This sunny spring morning, singer/rapper/social-realist Mike Skinner is rocking lockdown chic – grown-out buzz-cut, five-day beard, black T‑shirt, black joggers.
There’s just one concession to the outside world, and to StreetsWorld: round his neck, a bling Clipper on a gold chain, which is a pimped-up, 3D version of the classic Streets logo.
“This is [by] Seattle Gold, the guy who does all of the rap stuff,” he explains of the custom grillz specialists who operate out of Hatton Gardens, London’s jewellery district.
The plan was to make a version of this brighter lighter available as promotional merch for The Streets’ new duets mixtape, None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive. It’s also the cover art for the first full-length project bearing The Streets name since 2011’s Computers and Blues, one it bristles with exciting and diverse collabs across its 12 tracks: Greentea Peng, Ms Banks, Kevin Parker of Tame Impala, Jimothy Lacoste, IDLES, Chris Lorenzo, Donae_O and more.
“But it actually needs people to go around and put it together,” Skinner continues, running his A‑class prototype through his fingers. “So obviously it’s not very social distance-compliant. So there might be a delay. We were hoping to be sending them out to you guys around now, but everything changes but youuuu!” he sings, concluding his manufacturing and logistics update with a burst of Take That’s 1994 pop smash Everything Changes. Obviously.
As best he can, and with all due respect to those suffering, struggling and/or working on the frontline, the 41-year-old seems to be livin’ la vida lockdown. His two young kids (eight and 10) are in the garden. He’s been watching “a lot of live cooking shows” on Instagram. He’s been reading. And he’s pushing on with his work.
“It’s probably a musician thing, but some people are like: ‘Well, actually this isn’t that different to my normal life.’ And then other people are completely fucked. All my touring friends are having a complete nightmare. But people are writing songs now, that’s happening.”
Equally, as a keen student of history, the London-born, Birmingham-raised musician sees parallels in the past.
“When World War One started, there was a quote that said something like: ‘The machinations of war have a morbid curiosity.’ When you hear that in peacetime, you think: ‘What a cunt. What a fucking cunt getting into war.’
“But actually, there is a weird morbid fascination. When you’re watching history happen – and I’m not talking about the people dying in hospitals – it’s politics. I’ve just watched the news all day, and some of those press conferences…”
He shakes his head in wonder at the government’s daily press conferences and their rollercoaster mixture of revelations, evasions, platitudes, chastisements and cash-dumps.
“This is going to get talked about for years and you can’t help but be glued to it,” says the rapper, rhymer, observer and social historian.
And he says that with a keen ear for history’s great orators, citing the “banging lyrics” of – wait for it – Winston Churchill. “He was a lyricist, one of the greatest.”
Talking to me via Zoom, Skinner is in what looks like the (slightly) converted front room of his undoubtedly nice house in north London. This light-filled space is his music room-slash-studio, in which the kit is minimal but enough: big speakers flanking a Victorian fireplace, piano, his phone, a bean bag-slash-cushion on the floor on which he plonks himself for our conversation.
“It took me a long time to realise it, but if you put all your crap somewhere else, you can have a really tidy room,” he says, looking round a place that is indeed remarkably clutter-free. “I had a studio with a lot of stuff in it, and I gradually realised that the only thing I really want are my speakers.”
So, around him in his playroom, no shiny sales discs for 2002’s landmark proto-garage debut album Original Pirate Material, nor for 2004’s moment-defining Number One hit Dry Your Eyes. No portraits from the period we might call Peak Streets, when Skinner was a magazine coverstar, the “British Eminem” who won a Brit Award (British Male, 2005) and an Ivor Novello (Dry Your Eyes, Best Song Musically and Lyrically, 2005). No framed posters reflecting the successes of Mike Skinner, label-runner, when his imprint The Beats Recordings launched Example, Professor Green and The Mitchell Brothers.
Still, while times and tech have moved on, Skinner’s ambition, vision and energy remain. His range of interests, in and out of music, are wide – Take That and First and Second World War history are only the tip of the iceberg. Last summer he released the track How Long’s It Been? with Flohio, at the time describing her “energy [as] insane. She adds colour to a quite serious trap energy and makes something just as unpredictable and homespun as anyone from Atlanta. She has the juice on stage.”
His long-in-the-works Streets film (a musical) is still very much a going concern. “It’s a film about a DJ,” he says of a project he wrote and in which he’ll play a version of himself, “and the other thing is that the songs are the voiceover. Imagine Goodfellas, but the guy’s rapping instead of telling you he always wanted to be a gangster.” Also ongoing: his side-hustle as a documentarian (see: 2017’s Don’t Call It Road Rap).
“That’s a green screen there,” he says, rotating his phone screen for a virtual tour. “I’m getting ready to start doing the next video for the album and I’m going to do it all in here. This is just a space I can do anything with.”
