Streets Ahead: Mike Skinner

Cover feature Streets Ahead: Mike Skinner

When Mike Skinner reunited The Streets, he could’ve cashed his cheque and quit. Instead, he’s got a mixtape, album and film on the way. We meet the certified legend who’s still pushing things forward.

“I don’t really hang out anywhere these days, to be honest,” Mike Skinner deadpans as he sits, a little restlessly, in a busy, hipsterfied Brick Lane coffee shop. He disparagingly examines the deliberately-exposed brickwork, and the enormous waxed moustache and goatee beard of the man at the table next to us. “This is just a coke den, isn’t it? Although I guess that has its place…”. 40 years old and a father of two, he seems at ease, if a little weary. “They say you can tell who all the dads are on tour because everyone else is partying, and the dads just want to lie in a dark bunk.”

When he ended The Streets in 2011, Skinner was, by all accounts, burnt out. “Maybe when I’m 40 and broke I might come back, but it all feels a bit pants really,” he said spikily back then before the release of that year’s ‘Computers And Blues’ - the project’s last studio album to date. His return to the moniker in recent years, however, has been defined by a newfound sense of purpose. “Burnout comes from when you don’t really know what you’re there to do, and that’s horrible,” he says. “But I know exactly what I need to do to get through every day now. I literally don’t stop from when I open my eyes in the morning to when I close my eyes at night. But I don’t feel stressed. Stress would be doing this shit and not knowing why I’m doing it.”

And indeed, throughout The Streets’ hiatus, and in the months following a series of incendiary comeback gigs in spring 2018, the musical polymath has been remarkably busy - even if to the outside world his output has been somewhat sporadic. “Some people spend five years making an album, and other people don’t do anything for four years and then make an album in one. As a fan it’s not easy to see the difference, but there is a difference,” he says. “I’m definitely the former. Really, the only thing that matters is if it’s right.”

In the interim, he’s teamed up with The Music’s Rob Harvey for two albums as The D.O.T and UK rap group Murkage for a 2015 EP and a series of parties, billed as Tonga Balloon Gang. Currently, he’s working on a film, to be titled The Darker the Shadow The Brighter the Light, which he’s writing, directing, producing and starring in; “Imagine ‘A Grand Don’t Come For Free’, then imagine that being a film,” he suggests of the piece. He’s also releasing a new album that will serve as the soundtrack, which was inspired by his constant DJing. Meanwhile, as the film takes shape, Mike is putting out a mixtape called ‘None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive’ that features guests including Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker and IDLES’ Joe Talbot. “For a long time, I had a lot of different interests, directing and producing and DJing; I had all the different things I was doing, but now everything’s converged,” he says. “The moment I realised that it was all coming back to one thing, that’s when I announced the reunion tour.”

Streets Ahead: Mike Skinner

“If I could talk to my [younger] self and offer advice I think I would say, ‘Take more advice’.”

The Streets’ return was riotous, selling out within seconds. Though the rapper peppered new material among his considerable canon of crowd pleasers, it felt like an opportunity to celebrate The Streets’ triumphs; footage of those gigs finds Skinner swaggering cooly onstage with the nonchalance of a man who knows exactly how much his music means. To cement the air of triumphant revelry, the shows broke Brixton Academy’s bar records, becoming the beeriest gigs in the venue’s considerable history. However, the run didn’t only attract returning old-school fans, but a second wave of younger ones too. “I don’t see The Streets as having two eras,” he says of the divide, “but it has two different audiences. There’s an audience that doesn’t know what I’ve done for 15 years, and then there’s an audience that does.”

It puts the star in something of a privileged position; if he wanted to, he could milk every penny from the nostalgia circuit. Yet it’s heartening how much he recoils from such a prospect. “A lot of success like that is actually… It can be really bad, because it’s not making you grow,” he considers. Would he play ‘Original Pirate Material’ in full, like so many artists wheeling out the classics for a run through in recent years? “Oh… no. No,” he says firmly. “Most music that you make just disappears nowadays, but when it works, it’s nothing to do with you any more. You might spend a long time trying to get it right, but as soon as it goes on Spotify it’s purely in the mind of the listener. And also, I’ve forgotten what most of my own music sounds like, some of it totally. Unless I’m performing it, I’ve literally forgotten it.”

