Original Pirate Material was the debut album by the English rapper and producer, Mike Skinner, under the name The Streets. The album is a “unique take on UK garage and lyrics dealing with everyday circumstances and occurrences”. The album originally rose to #12 on the UK Albums Chart in 2002, and then peaked at #10 in 2004 after the release of the second Streets album, A Grand Don’t Come For Free.
The album received critical acclaim; in March 2003, NME placed Original Pirate Material at number 46 on their list of the 100 Best Albums Of All Time. They subsequently placed Original Pirate Material at number 9 in their list of the 100 Best Albums Of The Decade. Observer Music Monthly ranked it as the best album of the 2000s.
In the United Kingdom, four singles were released from Original Pirate Material: “Has It Come To This?”, “Let’s Push Things Forward”, “Weak Become Heroes” and “Don’t Mug Yourself”. It also celebrated fifteen years released on Saturday, March 25.
The cover artwork photograph of Original Pirate Material is by German photographer, Rut Blees Luxemburg, called Towering Inferno. The tower block pictured is the south face of Kestrel House on City Road, London. Indeed, there’s no more urban a shot of the streets than that of a tower block. This single picture insight into the lives, lights emanating from any flat, of many; more than a picture of a single, detached house in the suburbs.
To start with, you’re urged to “Turn The Page”, which opens things ominous before industrial drum and tense strings. The flow of Skinner locks in expertly, a conversational style you could maybe liken to a white, British Nas.
“…and on higher we sing/Hear the strings rising, the war’s over, the bells ring” tolls an urgent and grave feeling, expertly syncopating with the track’s changing mood. “Stand by me, my apprentice/Be brave, clench fists” is a rousing end.
There’s a resounding question of “Has It Come To This?” next. It’s more laidback, but not any less thoughtful. Clicking drum renders it quite infectious. “Sex, drugs and on the dole” the soundtrack to a whole urban generation. Sedate piano, tinkling as if to convey the nature of a ponderous mind. “Blinded by the lights/New dizzy heights” repeats as if to reverberate in the mind, computing clever rhymes.
“Let’s Push Things Forward”, featuring Kevin Mark Trail, has a ska and reggae hybrid vibe going on. Quite different to the two tracks that precede it. The hook decries the pitiful realisations one in this modern life has from time to time: “There’s no excuses, my friend/Let’s push things forward”. The reggae organ is stuck on replay as Skinner’s jarring rhymes gradually skip the stylus forward.
“Sharp Darts” seems more of Skinner stretching his rhyming skills than a typical song, as such: “Don’t wanna embarrass yer/So call yer solicitor/The jury voted unanimously against yer”. A clamour of snare heralds booming mightiness. It’s cut short, though.
Proclamations of “Same Old Thing”, featuring Kevin Mark Trail, picks up where left off previously. Strings conveying much drama lock in with the incessant clap of drum, the latter very much punctuating Skinner’s rhymes and Trail’s soulful hook. “Can’t be late, always late” very much encapsulates that hectic feel, not knowing where you stand from one moment to the next.
Come “Geezers Needed Excitement”, it’s another thoughtful number, but the backdrop very much conveys no rest for the wicked. The backdrop, indeed, seems to evoke geezers, the kind of people you’d do yourself a favour to avoid in the less salubrious and gentrified areas of places like East London. The hook reads like the pages from a religious book, the tenets to read from in a modern day Bible. Common sense.
The hopeless “It’s Too Late” is mournful, the drums the thing driving you on as the tears stream down Skinner’s face. Certainly major drama on some level. Strings tug on the emotions, with grand percussion cueing movie intensity. “If I ever needed you, would you be there?” a question encapsulating the whole feel. A brief intermission suggests a fork in the road, though maybe the choice isn’t so obvious to make.
A warning shot is fired with “Too Much Brandy”, and kicks in with knife edge piano melody, like about to being stabbed in the back. Then there’s deep, fat and synthesised bass, squidging like the brain fart conveyed in lyrics detailing unfortunate experiences mixing substances both legal and illegal. “…you better stop drinking brandy” interspersed with talk of the mushrooms kicking in confirms this.
“Don’t Mug Yourself” opens with fuzzy rock histrionics before bass, synthesised, then plays out on the keyboard. A simple melody locks in the whole thing, a song detailing a woman, perhaps, you’d do anything for. Even compromise yourself: “Your head’s getting blurred/I know you can’t stop thinking of her”.
There’s an aside in “Who Got The Funk?”, a, yes, funky intermission, with stabbing bass and wah-wah guitar. Skinner shouts out all the main scenes in his line of music, whereby all original pirate material resides.
Discursive “The Irony Of It All”, is another thoughtful one, but with big stomping production. This conveys the bladdered club goer, belligerent and on alcohol. The latter, delicate piano conveying the philosophical and insightful ponderings of a marijuana smoker. “You stinkin’ student lame-o, go get a job and stop robbin’ of us of our taxes!” a line recited many times when I was at secondary school.
It maybe wouldn’t be hard to ponder “Weak Become Heroes” the album highlight. Soulful and searching, more verses from the marijuana smoker. “The night slowly fades and goes slow motion/All the commotion becomes floating emotions” breaking weekend living into terms a physics professor might say poetically.
“The road shines and the rain washes away/Same Chinese takeaway selling sh*t in a tray” seems to convey the transition from Saturday to Sunday. “…and to the government, I stick my finger up with regards to the Criminal Justice Bill” ends the track with defiance, as if to say Whitehall is a barricade to peaceful times and happiness.
“Who Dares Wins” kicks in emphatic, maybe a residual defiance from the track prior. Residual indeed, as it doesn’t last particularly long.
The album ends positively in “Stay Positive”, sounding anything other than positive. “This is called irony,” responds Skinner almost instinctively. The piano plays as tragically as the mean streets conveyed in a Wu-Tang track. “Positive steps will see your goals” a line that perhaps motions you into striving rather than dwelling in hopeless melancholy.
“See your mates/And when they don’t look happy, play them this tape” a clever line, as if to pass the baton to the secret of success. Shimmering harp sounds induce a dream state, and then the track skips as if to shake you from your reverie. The crackling white noise of vinyl ends the album.
Highlights of this album are “Turn The Page”, “Has It Come To This?”, “Let’s Push Things Forward”, “It’s Too Late”, “Don’t Mug Yourself”, “The Irony Of It All”, “Weak Become Heroes” and “Stay Positive”. This ensures the album starts well, reasonably populated in the middle and ends almost as good.
The Streets got off to a more than solid start with this debut album. The highlights, and there are many, are sequenced almost to perfection for the duration of the project. It’s an expert mix of the intellectual and braggadocio and, therefore, Skinner never seems uncomfortable in his own skin. The Streets’ Original Pirate Material can be heard on iTunes here.
Words by Andrew Watson