This article originally appeared in Q404.
When Mike Skinner called time on his era-defining rap/production alias The Streets in 2011, the lights went out in him. Ted Kessler meets Skinner to hear about the long, lost journey out of the fog that led him to two brand new albums and a film. “A lot of this time has felt irrational,” he says, “but, looking back on it, it’s been totally rational.”
It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but the Café Rouge on Highgate High Street, in the leafiest part of leafy North London, is even more underwhelming inside.
A dingy, split-level brasserie, dimly-lit and smelling slightly of bleach on a bright, hot July morning, this is nonetheless where many of the local famous people hang out. Today, with his back to the door and a coffee in front of him, sits our man in black, the voice of his generation, Mike Skinner, aka The Streets. He is the only customer in here.
“Sometimes, you can come here and the other people in will be Liam Gallagher, Jamie Oliver and Ray Davies, all sitting separately, all ignoring each other,” says Skinner, deadpan, his default mode of communication. Actors Matt Smith and Jude Law, news anchor Jon Snow, director Christopher Nolan and supermodel Kate Moss are also regulars. “George Michael used to come here too,” adds Skinner, “but our paths never crossed.”
The reason so many stars are customers is simple, he says. “It’s close to home and, because it’s not somewhere anyone from Highgate would go to normally, it’s always quiet. So you can have a meeting with your accountant or do an interview without being bothered.”
This strength is also its weakness. The celebrity pound is not worth more than anyone else’s and the boarded-up Côte across the road is testament to how little economics respects familiarity.
“Oh, it’ll close down,” agrees Skinner, “it can’t survive on two lattes a week from me and Liam Gallagher, plus some poached eggs for Ray Davies. It’ll close down, despite its usefulness to us and its brand-recognition, and we’ll all shuffle into whatever replaces it. We won’t like it as much at first, but after a while we’ll forget all about the happy times we’ve spent in here…”
He smiles, goofily. We are here this morning to discuss the revival of another once famous brand which lost its way, The Streets, Skinner’s ground-breaking, era-defining British rap alias he operated under from 2001, before retiring the name without much fuss after five albums in 2011, tired, deflated and keen to move from music into films. A premature retirement, it turns out.
For much of these past eight years, he didn’t really know what he was doing, creatively. Personally, he was raising two children, Amelia and George, with his wife Claire in Highgate, and that has helped curb some of his worst anxieties. “That keeps you busy,” he agrees. “But what else are you going to do? I know some really fucked people. They’ve too much time to worry.” Having kids manages that trait of his personality. “With kids, you can’t really get anxious. You never hear of parents getting mentally ill over their kids, do you? Like, they might become alcoholics. And fat. And get divorced. But you still have to hold it together if you are going to stick at the parenting game.”
In the back of his mind, he knew he wanted to make a film. He knew he had to create things, “because I become a liability to myself when I’m not creative, not suicidal exactly, but it’s a problem.” He knew he had to keep busy and, though it only appeared to him as a motive once he’d been through the journey, he knew he had to do lots of different things and then he’d work something out.
“At the time, I was pretty lost after I stopped The Streets. I’ve been clinically depressed, not because of that specifically but, you know. Towards the end of the first seven years away,” that goofy smile again, “I felt like I’d maybe wasted my time. It’s only now, looking back, that I can see it was all building up to the same place. I just didn’t know it.”
He wrote scripts for films that were going to be impossible to get funded. He directed some music videos and commercials, in order to gain behind-the-camera hours. He made a couple of albums with Robert Harvey, once of The Music but also a touring member of The Streets, under the name of The D.O.T. He released some songs as The Darker The Shadow The Brighter The Light, songs that sounded quite a bit like late-period The Streets. But, most significantly he now realises, he started to DJ, playing bass tracks at the Tonga club nights he put on with his pal, the East London-via-Manchester dance promoter/artist Murkage Dave, as well as at clubs on his own, up and down the country.
