The sto­ry behind Skinnyman’s Coun­cil Estate of Mind

Released 15 years ago, Skinnyman’s only LP is considered a UK hip-hop masterpiece.

It’s ear­ly April when I meet up with Skin­ny­man. Home sec­re­tary Sajid Javid recent­ly announced he’s mak­ing it eas­i­er for police to use stop-and-search pow­ers, the morning’s papers car­ry reports of riots over the week­end in Feltham Young Offender’s Insti­tute and Skinnyman’s track Hay­den is blast­ing out of my headphones. 

The police patrol these streets like beasts, instead of catch­ing the thieves they pull us up and give us beats,” Skin­ny­man raps on the track, before describ­ing kids rolling through the neigh­bour­hood on stolen bikes: they’re just deal­ing the cards that life has dealt em, half of their crews are now lock­down in Feltham”.

It’s not so hard to argue that both Hay­den and the album it’s from – Skinnyman’s sole album, 2004’s Coun­cil Estate of Mind – are time­less. Even on release the album was a work more out of time than of its time – this was a crossover UK hip-hop record released when first wave grime at its peak. While it set out to cap­ture con­tem­po­rary Britain, the LP’s tracks are glued togeth­er by inter­ludes sam­pled from Alan Clarke’s 1982 TV play Made in Britain. Though Skin­ny­man couldn’t ful­ly iden­ti­fy with Tim Roth’s delin­quent thug Trevor, he could recog­nise the world of juve­nile deten­tion cen­tres and borstals, even spe­cif­ic places such as Hatch­mere House. 

We all felt like some­how we’d been betrayed by the sys­tem but we couldn’t quite pin­point it.”

Skin­ny­man was born Alexan­der Gra­ham Hol­land in 1974. Though he got in trou­ble at school and was first arrest­ed at sev­en, he nev­er­the­less describes his ear­ly child­hood in a large­ly West Indi­an com­mu­ni­ty in Leeds as idylic. His child­hood came to an abrupt end at the age of ten when he moved down to Lon­don with his mum and two sib­lings. His mum sent him out with their last ten­ner for a chick­en buck­et, on the way back home he was jumped and the food was ruined. 

I left Leeds as a child and I arrived in Lon­don, and by the next day I was a man,” he tells me. I’m sat on the edge of a bed in a coun­cil flat just around the way from Pen­tonville Prison. Skin­n­man is at his desk, either skin­ning up or smok­ing, next to a clothes rail cov­er­ing up half a wall papered with stick­ers track­ing the his­to­ry of hip-hop in Lon­don over the last cou­ple of decades. We’ve been talk­ing five hours, almost. He’s a good host.

I think that when I was watch­ing [Made in Britain] at sev­en I thought this is hilar­i­ous’ because they’re nick­ing cars and we nick cars. When I watched it when I was twelve I think that I thought, oh, Trevor’s a bit of a rebel, he’s a con­fused angst-up youth full of pent up frus­tra­tion’ and I recog­nised that in my ear­ly teenage years. We all felt like some­how we’d been betrayed by the sys­tem but we couldn’t quite pin­point it.”

In the ear­ly 00s, the New Labour gov­ern­ment made it easy for the priv­i­leged class­es to pre­tend the strug­gle of Britain’s work­ing class were almost a thing of the past. Tony Blair could talk the talk. Pover­ty lev­els were down, and so was home­less­ness. From 2004, any­one choos­ing to stay on and study after fin­ish­ing their GCSEs was enti­tled to claim £30 a week in Edu­ca­tion Main­te­nance Allowance. 

Coun­cil Estate of Mind was a vital bul­letin from the front­line to remind any com­pla­cent bystanders of the vio­lence and suf­fer­ing going down just out­side the perime­ter of their world. His reportage wasn’t unique, fel­low UK rap­pers like Chester P to Klash­nekoff and beyond made pow­er­ful records from equal­ly urgent per­spec­tives. But like how Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in Da Cor­ner is the gen­er­al­ly recog­nised as a clas­sic grime album, Coun­cil Estate of Mind is one of the hand­ful of UK hip-hop LPs that’s remained fond­ly in the con­scious­ness of a wider audience.

Skinnyman and Hope, former British Heavyweight World Champion boxer

I’m from the UK, to you that might seem rare,” Skin­ny­man spits on Fuck The Hook. Hip-hop has a long and fre­quent­ly bril­liant his­to­ry in the UK which dates way back to the 80s. But at the turn of the cen­tu­ry UK hip-hop still lacked mon­ey, infra­struc­ture, or artists with proven track records. Cru­cial­ly it was still large­ly seen as a British take on an Amer­i­can phe­nom­e­non, despite the shared Jamaican her­itage that fuelled both scenes.

