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Why The Streets’s Original Pirate Material Still Matters, 15 Years On

11 artists and fans explain the lasting impact of U.K. artist Mike Skinner’s debut album.

March 23, 2017
Why The Streets’s <i>Original Pirate Material</i> Still Matters, 15 Years On

On March 25, The Streets’s debut album Original Pirate Material celebrates its 15th anniversary. In the years since its release in 2002, many U.K. music fans will have bopped along to “Don’t Mug Yourself” at a summer festival, or had a teary moment at the end of the night to soaring house tribute “Weak Become Heroes.” But the album's appeal has never been confined to Britain — Mike Skinner’s distinctive combination of street poetics and U.K. garage beats made the record a cult favorite with fans worldwide. One and a half decades after the record’s initial release, 11 artists, writers, and FADER staffers explain why Original Pirate Material still feels so unique.

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1. Lady Leshurr, artist

I once made a mixtape called LDAY (2010), and Mike Skinner inspired the whole tape. That was my first time experimenting with storytelling, and he really influenced me to try something new and out of my comfort zone. It’s still one of the best mixtapes I've released, in my opinion. [Skinner] always will be a legend in my eyes. Especially coming from [my hometown] Birmingham where we've always been mocked because of our accent. He was the first MC from up north to pave the way for the rest of the Brummy MCs that came after him. He used his real accent — the way he rapped was special because it was basically just talking on the track. Like spoken word with an instrumental. Genius.

2. Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, journalist

Young pop music in the U.S. revelled in excess in 2002, grappling with existential dread in the aftermath of 9/11 by diving full-hog into apocalyptic party-animalia. Everything sounded hard, whether the sex-fueled abandon of the art-rock band Yeah Yeah Yeahs or the diamond-cutting precision of the futuristic rap duo Clipse. Perhaps obviously, it seemed like a lot of people were really into cocaine.

Original Pirate Material dropped in mid-fete and changed the tenor a bit, or at least injected a reason to take a pause and regroup. I remember it rippling through U.S. music circles like a secret at first, and, for me, its prosaic nature was a bit confusing; U.K. garage wasn't supposed to be this soft, and if stateside rap regionalism still drew fiercely territorial lines between East and West, North and South, you can imagine about how warmly U.S. hip-hop fans at that time took to MCs with regional British accents. Mike Skinner's geezer charm and earnestness shone through, though, and if anything it had a deeply calming, meditative quality to it that I remember needing desperately at the time. In retrospect, its fusion of styles — 2-step/garage, dub, jungle, grime, house, and hip-hop — was prescient. (Whither Drake?) Most importantly for me, though, The Streets was the gesso on the canvas that would, just a couple of months later, be completely splatter-painted and sliced to shreds by Dizzee Rascal's "I Luv U," a song aflame with wholly unfamiliar, east London road slang and whose Slinky-in-revolt riddim completely changed the way I think about music. For that important prep — without Mike Skinner, I don't think I wouldn't have been ready — I'll be forever grateful.

3. Jammer, artist

[In the early ‘00s] a lot of people in the garage scene didn’t really like the broken-down version of the music that we were making [in early grime collective N.A.S.T.Y. Crew]. Only really [iconic garage rave] Sidewinder and a few others were letting us get on the end of sets at the raves. Grime emerged because we weren’t really a part of garage. Garage was the club-driven beat music before grime in the U.K. — but Original Pirate Material showed a change in that. A lot of sounds and ways of putting records together were taken from that Mike Skinner album; everyone was inspired by it and took pieces from it. The things he was saying like, “Keep my dogs fed/ All jungle all garage heads/ Gold teeth, Valentinos and dreads” — it was like, Yo who is this guy? He was telling us a story we wanted to know more about.

It’s one of the U.K. blueprint albums. That album could never be created again, that’s why we are talking about it now. It’s funny: Mike said to me one time at a party that I was a big inspiration to him. I love the fact that he is still seeking inspiration from the people that seek inspiration from him. (As told to Jacob Roy.)

