Why You Should Listen to: The Streets’ ‘Original Pirate Material’
October 22, 2018
Welcome to the weekly-series “Why You Should Listen to”, where we will discuss great albums worth every music lover’s attention. In today’s society, while we do have all the possible access to everything and anything on the Internet, it can often happen for us to miss some music we would love to hear. That’s why we will try to help you discover some awesome music in this series of articles. The focus will mostly be on studio albums, be it classics or underrated gems and records that have been forgotten by time. Our focus will also stretch out across the world, from the USA and UK to the African continent, Latin America and even the Balkans. Today, we’ll talk about the pivotal UK hip-hop record, “Original Pirate Material” by The Streets.
The UK has never been known as a huge hip-hop place, at least not in comparison to its place of origin – the USA. Lately though, thanks to UK grime and the likes of Skepta and Stormzy, the United Kingdom is getting its well-deserved cred in the hip-hop game. Although all these fresh new names are flooding the scene and making a name for themselves, one must not forget the people who paved the way for such artists with their breakthrough projects.
The 2000s in music were an interesting time. The radio waves were dominated by the new rock revival, nu metal, boybands, R&B, pop, house and bling rap. The UK had a slightly different scene from that in the US thanks to a collection of dance and rap subgenres that came from the underground. One of the earliest of these genres was UK Garage, an important movement in the 2000s, as well as today, thanks to many revivalists. While the UK Garage beats were skippy and sung over, usually to serve the function that house music served in the USA, there weren’t too many rappers in the world tackling those faster beats. At least not in the way a young bloke from Birmingham would with his 2002 debut album.
Mike Skinner, a young producer, and rapper, 23 at the time, was preparing a sonic revolution in the hip-hop and garage scene that nobody was ready for, probably including him as well.
His debut came in the form of “Original Pirate Material”, released under the name The Streets, and featured some incredibly fresh garage and hip-hop beats, sharp lyricism, various moods and topics and just a sense of importance that seems to stand the test of time even today, considering the fact that the album does not sound dated in any way. This is even more impressive when you realize that it was produced on an IBM Thinkpad laptop in Skinner’s bedroom.
Most of the beats are driven by the skippy garage beats that just serve their function of driving the song, along with minimalistic sub-basslines underneath incredibly powerful string sections and the occasional piano loop. Really, if there is anything that marks the instrumentals of this album as iconic and incredible, it is definitely the strings.
We first get a taste on the opener “Turn the Page”, with the cinematic strings being driven by the energetic beat and Skinner’s sharp wit as he uses references from the movie “Gladiator” to introduce us to The Streets and the messages we are about to hear on this iconic record. When reading the lyrics without the music, it sounds like poetry with occasional lines that sound straight from a casual conversation or a typical hip-hop song, which is the magic of Skinner’s music and personality.
He manages to sound like an average Joe and a prophet at the same time, a rapper and a regular young citizen, clever and simplistic and tons of other possible contrasts. Delivering epic lines such as “Eyes transfixed with a piercing gaze/One hand clutching his sword raised to the sky” and the closing line “Brace yourself, ‘cause this goes deep/I’ll show you the secrets, the sky and the birds/Actions speak louder than words/Stand by me, my apprentice/Be brave, clench fists”, he makes the listener wonder what could possibly come next to top this awesome introduction. And then this song happens:
“Has It Come to This ?” must be one of the most important, if not the most important, song of early 2000s hip-hop. It creates such a powerful feeling of melancholy, malaise, and nostalgia thanks to a beautiful piano loop, a sharp garage beat and hints of sub-bass. Skinner’s lyrics don’t convey a larger-than-life meaning, but rather seem to almost document the time they were written in, referencing PlayStations and 64s, the UK Garage scene and smoking weed with friends in your apartment. The hook is basically a sung vocal singing the title of the track while Skinner delivers the iconic lines “Original pirate material/You’re listening to The Streets/Lock down your aerials”. He also drops some amazingly creative lines such as “Turn the page, don’t rip it out at your age, move to the next stage/Lock the rage inside the cage, like SK, it’s a new day”, showing just how proficient he is at crafting great song lines and delivering them.