Nevertheless, Skinner is aware of his status, something he’s grown to be more comfortable with over time. “I remember the very first time I sang ‘Let’s Push Things Forward’ in the UK, at Reading Festival in 2002. Everyone sang back the words and I just thought, ‘Wow, what if I’d written that sentence a bit different?’,” he remembers. “When you’re young and you’re from Birmingham, all of that is like, ‘What the fuck?’. I mean, even just signing an autograph or something... You feel like you’re accepting something when you sign an autograph.”

Can he remember the first time he was asked for his signature? “No, but I probably would have said ‘No’ and laughed at them,” he says frankly. If he was asked today? “I’d sign it. Because if I was talking to Thomas Bangalter from Daft Punk, and I said, ‘Mate, I love your Tron soundtrack, you are literally a god’ and he was like, ‘Fuck off mate’… It’s like, well yeah I’d like him to be down to earth, but accept that I love you. I’ve put a lot of time into this love. You’re not accepting that you’re amazing [in that situation], you’re respecting the time that a fan has spent with you. I think that’s the difference.”

Streets Ahead: Mike Skinner
Streets Ahead: Mike Skinner
Streets Ahead: Mike Skinner

“Politics is just humans doing stuff, and I write songs about humans doing stuff.”

There are moments such as these where it’s clear that the Mike Skinner of 2020 is a more considered character than the 22-year-old that dropped his debut back in 2002. Even compared to the Mike Skinner at the end of The Streets, you sense he’s mellowed - he may be still prone to moments of spikiness and deliberately contrary statements, but these days he’s employing them a little more sparingly. In his 2012 autobiography The Story of The Streets, Mike wrote somewhat disparagingly of outwardly-political music. “If I’m going to learn something about politics, it’s not going to be from some drug-taking guitarist,” he noted at the time. The intervening decade, however, has been tumultuous to say the least, and now one of the most prominent political frontmen in Britain appears on his new mixtape. Does this mean his position’s changed? “I don’t like IDLES because they’re political,” he answers diplomatically, “I like them because they make good music. I don’t think it’s as simple as to say that musicians shouldn’t be political. But musicians are like, pretty crap at everything apart from music. We literally have an opinion that is no better - probably a good sight worse - than the average person on the street. It’s a bit like saying our politicians need to be good musicians."

"Artists don’t change the world, they don’t," he continues. “Think of the best art you possibly can. Did Of Mice And Men change the world one bit? Maybe. ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, did that help? Perhaps it did. But these are like, some of the greatest of all time. Personally, I like to talk about very specific, small things. I think small things can become universal, and political even. ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ is literally about nothing, isn’t it? Politics is just humans doing stuff, and I write songs about humans doing stuff. I try to be basically moral.”

Whatever his responsibilities politically, Skinner is nevertheless intent on not resting on his laurels. After two decades in the game, he’s still got a fighting spirit that you might not expect from a man who’d already won the creative and commercial jackpot before he was out of his twenties. “When you tour your albums, people are literally paying to see you. They’ve bought a ticket six months in advance, so you’ve kind of won that boxing match before you enter the ring,” he continues. “Whereas DJing can go very wrong very quickly. You have to park your ego completely. DJing has taught me a lot about just being a good soldier, as the Germans say - just being good at your job. When you’re DJing you might be in Germany or in Preston. If you can come away from that having made people have a good time, that’s soldierly, isn’t it? To make music and just be in nightclubs twice a week, it’s a gift.”

Streets Ahead: Mike Skinner

“For a long time, I had a lot of different interests, directing and producing and DJing; I had all the different things I was doing, but now everything’s converged.”

Of The Streets’ reunion shows, he muses that he “could drop something and somebody would pick it up - I mean, I’m convinced I could get someone to hold my chewing gum on tour.” His experiences of DJing, however, have often been far less glamorous. “My worst ever [set] was in Dubai, at a garage night on the roof of a hotel,” he recalls. “I got out there and the DJ before me was completely not-making-eye-contact drunk. He was DJing from a laptop, literally fell off the stage and completely disappeared. I had to unplug the laptop and set up the mixer in the way that it’s supposed to be - it’s not like going straight to the next Netflix episode - and doing that when there’s a load of people trying to take selfies while you’re unplugging cables is literally why I love DJing. I mean it IS the reason I love it.”

