British Invasion

Hip-hop's great white bloke brings it to America.

Aa anyone who’s ever watched The Osbournes knows, not all Brits speak the posh, roly-poly English of PBS miniseries. Ozzy’s mangled syntax is a special case, owing as much as it does to decades of stupendous drug and alcohol brain pickling, but even the most straight-edge residents of his hometown of Birmingham, England, still speak in the same sort of twisted, inimitable Birm-ese tonguea type of speech only a little less confounding to Americans than Cockney rhyming slang.

And so, an interview with 22-year-old Birmingham native Mike Skinner, a.k.a. the one-man hip-hop army that is the Streets, is a little bit fuzzy, like trying to read the subtitles on a faraway movie screen when you’ve left your glasses at home. Slight, soft-spoken, and almost translucently pale, Skinner hardly looks like the answer to hip-hop’s current ennui, but to a U.S. audience exhausted by Hype Williams-style largesse, he just might be. His Original Pirate Material, the first release off hipster almanac Vice magazine’s namesake label, takes the spare, syncopated evolution of house and R&B known as garage (we say gah-RHAJ, they say GARE-idgetomato, tomahto) and lays it under sometimes piercing, sometimes hilarious stream-of-consciousness lyrics about birds, geezers, and “spittin’ darts.” In New York for a whirlwind press push, Skinner grabbed 10 minutes to talk (we think) about shopping, stepping out, and the state of the U.K. music scene. For your reading pleasure, the multiple “I’m sorry, what?”s and panicked giggles of incomprehension from the interviewer have been removed from the transcript. Anyhow, like the man says, let’s push things forward. . . .

Seattle Weekly: Hi, Mike. I’m going to put you on speakerphone, OK?

Mike Skinner: Oi, that’s fancy. I want one of those. Is anybody else listening?

Nope, it’s just me. So is this your first time in the States?

Naw, it’s my fourth time actuallyonce for pleasure, three for business.

What, you don’t mix them?

Well, business can be quite pleasurable [laughs].

What are you looking forward to seeing on your first U.S. tour?

I imagine I’ll take a holiday as well after we’ve finished, which is nice, but I’m interested inwell, a lot of the places we’re going I’ve never been to before, so I always like going to a place I’ve never been tobut I’m looking forward to the sun in Miami, for sure. I always enjoy New York for the shopping, and in L.A. I love Rodeo Drive, the magnitude of it.

Really? From your whole stripped-down aesthetic, I would guess you weren’t really a bling-bling kind of guy. . . .

I think I am more bling-bling than people like to believe. I don’t like to flaunt itI don’t think it makes for very interesting talking about, but I do like trainers and clothes and all that, you know.

Does hip-hop in the U.K. have the same tradition of the sort of battle-rap rivalry that, say, Nas and Jay-Z have now in the States?

Well, hip-hop in England is not really very big, so there really just isn’t the exposure to have that kind of thing.

Garage still seems huge over there, even if it hasn’t had that large an impact over here. How was it seeing a garage-y record like Ms. Dynamite’s [A Little Deeper] win the Mercury Prize last year?

Well, that wasn’t really a real garage record, and, to be honest, mine isn’t that garage-y, either. Hers is actually more R&B, and mine is more hip-hop. I mean, garage has changed, it’s not really for the dance floor anymore, but it’s closer to what I’m doing now.

So, growing up in Birmingham, what was the first record you remember having to have?

License to Ill by the Beastie Boys. It’d be quite nostalgic to hear them nowI haven’t listened to that one in a while. But I don’t get into albums anymore, really. I tend to listen to a lot of mix tapes and radio, like the pirate stations, and a lot of garage stuff.

Now for the cheesy closerwhere do you see yourself in five or 10 years?

Doing the same, hopefully still. But I think what’s important, what I’d really like to be doing, is to keep innovating, and if I can’t innovate in music, then I’ll have to do something else, you know?