The Streets' Mike Skinner
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One-man hip-hop outfit The Streets—a.k.a. Mike Skinner—debuted with "Has It Come To This" on the respected UK label Locked On in 2001 before scoring fairly big in his native UK and the U.S. with three LPs: Original Pirate Material (2002), A Grand Don't Come For Free (2004), and The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living (2006). The first two were nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize, no surprise given Skinner's singular melding of UK dance music with a literate, narrative stop-start flow unlike any other rapper on either side of the Atlantic. He rejected rap's usual posturing in favor of exquisite details about quotidian middle-class struggles like bad ecstasy and dead cell-phone batteries. With The Hardest Way, however, he moved on to rapping about addiction, male chauvinism, and discontent with success. On his new Everything Is Borrowed, the almost-thirtysomething tries to reintegrate peace and optimism into his life and forge a personal ethos, all while avoiding any verbal references to contemporary technology or culture. He recenty spoke with The A.V. Club about another wild artistic turn and the imminent end of The Streets.
The A.V. Club: How did you manage to avoid modern references on the new record? That seems like a tall order.
Mike Skinner: I don't remember where that specific rule came from, but anytime I finish an album, it means I've been working on that thing for years. It's another way of getting away from the album I did before.
AVC: Was it difficult? So much of your prior work was tied up with modern life.
MS: I was really excited to start off with, and I did write a couple of pretty good songs at the beginning, and then it all started to get a little bit weird. I think this is a great example of why it's good to restrict yourself artistically. It was tough to avoid cliché, and I had to sort of reach for the sky.
AVC: Were there any peers that influenced your direction?
MS: I think I was more influenced by the books I was reading on this album. A good example is "Alleged Legends," which is basically inspired by books by Susan Blackmore and Richard Dawkins.
AVC: The author of The Selfish Gene. You seem to come down the side of a sort of moral evolution.
MS: Yeah. We have morals, a sensibility which we just have deep down. I think people feel like if you don't write them down, then you have no rules, and that's actually not true. Morals change all the time, and your subconscious is actually much better at deciding what's right than your conscious.
AVC: Is this verbal turn away from technology a sign that you're becoming a Luddite?
MS: I just got a 303 to go with my 909. They're probably my favorite two toys. I really kind of learned with this album that rather than just fiddling around with the sound in the computer, if you pick the right instrument with the right microphone and right player, you can get something that sounds good rather than playing with something inside the computer. So I'm definitely gonna incorporate that into the next album, even though the next album is going to be a lot more futuristic, in a way. Everything on this album was played by someone at some point. The drums were kind of chopped, put into perfect quantization, but I spent a long time physically making the drums sound like a drum machine by covering the drumhead with tea towels to make it sound dead. That's why it's these beats banging on in time, but they're warm because they've physically been played rather than chopped up from samples.
AVC: The album is called Everything Is Borrowed. Are you financially prescient?
MS: Money is kind of imaginary, isn't it? That's one of those things that's kind of really coming out at the moment. It's not money made by the mint. It's made by the banks pretending and lending and borrowing.
AVC: How did you react to the reaction to The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living?
MS: Every story, whether it's a film or a book or a record, gets reduced, and people don't have time to look at it in detail unless they're really interested. Everything becomes reductive. It was partly kind of an explanation as to why the dream isn't a dream, you know? What's at the end of the dream? I think I achieved a lot in that way, but it was perceived as this dark album.
AVC: Do you consider it a failure?
MS: I don't consider it a failure, but everyone else does.
AVC: New York magazine says they liked you better as an asshole.
MS: There's 8 billion people in this world, and they all like different things. I think I've done okay over the years, and people have a habit of saying reactionary things when they're made uncomfortable. But they do change their views when they look back on things and realize, you know, it was good.
AVC: Between the MySpace song hunt and your regular blogging, how has the Internet played a role in The Streets?
MS: I was here before it hit big. I'm very creative with the way that I blog. I'd want to use the blog more after my label contract expires. Ideally, it would just be the blog. Music will just be totally [available] whenever it gets made.
AVC: Are you being held back by your label?
MS: Not held back I'm not necessarily saying that I would give away music for free, because I think the jury is out on that one, but I definitely think I wouldn't be pinning everything around a three-month promotion campaign.
AVC: "Two Nations" examines a language barrier between the UK and the U.S. How is The Streets being misunderstood here, if at all?
MS: I definitely think that there were some Americans who were offended by "Two Nations," but not the Americans I know. I guess Americans are very patriotic, which is all well and good. Americans, you know, aren't pretty excited about George Bush, but if anyone else brings it up Which I don't think is a bad thing. But it's quite interesting, because America's actually the most powerful country in the world. You kind of expect that patriotism from Jamaica, or the Welsh. I think it's because they all come from somewhere else and bought into the dream.
AVC: On "Stay Positive," you said you weren't a "preachy fucker" or a "goody-goody." How has that changed?
MS: Nowadays I would say I'd try not to be didactic. But you have to have an angle; if you don't have an angle, you don't have a story. I think the balance that I find so difficult is finding the angle to the point, but not going too far.
AVC: The "Escapist" video has you walking from England to the south of France. What's your regimen these days?
MS: I get up and run as soon as I wake up. I don't worry about things as much. I don't know why that is. I think if you just keep your blood pumping, you don't have black thoughts staying up in your brain.
AVC: So have the substances faded into the background?
MS: I've grown older, and there was one year around the time of the last album where I was clean for the whole year, but apart from that, I've just kind of gotten a bit older. It's not really been anything that extreme.
AVC: You mentioned wanting your body of work to be like The Wire. What drew you in?
MS: It's very well executed, but I don't think it really speaks to me. It's a bit like rap music to me. I don't think rap music ever really spoke to me. I never felt like any rappers were me. I mean, there's a lot of my fans, you know, kind of feel like they are me. I never really had that style, but I always loved Nas. You feel like you're learning and you're not being sold short. There are a few characters that I thought were a bit larry [ridiculous]. The black dude who talked all posh, the guy that [Spoiler warning. —ed.] killed Stringer. [Brother Mouzone. –ed.] He's weird, really, but apart from that, I felt like you could see–especially in the schools, you can see where they're taking a kind of general political dilemma and turning it into a human dilemma, and they have characters acting out the roles in ways that kind of wouldn't normally happen. It's bureaucracy, and then expressing the bureaucracy via the characters. How else could they get that across?
AVC: Anything interesting happen while you recorded in Prague?
MS: Well, I did the orchestra stuff. A lot of my music is just kind of "throw it around 'til it sounds right," but when you got an orchestra waiting there, you can't fiddle around. It really forced me to make decisions for the first time. I had to make decisions about my music without hearing the result. We had to set in stone what the strings were going to be playing and hope for the best. That was definitely trial by fire.
AVC: Do you regret announcing that The Streets will be over after the next album?
MS: I don't, actually. It turned into this thing that everyone asks me about. I do mean to do it. I don't regret it, because I mean it.