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District is a digital & physical magazine that focuses on the internal and external creative influences on Ireland that make it culturally significant. Our magazine is published quarterly. Get Issue 001 here and Issue 002 here. We also publish a weekend preview every Tuesday highlighting the best things going on in Dublin. For music submissions or if you’re interested in contributing contact editor@districtmagazine.ie. For advertising queries get in touch with our head of sales in Ireland & UK Adam Heaton adam@districtmagazine.ie

September 16, 2017Feature

Mike Skinner was Issue 002's cover story, featuring an interview by Hannah O'Connell and photography by Ellius Grace. Read an excerpt from the feature below, with one of the most influential British artists ever.

“I think the UK is going to become Atlanta.”

 

In 2009 Mike Skinner featured on Giggs’ debut single ‘Slow Songs’. Grime and hip hop website SBTV interviewed the pair backstage at the music video shoot for the track.

During the conversation Skinner talked about hooking Giggs up with his American contacts and how he “needs to put out an album”. There’s very much a sense of one artist taking another, less accomplished artist, under their wing. Eight years later Giggs is on his fourth album, ‘Landlord’, that went to number two in the UK Album Charts, runs SN1 Records, is playing a number of this summer’s biggest festivals and appears twice on Drake’s ‘More Life’, the most streamed album in a single day on Apple Music and Spotify.

“It’s unbelievable really,” says Skinner on seeing acts like Giggs come to the forefront of world hip hop. “I think the UK is going to become Atlanta. It’s better to think of the UK as a small American city. It’s the next American city to come through. Even last year, if you add it all up, London was hotter than New York for hip hop. It’s mad.” UK hip hop has been around since the 1980s and from that grew UK garage and grime. Mike Skinner began making waves on the scene in the late 90s but it wasn’t until 2002 that he would release his debut album ‘Original Pirate Material’ as The Streets. Little did he know while recording those tracks in a house in Brixton, shared with a Dublin-born roommate, that the album would mark a turning point for British urban music: A cultural Big Bang. Turning fifteen this year, ‘Original Pirate Material’ is as quintessentially British as it gets, to the point of alienating international audiences. Speaking to Elsewhere Magazine in 2012 on his attempt to break America, Skinner said, “the more open minded hip hop guys are getting to it, but it’s a cultural difference we’re never going to get over… I’ve taken urban music and made it about my culture.”

However, in Britain the record was being met with critical acclaim and hailed by many as one of the best albums of all time. Skinner soon became the first of a new wave of UK urban artists to generate commercial success, paving the way for other similar acts to follow in his path. His Birmingham accent, use of everyday topics for lyrical inspiration, and slow-paced, conversational singing style was unique.

His sound defied traditional urban genres and instead existed somewhere in between UK hip hop, garage and grime. As Skinner puts it in ‘Let’s Push Things Forward’, “this ain’t your archetypal street sound… Don’t conform to formulas, pop genres and such.”

During a time when Las Ketchup, S Club Juniors and The Cheeky Girls were topping the charts it was refreshing to hear a new sound breaking through.

“There’s a tiny little candle of musical taste that’s like, flickering around inside your head and anything can blow that candle out. If you can keep that candle alight and say this is what I do, this is what I like and this is who I am, people will respond to that hugely.”

Skinner tells me on the issues of self-confidence and trusting your gut: “You’ve got to go into the world and the world is really windy. What you’re trying to do is to change the world and people don’t see it the way you see it. The world is not your world, yet. You’re yet to change it.” Mike Skinner changed the world for people that grew up listening to his music. When ‘Original Pirate Material’ first came out, UK garage was nearing its sell-by date and becoming a pop commodity. Grime was in its prenatal stages, still yet to take its first steps to becoming the biggest genre in the world. Fifteen years on acts like Stormzy, whose debut album ‘Gang Signs and Prayers’ became the first grime album in history to reach number one, Skepta, who beat David Bowie to win the 2016 Mercury Music Prize with his album ‘Konnichiwa’, and Giggs who performed onstage alongside Drake during his ‘More Life’ tour, have cemented grime and UK hip hop on the world music stage.

Although London will always be the home of grime and the factory where the biggest artists in the genre are produced, there are smaller scenes thriving all over the UK. When asked which artists will we still be talking about fifteen years from now Skinner says, “In grime, I think the guys outside of London are the next people to have a voice. Bugzy (Malone) is doing well in Manchester and people are really watching the Brummies a lot lately.”

Talking on fellow Birmingham native Jaykae, Skinner says, “Obviously I’m hugely biased but you only have to look at something like the Grime Shutdown to see how well Toothache is performing, it’s one of the biggest grime records in the country. Jaykae is doing really well.”

Birmingham now boasts the largest grime scene outside of London with a number of talented grime artists calling the city home. Skinner got into music as a young child and reportedly built a sound booth out of the wardrobe in his bedroom when recording his first demos. This basic, stripped back approach to music making stuck with him throughout this career. ‘Original Pirate Material’ was created entirely using Logic with Skinner recording tracks like ‘Let’s Push Things Forward’ and ‘Don’t Mug Yourself’ in his house. Reportedly the complete process cost less than £4000.

“I’ve seen quite a lot of people go from nothing to famous. I was the same really. Most young people deep down think they’re not good enough and actually everyone is good enough. It’s just a case of not wavering from the vision, which is something Giggs has done so well.”

Talking about his onetime desire to replicate the trend of working with the massive music desks of US artists like Timbaland, he explains, “For a while I did that and now I’m really, really into not doing that. I’ve gone back to the other extreme now. I like to have meetings in studios because you can play music really loud… But the rest of the time I’m completely mobile. From time to time you want to have a base and then other times you find it’s more inspiring to get out into the world.”

Since moving away from The Streets in 2011, Mike Skinner has undertaken a number of other musical projects. He collaborated with Rob Harvey under the alias The D.O.T. and in 2015 partnered with Murkage to form the supergroup Tonga Balloon Gang. They have taken their Tonga parties on the road since their formation and are once again doing the rounds this summer.

“DJing is really good for [getting out into the world],” he says, “because most of the time I’m on my own getting driven around by promoters and it’s just you and you’ve got to connect with people.”

Using a laptop is the most natural way for Skinner to make music now.

“Because I’m in nightclubs quite a lot I play a lot of stuff that I’m working on while I’m DJing. A nightclub is better than any studio to decide if tunes are good or not. If it’s a good nightclub or to be honest, if it’s a bad nightclub, that tells you things. Your music has to work in good nightclubs and bad nightclubs.”

Despite his success Skinner has always loaned his musical prowess to up-and-coming UK artists and welcomed collaborations when he felt they were the right fit; he revealed in an interview with MistaJam that he turned down the invitation to feature on a Jamie xx track by not replying to his emails.

“I think all the collabs that work are when people understand each other. It’s very easy to get your wallet out and do that sort of collab, particularly in rap, but I think it’s important to not get turned on by all the excitement that’s happening in the world for other people. It’s not good to try to jump on other waves… You’ve really got to invent what you’re doing. If I look back at my career all I have ever done is do things that are really good or really bad, mostly bad. 99 per cent of the stuff that I have done in my career is terrible!”

Mike Skinner has never wavered from the vision. Whether he considered a track sub-par or not, he has never let his candle of musical taste extinguish. He has always looked forward, beyond the sound booth in his bedroom, beyond the restrictions of musical genres to the future of UK urban music and to the platform it deserves to be on.

Click here to pick up District Magazine Issue 002.

Words: Hannah O'Connell 
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