That includes finishing the video for the new single, the Kevin Parker-featuring psych-rap Call My Phone Thinking I’m Doing Nothing Better, which Skinner shot on his iPhone. And it includes mixing the entire album – again, on his phone. Really? Really.
“I used Cubase SX3. I tried it out on the iPad last year, and I really liked it. I’ve had my eye on [using] the iPad for ages because I’m lazy and I like the battery life. So I tried it on the iPad and I was like, this could actually work. Then I sort of forgot about it.”
Then, as he was beginning to mix the album last December, the software became available for the iPhone.
“It was weird, I just installed it and I thought I’d just try and do a mix on my phone. All my musician friends are all a bit like: ‘Really?’ But for what I do, I’m ruthlessly minimal. I’ve always tried to get my track count down, I’m always removing stuff. I’ve never liked to have a lot of vocals. Whenever I have done [loads of vocals] in the past, it’s not really been what I’m good at.”
Plus, since dissolving The Streets in 2011 (Skinner put the show back on the road in 2017 for a series of rapturously received comeback gigs), he’s been DJing like a champ, taking his Tonga nights round the UK and Europe.
“And when you DJ, you can’t be too complicated. And the great thing about it being on your phone – which really blew my mind – is that you can work absolutely anywhere. I know we’ve had laptops for years. But with this, I can work on the tube, I can be standing in a queue…”
All that said: “When I make my psychedelic album, I probably won’t be able to do that on my phone.”
A psychedelic album? We shouldn’t put it past him. A psychedelic album on his phone? Ditto.
But for now, let’s dig into the tracks and acts on None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive: an album that, in the tradition of Skinner’s A Grand Don’t Come For Free, is a concept album of sorts.
That 2004 “rap opera” album revolved around a wodge of cash lost down the back of the telly. This seventh Streets album (after five studio albums and a previous mixtape, 2011’s Cyberspace and Reds), while it doesn’t follow a step-by-step narrative, focuses on lives lived via mobile phone and social media and the isolation therein. Of the moment and on the money, right?
Call My Phone Thinking I'm Doing Nothing Better. (ft. Tame Impala)
“I was going to call you back, I swear…” Kevin Parker, based in Los Angeles and western Australia, phones in a beautiful topline vocal.
“To be honest, making this mixtape was really… Well, you can’t control it. I’m a control freak, and when you work with a different artist on every song, getting them to record is really hard. All artists are really quite away with the fairies – which is a good thing.
“So you start off with the people that you’re into, and then it’s almost like you do this dance. Like, Slowthai: I was talking to him loads and he didn’t end up wanting to do it. You’re just throwing it up in the air, and you have to learn to trust your instincts. It’s scary, because you want to control everything and you have to think quickly. But Kevin and I really get on – we’d spoken a few times [before this].
“This was done entirely remotely because they were on tour. It comes together, but it takes quite a few months. I had probably the best part of the first verse written. It was about the phone ringing and not answering the phone. That’s all you need, really.
“For every musician, their ‘thing’ is almost like a weight. I’m the kebab shop guy. And you have to accept that you’re the kebab shop guy and love it. And Kevin is the psychedelic guy. But really we’re just musicians.”
None Of Us Are Getting Out of This Life Alive (ft. IDLES)
“That’s why I don’t go gentle into that good night… A sea shanty, with menace.
“I did some drums and a little synth thing, and basically the whole band came in and played end to end. It was a really old school session where it’s almost like a rehearsal. That’s just how they work.
“My verse [came when] I was on a ferry to Dover. Coming from Birmingham, you don’t think about the sea, but actually that’s what we’re good at. If you start reading those old sea shanties, [they] sound like something from Peppa Pig.
“We’re a nation of sailors, in a way, that’s kind of what defines us – the Caribbean, our relationship to India, tea… So I wrote this whole thing that was kind of, like, ‘ten fathoms deep’ and all these sea metaphors. It sounded mental.”
I Wish You Loved You As Much As You Loved Him (ft. Donae_O and Greentea Peng)
“The palace of wisdom, are we nearly yet?” Clubby bounce in the house.
“It’s a funky record. It’s kind of my version of Devil In A Blue Dress by Donae_O, who’s on this song. He blows my mind. When you’re younger and you’ve got all this music that you love and you try and copy it – well, the idea of copying someone’s music and then them being on it is mental.
“I’m hoping he doesn’t sue me now.”
You Can’t Afford Me (ft. Ms Banks)
“I’m from M&S babe, you’ve got a better chance at Lidl’s…” In which Skinner admits that these days, “I don’t party hardly” but when he does, “I party hard”.
“I was in LA because my manager lives there, and I was talking to Matty Healy from The 1975. I really wanted to get him on the mixtape. We ended up in that hotel with the studio in it that everyone stays in [he means the Sunset Marquis]. I was making beats on my phone and started it.
