When Mike Skinner, front man for the British rap outfit, The Streets, records new music, he rarely uses an engineer. It simply wouldn’t work for the artist. Skinner says he regularly does upwards of 100 different versions of a single song, often revising tiny, minuscule details or rearranging a single word here and there. It would be madness for any engineer to go along for that ride. So, Skinner often does it all himself. He creates sound booths, erects studio spaces and fashions other makeshift apparatuses to help create his off-kilter, glorious beat-centric music. Skinner, who released his latest record, None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive, in July, continues his streak of successful projects, this time featuring living legends on the tracks like Tame Impala and IDLES.
“It’s about wanting to make good music,” Skinner says. “But there’s something in me that wants to do everything myself. I think I’ve always been a bit strange. If I had a mix engineer, we’d probably get through five or ten takes and he or she would be going mad. I wouldn’t be able to afford the studio time that it takes to write one of my songs.”
Skinner, who rose to worldwide popularity with his 2004 hit, “Fit But You Know It,” boasts a unique sound all to his own. Coming up, skinner was introduced to hip-hop music at a young age by his older brother – bands like Run-D.M.C. At the same time, he found a fascination for electronic equipment, tape players and such. He would take them apart and put them back together. Later, he built a makeshift bedroom sound booth and started to record himself. He became more and more obsessed with everything about it. But he didn’t fall into any conventional aesthetic. Instead, Skinner began rapping over guitar-centric, garage rock beats.
“All it really was in the beginning was trying to sound like a rapper over garage,” Skinner says. “I was really into, like, Mobb Deep and Nas and that post-Rakim sound, which is quite behind the beat and cool. At the time garage music was really big – still is big. There is a rhythm to my words and it takes a long time to work out where words need to be – I’m not sure it’s rap or spoken word. I don’t really care what it is. But it sounds like it should, to me.”
When he first hit the scene, there weren’t many like The Streets. Skinner embraced his British accent in his music – a rarity at the time for most U.K. rappers. He focused on wordplay (“I think everybody loves being playful with words,” he says). He focused on humor, wisecracks and tongue-in-cheek verbiage. He went deeper and deeper into the art form. He watched it grow from across the ocean in the U.S. and added to it what he could from his place England.
“All British music is a reaction to American music,” Skinner says. “That’s all it is and all it has been, well, since The Beatles. So, it’s kind of like, that’s what we do. We all listen to American music and we try to find ourselves in that. That really describes everyone.”
On his latest LP, Skinner employs a great deal of hard-earned experience and artistic wisdom. He’s grown significantly since his early days, he says, creating new sonic and collaborative muscles. And Skinner was able to flex this new strength on None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Live Alive when he employed several featured guests on the album, including, of course, the smooth Australian act, Tame Impala, and Joe Talbot, raging front man for the beloved band, IDLES.
“That’s the reason I love why I do my job,” Skinner says. “I have to pinch myself that I get to be around these people. My early music wasn’t very collaborative. I pretty much did my own music on my own. So, in some ways, this was a quite grown-up thing for me to do. It’s relinquishing control. You have to be able to adapt. Once you bring people into it, they always take things in a new direction that you didn’t expect.”
But the results couldn’t have been better. On the record’s title track, Skinner and Talbot trade verses with similar acerbic tones and rough-rigid textures. On the album’s opening song, which features Tame Impala, Skinner raps the genius-right-on-time line, “You’d worry less about what they thought if you knew how little they did” just before the divine vocals of the Down Under singer glides on the track. As a whole, the 12-song album is a standout 2020 release full of ideas, phrasing and lyrics that provoke.
“I love the idea of trying to distill quite a complicated idea into three-minutes and to use as little as possible to do that,” Skinner says. “I also like how music – absolutely everyone in society is represented in music. It’s like this weird place where people come from wildly different backgrounds. I think most musicians I know are really quite sophisticated because of that. Because they’ve been around so many different types of people.”