For all the ink that’s been spilled over him around the world, you’d think Mike Skinner would be a little better known in the US, a country where TomKat’s new bundle of joy trumps suicide bombings on the news and new American idols are minted each and every season, only to be cut down the next. After all, the Englishman professionally known as the Streets possesses so many of the vices that make tabloids go all weak at the knees — alcoholism, drug addiction, a gambling problem — that he seems a shoo-in for a Behind the Music special. Oh, and he spent a good part of last year dating and smoking crack with a pop star whose name he won’t reveal.
Despite all this — and despite making three acclaimed albums of personal, cheeky UK bedroom rap — Skinner remains anonymous to all but the hippest musophiles on our fair continent. Not that he seems terribly concerned about that when I reach him at his Manhattan hotel room. In fact, he rather enjoys it. “There aren’t nearly as many US fans as there are English fans, so to be out and about in New York is a lot more fun for me than being out and about in London.”
But as good as America may be for resting Skinner’s autograph wrist, the Streets’ inability to stick with radio and MTV on this side of the pond remains something of a mystery. The British tabloid headlines notwithstanding, on recordings Skinner’s personality is charming: he’s an ordinary guy whose life has taken extraordinary turns because he knows how to use ProTools and tell a great story. The beats and hooks he crafted for his new The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living (Vice) are as catchy as anything he’s come up with. Can it be that the only thing holding him back from success in America, where hip-hop is the new pop, is the British accent?
He has his own slant. “The way it comes across in England is different from the way it comes across in America. When you bring it to America, you’re selling it to the kind of people who are interested in England, or interested in music anyway, rather than just normal people. It becomes a bit of a hipster thing. Whereas in England it’s just mainstream music that the kids listen to — quite an everyman form of music.”
He’s right — there’s been little shift in notoriety for UK rap/grime artists since 2002, when the genre began popping up on the hipster radar. Grime’s US success thus far has consisted of a sold-out Streets/Dizzee Rascal tour and the month in 2003 when “Dry Your Eyes” (from the Streets’ sophomore album, A Grand Don’t Come for Free) appeared briefly on alternative radio. The two installments of the Run the Road compilation — both released by Vice, the Streets’ US label — feature UK grime’s biggest acts and get glowing reviews yet continue to sell modestly.
But Skinner insists there’s no problem with American listeners’ hearing — in fact, he says the problem may be what we’re missing visually. “In England, we’ve got this kind of low-budget video culture going on. It’s like the continuation of pirate-radio culture, I suppose, similar to your mixtape scene. But with us, it’s low-budget videos, and kids download ’em onto their phones and stuff. There’s these new videos coming out all the time. There’s a lot of collaborating going on. But it’s difficult to see what it looks like from outside of England, or sense how big these artists can become without even putting an album out.”
Then there’s Skinner’s shambling, off-beat delivery, which is often taken by first-time Streets listeners to be a defect — a reflection of his lack of MC skills. Actually, it’s the only voice suited to tell his often disoriented and disorienting tales of nights/weeks/years lost to the addictions that plague our culture and that he’s had his own experiences with. He insists, however, that his take on hip-hop has its roots firmly planted in American soil. “I’m not American at all, so there’s not going to be anything American about me,” he admits when I doubt his claim that he’s been influenced by Nas and the Wu-Tang Clan. “But I think, in terms of my production and the structure, that it’s very American. All the elements that are being added up in a track I record — even though they’re being added up in a bit of a strange order — I think that they do come from America.”