Strickly 4 My Geezers 

The Run-DMC of the Commonwealth spits rhubarb-and-custard verses. Why?

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Much of the initial confusion stemmed from his dragging two-step garage out of the private club spaces where it had been bingeing on champagne and coke, and into his zone -- afternoon living rooms with shades drawn, where "videos, televisions, 64s, and PlayStations" dominate.

Growing up well outside London, Skinner's experience of the music was not as a dance floor soundtrack but as an "in-car and at-home thing," as he puts it. Production-wise, he kept the shuffling drums, weepy synthetic strings, and simple piano loops of garage intact -- elements which normally prompted listeners to expect an American R&B-styled singer to begin crooning about the lavish life. No one was ready for a 23-year-old geeza from tha hood to rap over these beats an ode to "deep-seated urban decay." The effect was similar to the first publishing of the Vulgate Bible -- dance music for those who can't get into clubs; rhymes about kids that hip-hop has mocked or ignored. Like all good fiction, Original Pirate Material offers a window into a way of living previously alien to its listeners. As with William Burroughs and his junkies, Skinner isn't an advocate for listless hooligans so much as their chronicler. It's a warts-and-all depiction, from the serotonin-depleted disillusionment that comes at the end of a druggy night out ("Weak Become Heroes"), to the macho imbecility of hooligan culture ("Geezers Need Excitement"), to his own narcissism ("We first met through a shared view/She loved me and I did too," from "It's Too Late").

Whether you love it or hate it (and those are the only two options), listening to the Streets' crisply enunciated but urgent prattle again and again will tweak your worldview.

"It's quite clearly a perspective that no one here's heard before," says Adam Shore, the manager of Vice Records. Vice, the New York-based shock-button tastemaker magazine, was so enamored of Original Pirate Material that it founded a label just so it could bring the album to the United States. "If you go over to England, they're all obsessed with everything American, and so is Mike Skinner," he continues. "But in America, we don't know anything about England. I've learned more about England listening to Original Pirate Material than anything I've read or listened to in years. Hip-hop is supposed to be the ultimate absorber of all musics and people and lifestyles -- it makes sense that there's finally someone from this different background that's giving their take on the culture."

Shore says he considers what Skinner does to be hip-hop, essentially; Skinner concurs. But it's doubtful whether many aligned with the American urban music continuum will resonate with the Streets -- the identity politics will be meaningless to the mainstream's big-baller mythos (Skinner is adamant that he's not representing the ghetto), and those from the underground will quibble about the technical proficiency of his rhyming. The closest analogy to Skinner's MO is the peculiar voice-over style MCs and DJs adopt for London pirate radio broadcasts. Wedged between the handful of giant BBC signals, these underpowered shows waft in and out of clarity, giving the rolling bass lines of the two subgenres pirate radio engendered -- drum 'n' bass and speed garage -- an even more ebbing and flowing feel. Their hosts toast over the ceaselessly mixed programming in lilting monologues that served as introductions to the records and testimonials on the rawness of the station, with some silly wordplay thrown in.

"Most of the people [on the radio] aren't really MCs, but they do little bursts of MCing," Skinner explains. "The rest of the time, it's like they're talking. It's like the early hip-hop days, before they started making commercial kind of releases and writing out rhymes about this and that."

No one considered this a freestanding art form until Skinner juiced it up with the visually vivid poetics of classic Wu-Tang and the storytelling finesse of Slick Rick and Nas. He's able to cover a wide swath of terrain, from the frivolous to the intimately revealing, without violating the consistency of his tone as a narrator. He switches between doing station IDs for himself on the title track ("You're listening to the Streets, lock down your aerial"), waxing nostalgic about his first E pill on "Weak Become Heroes" ("This ain't tomorrow, so now I still love ya"), and spilling his guts about the insecurity he's wracked with after an aborted love affair on "It's Too Late."

One of Skinner's mightiest feats so far has been getting the Anglophobic US music press to reevaluate and get excited about the young British outlook for the first time since the advent of punk. Spin and the Village Voice are busting nuts over the album, rating it a nine out of ten and christening it "England's first great hip-hop album" respectively. If he can stir the same intrigue among domestic consumers, it will be a major coup -- Americans are typically as receptive to foreign viewpoints as our current president is.

The worst thing the Streets could be potentially responsible for is a bum-rush of lads suddenly empowered to pick up mikes and go for theirs. "Does this mean we're going to see a British Bubba Sparxxx or a British Fun Lovin' Criminals?" Shore wonders. "People could easily dumb-down his style and make it more popular, but I think Mike's only going to get smarter and more poetic."

Indeed, what Skinner started is destined to earn someone a platinum payout, even if he's not the one to redeem it. It's possible that his imagery proves a mite too oblique for true mass consumption, and his big-upping of those who "chase brown and toot rock" (that is, smoke heroin and crack) raises the bar even from Eminem's endorsement of Vicodin and 'shroom-munching. Hip-hop has long sanctioned the selling of addictive hard drugs, but has stopped just short of tolerating their use. Ultimately, this may be the sticking point for Americans weaned on ghetto polemics -- Skinner's heart often lies on the losing side of the dealer/buyer and aggressor/victim relationship. The hero of his stories, played by himself, is most often not the player but the consumer.

And there's also the fact that many listeners reflexively abhor Brits rattling on about themselves, and that's not going to change. Skinner is invigorated by the resistance he's running into, though. "A lot of people really hate it when they hear it," he concedes. "When you get that, I think you know you're doing something right."

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