly credible regional rap record. Like Straight Outta Compton or Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik—both superior but nevertheless analogous—it’s a window on a little world you didn’t know existed. And like any world, it has its own sights and sounds.
“Around here we say birds, not bitches,” Skinner explains on the single “Let’s Push Things Forward,” maybe the best summation of where he’s coming from. Another fun bit of lingo: “sharp darts,” Skinner-speak for skillfully spit lines. He hurls his pointy lyrics over a trombone lick and skanking rhythm lifted from The Specials, and by referencing that 2 Tone ska band—another act that reformatted black urban music for a white U.K. audience—Skinner establishes a key link with his quintessentially British past.
“Let’s Push Things Forward” is a song about the future, though, and in some (relatively rare) moments of boasting, he promises more than “your archetypal street sound” or “your typical garage joint.” By using first-person-plural pronouns—“it’s a tall order but we’re taller;” “let’s push things forward”—Skinner also positions himself more as the spokesman for a new sound than some monolithic Tupac or Biggie figure. “It’s not a track,” he says, aware of what he’s up against. “It’s a movement.”
When Skinner gets defensive, like all rappers do, he comes with a light touch: “Critics, ready with your pot shots, the plot thickens / Put on your mittens for these subzero conditions / But remember I’m just spitting, remember I’m just spitting / Once bitten, forever smitten.”
Skinner’s right about his London being a far cry from the bleak warzone of Wu-Tang’s Staten Island, but it can still be a treacherous place. The difference: People in Skinner’s orbit go looking for trouble, rather than the other way around. “Geezers need excitement,” he says on the track bearing that title, “If their lives don’t provide ’em this, they incite violence.” Not his most ear-pleasing song—not with that blunt hook and wobbly rhythm—“Geezers Need Excitement” is filled with internal rhymes and first-rate storytelling. The song opens at a late-night kebab shop, where an errantly flung chip—as in french fry—gets the testosterone flowing and nearly instigates a “Jackie Chan scene.”
“You spin ’round on the attack, ‘Fuck you playin’ at?’” Skinner raps, putting the listener in the shoes of the drunken diner who’s just been popped with greasy piece of potato. “He looks like a Cheshire cat, almost falls down, dour frowns / And Superman eye-lasers don’t even register / Now you want to level this twat.”
Skinner is an advocate for cooler heads and not starting trouble for trouble’s sake. His characters are conscientious and self-aware, even when they’re out of their bloody heads. While plenty of other rappers profess their love of weed, Skinner spends standout “The Irony Of It All” making a pro-legalization case he could present to Parliament. The song is a duet between a couple of blokes called Terry and Tim, and it pointedly—and uproariously—contrasts the peaceful behavior of potheads with the lug-headed thuggery of nightly pub-crawlers.
The message is softer and the drugs are harder on “Weak Become Heroes,” Skinner’s finest moment. As a British child of the ’90s, Skinner discovered sex, drugs, and music via acid house and all-night raves. “We all smile, we all sing,” Skinner raps over a halcyon hip-house beat, conjuring the communal euphoria he felt as a tripping teenager. “The weak become heroes when the stars align.”
As the song ends, Skinner big-ups some pioneering house DJs and gives a rather polite middle finger to the Criminal Justice Bill, a measure that helped the police crackdown on raves. None of this meant a goddamn thing to Americans, and that’s the point. Skinner was, as they say, keeping it real, doing authentic U.K. hip-hop, not American rap with an accent, Tupac in a trilby.
“Weak Become Heroes” is Skinner’s “Fuck Tha Police,” as well as his “Back In The Day,” “This D.J.,” and “Juicy.” Only it sounds like none of those songs, because he’s from a place where the cops don’t carry guns, the race and class issues are wholly different, and “my crew laughs at yer rhubarb and custard verses” is a perfectly reasonable insult for one MC to fling at another.
Original Pirate Material failed commercially precisely because it succeeds artistically. It’s nuthin’ but a geezer thang, and there’s not a lot like it. The statistics don’t lie.