The Anniversary

Original Pirate Material Turns 20

Locked On/679
2002
Locked On/679
2002

It took 42 seconds for sleepy-eyed every-bloke Mike Skinner to arrive at his mission statement: “This is the day in the life of a geezer.” Six weeks before his 22nd birthday, Skinner spluttered that line on his debut single “Has It Come To This?” When he recorded that song, Skinner had spent his early years in the working-class suburbs of Birmingham. He’d left Birmingham to live in Australia with a girlfriend, but it hadn’t worked out, so he’d just moved to London. Skinner had been trying to rap and make beats for a while, and “Has It Come To This?” was the moment that he put everything together. With that song, Skinner took the sounds floating in the London atmosphere at the time, and he talked over those sounds in free-associative word-clusters that managed to be self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating in equal measures. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did. Mike Skinner made a hit, and he did it by embracing all the things that made him so average.

Mike Skinner’s timing was good. He recorded “Has It Come To This” when the genre known as UK garage was just nearing the end of its heyday. UK garage was the latest mutation of a British nightclub and pirate-radio culture that always evolved at a frantic pace. Near the end of the ’90s, UK producers moved on from drum ‘n’ bass and filter-disco house, landing on a sleek-but-nervous sound that drew on the hooks and textures of futuristic American R&B. For a few years, garage took over the UK charts. Relatively anonymous producers — MJ Cole, Shanks & Bigfoot, Artful Dodger — scored massive hits. Craig David got his start singing over garage beats and quickly became a huge star, even having a brief run on the American charts. By 2001, garage was moving toward rap, and a massive and chaotic London group called So Solid Crew had a massive hit with their giddy, propulsive posse cut “21 Seconds.”

Mike Skinner wasn’t a part of all that. Like so many British kids of his generation, Skinner had his mind blown at raves as a kid, and plenty of early rave hitmakers were pale bedroom-producer dorks not too different from Skinner. But when UK garage took over, things changed. The London pirate-radio scene has always transcended racial boundaries, but UK garage was more of a Black thing than most of what came before it. Grime producers, singers, and MCs adapted the larger-than-life flash of American rappers and singers, putting that swagger in service of music that made sense in a UK rave-culture context. Mike Skinner knew that he couldn’t do that. As a kid, he’d experienced a foundational trauma when another kid made fun of him for trying to rap.

Skinner never really did become a rapper. Instead, he just kind of talked over beats. His flow was awkward and halting. A lot of the time, it didn’t even bother with rhyme or meter. Often, Skinner barely interacted with the beats that he’d made. Rather than presenting himself as someone who fit alongside So Solid Crew, Skinner fashioned himself as a kind of narrator, telling tales of drunken nights and hungover mornings over the tracks that reflected the sounds that Skinner and his friends might’ve heard in the clubs and pubs and flats where they spent their nights. It often sounded janky and pasted-together, but Skinner was a charismatic figure with an eye for detail and a fun sense of language. Crucially, he sounded like nobody else. On “Has It Come To This?,” Skinner did nothing to hide his accent or even to sound cool. Somehow, his voice made its own kind of sense when paired with the jittery garage track that Skinner put together, with its chopped-up ohs and hits slip-sliding bassline. Skinner had something.

Skinner decided to call himself the Streets. Maybe that was irony, or maybe it was uncharacteristic confidence. More likely, it was some combination of the two. He took his demo tape of “Has It Come To This?” to Nick Worthington, a guy who ran a record shop in North London. Worthington didn’t know how to categorize “Has It Come To This?,” and that’s what he liked about it. Worthington was an A&R at Locked Out Records, a London label that specialized in garage, and Locked Out released the “Has It Come To This?” single late in 2001. It struck a nerve, reaching the top 20 of the UK charts, so Skinner got to work on a full-length album, putting together beats on his computer and recording his vocals in a wardrobe that he’d lined with blankets. That album became Original Pirate Material, a truly singular piece of moment-capturing magic that turns 20 today.