Skin­ny remem­bers UK artists being will­ing to sign away every­thing for expo­sure and labels offered con­tracts adding up to lit­tle more than extor­tion­ate ways of own­ing people’s soul”. As a youth he spurned any label show­ing inter­est and instead focussed on build­ing some­thing for his com­mu­ni­ty. First there was the Bury Crew. From the Bury Crew came the Mud Fam, who togeth­er with anoth­er crew the High­bury Hood­lumz start­ed putting on nights all over town under the Mud­lumz ban­ner. Skinnyman’s rep­u­ta­tion as a bat­tle rap­per start­ed to grow. Though the leg­end of him defeat­ing Eminem in bat­tle appears to be exag­ger­at­ed, mul­ti­ple wit­ness­es will attest Skin­ny­man out­classed Em on stage after Em threw a strop at an ear­ly club date. Mud­lumz nur­tured a scene that flow­ered into some­thing of an under­ground renais­sance at the turn of the cen­tu­ry both with artist from its core such as Skin­ny­man, the Mud Fam and Task Force and a whole range of oth­ers from Blak Twang to Estelle.

Still, by the late 90s label inter­est had start­ed to die down, with one cru­cial excep­tion. The Talkin’ Loud label was fund­ed by Mer­cury and had links to Def Jam in the US, and it had long ago earned Skinny’s respect with epochal releas­es from the likes of Gal­liano, 4Hero, Incog­ni­to and MJ Cole, and Paul Mar­tin – the A&R who’d signed Roni Size – was very inter­est­ed in Skin­ny­man. ”[Paul was] the per­son that saw me as a tal­ent prob­a­bly more than I recog­nised in myself. He gave me self-belief because I saw him put every­thing on the line. That was heart­warm­ing, flat­ter­ing, it empow­ered me, and I saw a vision of right, we can do this on a big scale.’”

Skin­ny­man recalls his sign­ing cer­e­mo­ny with Talkin’ Loud took place on the morn­ing of Sep­tem­ber 11th, 2001. He brought along some weed and a copy of Sizzla’s Black Woman And Child. The label sup­plied cham­pagne and a spa­cious con­fer­ence room, ful­ly equipped with sound sys­tem and a mas­sive TV

As I lit my spliff, cham­pagne in one hand, I can’t believe Sizzla’s play­ing in the back­ground, some real Rasta­far­i­an rev­o­lu­tion­ary chant down Baby­lon music,” Skin­ny remem­bers. And then some­one comes run­ning in, and went switch on CNN.’ There’s peo­ple in the room say­ing I’ve got fam­i­ly in there’ and as we’re all look­ing in shock we watch the oth­er plane go right into the build­ing. It was like meet­ing done. For­get who got signed to who­ev­er.’” Lost in his thoughts for a while Skin­ny realised Siz­zla was singing Like Moun­tains Around Jerusalem, he recalled Nos­tradamus prophe­cy the twin broth­ers of the man­made moun­tains of New Jerusalem shall crum­ble’ and he was spooked.

For me to go to prison was almost like how some peo­ple go to uni­ver­si­ty to work on their degree. I came out with the whole Coun­cil Estate of Mind album writ­ten as poems on the back of prison applications.”

But at this point Skinnyman’s future still looked bright. Def Jam in the US showed an inter­est in his demos and there was talk of get­ting RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan involved on a track. Tim West­wood was rins­ing his Straight Out­ta Jail dub and even main­stream Radio 1 were set to pro­mote him – no small mat­ter in the days before YouTube, Spo­ti­fy or even 1Xtra arrived to com­pete for our attention.

And then every­thing start­ed to fall apart. He found him­self serv­ing anoth­er one of the prison bids which have punc­tu­at­ed his adult life (“laws of med­ica­tion,” he nods to the bifter in his hand can some­times have me in the big house”). Skin­ny­man was mid­way through an 18 month stretch when Paul Mar­tin came to vis­it with the news Talkin’ Loud’s par­ent label Mer­cury had decid­ed to wind down oper­a­tions and close the office. They were all out of a job. 

On the verge of turn­ing thir­ty, Skin­ny was feel­ing like his oppor­tu­ni­ty had been missed. An 18-year-old Dizzee Ras­cal had just released Boy In Da Cor­ner and to Skin­ny the ear­ly days of grime remind­ed him of the ear­ly days of hip-hop. This com­bined with a feel­ing of guilt over hav­ing some­how let Mar­tin down on a per­son­al lev­el to leave Skin­ny in an intro­spec­tive mode. For the first time I was able to reflect on my own thoughts of who I am, what I want­ed to rep­re­sent and what I want­ed to say.”

His time inside was a gold­en oppor­tu­ni­ty to escape the dai­ly hus­tle. For me to go to prison was almost like how some peo­ple go to uni­ver­si­ty to work on their degree. I came out of prison with what we now know to be the Coun­cil Estate of Mind album writ­ten as poems on the back of prison appli­ca­tions. The whole thing.”

