Exploring the authentic voice of young, working class, male youth in the UK via The Streets’ Original Pirate Material album
This article is the second, in a possibly ongoing series, exploring the human condition via what I consider to be landmark rap albums. It is also written to tie in with a seminar where I will be in attendance, hosted by @rapclassroom on Saturday 20th July entitled “Keeping it real? Authenticity, race, gender and hip hop education in the UK”.
Once again, before starting this post, I stress that I am no expert, merely a lover of music in all of its guises.
“You say that everything sounds the same
Then you go buy them! There’s no excuses my friend
Let’s Push Things Forward” – Let’s Push Things Forward”
I would argue that with his debut, Mike Skinner aka The Streets achieves exactly what he encourages others to do in the above quote. He pushes UK hip hop forward and manages to create an album that is personal but also, unusually for many debut hip hop albums, manages to transcend the intensely autobiographical and become universal. The Streets is the voice of the English Everyman; he delivers his voice originally and authentically in a way that is true to him and doesn’t ape US hip hop as other English rappers were (and sometimes still are) prone to do. As he states on the same song “This AIN’T yer archetypal street sound.” In fact some may even argue whether Original Pirate Material is a rap album at all. Throughout, Skinner eschews the word rap, instead referring to his music using well-known English dance genres. On the opening track, Turn the Page, he challenges his rivals to “Gimme a jungle or garage beat and admit defeat”. Here I’d argue that garage, jungle and their more contemporary relative Grime, are merely variations of rap or hip hop but in a specifically English context. They involve spoken word to a rhythmic beat, which is in essence my rough definition of hip hop. No, Skinner isn’t American. No, he isn’t Black and no, he doesn’t talk about guns, gangs or bitches so he doesn’t conform to what many (including some hip hop fans sadly) would expect from this genre but as he says himself:
“Love us or hate us, but don’t slate us
Don’t conform to formulas
Pop genres and such…” – Let’s Push Things Forward
The Streets refuses to be boxed in; those who write him off because he doesn’t look as they expect or sound as they expect or rap about what they expect, have not really listened. They have not fully understood. If they did, they would discover that he is correct to inform us that he “excels in both content and deliverance.”
Authenticity suggests the quality of being truthful and reliable, something genuine that is not a pale imitation of something else. With regards to rap it’s my view that an authentic artist has to have a believable persona, one that could realistically be them, and discuss matters that could feasibly be within their experience or fit with their world view. Mike Skinner sets out clearly who he is; he is no wannabe gangsta: “Think I’m ghetto, stop dreaming.” He draws us into his normal everyday world as a “Northern star with a London Underground travel card.” He then proceeds to tell us tales revolving around the 4 key themes that preoccupy many young working class men in England.
- What it is to be a young man in modern Britain
“ This is the day in the life of a geezer” – Has It Come To This?
In Original Pirate Material Skinner outlines his and, via regularly switching to second and third person, a more general experience of being a young British male. His lyrics, unusually for rappers of any colour, are not race-specific and it is clear that he feels his lyrics are applicable to all, irrespective of race.
“I’m 45th generation Roman
But I don’t know ’em
Or care when I’m spitting” -Turn the page
“Have no prejudice, that’s my hypothesis”- Sharp Darts
A key part of being a young male “whether you are white or black”, in Skinner’s experience, is working out where you come in the social hierarchy and making sure that you are not perceived as weak. He speaks of having to “walk the tightrope of street cred” (Has It Come To This) and the need to project an aura of invincibility when in the presence of other young men, especially strangers. In the thoughtful, It’s Too Late, he wastes time trying to appear impenetrable with “you think I care out – glaring geezers stares” rather than attending to the needs of his girlfriend, and in Geezers Need Excitement, he uses super hero imagery to illustrate the force of the stare that his fellow young men may use to warn potential competitors before a possible fight: “Your frowns and superman eye lasers don’t even register.”
However, the bravado also extends to male friends. Don’t Mug Yourself begins with Skinner having breakfast with some mates and about to call a girl that he met the previous night. Throughout the course of the song his friends tease him for being too eager and we see Skinner start to feign indifference towards the girl in question:
“I’m fucking… I’m no way… really d’ya know what I mean
I can take it or leave it, believe….