It was during these long, lonely solo missions to Liverpool, Leeds, Bristol, Cardiff, Stoke, playing bass sets littered with his own new beats, to rooms full of people often half his age who hadn’t come to see him, but were there instead to dance “and meet members of the opposite sex” that the clouds parted, the light shone upon him and he had a moment of blinding clarity. He had to get the band back together. Even if the band is actually just him.
“The reason I stopped doing The Streets was because I wanted to make a film. And the reason I’ve started it again is because I wanted to make a film.” He shrugs. “A lot of this time has felt irrational, but, looking back on it, it’s been totally rational. I’ve spent the last eight years writing a film and an album, but I just didn’t know it until last year.”
Before The Streets, British rap voices rarely sounded local. Mike Skinner changed that. Now, you’ll never hear an MC from London or Manchester rap in an American accent. Imagine Stormzy with a Noo Yoik twang or Loyle Carner’s softly-spoken verses coming out Californian rather than Croydon. You’re more likely today to hear slang identifiably from different London postcodes than any American argot. That was unimaginable before The Streets’ first single, Has It Come To This?, in 2001, when Skinner asked listeners to lock down their aerials. He altered the culture’s direction of travel.
The Streets documented the pleasures and mundanities of suburban British youth with an acute eye for detail and a pitch-perfect ear for contemporary idiom. He was a poet, and everyone knew it. Skinner stuffed funny, relatable insights about love, lust, music, boredom, material goods, hedonism and friendship into deliberately too-tight verses, not over hip-hop beats, but instead laid out upon his own homebrewed version of UK garage, that slightly chintzy British take on house that was big at that time. The Streets sounded new.
Skinner, from Barnet in outer North London, but raised in Birmingham was, like many of his post-acid house generation, a kid who loved club music but didn’t go clubbing because clubs were prohibitively expensive for someone working at Burger King, as he was, and often too lairy to be worth the bother anyway.
So he distilled his own lyrical bedroom version of garage, influenced not by mirror balls reflected onto dancefloors, but by what he heard crackling away on pirate radio under the duvet and booming from parked cars by the local hangout. He created his own sound, the Original Pirate Material that gave his debut album its title. And unlike the UK garage of the charts that celebrated an unobtainable lifestyle of champagne sprayed upon well-heeled cliques beyond the VIP rope in Ayia Napa, his glamour seemed within reach: a decent-sized telly, PlayStation, an eighth of hash and up to three people in your phone you could rely upon to answer. He unlocked an entirely new way of writing and in doing so was more than a one-man band. He was a one-man new wave.
With The Streets, he had an audience in mind: everyone who lived for the same things he did, as well as the club music heads. Instead, he found mainly music journalists and their readers, indie kids and possibly their parents. He built an audience this way but he felt let-down on his own terms until his second album, a conceptual masterpiece called A Grand Don’t Come For Free about one man’s journey to recover lost money and love, which featured a single, Dry Your Eyes, that soundtracked all of Britain’s many sporting near-misses on TV at the time. It alone helped propel The Streets into all the front rooms and minicab offices Skinner had wanted to reach with his more immediate debut.
A Grand Don’t Come For Free sold three million copies worldwide and made him rich. It also made him incredibly anxious. He’d satisfied his mission after two albums, after all. Where now? The rest of The Streets’ career was an attempt to document that success, the dubious charms of its trappings and the paradoxical feelings of failure this all provoked within Skinner. His audience took a sniff of this new breeze and, despite some cracking singles along the way, they slowly wandered off in increasing numbers with each release. It was as if Skinner had a very slow puncture in his inflatable canoe, but no idea how to fix it.
Although only 33 by the time he retired The Streets, he felt old and worn. He could feel his disposition changing. His emotions had always been in the red in The Streets, but he sensed a new mood setting in. One he didn’t really want to write songs about.
“Every day in The Streets was scary, because you feel totally out of control,” he explains. “Anxiety, paranoia and general fear. That’s what my 20s were like. Whereas my 30s were closer to depression.
