Brixton Is Burning

The laddish Brit-Hop of the Streets heats up England's clubland

The Streets
Original Pirate Material
Vice/Atlantic

Chico Marx once asked, "Why a duck?" and ensured himself immortality. So let me ask: "What's a Duck?" The source of my confusion: "Let's Push Things Forward," from Original Pirate Material (Vice/Atlantic), the debut album of 22-year-old British MC Mike Skinner, a.k.a. the Streets. The quote in question: "Spilt jewels like Eastern riches/Junkie fixes/'Round here we say birds, not bitches/ As London Bridge burns down, Brixton's burning up/Turns out you're in luck/Cos I know this dodgy fuck in the Duck."

What's a Duck? At first it sounded like a twist on that old "what the hell" stand-in, "fuck a duck," but now I wonder if it's actually a pub, since most of the other songs on the disc take place in them. Besides, where else in England are you going to find the maulers, brawlers, and cornershop crawlers that Skinner later speaks of all in one place? J. Blount, a user of the online bulletin board I Love Music (www.ilxor.com), described playing Original Pirate Material for a friend. The friend's perfect response: "From the culture that brought us Snatch!"

He's right, but you don't have to know Brixton from "Brick House" to get with Skinner's logic. The verse continues: "So it's just another show flick from your local city poet/In case you geezers don't know it/Let's push things forward/It's a tall order, but we're taller/Calling all maulers/Backstreet brawlers, cornershop crawlers/Victory's flawless." So is the album. Like the rest of Original Pirate Material, those lines place you right in the eye of the action, moving swiftly along, but with enough time to take in the surroundings. If you're not quite sure what every detail means, that's okay: The confusion, in this case, is stimulating, not alienating.

While Guy Ritchie never heard of a preposterous situation or nickname he didn't love, Mike Skinner's entire persona rests on his ordinariness. Born in Birmingham, land of Black Sabbath, he still sports that territory's thick accent. He even plays it for laughs in "The Irony of It All," roughing his voice up as football hooligan Terry. This character alternates verses with Tim, a gentle weedhead whom Skinner evokes with a fey Cockney. The album is loosely structured on "a day in the life of a geezer"--as the track "Has It Come to This?" puts it. Said geezer eats at "Maccy D's or KFC" and stays at home with "videos, televisions, 64s, PlayStations...a few herbs and a bit of Benson."

He drinks a lot. "Too Much Brandy" even mocks his own penchant for getting plastered: "If you're bored, let's go see Roy/And get fucked up with the boys!" And, as often as not, he's broke. "You know things are bleak," he notes in "All Got Our Runnins"--a U.K. album track replaced in the States by the tough-love pep talk "Don't Mug Yourself"--"When you're telling the birds you asked out last week/That things are busy, when really/You've got no dough in the piggy."

Naturally, then, Skinner is an economical sort. He may rap, but Original Pirate Material isn't quite a hip-hop album. For one thing, the tracks are less reconstituted funk boom-bap than quick-and-dirty, made-in-10-minutes 2-step garage--minus the hip-swivel complexity of much of that genre's best producers. But they're more urgent for their simplified beats. For another, as demonstrated above, Skinner is adamantly English, which places him at a remove from his vocal source. The initial impression that he sounds slightly off soon yields to the realization that he sounds completely wrong. (He starts sounding right the minute you realize you can't get the damn songs out of your head.) As another ILM poster, Tracer Hand, puts it, "I find myself wondering, 'When's the intro going to be over?' and I realize that's the way they rap!"

Skinner knows it, too: "This ain't your archetypal street sound," he warns on "Let's Push Things Forward," before boasting, "This ain't a track, it's a movement." We'll see about that: Given the impact Original Pirate Material has already had in England, where it's been out since March, we can be expecting an avalanche of third-rate word-poetry from Midlanders with drum machines any month now. But I doubt any of them will come near "Weak Become Heroes," the album's apex and the most accurate song anybody has ever written about clubbing. Over an Italo-house piano riff that sounds like its player is nodding off (think Black Box's "Ride on Time" slowed to jazz tempo and volume), Skinner sits in a café and flashes back five years to his first rave. He's taken Ecstasy for the first time, and everyone from the bouncers to annoying Eurotrash to (of course) the girls looks like a beacon of a better world to come. He knows it's an illusion; he doesn't care. "Don't talk to me, I don't know you," he snaps, and turns right back around: "But this ain't tomorrow, and for now I still love you."

My favorite moment in the song comes when Skinner throws in a line that sums up his trip: "Look at my watch, can't focus." On that last word, his voice turns to pure sibilance. He slurs it, lisps it, goes completely off-time--in other words, loses his focus. In an album full of humanizing detail, this accident may be the point where we most closely identify with the narrator. Suffused with longing for the recent past (i.e., the nostalgia of being 22 years old), Skinner for the first time succumbs to his own words as fully as we do.

 
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