A love letter to The Streets’ still incredible ‘Original Pirate Material’

Most of the music I was listening to 15 years ago rarely hits my headphones these days. Sorry The Smiths, The Donnas, Cypress Hill, The Strokes, Moldy Peaches, and, erm, Fun Lovin’ Criminals, but I’ve moved on. I still love you, but people change. However, there is one notable exception, one record that I’ve practically had on repeat ever since it came out. It’s an album that was released on March 25, 2002, and to me remains as fresh as it was that day – even with that dated shout-out to obsolete search engine AltaVista.

The genius of ‘Original Pirate Material’ was that it managed to be unlike anything I’d ever heard before, yet utterly familiar at the same time. I’d grown up listening to US hip-hop, and as much as I loved Eminem and Wu Tang Clan, it’s kind of hard to relate to stories from the gritty streets of Staten Island and Detroit when you’re a schoolgirl from Wood Green. Yet when Mike Skinner fused the two-step garage soundtrack that rang out through the corridors of my secondary school with lyrics not just about stuff I knew, but places I’d been, suddenly everything made sense. When I first heard Skinner on ‘Has It Come To This’ say, “My underground train runs from Mile End to Ealing From Brixton to Bounds Green” in his Birmingham-via-Brixton twang, I squealed with happiness at the local namedrops. Let it be known that this is the first – and likely the only – time north London suburban nowhereland Bounds Green ever made it onto a Top 10 album.

23-year-old Mike Skinner received an overwhelmingly well-deserved 9/10 review in NME for his debut and its “tales of love, going out, being skint, getting drunk, and eating chips.” It wasn’t a flashy, fake copy of US hip-hop – there was no big pimping, just big drinking. Nothing out of the ordinary happens on the album; Mike picks up his take-away, there’s a scuffle here, a bit of weed-smoking there and some standard heartbreak. But it was the first time many young Brits had seen their boozy, smoky way of life hoisted up into the spotlight and turned into art. Even Britpop tried to lace the British youth experience with the glamour of being a ‘rock’n’roll star’, but Mike Skinner had no truck with that. Sometimes life was boring, sometimes you drank too much brandy on holiday, sometimes you had a full English and sometimes you got dumped and it was shit. Mike Skinner wasn’t just your mate, he was you. And who could manage to say a line like “around here we say birds, not bitches” and make it sound like a compliment?

Yet amongst all that normality, there was a definite epicness in play. With its looming bedroom strings and Mike’s declaration of being “45th generation Roman” opening track ‘Turn The Page’ was massive in sound and message, taking inspiration from both Russell Crowe’s Gladiator and DJ Luck and MC Neat in equal measure. The stunning ‘Weak Become Heroes’ made poetry from partying, setting up the club as a modern day church. Here is where hedonism met global politics, with Mike suggesting that if the world’s leaders all boshed a few pingers there’d be no war.

15 years on and The Streets are no more, with Skinner putting the project to bed in 2011, after five albums and god knows how many trashed pairs of Reebok Classics. What a geezer.