It’s more, just, like…”
He lets out a huge groan.
“You just try and push yourself through this feeling of existential…depression. I’m not trying to say one is worse than the other. It just feels different.”
Towards the end of The Streets he noticed that his audience was growing old with him, without being replenished by youthful new recruits. This he took badly. He was disconnecting from the cutting edge. He felt out of intuitive touch.
“When you’re young,” he says, “it’s very clear who you think you are. Other young people influence that. There’s a stage where you start to lose that identity and very gradually it’s just out of reach. Then you are kind of guessing or acting. It’s the curse of the producer, really. How do you stay connected to that instinct?”
When he started to DJ, he understood quickly he couldn’t be a celebrity DJ. “It had to be proper raves.” Skinner knew, too, that he could’ve played ’90s rap or garage and he would’ve done very nicely, but it wouldn’t have done him any good. So he reinvented himself as a DJ in the emerging bass music scene, throwing himself in at the deepest end.
“My brother drives me quite a lot when I DJ because I can’t drive,” he says, “but he mostly sits in the car. I don’t want a tour manager because I think it looks a bit silly having someone plug in your USB and headphones. Although there are plenty of DJs who have them…” he rolls his eyes. “I am a qualified engineer, after all. I know which lead goes where. And I was so insecure about being taken seriously as a DJ, there was no way I was going to act rock star.”
So it would just be Mike Skinner on his own, faced with a roomful of 20-year-olds in Cardiff at 1.45am on a Sunday morning, all lost in their own worlds of intoxication, rhythm and lust, and it was up to him not to ruin their night. “It’s brutal, but it teaches you what works, and what definitely doesn’t.”
His DJing acted as a form of extreme A&R when he eventually dropped his own new music into sets, too. “I’d started to release tracks, but the test is, ‘Can I play them in clubs as well?’ That’s savage because there’s literally nothing worse than working for a couple of days on a remix, playing it in the club and then, after eight seconds of it, feeling, ‘Oh, my, God, this is fucking terrible.’ You know instantly. Hearing it alongside other stuff in that environment, it’s really unforgiving.”
These swigs of sour milk did him good, though, as he started to tweak his material so that he knew he wouldn’t taste it again, so that his own music would pass muster under the dry ice and muted lights.
A defining moment was when he released Grim Sickers’ Open The Till with Ghetts, in September 2017. “Open The Till was really big because I made it and it works every night. The Wave God record I made [as The Darker The Shadow…] works every night. You go from being really under-confident to being really confident. Because nobody can tell me Open The Till isn’t good. I don’t care what you think, to be honest. I’ve tested it to the maximum.”
That was the moment he thought, “I can do this.”
“I’ve seen those crowds and I know they’re not lying. Trust me, I’ve played a million things I know are fucking terrible too. But the confidence from those tracks working, that’s what made me think, ‘I can do this. I could do The Streets again.’”
Concurrently, he’d been writing a script about a DJ. “Imagine the guy from A Grand Don’t Come For Free,” he explains, “imagine he ended up becoming a DJ. He’s not that good, and he’s not that big. It’s that story.”
Skinner’s ideas started to coalesce around these two really energising endeavours: his music was back and he finally had a script that he knew he could make work.
He’d want to star in the film. He’d also want to direct it. But he could provide the soundtrack, too: it would be his next Streets album, called The Darker The Shadow The Brighter The Light. Same title as the film. “The music doesn’t tell the story of the film at all because then it becomes an opera, in a bad way. You couldn’t listen to the album and know the story of the film. But the music mirrors the story in feeling, I suppose. They work together.”
He got on a plane to see his long-time manager, Tim Vigon, who was now relocated from London to Los Angeles. Skinner had a plan that only his wife knew of. “When he came to visit me in LA to talk about working together again, I had no idea he was talking about The Streets,” recalls Vigon. “I thought we were doing something new and specific with Darker The Shadow. When he told me that he was bringing The Streets back, it was a total shock.”