It’s a particular creative outlet that’s essentially at the root of everything Mike is doing now. It gave him “something to write about for his film,” and its sense of immediacy has influenced the decision to release a mixtape while the film takes shape rather more slowly. “The mixtape started off as doing something quickly, to carry on the nightclub stuff that I’ve been doing. It’s a way of carrying on with The Streets while this bigger thing happens,” he nods.

“There’s loads of artists that I love who probably wouldn’t want to work with me, and there’s loads of people who make terrible music that love my music!”

‘None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive’ is a mercurial release: dynamic and energetic as it jumps from old-school UK garage to contemporary trap, via forays into psychedelia with Tame Impala, and the sound of IDLES’ Joe Talbot pushed out of his comfort zone towards thudding, aggressive rap. The mixtape’s freewheeling style and wild, joyous abandon belies the fact, however, that despite intending for it to be something immediate, the release actually took longer than his main project’s soundtrack. “Usually I do everything myself, mixing the album, recording the album, mastering the album. I wake up in the morning and think, ‘I need to work harder’,” he says. “Whereas when you’re working with other people, you can’t be emailing them every day. I’ve always been desperately impatient, and I think I’ve developed patience on this project specifically.”

In a way, ‘None Of Us…’ serves simply as a snapshot, one of many possible results from a period of multi-faceted creative exploration. “This mixtape is just the songs that ended up happening - there could have been a Matty Healy record, there could have been a Skepta record, an Octavian record,” he reveals. "Those were actual conversations. There were studio sessions. But like…. you have to know when it’s working and when it isn’t, and appreciate that that’s completely out of your control.” Those tracks will likely never see the light of day, he says. “The main thing about a feature or a collaboration is that they both have to be into it. There’s loads of artists that I love who probably wouldn’t want to work with me, and vice versa. There’s loads of people who make terrible music that love my music!”

Skinner’s slight prickliness, and the way The Streets has often been painted as his singular vision, belies the fact that collaboration and the championing of other artists has always been intrinsic to the project; even now, the big names on the new mixtape are outnumbered by a horde of up-and-coming MCs. From his label The Beats that launched the careers of Professor Green and Example, to its successor Mike Skinner Ltd. and a slew of recent features traded with Flohio, Jaykae and Grim Sickers, he’s been hands-on with his interest in the next generation. “I do think I’m a pretty good educator, I think my advice is pretty good,” he says. “I know when it’s bollocks and when it isn’t.” Yet he’d stop short of calling himself a mentor. “I think there’s a reason why most rappers have never been signed by other rappers. I think good artists have a very clear idea of what it is they’re there to do, and what it is the art is there to do, and that’s not good for another artist because every artist needs to have their own idea.”

Streets Ahead: Mike Skinner
Streets Ahead: Mike Skinner
Streets Ahead: Mike Skinner

“I remember the very first time I sang ‘Let’s Push Things Forward’ in the UK, at Reading Festival in 2002. Everyone sang back the words and I just thought, ‘Wow, what if I’d written that sentence a bit different?’”

It’s an attitude that perhaps comes from his own youthful belligerence and refusal to accept a helping hand. “I think I’m terrible at taking advice,” he laughs. “Terrible. You read magazines when you’re a kid and it’s all these old guys going, ‘It doesn’t matter what equipment you’ve got, just get a really good set of speakers and a really good room’, and you’re like, ‘Fuck off mate. Literally fuck off. You old man. OK Boomer’. And then you spend 20 years wasting music until you realise you just need a really good set of speakers and a really good room. If I could talk to myself and offer advice I think I would say, ‘Take more advice’.”

DJing is also the root of Mike’s forthcoming film: “The best way of describing it would be if you imagine the person I am in ‘A Grand Don’t Come For Free’,” he begins, “then imagine they got older and became a DJ, and then imagine The Streets never happened.” The project, which is moving slowly by its nature, feels massive on a personal level; there’s a shift in the way he acts when the subject comes up, his speech suddenly focused and direct. “I’ve spent years trying to make a film,” he says with newfound nervous energy.

The release will be unlike anything Skinner’s done before, but in a way it serves as a reminder, as well as a climax and a new beginning: it’s notable how often he compares it to his early work, and he says that in some ways it’s not dissimilar to making a debut album, “in just having no idea what the hell I’m doing.” He might be laughing when he says it, but there’s a determination there too. Having emerged from his time away from the project and come back renewed, it’s clear The Streets have never before been operating with quite so much purpose.

‘None of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive’ is out 10th July via Island.

As featured in the May 2020 issue of DIY, out now.

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