Perfectly in control of this goal, I got the lead role, won’t be fooled and I’m older than you’re told
Girl sold, high speeds gold, game over game over too cold” – Don’t Mug Yourself
- Boredom, monotony of everyday life for the working class
“A new day another morning after, leaning back on my chair in a greasy spoon cafeteria…”- Don’t Mug Yourself
The Streets’ desire to portray ordinary life starts before we hear the first song. In the original CD issue of Original Pirate material, the CD booklet has pictures of Skinner in various naturalistic poses sitting in what appears to be a typical English cafe (pronounced caff). This sets the tone well: we are not about to be taken on a glamourous, bragging audio ride with boasts of cars, money and women; instead we are going to hear about life “at street level.” Just to make things perfectly clear, Skinner even humorously amends a famous phrase in Has It Come To This whilst rapping about “sex drugs and on the dole.”
The repetitive nature of life for normal people is a theme recurring throughout the album, perfectly encapsulated in the lyrics of Same Old Thing:
“Round here nothing seems to change
At street level
Same old thing every day
That’s it that’s it that’s it
Just gets played and replayed in different ways…” – Same Old Thing
The beautiful, anthemic Weak Become Heroes, which manages to be both uplifting and melancholy, also alludes to this dull Groundhog Day experience via word repetition in addition to the imagery used:
“That same piano loops over and over and over
The road shines and the rain washes away
The same Chinese takeaway selling shit in a tray”- Weak Become Heroes
Junk food also features heavily in the descriptions of everyday life, often coupled with drink. The scene outlined in Geezers Need Excitement is a familiar one to anybody who has ever got a late night kebab after a night out.
“Out the club about three, to the take-away
The shit-in-a-tray merchants, shops got special penchant for the disorderly
Geezers looking ordinary and a few looking leary…
…Behind the counter they look nervous, but
Carry on cutting the finest cuts of chicken from the big spinning stick…” – Geezers Need Excitement
There are wistful poignant moments throughout the album, wondering if there might be more to life than drinking and clubbing and rubbish jobs or unemployment, but our narrator doesn’t appear to know how to access this parallel universe:
“Apparently there’s a whole world out there somewhere
it’s right there, right there
I just don’t see it, I just don’t see it”- Same Old hing
- Limited tools available to the masses in order to escape the monotony of normal life
In the world described by The Streets, the monotony of life is broken by 3 key things: self-medication (drugs/alcohol), violence and clubbing.
“Geezers need excitement
If their lives don’t provide them this they incite violence
Common sense simple common sense” – Geezers Need Excitement
The relationship between boredom, alcohol and potential or actual violence is explored several times on the album, most obviously in Geezers Need Excitement which details the end of a drunken night, but also in Too Much Brandy which describes the beginning and middle of a drunken lad’s night out and could be considered the precursor to Geezer’s nadir:
“… been there before, done that, no joy,
if you’re bored, let’s go see Roy,
get fucked up with the boys” – Too Much Brandy
The song humorously captures the debauchery and increasingly ridiculous nature of drunkenness but the darker side of the ubiquitous British binge drinking culture is also depicted further on in the album as one character describes his weekend hobby:
“There’s nothing I like more than getting fired up on beer
And when the weekends here I to exercise my right to get paralytic and fight
I down eight pints and run all over the place ” – The Irony Of It All
The Streets is clearly pro-drugs; he depicts them in a mostly positive way with fewer of the violent associations that come with alcohol. On Original Pirate material drugs are a clear vehicle for escapism from daily life often via relaxing in a private setting or as in Weak Become Heroes a club. In Weak Become Heroes, clubbing, dancing, music and drugs combine to create a temporary utopia and oasis from the normal world:
“We were just standing there minding our own
And it went on and on
We all smile we all sing
The weak become heroes then the stars align
We all sing we all sing all sing” – Weak Become Heroes
Skinner raps of a world where the eponymous weak have been freed from the daily grind of dead end jobs and male bravado, and made strong via their shared connection through music and drugs. Unfortunately this release is only temporary:
“I realize five years went by I’m older
Memories smoulder winters colder
It’s dark all round I walk down same sights same sounds new beats though
No surprises no treats the world stands still…” – Weak Become Heroes.
