Their features may remain the same, but over the years the streets – the unfriendly thoroughfares which are the touchstone for ‘authentic urban music’ in Britain – have had many different voices.
In the 1980s, Paul Weller sang about their burned out phone booths and ripped up concrete, while Terry Hall and Specials made eerie serenades to their night-time threat. Twenty years later, we can witness their new sound. They sound a bit like the Phil Daniels bit in Blur‘s ‘Parklife’, only they’ve got a Birmingham accent.
And why not? As UK garage takes on more and more of the lifestyle accessories of the US hop-hop scene, Mike Skinner, the 21-year-old who’s the man behind Streets represents a brilliant break with cliché. You won’t find him sipping on Kristal, emerging from a limousine, and the ‘haters’ don’t get a look in. His drink is lager, or brandy, he recorded most of this debut album in his mum’s house, and his songs depict an often breadline existence. And as such, he’s one of the most original British pop voices for years.
What we’re dealing with here is an album that owes a lot to garage, but also quite a lot to the all-night garage, too. By turns dark, funny and heartbreaking, the songs on ‘Original Pirate Material’ are snapshots of ordinary life as a young midlands resident, set to innovative two-step production: tales of love, going out, being skint, getting drunk (there’s a lot of this – sometimes it’s a surprise Skinner has called himself Streets and not The Coach and Horses), and eating chips. It’s Streets by name, and streets by nature, and it’s great.
The single ‘Has It Come To This?’ may have given you the idea already, but there’s an incredible strength of character to Streets. It’s small wonder that Mike Skinner presently finds himself feeling the love of the people (the single reached number 18), but not of garage’s more established crews – he sounds nothing like them, and he’s making the isolation sound splendid.
There’s the voice, of course, upfront in the mix as if this were a spoken-word record, but what it’s saying is better still. The heartbreaking ‘It’s Too Late’ is a musical highpoint and tearful updating of [a]Specials[/a], but includes the line: ‘We first met through a shared view/She loved me, and I did too‘. Elsewhere there’s the heavy hip-hop of ‘Sharp Darts’, and Specials-like ‘Same Old Thing’, casting an eye over the late night takeaway scene to further smash the urban mould. As he says on ‘Let’s Push Things Forward’, ‘this ain’t your archetypal street sound’, and it’s an admirable mission statement.
Because the sound of the streets is too often like an episode of ‘The Bill’ – hard hitting and ‘real’, certainly but without any of the stupidity, joy and occasional moments of beauty that you’ll find in here. As in records, as in life – you’re simply much poorer if you never get a chance to experience it.