Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 61)
The picture that adorns the cover of Original Pirate Material
is a piece by Rut Blees Luxemburg called Towering Inferno from a Modern Project
. It depicts the Kestrel House in City Road, London lit up at night. Some of the windows beam brightly from the light inside, others are only dimly illuminated by a small lamp or the fluorescent glow of a television. Three windows arranged horizontally glow red. Look at this image long enough and little narratives begin weaving their way into your brain. The lives of these people and their living conditions are not hard to imagine. This is not a luxury high rise, these people live at street level. You imagine the trio of roommates in their early 20s, gathered around a pizza box and Nintendo controllers. You picture a couple nervously approaching retirement passing a row of framed photographs on the mantle of people and places gone. You see the single dad fretting over the size of his one bedroom apartment, trying to scheme a way into a bigger place for him and his daughter. These lives are full of dead ends, regrets, and frustration but also little jewels of hope and achievement. The building is lit up by a sickly orange glow, as the city stretches out behind it.
Since it surfaced in the early 80s, rap music has been the genre of choice for those at street level. It allows the little man to live vicariously over a thundering beat and the easy confidence of the rapper. But despite its principal consumers being located at street level, rap almost never takes place there. When it does, it’s a backwards glance thrown over the shoulder. A quick look at the hustle it took to get to the life of lux they currently enjoy. Even when rap does occur at street level the artist imagines himself a kingpin of the city, one who rules his empire with a firm grip, rapping only to generate clean funds to complement his backdoor income.
Original Pirate Material
, the debut record by Mike Skinner a.k.a. The Streets, occurs firmly at street level without even an eye cast to higher plains. The characters that populate these songs aren’t hopeless but pragmatic. They scratch lottery tickets and debate the latest chart entry but most stay focused on surviving on their nine to fives or pulling a girlfriend on the weekend. Others stray into drugs and drink, losing whatever hopes they had in the search for their next rock or pill. Nostalgia is potent here. As the days start to feel like they’re on loop and time starts running out for these people, memories of better times become sweeter and decisions unrealized haunt close behind.
Tired of British MCs mimicking American stars, Skinner crafts an unmistakably British answer to American rap. Instead of mimicking the post Dr. Dre/DMX/Jay-Z sounds dominating the states, Skinner pulls from the ruins of garage and 2-step to create beats that clatter like an underground train, always on the verge of shaking themselves apart. Debut single “Has it Come to This?” sports a jagged 2-step percussion loop and an off beat bass at war with an easy listening electric piano sample. “Let’s Push Things Forward” cops a hazy skank with hollowed out bass wobbles and fashions an easy groove out of them. Opener “Turn the Page” makes Original Pirate Material
sound predestined to shift the tides of UK music even before Skinner utters one word, as epic strings summon a slow sunrise over a smoldering battlefield. Over a decade later there still isn’t anything that sounds like Original Pirate Material
. Befitting its subject matter it sounds like it was produced on a hand-me-down laptop and a pirated copy of ProTools but transcends those origin points to become something completely unique. A collection of beats that never falls into predictable patterns but pulses with life, as if the album is assembling itself out of urban air as you listen to it. Original Pirate Material
isn’t simply a phenomenal collection of beats, it’s an intimidating one, traditional rap cadences wouldn’t work right over the jank and skew of these rhythms.
In autobiography/guidebook How Music Works
, former Talking Head David Byrne writes, “A good singer will often use the ‘grid’ of the rhythm as something to play with - never landing exactly on a beat, but pushing and pulling around and against it in ways that we read, when it’s well done, as being emotional.” This is how Mike Skinner raps. Skinner debuted with a fully realized and distinctive style. His words fall all over the beat with barely any mind payed to where those words are, by traditional rap standards, supposed to go. Skinner’s intent was to break down barriers between rapping and normal dialogue. His loping, awkward cadences and flat, affectless tone were engineered to make every song sound like an intimate conversation between two people. One that can be funny, resigned, and poignant all in the same breath.
Skinner writes in Original Pirate Material
with a vivid eye and a firm grasp on building a scene. He opens “Weak Become Heroes” with effective but familiar details, describing a city of “gray concrete and deadbeats”. But, “grab something to eat/KFC or M’cky Dees”? That hits much closer to home. An intensely relatable line that brings to mind evenings spent hunched over a plastic tray, wondering what tastes worse, the thing you're eating or the tray it came on. Further than that, “Weak Becomes Heroes” becomes a painfully nostalgic remembering of London’s rave scene as Skinner slips backwards into memories of first ecstasy pills and “mad little events” while that “same piano loops over”. Dragging him out of his fantasy is a girl tapping him on the shoulder. “I realize five years went by, I'm older/Memories smoulder, winters colder/But that same piano loops over and over and over.”
Some songs exist to lie to you. To tell you that things will be alright and work out in the end. That eternal happiness is possible. That every dream is worth something and possible. “Stay Positive” is not one of those songs. “Stay Positive” looks you right in the eyes and tells you nothing but the truth. “Cause this world swallows souls and when the blues unfold it gets cold,” is the first line. From there Skinner spends the first two verses detailing just how easily boredom and bitterness can curdle into addiction. By illustrating just how bad it can get, when Skinner starts offering advice by the third verse it hits hard. “Stop dreaming. People who say that are blaspheming/They’re doing 9-5 and moaning/And don’t want you succeeding where they’ve blown it.” “Stay Positive” is not interested in making you feel happy but even if it sounds heavy its message is a positive one. That things really can turn around for you, that the highest heights are scalable no matter how awful things might be in your present moment. “But never forget today/You can get back here things can stray.”
Original Pirate Material
is the sermon on the mount for the ensuing decade of British garage and hip-hop music. It contrasted a previous decade of British pomp and glamour with a starkness that didn’t demand your attention through size and spectacle but through the vitality of its sound. It remains a singular document of a time and place, a reflection of the disappointment that followed Tony Blair’s election and Britpop’s collapse. But Original Pirate Material
is not an album about despair. It was created using an Amiga 600 and an improvised soundbooth made out of mattresses. The feeling one takes away from of it is a hopeful one that that feeling is what shot new life into the UK Garage scene. That compelled thousands of kids to start creating their own music, to communicate their own experiences. If broke, average, 20-something Mike Skinner could do it, so could you.