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4. Owen Myers, The FADER

At my high school in the London suburbs, it mattered which album you had on your Discman in 2002: the slice-of-life narratives of The Streets’s Original Pirate Material, or the wry, quasi-Wildean observations of U.K. indie phenomenon The Libertines’s Up The Bracket. Both albums grappled with what Britishness meant at the turn of the millennium, but while The Libertines’s frontman Pete Doherty sang, tongue in cheek, “There are fewer more distressing sights than that/ Of an Englishman in a baseball cap,” Skinner shaded the stories of Englishmen with the nuance they deserved, whether they were puffed-up with pride, or had fallen on hard times with “a wounded soldier stance.” At a time when U.K. prime minister Tony Blair’s introduction of anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) in 1998 had further stigmatised lower income families, Original Pirate Material’s empathetic narratives of working class life were a crucial counterpoint.

The Streets also teased out a strain of British music history that wasn’t being documented elsewhere. The idols described on Original Pirate Material include folks like U.K. house DJs Paul Oakenfold and Danny Rampling, who helped define U.K. rave culture between the years of 1988 to 1994, when the British government made it illegal for ten or more people to gather on public property and listen to “repetitive beats.” Skinner took those rave-era acid house and jungle sounds and tethered them to the music genres which were soundtracking London’s underground of the early ‘00s: garage, hip-hop, and chilly bass frequencies that we’d now call grime (Wiley’s “Eskimo” white label dropped four months after Original Pirate Material). Skinner was connected to east London’s pirate radio scene at the time, and distributed white label vinyl copies of “Has It Come To This?” to those stations back in 2001. When he cracked the U.K. Top 10 with Original Pirate Material the following year, paying tribute to those FM dials with its title, it wasn’t just a statement that Skinner and his community were here — it was that they always had been.

5. Annie Mac, DJ and broadcaster

I first heard “Has It Come To This?” on Ross Allen’s radio show on BBC London. It was late on a Sunday night, in my bedroom in the house I shared with my brother’s band in Forest Gate, east London. I had never heard anything like it. His references were instantly recognizable — the mundane everyday issues of public transport, cheap drugs, fast food, and hangovers. There was no self aggrandizing, just brilliant phonetical descriptions of street life and culture. And it is hilarious in parts — the characters we meet and the pictures painted are so vivid.

Last year, we did a discussion feature for my radio show on BBC Radio 1 with Laurie from Slaves, Matty from The 1975, and Little Simz. All of them cited Mike Skinner as one of their biggest influences. The album is a bona fide classic, and it’s still reverberating through popular music and influencing our U.K. artists left right and center.

6. Rob Mitchum, journalist

In 2002, the nuances of British electronic and hip-hop culture went way over your typical American music critic’s head — which is my lame excuse for wildly misinterpreting Original Pirate Material when reviewing the album for Pitchfork that year. Since then we’ve had grime and dubstep to put U.K. garage in retrospective context. But I was pleased to discover Original Pirate Material still sounds bonkers 15 years later. Tracks like “Don’t Mug Yourself” and “Sharp Darts” are like head-on car collisions that somehow build a motorcycle — there’s no way these combinations of beat and flow should work, but they do. Mike Skinner was also ridiculously adept at mixing the grand and the mundane, with severe, ragged orchestra loops scoring the most minute of observations. “Weak Become Heroes” might still be the most accurate song about raves in existence, with a woozy pulse, a relentless, wavy piano loop, and stream-of-consciousness imagery detailed enough to trigger flashbacks. Call it first-timer luck or genius, but The Streets’s sound aged a lot better than its genre labels and clueless reviewers.

7. Ruth Saxelby, The FADER

I was 22 when Original Pirate Material came out, less than a year younger than its creator, Mike Skinner. The world he spoke-sang of in that pensive, blunt tone of his was one I recognised from my college years in the sweat-lined clubs of Leeds. “The night slowly fades and goes slow motion/ All the commotion becomes floating emotions,” he riffed over the piano house loop of “Weak Become Heroes.” The sheer thrill of being seen like that had me immediately enamoured.

At the time, Britain was deep in the era of superstar DJs and superclubs. Dance music’s staunchly counterculture status had started to crack under the weight of capitalism’s greedy paws. Record stores were filled with compilation CDs for every club-related situation, invariably decorated in garish illustrations of a glam girl-about-town or a moody shot of an upside down light bulb.

