Space and Sound: English Suburbia and The Streets

continues his series on the relations between spaces and sound by examining the complex relations between suburban Englishness and the bitty garage of Mike Skinner.

By Will Entwistle

We are predisposed to think revolutionary sounds are inspired by similarly revolutionary conditions. This, quite simply, is not true. In fact, boring places inspire fresh sounds because musicians attempt to escape reality. Paradoxically, Mike Skinner’s work reflects the realities of his suburban English experiences while serving as an escape. Skinner, known as The Streets, is recognised for his raw yet sensitive narration of experiences in suburban England. His distinct vocal tone supported by garage beats encapsulates sound’s articulation of space by re-positioning UK garage and rap with the seemingly uninspiring suburban experience. Where, then, can we see space’s influence on sound? Moreover, how has suburban England inspired Skinner’s revolutionary music?

Mike Skinner’s work reflects the realities of his suburban English experiences while serving as an escape

 Skinner’s first album Original Pirate Material best presents his frank style grounded in his Englishness. In an interview, Skinner said that the point of Original Pirate Material was to ‘make music which reflected that to be someone on the one hand very English, but at the same time a bit like Nas.’ Skinner reveals that American rappers, such as Nas, helped inspire his lyrics. However, the existence of Skinner’s wordplay is perhaps the only clear musical similarity with American rap. The sound is neither completely garage nor rap. Distinctively, Skinner’s use of words encapsulates local experiences in fragments of England in a new ‘high rise’ style. Often, the experiences and places attached are mundane, yet nostalgic.

The Streets reunited in 2017, and performed a raucous headline set at Glastonbury’s John Peel Stage last summer. Image: simoncromptonreid via Wikimedia and Creative Commons.

Remarkably, Skinner, as a wordsmith and producer, reunites us with local experiences almost without spatial specifics. The references to ‘little adventures’ articulated with suburban slang and the occasional lazy pronunciation, particularly of ‘gladiators’ (in Turn the Page’), relates to listeners with similar experiences. Original Pirate Material’s sound is grounded in places that constitute the locality of English lives; even referring to ‘rhubarb and custard verses’ (in ‘Turn the Page’). Importantly, Skinner reflects the album’s suburban Englishness claiming the words he uses most are, “Butters. Deep. Hench.” He admits Original Pirate Material is “the day in the life of a geezer”, and yet relates to listeners beyond that description.

Skinner reflects the album’s suburban Englishness claiming the words he uses most are, “Butters. Deep. Hench.

Barratt Developments are a staple of English suburbia. Crucially, Skinner says his upbringing was “Barratt class: suburban estates, not poor but not much money about, really boring.” Typically, we would not associate pioneering rap and garage with homogeneous housing in quiet neighbourhoods. Paradoxically, Skinner’s typical suburban experience is, in fact, the revolutionary tinge in his sound. For instance, It was Supposed to be so easy”, in Skinner’s album A Grand Don’t Come for Free, recounts instances of habitual laziness including his reluctance to return an overdue Blockbuster DVD. The track encapsulates the paradox Skinner introduces to English music as triumphant brass underlines his deliberately lazy and monotonous voice detailing his boredom.

The Street’s debut album, A Grand Don’t Come For Free, was nominated for the 2002 Mercury Prize, losing out to Ms. Dynamite’s A Little Deeper.

Comparably, local Englishness retains proud social outlets, like pubs, and yet embodies, at times, tedious homogeneity.  George Orwell in The Lion and The Unicorn explores what defines Englishness, suggesting that all “the culture that is most truly native” surrounds things that are communal but unofficial emphasising an “addiction to hobbies and spare-time occupation.” Skinner, the Englishman and musician, personifies the freedom to pursue amusements privately, when making the music, and sharing it. For instance, Skinner made Original Pirate Material mostly in the privacy of a bedroom while intending to share it with others. Both the creative process and music produced were inherently English and suburban.            

The life of a suburban geezer helped push English music forward

Skinner’s distinctive sound retains anecdotes often typical in local English experiences. For instance, “Let’s Push Things Forward”reflects the tedious routines of local English life including throwing darts, or at least trying to, ‘at treble twenty’ and compulsively listening to ‘anthems’. Skinner’s use of self-deprecating lyrics with hypnotic but melancholic bass and organ reflects this routinised existence. Yet, a complex beat underpins the track representing the possibility adventures while persisting with suburban boredom.

Music journalist Caspar Melville argues that Skinner’s A Grand Don’t Come For Free does not explore the ‘local, the place’, but instead ‘noplace, anyplace, Nowheresville UK.’ Skinner’s music remains inspired by place. Nevertheless, Melville overlooks the music’s innate locality. For instance, Original Pirate Material is, in essence, a collection of anecdotes from pockets of English suburbia. That is, the sounds do not need specific references to places because they uniquely narrate both communal, yet intimate activities that are uniquely suburban. Skinner’s dart-throwing and drug-taking anecdotes are enriched by sensitivity; and lyrics detailing boredom are enhanced by two-step and Garage. The life of a suburban geezer helped push English music forward

Image: simoncromptonreid via Wikimedia and Creative Commons.

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