Skinner’s idea was to book a Streets tour for spring 2018 to attract the light back upon them. This, he felt, would help in conversations about funding for the film. “We had two weeks to put together that full tour in total secrecy,” says Vigon. “Promoters were holding venues under assumed names and all sorts. That’s why the announcement, when it came, came out of the blue.”
The tour sold out immediately, but Skinner was fixated on finishing the album as he knew he’d need that when talking to studios about the film. After years of drifting, now, aged 40, he at last had his drive back. “It’s very easy for me to say, ‘Yeah, I’ve been DJing every weekend across the country for eight years to get to this point.’ But while it’s given me clarity, there was a long, long period when I had none,” admits Skinner. “I was a bit lost. I’ve definitely struggled with my emotions and stress and mental health. Just being in nightclubs every weekend is a test, really. I could say it’s given me this incredible insight, when really it’s mainly sleep deprivation.”
But there is no question that unlocking this creative puzzle has definitely made Mike Skinner happier.
“I think we have a really basic need to put in effort and get reward. There was a bit in the middle of DJing when I was putting in a lot of effort and I wasn’t getting anything back. I really struggled with that. Now, though, I can see it for what it’s enabled.”
Tim Vigon for one, is enthused. “It became clear that this wasn’t a comeback about just doing a couple of victory lap tours,” he says, “that this is about the film and album project, which in many ways is the purest culmination of everything he’s done as a songwriter, rapper and storyteller. The comeback and the tour have been all part of a plan to do something new and the ambition is incredibly high for it all. He nearly worked himself into the ground getting the record together.”
Shooting for the film begins in the spring of 2020, with a release date for both film and album slated for next autumn. The album is finished.
And because The Darker The Shadow The Brighter The Light is not due out for another year at least, and because for the first time in a long time the wind is in his sails, Mike Skinner has decided to make another album to fill in the gap. He’s made a mixtape album called Send For Everyone that he’s been working on for the last few months with different collaborators on each track. It should be nearly ready for release by the time you read this.
“It’s a way of giving all the club stuff I’ve been doing a bit of focus,” he explains. “The Streets album is very shielded and personal. This is the DJ side. It’s a duets album, basically. Like Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett. But much more rap.”
He starts to list the artists involved. slowthai is on board. Ms Banks. Jesse James Solomon. Greentea Peng. The “handsome poet” Sonny Hall. IDLES are on a track…
“Normally, you might spend three months working on what the album is going to be and then you have two years finishing it off. Because this is entirely a collaboration, a duets album, you’re constantly finishing it off. Always be closing, basically. Like, I’ve been texting Matty [Healy] from The 1975, and Octavian, and
I’m not afraid to say that neither might come off, but… they might happen, too.”
Skinner says it’s an album he’s making that is almost out of his hands. Send For Everyone is due to be finished in three weeks, by the start of August, and yet he is still unsure of half of its contributors. In a few days, The Streets head off on tour to Australia. Will anything more be done by then? No idea.
“One day, Matty might be in London at the same time I am and… or, I might think of something on the plane, text him and that afternoon we could have a track. It’s just so random. It feels like there’s all these asteroids and planets just flying around, and every now and then, out of all these asteroids, one collides and is added to the Mike Skinner mixtape.”
He smiles that goofy smile again.
“It’s very, very… I don’t think I’ll make another mixtape album.”
Six weeks later and the mixtape album, Send For Everyone, is not quite finished yet. There’s a new deadline of late September, possibly early October. It won’t be any later than that. It can’t be. To ensure this, manager Tim Vigon is now in charge of nailing the final involvement of the guest vocalists.
“Doing the mix album on my own was stressful,” admits Skinner. “I was feeling the stress, it started really affecting me, and Tim has removed a lot of that. I mean, he hasn’t actually got a vocal yet. The one thing I have learnt from this whole process is that unless you have the audio file, you don’t have anything. That is my hot take.”
