I discovered The Streets in an Astana, Kazakhstan hotel room. I was 14 years old, had been in the country for two weeks, and was searching desperately for any reminder of the western culture I had come to miss. I tried watching a Cubs, White Sox game, but quickly realized I couldn’t care less about either team and my homesickness would not be able to overcome my boredom. I flipped through the channels and caught a, somewhat, awkward British man rapping about the differences in his life since becoming famous. On the hotel’s less than stellar wifi, I desperately googled the lyrics of the song trying to figure out who it was. For the rest of the trip I listened to The Streets almost none stop, both acclimating myself with the music and looking for a reprieve from Pitbull who, for some reason, was seemingly the only artist played on Kazakh radio.
When I got home I started to research who was behind the music of The Streets. It turned out that the “slightly awkward British man” was Birmingham native Mike Skinner, who started the project in the early 2000s. The music he recorded rose from the Grime scene, a genre home to artists like Dizzee Rascal, Skepta, Wiley and Kano, a genre that never made the jump across the Atlantic because, as it was explained to me by a real life Brit, “it’s way too British”. In passing, I’ve heard the genre described more as what it’s not than what it is. It’s not garage or jungle (other “too British” genres), it’s not hip hop—but, in many ways it’s all of them. The one thing that has been made absolutely clear about Grime is that it’s a movement and style of music that came, as many do, from the underground, the working class. To complicate things, Skinner’s music isn’t exactly Grime, it’s just related.
Mike Skinner spent his formative years in Birmingham, the Midland city that is home to the second largest population in the country. He’s describes his own childhood as “Barratt class (in reference to those classic British brownstones): suburban estates, not poor but not much money about, really boring.” To deal with the monotony of adolescence, Skinner did what most kids do: escape to music. He turned his childhood bedroom into a studio and started mixing Grime beats with lyrical poetry that embodied, for many people, what it meant to be British. My favorite description of his debut album Original Pirate Material, is that it’s “perfectly British”.
Skinner mixes comedy and pragmatism. For example, the first song I was exposed to by him in that Kazakh hotel room, “When You Wasn’t Famous”, off 2006’s The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, covers the mental struggle of being under media and public scrutiny as well as the issues with trying to “pull” famous girls.
“How the hell am I supposed to be able to do a line in from of complete strangers when I know they all got camera phones?”
Is quickly followed by:
“When you’re a famous boy, it gets really easy to get girls...but when you try to pull a girl, who is also famous too, it feels just like when you wasn’t famous.”
He talks about mental health issues like anxiety, depression, often centered around his own struggles. Much of what he says doesn’t beat around the bush. He makes listeners uncomfortable with his bluntness because it doesn’t conform to classic lyrical content. However, to his fans, that’s what makes him an interesting artist. One of my favorite moments that showcases this honesty and self deprecation comes in “I Think I Love You More (Than You Like Me)”.
I drew a drawing of you after the last time I saw you,
I never felt to draw a picture like that before,
I learnt a lot about myself drawing all morning,
It was absolute shit, I’m awful at drawing
Over its six album lifetime, The Streets gained a cult following as well as critical acclaim. The albums, especially, Original Pirate Material, appear on lists of the best in the 2000s, he’s headlined sold out festivals, and, in 2011, he quit the project. As he put it, he felt he had done all that there was to do with the music. He had changed and England had changed and he felt the what he was doing had become dated.
Since the self imposed end the of The Streets, Skinner has focused on a few projects, musical and otherwise. He’s teased a movie that has yet to come. He also joined Rob Harvey, a singer from the Leeds band The Music, and they formed The D.O.T.(see a name theme yet?) Skinner stuck only to production while Harvey provided the vocals. This was a drastic departure from what people were used to from him and, while the project has its merits, namely a song, You Never Asked, featuring Danny Brown, it failed to have the same impact as The Streets.
Another project Skinner has taken part in an project titled Tonga Balloon Gang with Manchester rap group Murkage, which produced little more than an EP and two singles between 2015 and 2017. However, it seemed to kickstart his creativity again. Since working as Tonga Balloon Gang, he’s started releasing new tracks under the name The Darker the Shadow the Brighter the Light, featuring his own vocals, for the first time since The Streets. There has been more than enough new material to constitute an album however, he’s stuck to singles.
These songs are similar to his work as The Streets, but not the same. He still maintains the honesty and wit, but the production has been updated. He has not spoken much about what his long-term intentions are with the new incarnation of his music, but as a fan it’s hard not to be excited. The songs are smooth, technically skilled, and aware of the modern world.
This rebirth falls in with the explosion of British Hip Hop, a genre Skinner has acted as an ambassador for. In early 2017 he hosted a half hour documentary for Vice’s Noisey which covered various groups and rappers gaining traction. By doing this he not only keeps his name relevant but exposes these new artists to fans, like me.
The Darker the Shadow the Brighter the Light is not a Hop Hop project. It’s not Grime. It’s just Mike Skinner and I’m excited to see what he does with it.