Two years ago, Mike Skinner — a.k.a. the Streets — dropped his debut, Original Pirate Material, which was full of skittering beats and Skinner’s dry, monotone tales of chasing birds, watching too much telly and living on the dole. It drew raves and proved that a white British pothead from Birmingham, England, could rap. Despite his success, not much has changed for Skinner. He still writes lyrics on his Motorola cell phone (by text-messaging himself) and spends most of his time either recording in his bedroom or rolling spliffs in front of the TV. “I don’t feel like a celebrity,” the twenty-five-year-old says just before the May 11th release of his follow-up, A Grand Don’t Come for Free. But his singular blend of British garage and straightforward spitting narratives has won him high praise and faithful fans, many of whom relate (the way Eminem fans do) to his rhymes about adolescent anomie. Relaxing on a couch during a visit to Brooklyn, he takes a break from reading Simon Napier-Bell’s Black Vinyl White Powder — a history of drugs in the music industry — to talk about drugs and the music industry.
Who are your favorite lyricists?
I think country’s got the best lyrics — the words are really important to those songs. Hip-hop’s got a really good standard of rhyming, rhythm, production and attitude, but country lyrics are really clever. I quite like Johnny Cash, and Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.” And [Dave Loggins’] “Please Come to Boston.” And Harry Chapin’s “Sniper.” I try to draw from country when I’m writing words, but it’s got the worst rhythm.
What’s the best rhyme you’ve ever written?
“We first met for a shared view/She loved me, and I did too” [from “It’s Too Late”]. It’s quite clever and witty and true.
Have you ever hung out with Eminem or Dr. Dre?
No, but I was closer to 50 Cent than you are to me now. It was in a London club, and no one in his entourage was pushing me away. What’s he spending, thirty grand a day on bodyguards? I could’ve gotten a knife in that club easily and killed him. I brushed past him on the way to the bathroom. It’s good that I’m not a complete psycho who wanted to kill 50 Cent.
Do you write songs when you’re fucked up?
No, it makes me write shit songs. My brain doesn’t work properly when I’m on drugs, or the amount of drugs I take, anyway. Strictly the weekend is for drug taking — maybe a Thursday night.
I saw you perform last year, and I couldn’t understand a word you said. Does that bother you?
I don’t really pay much attention to the live stuff. It’s a skill to sing, really. I think I’m quite a funny bloke, but I’m no Frank Sinatra. Onstage we try and respect the fact that I’m not a great performer by getting really drunk and having a really good party. And I’m not a good performer because I don’t practice — I’m too busy putting the practice into making good records.
How do you suggest your fans warm up before a Streets gig?
Generally, the best bet is booze. Lots of it. If you bring the beer, we’ll bring the party. In America, we’re like the pissed blokes paraded in front. But in England, we’re not as pissed as the people in the audience. I throw cans into the audience when I’m drunk, which is good — give some beer love — but every now and then someone gets twazipped on the head. Likewise, I’ve been smacked in the head by full cans, so I’ve paid my dues.
What do you like to fuck to?
I’m not really much of a fuck-to-music guy. Generally, music makes me concentrate on music. When it’s on, I’m thinking about it and how it was put together, which puts me off my stroke. It’s like with a lot of my mates, if there’s football, they can’t help but look at football. I’m that way with music.
Do you have a big record collection?
I’ve got a big iPod collection. And I don’t really have CDs. I throw them all away.
How do you fit your whole collection on one iPod?
I don’t have whole albums on there. Why bother? If there’s four songs from one album on my iPod, then it’s a good album. Like Carole King’s Tapestry. And Michael Jackson albums have got a good iPod count. To me, it’s all about the song.
What are the four songs you chose from Bad? “Man in the Mirror” is one of my favorite melodic songs from the Eighties. “Dirty Diana” is great electronic rock. “Smooth Criminal” is a quality track. And, of course, “I’m bad, I’m bad, you know it. I’m bad. And the whole world has to answer right now just to tell you once again, who’s bad.”