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From Birmingham to 'Original Pirate Material': Mike Skinner's journey

Mike Skinner might not have known what would come next when he released ‘Has It Come To This?’ in October 2001, but when the Streets’ debut album Original Pirate Material came the following year, it would catapult him into stardom and take UK Garage from the underground into the hearts of the British public.

Yet the Streets’ debut was not merely a commercial version of a once-underground dance genre; it was instead Skinner’s kitchen-counter, café-table, garrulous barroom hip-hop poetry that had legions of the British public prick their ears up in the understanding that this was really about them.

Skinner’s journey towards releasing that awe-inspiring record began in Chipping Barnet, London. However, at age three, he moved to West Heath in Birmingham, the grimy, industrial city that would inform much of its lyrical content. Growing up as a teenager in Brum was not easy in the 1990s, with criminal activity seeming to be part of the furniture.

“I used to get robbed a lot,” Skinner once said. “Walking around town as a kid, you’d just get people demanding money off you all the time. I still remember the bad feeling I used to have getting on buses. It really affected me psychologically. Being a teenager in Birmingham in the nineties was really dangerous.”

Much of the Streets’ music feels like a drama set in a pub, but Skinner puts this down to the overwhelming feeling he used to get sitting around in boozers, waiting for something to kick off. He added, “Despite my confidence on stage, I always found pubs really intimidating. I’ve talked about being in them a lot in songs, partly because they always made me so uneasy. Alongside that, there was all the usual hooligan-type stuff going on.”

With all this violence going on around him, Skinner saw music as a way out – not necessarily out of the city or the lifestyle, but more a way to focus on something that was more akin to the way he wanted to live his life. He began writing garage and hip-hop in his bedroom throughout his teens. Then, when Skinner was 19, he moved to Australia with his then-girlfriend, but the relationship turned sour, and he found himself beginning his third decade on earth in the English capital. He had come full circle, which was fitting for what was to follow.

Upon settling in Brixton in south London, Skinner sent a demo version of ‘Has It Come To This?’ to record shop owner Nick Worthington, who released it in October 2001 on Locked On Records under the apt name the Streets. The track became a hit, fusing the UK Garage sensibility with rap-poetry that was utterly British in “both content and delivery”. 

It set Skinner up for greatness, and the following year, Original Pirate Material was released to beyond critical acclaim and garnered a Mercury Prize nomination. The rest, for Skinner, is mere history, and the record remains a true stalwart of British culture. Have a run through the iconic LP below.