Thursday, March 5, 2015

Original Pirate Material

Original Pirate Material (Locked On)
Uncut, April 2002

by Simon Reynolds

Just when you think pop’s got no more surprises up its sleeve, along comes a record that proves there’s always a new twist around the corner. Original Pirate Material is the first record in a long while I’ve wanted to play again immediately after it’s finished; the sort where you have to ration the number of plays in order to pace your pleasure, to avoid using up all its joy too soon. It’s a little eerie how the album keeps getting better (the first track, though stunning, is the weakest!), how it never flags.

The Streets is Mike Skinner, 22 years old, from Birmingham, a beat-maker and rhyme-spitter. On this debut album, Skinner’s taken what is already the only truly exciting development in British dance culture--MCs rapping over UK garage--and singlehandedly pushed it to the next level. So far UK garage MCs haven’t gone much beyond their original function in hardcore and jungle: hyping the crowd, bigging up the DJ, extolling their own skills. By contrast, Skinner is really saying something, telling stories etched with such a richness of observation and reference and emotional nuance that So Solid Crew, tirelessly/tiresomely railing against playa-haters, suddenly look awfully mono-thematic. If So Solid are 2-step’s NWA, The Streets is something like its Rakim, De La Soul, Nas.

Original Pirate Material is a massive gauntlet throwdown to Skinner’s peers. “This ain’t a track, it’s a movement,” he declares on “Let’s Push Things Forward”--a clarion call for aesthetic ambition and real content, with Skinner decrying formula (the nuff-catchy chorus goes “You say that everything sounds the same/Then you go buy them/There’s no excuses my friend”) and mocking the forked-American-tongue of gangsta-wannabes (“Around here we say birds not bitches”). The Englishness comes through not just in his slanguage (all the “geezers” and “dodgy fucks”) but sonically too. All mournful roots-reggae horns and skankin’ B-line, “Let’s Push” echoes The Specials’ “Ghost Town” while the balalaika-laced “Too Much Brandy” sounds like a homage to “Stereotypes” from the muzak-influenced More Specials. A hilariously vivid tale of a bender to end all benders, “Too Much Brandy” is suffused with a wry, bleak humour that recalls Terry Hall. It’s a Midlands thing.

Outside London, Skinner points out, UK garage isn’t a club phenomenon, it’s music for driving or for stay-at-home smokers. “Has It Come To This,” his unlikely hit single about ”a day in the life of a geezer,” captures this submerged reality of dance culture: the iceberg bulk of people who dig the music but don’t go out often, ‘cos they can’t afford the bar prices or the brand-name gear required for larging-it. Instead, they save their hard-earned cash for drugs and get wasted at home, locked into the pirate signal, surrounded by PlayStation and similar pleasure-tech. “All Got Our Runnins,” a song about being broke, is even more radical in UK garage’s flash-yer-cash context. All spend and no thrift, the protagonist is paying for last week’s “living for the moment,” dodging the landlord, eking out “one beer to last all evening,” trying to smuggle brandy into clubs, and hanging around his mum’s house ‘cos his own larder’s empty.

Skinner’s persona mixes old-head-on-young-shoulders with there-but-for-the grace-of-God-go-I. He’s intimately acquainted with the working-class culture of consolation but, like Irvine Welsh, he’s too smart not to see through it, to the desolation that fuels its desperate forms of release. “Same Old Things” evokes the treadmill grind of prole leisure, a mind-numbing miasma of booze, birds, and bovver. “Geezers Need Excitement” diagnoses ruckus as both a safety valve for boredom and as symptom of the hard-man culture of respect-maintenance. “The Irony of It All” is a comic take on the same idea. Skinner brilliantly acts two characters across alternating verses: lairy lout Terry versus Tim, a student who home-makes bongs and knows all the statistics in favour of legalization. “In the eyes of society I need to be in jail/For the choice of herbs I inhale…We pose no threat on my settee,” reasons Tim, but he’s such an irritatingly smug know-it-all you’re almost glad when his path crosses Terry’s and he gets a battering.

It’s breathtaking the way Skinner takes English idiom and cadence--even soft-spoken Tim’s prissy speech patterns--then works it into a flow that’s pure B-boy. Rarely resorting to black British slang or patois, he creates an authentic poetic spark from the base materials of UK demotic language. There’s that same electric sensation you got on first hearing 3D and Tricky Kid rhyming on Blue Lines, when all of a sudden that stillborn child, BritRap, seemed like it might have life in it yet. Indeed, tracks like “Turn the Page” and “It’s Too Late” actually recall the string-swept majesty of “Unfinished Sympathy.”  Elsewhere, you flash on John Cooper-Clarke, or imagine Jarvis Cocker if he’d grown up on nothing but street beats, emcees and Class A’s.

Speaking of Pulp, “Weak Become Heroes” shoves “Sorted for E’s and Whizz” off its throne as the definitive double-edged evocation of rave’s dream-and-lie. A house classic playing in a café triggers a Proustian flashback to Skinner’s Ecstacy baptism five years earlier. Adrift on memory bliss, scrambled images unfurl in his mind’s eye of that magical night when every stranger became a friend and “all of life’s problems I just shake off.” The chorus mashes together a soul singer crooning, “Weak become heroes/And the stars align,” with Skinner’s all-choked up, “We all smile/We all sing,” over a soft-focus piano-vamp looped for eternity. Outside on the street, “memories smoulder” but the real world’s unchanged (“new beats though”). The promised revolution never came, and Skinner’s life’s “been up and down since I walked from that crowd.”

With its steadfast locked groove and inspirational chorus (“just try staying positive”), the gorgeous “Stay Positive” conjures a mood of martial resilience in the face of all “the dark shit.” Skinner counsels keeping away from pain-killing narcotics and instead proposes true love and follow-your-dreams individualism as sole rays of sunshine in the murk. “I ain’t helping you climb the ladder/I’m busy climbing mine/That’s how it’s been since the dawn of time.” A shortfall of vision, maybe, this rejection of solidarity and political solutions, this buying into the big lie of anyone-can-make-it. But then Skinner “ain’t no preaching fucker and I ain’t no do-goody-goody either,” and he wouldn’t be half the poet if he was. “Stay Positive” ends the album like “Feed Me” did with Maxinquaye, with a necessary mirage of hope. Indeed, Tricky’s debut--a dispatch from the front lines of the chemical degeneration, a street-level survey of Britain’s stasis quo--is the best parallel for Original Pirate Material. It’s that good.

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