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Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2002


The Streets: Original Pirate Material

Following hard on the heels of drum 'n' bass, U.K. garage (or two-beat) was already the hippest thing in urban Britain by the time the rest of the world had even heard of it. Critics called it the purest form of dance music since '70s disco, while practitioners made much of its up-from-the-streets credibility, born in apartment-block studios, back-alley clubs and pirate stations.

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The music of the Streets, which is essentially 22-year-old producer-MC Mike Skinner of Birmingham, stresses this social aspect. The most recognizable characteristics of U.K. garage are diva-grade R&B and rapid-fire ragga, but Skinner's love is American hip-hop, especially in the way it embodies an entire lifestyle. His first singles made their way into DJ sets and 2-step compilations, but mostly as oddities. Skinner's heart-on-the-sleeve poetry about life "at street level" holds precedent over any booty-shaking priorities, but his spare, propulsive beats and washes of synthesized strings provide plenty of aural sustenance. Since two-beat is mostly a singles format, an album of Skinner's dense diatribes might hit the street with more of a thud than a bang.

But a bang is exactly what "Original Pirate Material" has produced. Not only does Skinner's full-length debut break through U.K. garage's self-imposed limitations, it elevates British hip-hop to a whole new level. Filled to the brim with heart-breaking tales of everyday urban life, keen-eyed observations and razor-sharp rhymes, delivered in a conversational style that's as rhythmically intriguing as anything Skinner gets out of his drum machine, the album is too emotionally involving to qualify as strictly dance music, even if, as Skinner himself claims, "I make bangers not anthems."

His syntax messes with heads rather than feet. "Geezers need excitement," he says matter-of-factly. "If their lives don't provide them this, they incite violence." The requisite boasts aren't hard-and-real, but practical: "I'm the driver you're the passenger/Do you understand or do you need an interpreter?"

Despite copious references to Asian takeout, the Birmingham club scene and the pub-level politics of Brit drug culture, the album doesn't feel exclusionary. No interpreter is needed, because behind Skinner's idiosyncratic songs is a palpable need to communicate something real. "You're listening to the Streets," he reminds us on practically every track, and that's exactly what you hear.

The Streets play at Summer Sonic in Osaka on Aug. 17 and in Makuhari on Aug. 18.

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