Now, since the record has been perfectly introduced with its two stellar openers, Mike Skinner has to show his mission statement. He did that with the song “Let’s Push Forward”, with which he seems to claim that he is going to prove to those who believe nothing changes and everything stays static, that he will push things forward, most likely referring to the genre he is trying to impact. This is evident in the lines such as “I make bangers not anthems, leave that to the Artful Dodger”, showing that he is beyond commercially-crafted music.
“Sharp Darts” is a weird short track that sounds fantastic for its brief runtime, and actually bears a bit of resemblance to American rap, but is delivered with Skinner’s typical wit and charm that sets him apart from most MC’s. The following tracks “Same Old Thing” and “Geezers Need Excitement” are about the everyday life Skinner goes through and how if “geezers” like him might turn to violence and drugs if not entertained. The former track is led by another fantastic loop of strings and a cool beat that makes it more lively than its central theme. On the other hand, the latter of the two tracks has a more somber instrumental showing the darker side of Skinner’s lyrics and how it’s easy to get yourself lost in the monotony of life and trying to find a violent way out.
Even though this album is a concept one, about the youth of England and how they spend their time smoking weed, going to garage parties and hanging with friends, there is occasionally a song that hits a bit harder in the feels. “It’s Too Late” is the track that seems to follow that pattern, with Skinner rapping about losing his girl due to his irresponsibility and being a neglectful boyfriend, over a sad string section and beat, almost painting a cliche picture of a boyfriend begging for forgiveness at the airport while his girl is leaving him for good. “Now nothing holds significance and nothing holds relevance/’Cause the only thing I can see is her elegance” are the lines that finish off the final verse before the final chorus, teaching us that taking our partners needs seriously is key to a good relationship.
“Too Much Brandy” is a funny story about Skinner getting wasted drinking Brandy, eating junk food and getting high, leaving him sick and quite regretful. This is followed by the charming and energetic hit single “Don’t Mug Yourself”, in which Skinner is fighting his inner self over pursuing a girl he just met. His friend Cal is the voice of reason on the track and tries to help him, but he just doesn’t listen, telling him that he is not a sap and that he has the game all figured out. It’s driven by a colorful beat consisting of only drums and a bassline that easily gets stuck in one’s head. All in all, a funny and charming song about dating and advice we all get from friends, whether we like it or not.
“Who Got the Funk?” is, as its name suggests, a funk song that features a guitar with a wah-wah pedal, horn stabs and a groovy bassline, and Skinner talking about random locations. It’s a nice little interlude before the song “The Irony of it All”, a song that features two characters played by Skinner himself. We are introduced to an alcoholic who claims that he is a law-abiding citizen and causes no trouble, who is known under the name Terry. The other one is a stoner that is soft-spoken and not nearly as aggressive as Terry, talking about how his marijuana abuse is less negatively influencing his society unlike alcohol, and how his other activities involve thinking about Einstein and discussing how beautiful Gail Porter is. This is a very unique and interesting track, in which Skinner plays these two roles to perfection.
As the album nears its end, we are also reaching Skinner’s more melancholic side on the song “Weak Become Heroes” where he talks about realizing that his youth will not last forever. “It’s dark all ’round, I walk down. same sights, same sounds/ New beats, though, solid concrete under my feet” is a line that suggests that, while Skinner is probably far from his halycon days of taking drugs and partying, there is always something new on the horizon to keep him going, as weak become heroes and the stars align.
After the short interlude “Who Dares Wins”, we get into the closing track, which is also the darkest on the entire record. “Stay Positive” has a dark looping piano and a slower beat, while Skinner raps about life having severe downs that should not stop us, but rather make us stronger. He refers to the listener as “you” in order to catch our attention and gives us a lot of smart and observative lines on the topic at hand. “But remember that one day, shit might just start crumbling/Your bird might fuck off or you might lose your job/It’s when that happens that what I’m talking about/Will feel much more important to you” is the line that hits hardest, because if one is listening to the problems Skinner lists earlier and thinks that they are safe from them, they are reminded that they might find themselves in this difficult position too, and then, this song will matter to them much more than it does now.
“Original Pirate Material” is truly a timeless record, full of classics and it is a must-listen for fans of any type of music. No single track on it feels superfluous and each adds something different to the table. It is a landmark album for Uk hip hop as well as garage and will most likely continue to influence young producers and MCs finding their own voice in this oversaturated world.