On paper, The Streets was never something that should have properly taken off the way it did. And yet I’ve spent roughly a decade of my life listening to the poetry and beats of one Mike Skinner. I maintain that Original Pirate Material and A Grand Don’t Come for Free, his first two Streets records, are two of my favourite records ever. They just present such a unique and remarkable take on UK hip-hop, garage… music in general around that period. So naturally I was pretty stoked to be able to chat to Mike back in 2009 – even if a) It was on the back of his worst album, 2008’s Everything is Borrowed; and b) I had to get out of a Bleeding Through gig to speak to him. Actually, in retrospect, that second point wasn’t all that bad.
Mike was cool, regardless. You get out what you put in, and he could tell I was a big fan and had done my research. In turn, I got a fairly good chat out of him. I haven’t heard his new project, The D.O.T., but believe when I say it’s on my to-do list.
– DJY, 2013
“You sound alive,” Mike Skinner tells me. “Very perky.”
I graciously accept his observation-slash-compliment. Usually, you wouldn’t expect that degree of kindness from someone whose bleak, frustrated and brutally honest lyrics have become some what omnipresent on their last three releases. However, since the release of Skinner’s latest album under the moniker of The Streets, Everything is Borrowed, we may well have witnessed some kind of epiphany-based reinvention of both man and music.
Featuring an aura created by what Skinner has described as “peaceful, positive vibes,” the album boasts a title track with the mantra: “I entered this world with nothing, and I leave it with nothing but love/Everything else is just borrowed.” Chances are this new approach to the music of The Streets left you baffled, but as Skinner explains, it’s all a part of the plan.
“It was my intention to make a positive album,” he emphasises. “It’s the verses where things go wrong, but it’s the choruses that are really uplifting.” Mike goes on to explain that the concept behind Borrowed was to collate a collection of parables. “It was intended that the stories were not ‘me’ and not really what I was doing, y’know? Some people tend to think I’ve been walking along beaches and living the natural life… and I haven’t! I’ve been in a studio in London! But the concept was to tell these thoughts in a kind of indirect and imaginative way, which obviously I’d never done before.”
The album deals with more than just unhappy London life (2002’s Original Pirate Material ), a story of a man and his missing money (2004’s A Grand Don’t Come for Free ) or dealing with the foreign concept of fame (2006’s The Hardest Way to Make An Easy Living ). Everything is Borrowed is Mike Skinner looking at the bigger picture of life, and where he fits in.
Our conversation moves in on a particular intriguing lyric from the album: “Just when you discover the meaning of life, they change it.” This lyric appears to have been inspired by the way social acceptance and what is moral is constantly evolving.
“I think it’s important to remember that the moral zeitgeist changes,” he puts forward after taking a moment to properly phrase his thoughts. “Religious people like to think that they get their rules from the Bible; but if you look at the Bible, there’s all sorts of death, destruction and idiot torture going on. There’s also a scientific zeitgeist – the way we’re supposed to raise our kids, prolong our lives. I think it’s important to remember that everything could change – everything that you believe, that you think is okay, could end up being very different.”
If anyone knows how quickly everything can change, it’s Mike Skinner. Since the beginning of The Streets, British hip hop has slowly, but surely, become a globally recognised scene and culture. Even so, ask Skinner whether he keeps up with it, or even associates The Streets with it, and he is quick to downplay his part. “I don’t think any rapper wants to be me… in a way, I’m kind of irrelevant. But yeah, kind of subconsciously, I think my success has kind of changed things in rap – not me, personally, though.”
This month sees Mike bring out the live Streets band for a series of shows, as well as being a headliner of the Playground Weekender festival. He gives some quick opinions of the headliners: Primal Scream (“They’re cool, I used to have the same manager as them”), Cold War Kids (“I’ve only really heard one song of theirs, they’re alright”), Jose Gonzalez (“cool, lovely”) and Crystal Castles (“I don’t really know what to make of them!”). Skinner also tells of how surprised he is at the audiences he’s been seeing on tour this time around. “The fans seem to be younger than ever, the shows have been more successful than ever; doing massive shows in Europe… I have no idea where it’s come from, to be honest,” he confesses.
As so many international acts have done, Skinner goes on to praise Australia ahead of the tour. “Australia just really feels like you’re a long way from home, even though, culturally, you’re not. It’s a great way of kind of losing contact with your life, especially on Big Day Out tours that we’ve done in the past. When you’re a part of a touring festival like the Big Day Out, you really get to know the other bands; and you don’t really get that at other festivals.”