Where To Start With... The Streets
When the debut single from The Streets first hit the UK's radio airwaves late in 2001, it seemed to arrive almost from out of nowhere.
For many of the preceding years, the British music industry had been dominated by the giants of the Britpop era, and while those same years had seen the meteoric rise of hip-hop in the U.S., the UK's rap scene was still in its infancy and struggling to find its own identity in the shadow of its American counterpart.
Although more 'urban' styles of music such as the emerging UK Garage scene were beginning to find a steadily growing audience, the genre's early breakthrough artists such as Craig David had developed a sound that took its cue largely from the smooth stylings of the US R&B scene. Grime had yet to fully emerge, and when it came to anything with a harder edge, such as the gritty depictions of urban life offered by the likes of Wu-Tang or N.W.A., there was no real equivalent that had broken through into the mainstream in the UK.
It was, however, via that same UK Garage scene that The Streets suddenly burst onto the airwaves. North London record store Pure Groove had become something of an outlet for the genre's artists, with the shop's address at 679 Holloway Road giving its name to a small independent label run by Nick Worthington. Mike Skinner - the brains behind The Streets - speculatively handed him a demo of what would become their debut single 'Has It Come To This?', and after a little development the track was released via Worthington's label and Locked On, another imprint run by Pure Groove alumni Tarik Nashnush.
The single and The Streets subsequent debut album Original Pirate Material were an unexpected success for Skinner, who quickly began garnering praise and a slew of award nominations for the album's groundbreaking style. Heavily influenced by the gritty realism of East coast rappers Nas and Wu-Tang Clan, but musically rooted in the more upbeat rhythms of UK Garage, The Streets sound was both and neither of those things, somehow in a category entirely of its own.
Instead, their debut album offered up a unique depiction of British life that combined rough-hewn beats with chopped-up samples, soulful vocals and Skinner's distinctive rapping style, delivering self-deprecating tales of being dumped by girls and decked in kebab shops in a heavy Birmingham accent. The album's follow-up, 2004's A Grand Don't Come For Free, topped the UK's Album Chart and crystallised the oscillation between laddish antics and tender sentimentality that would characterise The Streets' sound over the next few albums and earn Skinner a dedicated league of fans and admirers.
The last in that run of albums came in 2008 with Skinner's fourth full-length offering Everything is Borrowed, and while The Streets did return with an online-only album in 2011, it has been more than a decade since their last album in physical form.
That changes this week, however... well, sort of. Branded a 'mixtape' rather than an album, None of Us Are Getting Out of This Life Alive is nevertheless the first album-length release from The Streets in a very long time. The re-emergence was been gradual, with Skinner popping out a handful of tracks since 2018, and just like, in the beginning, Skinner is back to doing things on his own terms, taking a DIY approach and avoiding the demands of record labels and deadlines.
Featuring guest appearances from a list of collaborators that includes Ms Banks, Idles, Dapz on the Map and Hak Baker, among several others, this is definitely an older, wiser and calmer version of The Streets than in those early years, but Skinner is clearly enjoying himself and his music again.
You can find the video below for their new single 'I Wish You Loved You As Much As You Love Him', beneath that we've picked out five key tracks as a beginner's guide to The Streets...
'Has It Come To This?'
The track that started it all, their debut single made an immediate impact and was so different to anything else on mainstream radio that when Skinner invited listeners to 'cut down your aerial' it sounded almost like the frequency had been crashed and taken over by a pirate radio station. Propelled by a frenetic beat, chopped vocals and Skinner's trademark Brummie drawl, 'Has It Come To This?' announced The Streets' arrival in style.
'Weak Become Heroes'
Of many highlights on Original Pirate Material, such as the raucous account of an Amsterdam bender featured in 'Too Much Brandy' or Skinner's tales of becoming obsessed with women way out of his league on 'Don't Mug Yourself', the one we've gone for is 'Weak Become Heroes'. One of the album's more mellow moments, the track details Skinner's experiences of the UK's rave scene and perfectly captures the feeling of those hazy post-nightclub gatherings that only end when the sun comes up.
'Blinded By The Lights'
While 'Dry Your Eyes' was undoubtedly the biggest hit from The Streets' sophomore album A Grand Don't Come For Free, the album's other real highlight is the one we've gone for here. Skinner once said on his debut “I make bangers, not anthems”, but 'Blinded By The Light's is arguably both.
'When You Wasn't Famous'
By the time of The Streets' third album Skinner had become, by his own measure, improbably successful, and if the running theme of The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living is his bewilderment at the world of fame and celebrity he now found himself a part of, then no track captures that better than 'When You Wasn't Famous'. Featuring a story about an unnamed female artist he claims to have smoked crack cocaine with at a party before her appearance on a children's TV show the next morning, this is The Streets at their most hilariously unhinged.
'On The Flip of a Coin'
Our final pick is taken from their 2008 album Everything is Borrowed, their last to be released in physical form, and in the midst of an album that sounds a little more world-weary than its predecessors, 'On The Flip of a Coin' offers a contrast and is arguably the album's real standout moment.