Skinner had no time for such flattened ideas of nightlife. His songs celebrated the spectrum of intimate, transient feelings that come from dancing in a room full of strangers, connected in unspoken agreement: We’re in this moment together. That sensation was set in motion by the ascending strings of album opener “Turn The Page,” which read like the warm rush of coming up on ecstasy. There was also “Has It Come To This?” with its homespun take on the skippy 2-step garage that had been dominating the charts, the almost-funeral march of “Stay Positive” with its wise-beyond-its-years narrative, and the mournful “It’s Too Late,” which no doubt soundtracked many a regret-soaked comedown.

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I was always more interested in Skinner’s rave ballads than his lad anthems, layered and poetic though they are. I appreciated the wink in his delivery, but they weren’t made for me: they were geared towards a generation of young men battling within the rigid limitations of masculinity. On later albums, he would immerse himself more fully in that demographic, and I couldn’t help feeling a little abandoned. I missed the tenderness and curiosity of the shiny eyed kid savoring visions of a fleeting utopia.

8. Kojey Radical, artist

I remember hearing [Original Pirate Material] for the first time and thinking, This feels like the perfect medium between garage culture and indie music. It was like the perfect soundtrack for not knowing what you want to listen to. Hearing “Stay Positive” in [2006 U.K. film] Kidulthood confirmed it was the soundtrack for growing up in London and marrying all the cultures that you come across. I’m from east London and the way [Skinner] spoke reminded me of just going to a cafe on Roman Road and speaking with the people there. Lyrical rap can feel daunting, but Mike Skinner’s approach removed all that tension in understanding lyrics, and made it sound like a conversation. (As told to Jacob Roy.)

9. Aimee Cliff, The FADER

In his FADER cover story in 2015, Skepta accurately observed, "England is so plain, like a burger with nothing on it. That's why it's so real." Growing up in the middle of the country, I knew what he meant. By the time he made Original Pirate Material in 2002, Mike Skinner had moved away from his home in the Midlands — but his Birmingham accent narrating a "day in the life of a geezer" resonated with my small-town teenage existence of drinking cider at the same pubs and houses, going to the same crap clubs, and eating the same take-out food week in, week out. Skinner saw people living on benefits, sloping over the same bars, and parking themselves in the same spots on their sofas throughout the U.K., and made them feel that English working class living, in all its plainness, was worth documenting.

10. Amos Barshad, The FADER

“I make bangers, not anthems/ Leave that to the Artful Dodger.” It’s a wonky line: a couplet that doesn’t rhyme; a boast that sounds like self-deprecation. And fifteen years later, I still have barely any idea what it means. But that hasn’t stopped it pinging around my head all the same for all these years. That, I think, is the sharpness of Mike Skinner's descriptions. Along with the most of the music-loving world, I was raised on the belief that U.S. hip-hop was unassailably superior. But by some confluence of influence and individuality, Skinner was not beholden to American Rap Imperialism. Instead, he let his natural speaking voice flourish. And the end result is that bits of his back catalog flit around my head, over and over — uninvited, but plenty welcome — still.

11. Clare Maguire, artist

He was from Birmingham as well [as I am] so the album really resonated with me. He spoke like the everyday man, which was what my Dad was like. The sounds he was using in the production were like what you’d hear walking through Birmingham — garage music that sounded like people had made it in their bedrooms.

His lyrics spoke to me and my friends at the time, when we were 15 or 16. Our nightlife was around places like [chain pub] Wetherspoons. Every Friday night was the same, every day was the same. “Stay Positive” described it really well — how the way of getting through life is, you have a drink on a Friday night, you see your mates, and then you both go back to work. You just carry on.

He was an icon for me, so when I was told by my manager that I was going to go in a session with him [to record vocals for The Streets's 2011 track "Lock the Locks"], I was so nervous. But he was fun — exactly the character that he is in his videos. He started speaking to me about growing up where I did and coming into the music industry. It was the first time I’d talked with somebody who understood the levels that your mind has to go through to escape from that kind of mindset into a totally different mindset. There’s a real intensity in what he does, even the simplest things. I think that's what makes him a great writer.

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Why The Streets’s Original Pirate Material Still Matters, 15 Years On