I had just become a teenager when The Streets, the stage moniker of UK hip-hop/garage artist Mike Skinner, entered the UK top 10 in 2004 with a song called “Fit But You Know It.” To say that the song was successful wouldn’t be totally accurate; it was more like a cultural phenomenon.
The non-explicit version of the song was a radio favorite. I frequently heard it on the streets blaring out of car speakers. Classmates boasted that they knew the lyrics by heart. Part of its appeal was the song’s novelty. It completely broke the conventions of a traditional rap song: Skinner, a skinny, English, cockney-accented white guy rhymed about a failed attempt to hit on a girl while on vacation.
But I was subjected to the song ad nauseam and I’d had enough. Plus, being at such an awkward transitional age, neither I nor my classmates really understood what the song was about. So I ending up writing The Streets off for about 7 years. I decided to revisit The Streets after I discovered that their album, A Grand Don’t Come For Free, which featured the hit single, was listed in the book: 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. To my surprise, Skinner’s entire body of work with The Streets had received near unanimous critical acclaim.
What’s striking about the A Grand Don’t Come For Free is that it plays out as a single narrative, with each song acting as a different chapter. It tells a simple story of a normal guy navigating through the mundanity and perils of ordinary life as he loses a thousand pounds and tries to find it again. Skinner has a masterful ability to weave elements of humor, with moments of poignancy and philosophical reflection into his music. He communicates his bigger ideas about love and life by anchoring them in scenes depicting the humdrum of everyday life.
Commercially, Skinner peaked with A Grand Don’t Come For Free, but his future albums continued to be extremely well received by fans and critics alike. They started taking on a more personal, profound dimension by touching on topics like fame, religion, and the afterlife, as well as darker themes like contemplating suicide.
In 2011, Skinner announced he was ending The Streets. The news was met with a collective sadness within his committed fan base. Since then I haven’t really heard much Mike Skinner related news—until now.
Today I discovered that Skinner is the host and co-director of an upcoming documentary series about the rap scene in both Israel and Palestine. The show is produced by Vice’s music blog Noisey, is titled Israel Palestine: Hip Hop in the Holy Land. According to Noisey:
During this 6 part series we meet Tamer Nafar, also known as the godfather of Palestinian hip hop who founded the group DAM, Ohad Cohen who after being a regular in the Tel Aviv rap scene as a teenager then moved towards ultra orthodox Judaism, but still has ambitions to be a famous rapper, and Ben Blackwell, who is part of the fascinating Hebrew Israelite community of the desert town of Dimona. Plus many other MCs from all different backgrounds including Subliminal, Saz and Rebel Sun.
No doubt, given the delicate subject matter, the documentary, in parts at least, will be politically charged. In one clip from the short minute and a half trailer, a Palestinian rapper declares: “We say it in our songs that Israel is a democracy, a democracy for Jews but not for Arabs.”
I think the decision to let Skinner host is a pretty perfect one. Aside from his musical knowledge and appreciation, Skinner’s breezy yet contemplative demeanor will set the right sort of tone both in a musical sense and for a documentary dealing with this kind of subject matter. I’m excited.