Original Pirate Material is probably best understood as a series of vignettes. Skinner embraced his own identity as a drunk, underemployed Birmingham kid, and he used his music to describe day-in-the-life geezer situations — a fight breaking out in a chip shop after the clubs close, a friend reminding him not to get too eager when calling some girl, a way-too-sloppy night out. Skinner found just the right level of detachment to tell his stories. You could tell that he’d been in those bars and chip shops — that he was living in those bars and chip shops when he recorded the album — but you can also hear him commenting on that life rather than fully living in it. Whether intentionally or not, Skinner fit nicely into a UK tradition of sly, observational pop songwriters — Ray Davies, Paul Weller, Jarvis Cocker. But those guys were rock singers with at least some interest in glamorous poses. Skinner, on the other hand, was working in a primarily Black style of music, and he had no interest in glamor whatsoever. Instead, he had the self-awareness of a white rap nerd — the instinctive understanding that nobody would take him seriously and that he shouldn’t take himself too seriously, either.

Mike Skinner does attempt to flex a few times on Original Pirate Material. “Turn The Page,” for instance, is Skinner’s attempt at the trope of the epic rap-album opener. Skinner wrote it after watching Gladiator one night, and you can really hear him reaching for mythic verbiage. Even there, though, a lot of Skinner’s boasts are things like “my crew laughs at your rhubarb-and-custard verses” — lines that, as an American, I will never properly understand. But Skinner spends most of the album in slice-of-life mode. Even with Original Pirate Material being so deeply and specifically British, I’m the same age as Skinner, and I was living a similarly scummy life at the time, so it all hit close to home. Skinner was eating junk food and sitting drunk on the tube. He was trying to convince himself not to lounge in the boozer all day because he had maneuvers to make. He was ripping down posters he liked from last week’s big garage night and the next Tyson fight. He was speaking my language.

Skinner was funny, and that helped. “The Irony Of It All,” for instance, is basically a comedy sketch — Skinner doing two different voices over two different beats, inhabiting the characters of a drunk hooligan and a smarmy stoner student. The song seemed to take the side of the peaceful weed-smoker over the violent drinker, but Skinner made the stoner so smirky that it’s still pretty fun when the drunk batters him. But the Streets wasn’t a joke. Skinner could summon real emotion, for instance, when talking about a breakup on “It’s Too Late,” and he could convey tension on “Geezers Need Excitement.” Best of all was “Weak Become Heroes,” Skinner’s starry-eyed love letter to the British open-air raves that had been legislated out of existence: “The night slowly fades and goes slow motion/ All the commotion becomes floating emotions/ Same piano loops over.” It’s a beautiful song.

Skinner understood how to make his music fit the tone of the tracks, too. Original Pirate Material isn’t entirely Skinner’s take on UK garage, though there’s plenty of that in there. Parts of the album warp American rap into interesting new shapes. Parts of it anticipate grime, the new garage genre that was already taking shape elsewhere in London. Skinner didn’t really have anything to do with that, but he’d at least sometimes find himself in the same rooms as those guys. “Weak Become Heroes” uses echoes of past rave hits effectively. Another single, “Let’s Push Things Forward,” adapts the ghostly 2-Tone ska of the Specials, a group that chronicled provincial English working-class go-nowhere youth life 20 years earlier.

Original Pirate Material was a critical hit on both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK, it was something like a pop success, sending four singles into the top 40 and eventually going platinum. In Skinner’s homeland, the album set him up to briefly become a pop star on his next album. In the US, the pure Britishness of the record made it a fascinating curiosity. If you didn’t know about where Skinner sat at the intersection of garage and indie, then he just sounded like what might happen if British people suddenly decided that they could rap. (Danny Brown, a future Mike Skinner collaborator, was a big fan, though he later admitted to Skinner that his friends didn’t like the record at all.)

It’s not quite right to call Original Pirate Material a time-capsule album, even if it could’ve only come from one specific place in one specific time. Instead, it’s an outlier — an example of a gifted young artist finding his voice by highlighting all the stuff that set him apart. In the grand story of UK rap music and pirate-radio culture, Original Pirate Material might only be a footnote; grime would’ve happened with or without Mike Skinner. But Skinner was a truly influential artist in ways that nobody would’ve anticipated.

In 2002, the year that Original Pirate Material came out, a lot of UK press hype was directed away from Skinner and towards Up The Bracket, the debut album from wasted young prettyboys the Libertines. But when the Arctic Monkeys came along a few years later and became the biggest thing in Brit-rock since Oasis, Alex Turner sounded a whole lot more like Mike Skinner than Pete Doherty or, for that matter, Liam Gallagher. Mike Skinner really did push things forward, and the world, we learned, wanted to know a lot more about a day in the life of a geezer.

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