Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is 'Original Pirate Material' by The Streets.
'Original Pirate Material' is the kind of record that will forever be filed under ‘seminal’. It was groundbreaking, genre-redefining and largely recorded in a wardrobe. Mike Skinner redrew the fault lines of UK rap from his bedroom in Brixton, ripping up the blueprint for garage and offering another: rap in a regional British accent about regional British problems. It was a bold reaction to the music of the time and caused a ripple effect that would last for a decade.
The problem that Skinner sought to address was the deferential nature of garage towards its larger transatlantic cousins. Rap had already established itself as a part of the US mainstream and in doing so had found the money that came with it. Garage artists clearly wanted a piece of this but their attempts to emulate had only resulted in imitation. ‘Champagne’, ‘jacuzzis’ and ‘rolexes’ were all referenced in UK underground as much as they were in the US mainstream. The problem was that only one of them was playing to packed out stadiums. This always struck with Skinner as false and so he decided to change it.
From the opening track of 'Original Pirate Material', the death of garage is envisioned with Mike Skinner painting himself as its saviour. The mission plan he sets forth is for a movement that takes pride in its roots and emphasises creativity. On Push Things Forward he takes aim at the formulaic pop of his contemporaries: ‘This ain’t your typical garage joint’, and scolds their fakery: ‘round here we say birds not bitches’. The result was a revision of the genre that put emphasis on Benson & Hedges over Bentleys. He took the mundane parts of everyday life and weaved them into something both complex and beautiful. The Irony of it All is littered with seemingly innocuous references that create a certain resonance with anyone who came of age at the turn of the century: ‘I just completed Gran Turismo on the hardest setting … we just sit in this hazy bubble with our quarters discussing how beautiful Gail Porter is’
Skinner’s characters didn’t live in some sort of idealised existence where money isn’t a problem – they lived in council estates, partied in dodgy clubs and hung out in overlit chip shops. He didn’t seek to glorify suburban life either. Gone was the lager-swilling, cigarette-smoking halcyon days of the 90s. In its place, 'Original Pirate Material' painted a more sensitive picture of modern Britain that was more in line with reality of the 00s. Skinner wasn’t pretending that this was as good as it gets and he wasn’t satisfied either: ‘Seems the only difference between mid-week shit, and weekend, is how loud I speak and whether I try to pull a girlfriend’
The glorification of lad culture was over. The Streets’ characters never amounted to anything. There was the stoner arguing for the legalisation of weed (Irony of it All), the raver purporting the benefits of ecstasy (Weak Become Heroes) and the heartbroken boyfriend wandering the streets alone (It’s Too Late). No one thought they were special. But Skinner’s revolution wasn’t limited to just its lyrical content. Musically, 'Original Pirate Material' was also on another level. Its foundations were in garage but it lent into other genres such as ska (Let’s Push Things Forward) and old-school house (Weak Become Heroes). They seemed to be aware of the album’s seminal nature already. On Sharp Darts Skinner boasts: ‘In five hundred years they’ll play this song in museums’
Listening back, 'Original Pirate Material' is one long trip of nostalgia-tinged euphoria. The piano loop on ‘Weak Become Heroes’ is enough to bring anyone in their late twenties to tears. It was Skinner’s love letter to ecstasy and ended up becoming a standard bearer for an entire generation: ‘They could settle wars with this, if only they will, imagine all the world’s leaders on pills, and imagine the morning after’. While the labelling of Mike Skinner as a ‘modern day Shakespeare’ was always a stretch, it isn’t really surprising upon reflection. His songs are littered with references to ‘fair maidens’, ‘45th generation Romans’ and ‘dancing the fandango’. Both playwright and musician sought to chronicle the ills of modern life, and both found beauty in the mundane. The only surprising thing was how early the comparisons came.
Skinner claims he never intended to make a classic album, he just wanted to write a record that him and his mates could relate to. But from the outset 'Original Pirate Material' clearly has greater goals. You can’t use your opening track to paint yourself as the saviour of a genre and claim that you didn’t want change. Skinner may have been surprised by the reaction the album received, by its immediate popularity in clubs from Brooklyn to Berlin. But when you try to change the world and you succeed, fame is just one of the prices that you have to pay.