Gutter sniper: British rapper the Streets takes aim at reality

Gutter sniper: British rapper the Streets takes aim at reality
Tom Horgen, Star Tribune
June 18, 2004 MUS0618

http://www.startribune.com/stories/457/4827688.html


Ah, to be a white, British rapper who makes records on his bedroom computer and then dubs himself the Streets. Sounds like someone in the midst of an identity crisis, right?

Nope. Mike Skinner, the lone gun behind the Streets moniker, knows exactly who he is, firmly pointing to his music for proof.

“It’s real life. And I think when people hear the music they see that what I’m doing is realer than a lot of stuff out there,” Skinner said by phone from London.

Indeed, his new album, “A Grand Don’t Come for Free,” works so hard at capturing real life that it opens with Skinner struggling to return a DVD on time. Boring? Give him a minute. Skinner’s “Seinfeld”-like tales of nothingness often transform into pensive, occasionally inspiring sermons — bear hugs for all us losers.

The StreetsHandoutThat said, his loaded rap name is obviously a bit misleading. The Streets is not 50 Cent, nor is Skinner trying to be. But his music still hums with honesty.

Skinner, in all his anti-rock-star glory, strolled into the international spotlight when his 2002 debut, “Original Pirate Material,” a mishmash of hip-hop, U.K. garage (a techno sub-subgenre) and deep British slang, struck a chord with music’s intelligentsia. With his kitchen-sink approach to songwriting and an almost spoken-word delivery, he was praised for throwing a monkey wrench — and a bit of social commentary — into the beat-driven British garage scene.

The Birmingham native takes another sharp turn with “A Grand Don’t Come for Free,” crafting the album as one long narrative. It’s a strange trip through what feels like the industrial wasteland of his hometown. He plays himself, a miscreant who loses a shoebox that holds his life savings (a grand) in the opening minutes, and then spends the next 11 songs looking for it, meanwhile losing his girl, his mates and his mind, too.

In this minimalist journey, Skinner takes us from the seat of his couch to a couple of dingy clubs and pubs and, in the end, back to his couch again. The material is low-key, but his storytelling is not. His songs capture those everyday moments we rarely hear about in pop music. In “Blinded by the Light,” while waiting for a friend’s phone call in a crowded dance club, he raps, “I hate coming to the entrance, just to get bars on my phone.”

The album’s surprise ending deserves a full, sit-down listen. And rightfully so. Skinner spent two years perfecting the album’s 11 parts.

“And I really did spend all that time working on it,” he insists.

It’s a mini-movie of sorts or, in other words, a concept album. Except Skinner hates that label and has scoffed at the term ever since critics began using it to describe his little masterwork in May.

“I don’t want anyone to feel like it was pretentious,” he said.

Actually, it’s quite charming. Skinner’s awkward delivery never really matches the pulsating synth beats — the album often feels like it was put together with a giant glue stick. This intentional hodgepodge is a fitting vehicle for his tales of alienation, an effect that becomes even more amusing when he starts messing with epic orchestral arrangements.

You would think Skinner’s eclectic leanings would draw him toward the genre-busting, U.S. indie-rap scene, but he actually favors the more heavily produced mainstream acts. He rattled off names such as Dr. Dre, Timbaland and Kanye West as producers he admires.

Could there be a collaboration on the horizon (always a rap thing to do)? Not likely. Skinner likes making his tunes by himself, in his room.

“I do things in my own way, really,” he said. “It doesn’t mean I don’t respect other artists. It just means I don’t work very well with other people.”

Messing with ‘the formula’

Skinner should be accustomed to critics putting labels on him. After his music crossed the Atlantic in 2002, he was often introduced as Eminem’s English counterpart. The surface comparison, attributed solely to their shared whiteness, surprisingly didn’t bother him as much as the “concept album” thing.

“It’s not an issue in England. The only time I really get asked about my race is in America,” he said. “They do ask me about Eminem quite a lot. But people have to be compared to someone. And I think Eminem’s really good.”

While most hip-hop purists have embraced Eminem for his obvious skill and alliance with Dr. Dre, Skinner understands that his road to acceptance will be more tedious. The least of his worries is his skin color. Again, it’s the music: the off-kilter, moody production and that strange, cockneyed flow.

“It does take quite a lot of getting over the way I do things. But I think hip-hop was like that in the first place, too,” he said. “But now that hip-hop has become so accepted, it’s become a formula. I mean, it’s a good formula, but it is a formula. People have started to get a bit too religious about it and feeling like you can’t mess with that formula. I suppose you have to be quite open-minded to like the Streets.”