It is a glorious day at the start of the August Bank Holiday, and Mike Skinner has invited us to The Strongroom Studios in Old Street, East London, to hear some of his two forthcoming albums. He is wearing head-to-toe black, as he always does. For the first few years of The Streets, the glory days, he was always in pastels and bold colours. Then he decided to paint the whole world black.
“It started off with packing for tours,” he explains. “With black you don’t worry about stains or creases. There’s also some kind of OCD thing going on. I don’t have to think. I just wear the same thing every day. Then you kind of get lost in the decision.”
After a while he decided that it would actually become a statement if he wore a colour. And he didn’t want to make that kind of statement.
“I’ve made it so easy for myself that I’ve actually made it really hard. I’d have to have an amazing reason to wear a colour now, otherwise everyone would be like, ‘Oh my God, you’re wearing a colour!’”
Recently, he was at a barbecue in a friend’s garden and it turned into an evening affair. He’d arrived only wearing shorts and a T-shirt, so someone lent him a jumper…
“It was a red jumper. Which I put on.”
Guests asked him if he was feeling alright. Someone took out a phone to take a photo to send to his brother and Mike shouted, “NO!”
“It’s a bit weird, I know. I mean, everything I own is black. Everything. Apart from my laptop, that’s the only thing. It’s a bit like being addicted to smack. It starts off feeling nice, relaxing. Then it becomes normal. Then, without it, you don’t feel normal. You don’t feel that good either with it, but you can’t live any other way.”
He swings round in his chair and presses play. Let’s hear some of Send For Everyone.
Ominous strings build and we are propelled into one of the best Streets tracks you’ve ever heard. Every track he plays today is one of the best Streets tracks you’ve ever heard. None of them have titles yet, though, which is confusing for journalists. Of course, new music always sounds better on big studio speakers. But maybe not quite as good as this. It has the box-freshness of Original Pirate Material, but the crispness of 2019’s hard-won contemporary bass and beats know-how.
“This is slowthai here,” he shouts over the music. “Hopefully. Don’t have the vocal file yet. Tame Impala are interested. 1975, that’s a no. Octavian was very close. Might still be. I’ve learnt that artists don’t actually get it over the line. It needs a bit of corporate muscle. It’s an art, not a science.”
In the background, Skinner is rapping, “You know I’d give you a kidney/But just don’t ever take my charger.” He flips to the next track. Its heavy, bass-driven unease sounds a bit like Burial, but charged up on the front seat of the bus’s upper deck rather than slouched at the back. The rhythm is brutal. “This is the IDLES one.” A chorus kicks in: “None of us are getting out of this life alive,” sings Skinner.
He flips the track again to a sharp keyboard motif. It’s the song originally earmarked for The 1975. “I understand it,” he says. “They’re doing shows every day, making their own album. But also, I’ve been there. It’s one thing listening to a beat and saying, ‘Yeah, I can get on that.’ Then it’s another sitting on your own in front of a microphone imagining what you’re going to do. Sometimes, it’s like, ‘I don’t know what to do here on this track.’ I sympathise with Matty. I’ve felt that.”
Skinner plays a track featuring Jesse James Solomon, the South London rapper, built upon a huge organ break and with a space left for Eliza (formerly Eliza Doolittle) to sing the chorus. Then, there’s a more gentle shuffle with folk-rapper Hak Baker hogging the limelight: “I’ve got all the East End lads with me,” rhymes Baker, “bunch of twats mate, in all honesty…”
Birmingham’s Dapz On The Map pops up next and, as he listens to his own lines, Skinner says, “I know what I’m trying to say, but it can often take five rewrites to say it well. There are loads of lines here that, as we’ve been listening, I know I’m going to change.”
This is how he writes.
“It’s not writing so much as rewriting. That’s what I’ve always done. How I write: I write something shit. Listen to it. Then the worst bits get changed. Repeat.”
