Being young, British, and male is a syndrome seemingly reviled in every corner of the planet. If you haven't witnessed this firsthand, just check in to any international hostel. Odds are, there will be a few British lads huddled around a table in the lobby, clucking about the finer points of "spliff engineering" while sprinkling their Amsterdam hash into an emptied Benson & Hedges. Watch while one lights it as they start their little game of skill. One of them lays a piece of paper over a cup and places a coin onto the center. Each puffs the joint and then takes a turn burning a hole in the paper with the ember, careful not to cause the coin to fall. When one finally does, the others have a jolly laugh -- he's got to make tea for the rest!
They do this every day. Notice that no other guests, not even the Australians, go near their table.
British youth culture, made up of strange rituals like this, remains obscure in America. Maybe that's why the market for British crime films and rappers has historically been quite small, and probably for good reason. Gangster flicks and hip-hop get by on the supposition that life in the places they chronicle is rough. Let's face it: A country with gun control and drug dealers who say "Cheers" upon receiving payment isn't exactly badass. Nobody wants to hear about being chased by unarmed cops, and rhyming in the King's English sounds more like the Brothers Grimm than Brotha Lynch Hung.
The decision, then, of 23-year-old Mike Skinner from Birmingham to stop aping Run-DMC in slang and inflection and start rapping about his "days in the life of a geezer" in his native Midlands parlance shouldn't matter to many people in the States, should it?
Warner Music UK, which released his debut album Original Pirate Material under the name the Streets, was so sure of its inherent Britishness that it had no plans to market the record in America at all. The album is the unapologetic confessions of a not particularly rich, not particularly poor, semi-dissatisfied, Nike-wearing bloke delivered over speed garage beats. The Streets seemed doomed to be lost in translation.
Even Skinner himself saw little promise of a crossover outside the Commonwealth. "If I was American, I wouldn't want to listen to the Streets," he says frankly, over the phone. "The music has nothing to do with life in America at all." On microphone, Skinner is all nimble-tongue and laser wit, but in interview mode, he mulls over every question before hatching abrupt, cliff-hanger statements like these. He figures he won't sell here, yet he's embarking on a tour that will bring him to San Francisco next week and then again in the winter. "The album's doing really well in England," he states plainly, "so one day [someone from my label] phoned me up and said people in America might want to hear it. So I'm here."
To American ears, listening to Original Pirate Material for the first time leads you to instantly look up from whatever you're doing, pause, furrow your brow, pause again, and then crack an uncertain smile.
What the fuck is this?
In a tone that sounds as if he's having a chat at the local pub about last night's football match, a very, very British-sounding young man begins conjuring bizarre images of celebration and apocalypse. In a single train of thought, "Turn the Page," blends images of geezers raving ("geezers," or blokes, factor into just about every track), the sky turning white, and a figure (pronounced "figga") that emerges from the wastage, eyes transfixed with a piercing gaze, one hand clutching a sword, raised to the sky. Is it King Arthur meets Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels? Some sort of pop-culture-smeared fifth coming of the English Romantic poetry tradition? Then in the next breath he disses an MC for having "rhubarb and custard" verses, whatever those might be. [Editor's note: Possibly a reference to Roobarb and Custard, a British '70s cartoon show with very wobbly animation.] So is it hip-hop? Albeit a very pasty-faced version?
After a few minutes of confusion, though, the invariable conclusion becomes that you can't believe no one's done it before. After all, the last fifteen years of UK dance music has remained almost totally voiceless and figurehead-free, the result of the British inclination for privacy supporting a culture of studio shut-ins. But the Streets breaks this tradition. Skinner was the first to marry British club and street music with tales from the club and street culture that created it, acting as spokesman for the kids who aren't hard in hip-hop's view but who don't resonate with Oasis either. There is very much a lifestyle wrapped around the club and pub scenes, exemplified by things such as the joint-burning rite. The only way to learn about it before was through DJ-fetish publications like Mixmag and lad mags FHM and Maxim.
His outsider's perspective on the traditional subjects of hip-hop songwriting may be the stumbling block for many rap fans here -- his lyrical version of misdirected youth, for instance, is "Sex, drugs, and on the dole." But even in his homeland, his steez, or style, was so unprecedented that audiences took a while to warm to it. "A lot of people in England didn't know what to make of it," he says, "but they all got used to it eventually and everyone knows it now." In the eight months since its British release, Original Pirate Material has moved close to 200,000 units and was nominated for the UK's Mercury Music Prize.
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