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English Beat

The Streets' vision of working-class England is full of beats, birds and brandy

His mother works in a hospital and his father is a retired salesman, but there's little talk of jobs anywhere in Skinner's music, lending it an air of Thatcher's England, when every punk was on the dole. Skinner, who worked in a mailroom packing envelopes before his career took off, denies that there's a political edge to his music: "A lot of people do read political stuff into it. But, um, I don't, really. I don't really know a lot about politics." Still, there's no denying the sociological bent of his poetry: Less polemical than, say, Black Flag's classic "TV Party," Skinner's songs nevertheless offer a detached portrait of a dead-end culture.

Not just lyrically but musically, Original Pirate Material seems almost unprecedented. At first the Streets' tracks sound curiously thinned out, especially compared with the full-spectrum sweep of club-oriented garage. But Skinner's bedroom-produced beats and keyboard string parts carry a surprising emotional punch; in ignoring the trends set by big-time producers such as Timbaland and the Neptunes, he's created a profoundly original fusion of electronic soul and spoken word. Skinner's rapping is different as well: Instead of the Jamaican-inspired fast toasting of garage or the syncopated rhymes of hip-hop, he merely speaks in a pleasant, conversational tone, wrapping his syllables ever so slightly around the beats. The effect is a very white take on the traditional black music of the English and American inner cities, an assessment supported by Skinner's lush horn arrangements, reminiscent of the Two-Tone ska movement of the early '80s.

"Has It Come to This?" reached number eight on the British pop charts. More astoundingly, Skinner and his album were nominated for 2002's prestigious Mercury Prize, awarded annually to a groundbreaking U.K. pop release. Even with these distinctions, the very English Original Pirate Material would've remained unknown stateside had Vice magazine not met with Atlantic Records about a potential line of Jackass-inspired DVDs. During that conference, the Vice team admonished Atlantic's A&R people for not releasing the Streets' album in the States (Atlantic's affiliate Warner UK owned the record's rights overseas), and the major-label reps suggested that Vicerelease it.

Despite a massive press push and the enthusiasm of writers and editors nationwide, it's debatable how well the LP will translate to an American public. Vice Records label manager Adam Shore is convinced that it's a sure bet. "The commercial marketplace is not waiting with their arms open," he concedes, "but with music in a dead-end state, especially dance music and [commercial] hip-hop, I think the real, open-minded music buyer, whether they're dance, hip-hop, indie or just someone who shops at [New York's] Other Music and [the Bay Area's] Amoeba, the person just searching for something new is going to find this record."

As for the CD's U.K. success, Skinner believes it's because "it could be anyone's life, really; that's why it's so powerful in England." But for U.S. listeners, Skinner isn't so sanguine. "I don't think Americans really want to hear an English bloke talking about English stuff," he says. "But it's good fun coming over here and getting a free flight."

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