“In rap, you have fashions. In all music, you have fashions. I feel like if you’re a band and you have a certain sound, it’s cool to just be that. But Ms Banks understands a lot of different types of music. She reminded me of the remixes we used to do, for The Mitchell Brothers or something. She’s very young…
“I think that’s what I’m trying to say: a lot of young artists are quite narrow. They’re like: ‘I make drill music.’ And it’s almost like that’s all they wanna do. When, actually, musicians and slightly older people have seen lots of different things. She’s like that.”
I Know Something You Did (ft. Jesse James Solomon)
“I thought I knew what your taste was, but you’re tasteless…” In which Skinner sings.
“I’ve been watching Jesse James Solomon for years. He was signed for a while. I think he’s from Peckham, south. He knows Buck and those guys, Giggs’ people. So he’s got that ’hood thing. But he’s also very thoughtful, a bit of a hippie. So I’ve had my eye on him for years and it was a no-brainer. He did a record with Skepta that was a club record, One Way. That was a banger, and it was kind of around that time.
“But I would have had him on the mixtape anyway.”
Eskimo Ice (ft. Kasien)
“Stumble in the jungle, rumble into the motive…” An encapsulation of the energy at the Tonga nights.
“Since I stopped The Streets, I’ve been DJing. There were a couple of summers where I really went a bit hard. [With] Tonga we did club nights in Newcastle, one in Berlin for about a year. We did one in Copenhagen which didn’t go so well. And so you’re constantly in green rooms. They call them green rooms in DJing, I call them dressing rooms. Or you’re in a splitter [van] with eight people, all talking about Arsenal and Tottenham for what seems like hours… and then an afterparty, at [someone’s] shared house.
“At London house parties, it’s people that are much older than they would be in any other city. I feel like most other cities, people grow up. Whereas London, you can stretch it out a lot longer. House parties become an art in themselves.
“Have I hosted house parties here? I haven’t. I think my son would love it but my daughter not so much. She’s quite orderly. But that happens, doesn’t it, when you have a mad dad.”
Phone Is Always In My Hand (ft. Dapz On The Map)
“If you think I’m ignoring you, I am… /This ain’t playtime, this ain’t conkers, this could get Dizzee pre-Bonkers /Grime kids mosh now, they don’t conga…” A relationship conducted via Instagram.
“There are three different lyrics on the album that are basically the same thing, [which] is a sort of a theme to the mixtape: ‘You call and call my phone /Thinking I’m doing nothing better /I’m just waiting for it to stop so I can basically do something else.’ Then: ‘The phone is always in my hand /If you think I’m ignoring you I am.’ It’s the same thing but on a different song. Then there’s another one here which is slightly different: ‘You’re ignoring me /But you’re watching my stories.’ That’s what this album is about, the new world that we live in, particularly now.”=
The Poison I Take Hoping You Will Suffer (ft. Oscar #Worldpeace)
“Every girl has a dude in her inbox, talking to himself…” The harshest title on the album.
“In honesty, I keep a lot of notes. If I’m watching a TV show, I try and put my phone in another room as it gets dark, if I can, but I have to be able to write stuff down because I’m constantly thinking of lyrics. There’s this weird brewing that happens where I’m looking for ideas, and I’ll find an idea. But it could be years ago and it’ll almost move up, and I’ll end up using that idea for what I’m doing at the time.
“In essence, I’ve always cut off my nose to spite my face. What makes you successful in the world, whatever you’re good at, becomes the thing that destroys you. So for me, I’m very stubborn, and that’s really defined my success and my mistakes. I go: ‘No, this is it.’
“And when it works, it’s spectacular… But I do believe that your strong point is the thing that ultimately destroys you. For me, that is The Poison I Take Hoping You Will Suffer. My particular thing that defines me is that.”
Same Direction (ft. Jimothy Lacoste)
“I like to go my own way…” Mike Skinner, meet your younger self.
“I identify with a lot of Jimothy, because it’s not a joke to him. That was always the same with me – people would be like: ‘This is a joke, right?” Nope, not a joke, it’s what I’m doing. I’ve always felt that with Jimothy. It’s kind of obvious, I think, why I would want him on my mixtape.
“Yeah, we like the same clobber. He’s into Prada trainers, which is really narrow. There was a sort of moment, the same time as people started saying ‘roads’ instead of ‘streets’ – ‘doing road’ or ‘on road’. For a few years, everyone was driving scooters around. With the Prada trainers, it kind of looked like they were connected to the scooter thing in some way.
“It’s no different to football casuals. People get quite tearful over the deerstalker season, where fans would wear deerstalkers. It only happened for a year. I’ve always loved how pretty tough guys can get quite nerdy about clothes. It’s this weird peacocking – trying to work out how to be a successful mate. It’s like being a bird in the jungle. But at the same time it’s like: ‘Don’t step on my shoes, I’ll fucking beat you up.’