Like a cub kid’s version of the picture of Dorian Grey, Skinner realises that he has been getting older whilst everything else stays the same. His version of escape has become its own prison of monotony.
The darker side of escapism is also explored on the final and possibly most consistently reflective song on the album:
“You’re on your own now
Your little zone you were born alone and believe me you’ll die alone
Weed becomes a chore
You want the buzz back so you follow the others onto smack” – Stay Positive
In this, his final message to the listener, Skinner suggests that self-medication is not the answer when you are truly at the brink. For him our salvation lies in solid relationships with others, whoever we are, irrespective of wealth or beauty…
“Cause you’re the same as I am
We all need our fellow man
We all need our samaritan.
Maybe I’m better looking than you though
Maybe I’ve got more dough – but am I happier… no
Get the love of a good girl and your world will be much richer than my world
And your happiness will uncurl” – Stay Positive
- Navigating relationships with women
“Around here we say birds not bitches” – Let’s Push Things Forward
Original Pirate Material very clearly depicts the young, British, male experience but as a female listener I do not feel alienated. Of course, Skinner is a young man and as such, sex is high on his list of interests.
“Buy a drink, chat to a lady, the girl’s well fit definitely, not maybe,
she’s rude I’d shag her and matey, right there”- Same Old Thing
However on the album there is none of the misogyny, objectification or degrading sexual imagery that can often saturate American male rappers’ music, and the female viewpoint (when it appears) is often used to counteract some of the male excess.
“And forever you’re gonna regret that, your choice of path
So mash his head up and your girls now fed up…”- Geezers Need Excitement
On It’s Too Late, our protagonist’s arrogance (“We first met through a shared view. She loved me and I did too”) is stripped away after his girlfriend finally has enough of his casual neglect and leaves him, finally tires of always being the bottom of his priorities. This is a tender song and illustrates the positive value that Skinner places on female influence by being a powerful counterbalance to the more laddish songs such as Don’t Mug Yourself, Geezers Need Excitement and Too Much Brandy.
“My fears unveiled, for my fair female
She’d walked away, too little too late
I walk in a trance…
…Now nothing holds significance
‘Cause the only thing I can see is her elegance” – It’s Too Late
As well as being honest and believable in content, The Streets has an authenticity in the way he delivers his tales as “your local street poet”. No faux American accent for him. Not even an approximated London twang but instead his true Midlands voice, even though accents from that part of England tend to be ridiculed by others (much like some of the accents from the American Deep south).
Coupled with his accent is the use of specifically English terminology and images. The creeping Americanisation of British English has been happening for some time, hastened via music and film, but the Streets delivers a resolutely English listening experience. Alongside his use of specifically English slang words like Geezer, Twat and Bird, he also peppers his songs with locations in London such as “mile end to Bounds Green” as well as stepping outside of the capital to make reference to his Birmingham roots and to a well-known shopping area in the city.
“The hazy fog over the Bull Ring” – Turn the page
Instead of the usual references to ballers, we instead hear of “backstreet brawlers, corner shop crawlers” and listen to lyrics such as “I walk the beat like a policeman” which conjure imagery as familiar to English ears as verse about “Benjamins” would to Americans – without the origins having to be explained.
In conclusion, for me, everything about Original Pirate Material points to a truly authentic rap album. Mike Skinner’s execution is that of a young man comfortable in his own skin, confident enough to be who he is and rap about what he knows and sees, even though it is not the norm. Yes, he has the standard lyrics boasting of his lyrical prowess but he is also able to explore the unglamorous world of thousands of young working class men on a small, rainy island in an honest, eloquent way which is in turns funny and affecting. The Streets does not feel the need to create a fake world of gats, feds and hos to keep up with his American counterparts. He is happy speaking in his own dialect, making his own distinctive beats and forging his own path, and he is unapologetic in doing so:
“Accept me as your own
Let me make myself at home
I just ain’t a clone” – Who Dares Wins