Hard to know what to make of this book. ‘Honest’ is a word bandied around far too frequently, especially in the case of autobiographies when there’s not much else to say about them, but in Mike Skinner’s account of his musical journey as the Streets, it seeps off every page. Essentially it is the ruminations of Mike Skinner, over 350 pages or so. It’s arranged in 5 sections, around his 5 albums (which he neatly fits to Robert McKee’s 5 stages of a Hollywood plot) and in that vein has a sense of chronology about it, but more than anything it’s Skinner’s chance to muse on a variety of topics; hip-hop, song-writing, drugs, the music industry and, erm, the NHS. Precisely because Skinner said so little of substance in interviews during the peak of his popularity (and he goes into great detail to explain why), he expounds on these matters at great length and there’s no doubting his eloquence and ability to entertain. And yet rather like the Streets, it’s ultimately frustrating because you get the sense it could have been so much more. In essence Skinner says very little about what most fans would want to hear – the music. He details how each album came about and the moods and attitudes that shaped them, but there’s no insight into the songs at all, which is a shame, particularly given the astonishing innovation that characterised the first 2 albums. This may, of course, be all part of the plan, as Skinner from the outset is keen to debunk some of the myths around songwriting. He is at pains to point out that the emotion a certain song might generate in the listener probably isn’t one which the writer felt in creating the song. He recounts how he read reams of songwriting books in order to hone his skill, the most influential being one seeped in country and western tradition. But it’s perhaps revealing that he started doing this after Original Pirate Material, his 1st and only truly great album. A Grand Don’t Come for Free may have won him a wider fan-base, with its rock opera style story-telling, but nothing that came after OPM was as powerful as the debut.
Parts of the story seem to be missing. Original Pirate Material, we learn, was all recorded in a bedroom in a Brixton flatshare, as an uncompromising one-man project, which leaves you wondering about the collaborations on Don’t Mug Yourself, Has It Come to This? and It’s Too Late. The ascent to fame and fortune is almost wholly untold. One minute he’s recording vocals in a wardrobe in his bedroom in Brixton, the next he’s coining it on the festival circuit and being entertained by hipsters in Berlin and New York. However sudden Skinner’s rise was, it’s always nice to hear about that transitional phase, but it doesn’t really get a look in here. The most notable absences though are the stories behind the songs, because however dispassionate about songwriting Skinner professes to be, he is a master songwriter in the finest British tradition, and comparisons with Bowie, Elvis Costello and Morissey, on the first album at least, are more than justified. What lay behind masterpieces like Weak Become Heroes or Stay Positive, that spoke to and for a generation or, for that matter, such atrocities as Memento Mori? It would be good to know, but it seems Skinner hasn’t written this book for such purposes.
(the best of Skinner – no other song captures the emotional roller-coaster of raving and pills as this one. Utterly poetic, accompanied by that sublime piano that “loops over and over and over …”)
There’s still much to love in Skinner’s book. He’s irreverent and eloquent and writes in a deeply personal, and personable, style. Reading it feels a bit like going out for a drink with a mate, but an interesting mate that you don’t see very often, not the boring one that talks about work all the time. His love of music shines through and he has some wonderful insights into various scenes: garage, grime, rave, reggae and most of all hip hop. In many ways he’s deeply in thrall to US hip hop culture, although of course his selling point was that he never tried to emulate it, and in that way he quite rightly sees his music as a precursor to grime – a unique departure point, in which UK rappers found their own voice and stopped imitating the yanks. It’s unlikely that the likes of Dizzee and Wiley were primarily influenced by the Streets but there’s no doubt that Skinner’s music and its reception cleared the runway for their landing. And Skinner adds another layer to our understanding of the cultural landscape that has shaped the history of British music with his astute observation that “if you take away America from hip hop, you’re basically left with Africa … that’s kind of what grime is. It’s amazing how many of those British rappers – Dizzee, Kano, Lethal Bizzle – have got Ghanaian or Nigerian parents. Whereas traditionally British black music – and you could definitely see this with the earlier generation of garage MCs, and the generation of drum n bass guys before them – has been dominated by people from Jamaican backgrounds”.
(and the worst. Plodding beats underscore some of the Skinner’s least insightful lyrics )
Despite his insights, there’s something a bit unedifying about Skinner’s devotion to mainstream US rap culture. Skinner loves the idea that in the US, financial success is worn as a badge of honour and he is scornful of the British tendency to distance yourself from the money you’ve made. To be fair, Skinner is a man that reached the top of his game; he’s sat in on P-Diddy’s business meetings and been backstage with Kanye, so he’s probably entitled to his opinions. But time and again he returns to US rap stars’ outrageously lavish lifestyles with a sense of wonder, bemoaning the fact that in the UK such ostentatious displays of wealth are often looked down on. However the bling-tastic posturings of stars like Jay-Z and 50 Cent is but a small part (and some would say corruption of) hip hop culture. The empowering intellect of Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, the revolutionary politics of Gill Scott Heron and Public Enemy, the twisted horror-show humour of Gracediggaz and the Pharcyde all seem to play second fiddle to the guns n girls narrative of rappers like Kanye and Jay Z. Perhaps this is unfair. A man like Skinner, with his encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, is surely aware of the importance of these acts (and a few pages are devoted to De La Soul and their contemporaries). But it’s the arena rappers that seem to occupy central stage in Skinner’s narrative.
The amount of text dedicated to the making of each of the 5 records decreases with each album, so by the time we reach his 5th, Computers and Blues, there is almost nothing at all written about its conception and production. It’s hard not to conclude that by this stage Skinner had lost interest in the Streets as a project, and the pedestrian sound of the album supports this. Yet I vaguely recall, just before the release of the 4th album, Everything is Borrowed, an interview with Skinner in which he said he would be doing one more album after this one, completely different to anything before it, rooted in the sound of 70s experimental krautrock. Maybe I dreamt this – I can find no record of it – but really something like this should have been Skinner’s only option, a parting shot which ripped up the template in which he had become trapped. In essence Skinner was never able to push things forward in the way he had exhorted on the first album. But for the genius and legacy of that debut record, he can rightly take his place in the canon of great British musical heroes.