“That kind of defined me. I was always halfway between the football casual in Birmingham and garage and rap kids. I was really into TN’s but I was also into CP Company.”
Falling Down (ft. Hak Baker)
“Three Rizla sheets to the wind… /Falling down is an accident, staying down is a choice…” Short, perfectly-formed piano ballad in the house.
“Playing piano is something that I always do… *gets up, plays piano*… So, there it is. I got the MPC – I was using that a lot – so this track is just some drums I put into the MPC and the piano. Job’s a good ‘un.”
Conspiracy Theory Freestyle (ft. Rob Harvey)
“You know the truth like our phone knows the time… /All of history is a set of frickin’ lies /Agreed on by men and their decision-making wives…” In collaboration with the former frontman of The Music, also Skinner’s wingman in side-project The D.O.T.
“We’re just really good friends. He’s done loads of Streets stuff, three D.O.T. albums. Germans call it being a good soldier. If Rob’s in a room with some producers, it’s his job to start singing, basically, and to think of an idea. He’s really, really internalised that and I’ve got a lot of respect for a musician who’s a good soldier. They just literally will come up with an idea, they’re not scared – because everyone’s scared, terrified.
“Weirdly, though, on this song, the hook on it – in fact the whole song, really – is a demo that Rob did for himself or for The D.O.T. ages ago. It’s been on my hard drive for years.”
Take Me As I Am (ft. Chris Lorenzo)
“…or watch me as I go…” Massive drum’n’bass moment, released last October as a teaser for this album.
“It wasn’t planned, it just sort of happened. Chris actually sent me a load of stuff, as DJs do. We sent each other zip files full of stuff. I remember Hazard gave me, Bricks Don’t Roll, which is the biggest DnB record probably, apart from something by, like, Macky Gee, of the last five years. He gave it to me on a USB at Toddla T’s Notting Hill Carnival Party. I remember listening to it and thinking: ‘I really like this, I’m gonna play it.’
“People are constantly giving each other music and you never think someone’s going to give you the hit. But Chris Lorenzo sent me [Take Me As I Am] and I had the same feeling as I did when I heard Bricks Don’t Roll. I was like: ‘You know what? This is a big song, I need to get involved in this right now, drop everything.’ So I did the vocals, and it’s been the biggest thing I’ve done in years.”
And… mic-drop, and phones down. Thematically and musically, Take Me As I Am is the “absolutely perfect” closer to None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive.
“It just goes off,” Mike Skinner observes, not inaccurately. “And it’s got some lines that I’m really proud of, that feel really clever and dark.”
“Melodies of love, all selling the dream /Everyone in the club is smelling their keys /Men are weird at the close of the PM /Just ask a pretty girl to show you her DMs.”
Those lines, he feels, sum up his style and his artistry.
“I feel like it’s what I do. Everyone understands it, but it’s different, I guess. It’s wordy, but a banger. It’s so rare to come up with stuff like that. It’s a storm in a teacup. Wait, that’s the wrong phrase… It’s just a storm.”
And it’s the full-stop on an album that, almost accidentally, feels like a soundtrack for our isolated, atomised, screen-time-all-the-time times. Skinner nods.
“Funnily enough, Rob Harvey [co-]wrote Lonely,” he says of Joel Corry’s 2020 pop-dance hit which currently sits at 7.5 million YouTube views and almost 27 million Spotify plays, “and suddenly we’re in isolation. Similar with Dry Your Eyes and David Beckham,” Skinner notes of the time in summer 2006 when his song soundtracked images of a sobbing Golden Balls trudging off the field after England’s woeful World Cup performance in Germany.
Obviously, you can’t plan this stuff.
“It’s chaos,” he agrees. “You’ve just gotta try to do the best you can, and every now and again the world will be ready for your music.”
Bunkered at home at the top of London, Mike Skinner sits, ears and eyes wide open for the next junglist banger to pop into his inbox, the next reverberation from military history, the next “accident” to suddenly make sense on the phone that he’s currently using to filter all his ideas. Speaking of which…
“The other day David Hockney said this thing – and I’m definitely going to use this – when he did that thing with his paintings,” he says, referring to the artist’s public sharing of 10 of his most recent works.
“He said: “I am 83 years old, I will die. The cause of death is birth.’”
“I was like: ‘Yes!’ Gunfingers, reload! ‘The cause of death is birth.’ Come on!” he laughs. “Winston Churchill couldn’t have done a better antonym. And Winston Churchill loved opposites in everything he did, in all his most banging lyrics.”
Mike Skinner – kebab shop guy and aficionado of historical political oratory – almost bounces out of his beanbag with excitement.
Call My Phone Thinking I’m Doing Nothing Better is out this week. None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive (Island) is released in June