In many ways, this describes all writing, be it books or journalism. It’s always about rewriting.
“Yes, but not songwriting in my experience, except in maybe Nashville, where they have people who just write lyrics,” he says. “One of my best friends is a songwriter who does different sessions with production teams every day. I don’t think there’s a lot of rewriting going on. With rappers, there’s a pride thing too: I’m just going to do this verse once and that’ll be it, done. I’m the opposite. I think rewriting, the willingness to rethink, helps everything.”
For Skinner, the end product is all that matters. The journey there is immaterial. “That idea that a song captures a moment in time and can’t be altered because it’ll change the spirit, that is not helpful. It’s partly demo-itis: the inability to hear anything done differently to the original. I am really brutal. I’ll take the verse from one song and stick it in another if I think it’ll improve it.”
Working on the film has opened his eyes to the madness of musicians. “Being unreasonable is allowed in music because the fans think it’s interesting. And it is. But you just end up with a lot of unreasonable people who don’t follow logic. In film, even if you are a temperamental director, to succeed you need to work as part of a team following logic. Otherwise, even the director can be removed from his own film. If I’m unreasonable, I’ll be removed.”
Replaced by Sofia Coppola.
“I really wouldn’t object to Sofia Coppola replacing me.”
He flips the track again. Now, he’s going to play some of The Streets’ artist album, The Darker The Shadow. The mood changes subtly: this is no longer jaunty, episodic Streets, now we are in wide-screen narrative Streets. It’s like hearing new, modern versions of the first two Streets albums back-to-back.
After a few minutes in a couple of tracks each, he forwards to the climatic finale. A keyboard stabs urgently away, a bit like Blinded By The Lights, but the chase-scene version, with shades of gospel backing. Skinner raps: “There are crazy turns as you work through the present/Is it nature or nurture when you hurt your bredren?/We pray in church for our personal heaven…”
He won’t be changing any of these lines.
“No, I might re-perform some, but this all has been thoroughly safety-checked. It won’t let you down.”
When he originally ended The Streets, Skinner said his celebrity-life was over. No more photo shoots, no more interviews. He’d had enough. Yet, here he is.
“Well, you need to get out of the house,” he jokes. “The thing with it is that the more you do, the less you trust yourself. Everything you say becomes a liability. Ed Sheeran, the bigger he got, the more you could see that everything he said was being construed a million ways. When it gets like that, the risk is too big. You clam up.”
This is not a problem for either Liam or Noel Gallagher, though.
“The Gallaghers always remind me of 50 Cent,” decides Skinner. “Because he came up beefing too. Whatever strategy you came up on when you were young, you always return to. All bands have a thing and in the case of Noel, it’s that he has an opinion on everything. But it gets to a point where he’s just a man with an opinion on everything.”
Mike Skinner has always had a thing, too, something he returns to. It was in his original masterplan.
“I had an idea that honesty would be my thing,” he reveals. “I’ll be honest. People will like that. But actually, it’s not honesty. Honesty isn’t my thing. My thing is what we have in common. There’s honesty, but really it’s our common ground. General and specific.”
This is such a beautiful distillation of what The Streets is, that it feels in some ways that the previous 4000 words have been wasted. So often The Streets are described as being a voice of a generation, but actually it’s what we have in common, general and specific.
“It’s not generational,” he says. “People still listen to Original Pirate Material. At the gigs, it’s mainly young people getting on those songs. Shit doesn’t change. They don’t listen to the other stuff I did because
it never worked then and it’s not going to suddenly work now.”
The only thing that changes, he says, is technology. Humans remain governed by natural impulse.
“Kids chat on Googledocs now. But they are still saying, ‘I fancy you. I hate her. I’m hungry. I need sugar.’ You know, the medium changes but the message stays the same, really.”
And with that, Mike Skinner leans over and presses pause. That’s it. Turn the page.