In collaboration with fellow writer Steve For The Deaf, here’s an article about hip-hop in England.
There’s a movie from the 1990’s called Human Traffic which is about a bunch of kids in Cardiff going out to a club and doing some E’s.
That’s it. That’s the whole plot. It’s a decent film. It’s funny and it’s charming and best of all it’s entirely accurate. This film makes working in a shop so you can afford to get to the pub, then a club with your friends look like an adventure. That is the real charm and the trick to it. I understood Human Traffic and Human Traffic understood me and my friends. It starred John Simm and Danny Dyre and had guest appearances from Jo Brand and Howard Marks.
Trainspotting may have looked better and had more to say but Human Traffic was how it really was. We weren’t all hooked on heroin and diving down toilets, we were more just trying to get our phones to work and queueing at the bar.
There’s an American movie from the same year called Go. Its central conceit is the same but it involves gunfights and strippers and car chases and whatnot. It stars a bunch of big names and has No Doubt on the soundtrack even though it’s set at a rave. That for me is the difference between UK Street culture and American.
Mike Skinner’s debut album Original Pirate Material has the same first-hand level of experience of those streets and those times as Human Traffic (OK so it’s Birmingham not Cardiff and the Millennium, not the 90’s) and therefore rings entirely truthful for all the same reasons.
It is in my humble opinion a truly classic album. One of the best of the 21st century.
In 2002 I got married. I grew up (a bit) and I stopped spending my every weekend bouncing from Pub to Café, to mates flats to Pub to Club to Party. I started working at being a proper grown up. So did my new Wife. We bought a house together and we took jobs in opposite directions to each other. I got up at 4:30 every morning and got on the bus so she could have the car. And I listened to The Streets on my CD-Walkman. A lot. She had a home-taped copy whirring round in the deck of the 206. Home taping was killing music. But we were both living our old lives vicariously through the tracks on OPM.
I felt like I knew Calvin Schmalvin and Mikey and The Dodgy Fuck In The Duck. It wasn’t that long since I’d been to see the Shit In A Tray Merchants after a night in the pub and I knew the blokes from Geezers Need Excitement first hand. Everyone does really.
This record does two things brilliantly. It captures the time the place and the specifics of its era in high definition. But it’s early digital High Definition. We’re talking DVD, not Blu-Ray. We’ve got phones in 2002 but the network is weak. And there are no Apps on them. Just buttons. Lots and lots of buttons. We have laptops, but not Wi-Fi. We have internet but it’s dial-up.
That’s brilliant thing one. Brilliant thing two is the timeless observations.
When Skinner describes the scene, in Turn, The Page it could have been recorded yesterday. He’s grandstanding for the album opener from the streets of a British City. He could be in The Specials or opening for Stormzy it doesn’t matter. Inner city life, inner-city pressures. He mixes urban street slang with older market trader patter and soaring string samples.
Has it Come To This is still a dexterous showcase of wit and flow. Its Garage beat does sound like something from a classic millennial Ministry Of Sound compilation but by the time we’ve reached track three… It’s obvious we’re in the midst of a record that is going to change the way other records will sound in the future.
“That’s it, turn the page on the day, walk away ’cause there’s sense in what I say I’m forty-fifth generation Roman but I don’t know ’em or care when I’m spitting, so return to your sitting position and listen, It’s fitting, I’m miles ahead and they chase me, show your face on TV then we’ll see”
There is ambition on the record but It’s ‘one day’ not this day or right now. Just inevitably. This is key to the appeal.
Hip Hop doesn’t have to be gangster dangerous to be real. Garage was often too obsessed with bling. Mike is obsessed with Kebabs.
He sees the bad boys misbehaving on Geezers Need Excitement and he doesn’t wish to be in their shoes. He’s wary.
There are showpieces on the album that have outlived their intended shelf life. Too Much Brandy tells a tale of excessive drinking not becoming of recitals by parents of young teens at barbecues 15 years later but it happens. It’s a strange anomaly to hear…
“Now getting to the bar’s gonna be trouble so the Marlons’ll have to be doubles, then you drink doubles the same speed you drink singles, ahh, beautiful, the barman holds aloft the crystal glass and I’m having all that’s in the bubble in the bottom of the bottle”
…At a nine-year-olds birthday party.
Some of the more choice lyrics in Don’t Mug Yourself has become shorthand for blokes of varying ages when they’re watching a friend of theirs lose perspective on a new crush.
And of course, there’s the play for two actors that is Irony Of It All. A character study dressed as a song that is so well observed it kind of killed a real conversation that had been reoccurring for decades in pubs up and down the UK for at least 40 years. I cannot believe anyone would play either of those parts in the real world post-2002 without falling through the fabric of reality. Do you ever get that uncanny feeling when you meet a real-life Alan Partridge or David Brent? They’re so incredibly unaware that they’re a character, not a person. That’s Terry and Tim. They’re through the looking glass now people.
The album still has it’s absolute ace card to play though. Weak Become Heroes is one of the greatest hit singles of the 21st century. If you ever had that feeling the song describes, Weak Becomes Heroes can be an aural equivalent of a long forgotten holiday snap. It can cut you in two if it catches you at the wrong moment or it can send you out into the cold day with a warm smile on your lips. Not bad for a song about dancing to other songs.
After that understated epic high point, you might think the last two tracks are not necessary. Just like Sharp Darts did during the opening act Who Dares Wins is a short sharp recalibration. A contextualisation of all that’s already gone before and a grounding that this is just music by Lads with lager cans in their hands and pills in their bellies as they play about on their laptops and mics.
The album ends with Stay Positive. An attempt at something like the UK high street version of a big thug life US hip-hop thought provoker. If Tupac were from Brum he’d be cool with this kind of philosophizing. Mike Skinner went big on his debut album. And he nailed the time the place and the people
“We all smile, We all sing”
If you enjoyed this piece please check out Steve’s link below and you can check out what I wrote for his page too!