With his release the dai­ly hus­tle start­ed again. Still not total­ly con­vinced music was worth pur­su­ing, he hooked up with DJ Flip. In an era before home stu­dios became com­mon­place Flip was for­tu­nate enough to have his own set­up. He would be like, c’mon, let’s do this music’ and I’d be like, I’ve got chil­dren, they’ve got hun­gry bel­lies, they’ve got holes in their shoes, I need to do what I need to do, and it ain’t music. Music doesn’t even make the agen­da of the list.’

Now I can only thank him, because he was instru­men­tal in say­ing, so what have you got to do? So what time will you be fin­ish­ing? 11 o’clock at night? Well, come round here and we’ll work till three or four in the morn­ing.’ No charge, no stu­dio fees, no noth­ing.” They haven’t spo­ken for years hav­ing fall­en out over what Skin­ny calls a sil­ly squab­ble, but he still speaks high­ly of Flip.

Skin­ny took the com­plet­ed record to Low Life Records, at the time far and away the most suc­cess­ful inde­pen­dent rap label in the UK. Found­ed in 1992 by Leeds rap­per, pro­duc­er and entre­peneur Joseph Christie – aka Brain­tax – it real­ly start­ed to take off at the turn of the cen­tu­ry when Christie moved to Lon­don and start­ed releas­ing records from the likes of Task Force, Verb T, Kash­mere and Jehst. I’d made the album all myself, even paid for the clear­ance of the sam­ples,” Skin­ny claims. So Joe at Low Life offered me a 50/50 dis­tri­b­u­tion split.”

Sales fig­ures are hard to come by, but the album was a hit of sorts, cer­tain­ly by the stan­dards of UK hip-hop in 2004. Not on the lev­el that Paul Mar­tin had been hop­ing for, but in its first week out it sold enough to make the low­er reach­es of the album chart. Along­side the suit­ably awed rave reviews in spe­cial­ist out­lets such as Hip-Hop Con­nec­tion and Under­cov­er it earned bemused para­graphs in The Inde­pen­dent and The Guardian and, per­haps most strange­ly, a com­pre­hen­sive and con­sid­er­ate write-up in The Times.

Much of this hap­pened despite its author’s absence from much of the pro­mo­tion­al cir­cuit. I was again incar­cer­at­ed at the time,” he recalls. I’ve come out think­ing, I want to know what females look like again’ and it’s three days before car­ni­val. A bunch of youths come up and go wha gwarn Skin­ny­man! Man’s a G!’ so I had to go to them how do you know me fam?’ and they went, Chan­nel U, innit? Coun­cil Estate of Mind fam, sayin’ nut­tin!’ and they start­ed quot­ing my lyrics.”

I’ve nev­er been paid a pen­ny to this day from Coun­cil Estate of Mind.”

Increased noto­ri­ety or even niche fame aside, in the short run the finan­cial rewards weren’t what he’d hoped. For sure, the show mon­ey start­ed com­ing in, Flip had booked him for Glas­ton­bury, but the album didn’t prove lucra­tive I’ve nev­er been paid a pen­ny to this day from Coun­cil Estate of Mind. From any of the streams, down­loads, sales,” Skin­ny­man tells me. He remem­bers his first attempt to get paid, it was com­ing up to Christ­mas and he was skint. I’m think­ing I bet­ter go see my man, and he’s like, yeah, around Jan­u­ary and Feb­ru­ary we get our things back from dis­tri­b­u­tion so that we can then tal­ly our books for April.’ It sound­ed plau­si­ble to me.”

He paus­es and glances over to see my reac­tion. From the lit­tle I know of account­ing it seems plau­si­ble enough to me, too. So man’s tell me come round there about April”, he con­tin­ues, but the next time I went round [the Low Life office] it’s all board­ed and closed up. They’re dust. 

They’ve con­tin­ued to sell my music ever since then to this present day: stream­ing, iTunes, phys­i­cal copies, the lot. I hear these bizarre sto­ries that [Christie] lives in Aus­tralia with his wife, that they own a hol­i­day resort in Goa, and all of this stuff. I’m like, man… is that off the sales of my album?”

From a fan’s per­spec­tive it’s hard not to lament Skinnyman’s rel­a­tive silence in the time since, not that he’s ever gone away. He’s done the odd guest verse here and there. There was the bizarrely bril­liant com­ic dub­step of 2008 sin­gle Smok­ing Ban, an offi­cial remix of Bashy’s Black Boys in 2008, and an SBTV freestyle in 2013, a track along­side new gen­er­a­tion delin­quent Lunar C in 2017. But his expe­ri­ence with Coun­cil Estate of Mind con­firmed his worst fears about the music indus­try to the point that a full length fol­low up has yet to appear. He describes the expe­ri­ence of get­ting ripped-off by Low Life as being incred­i­bly traumatic. 

The light’s begun to fade by the time he dri­ves me back to King’s Cross sta­tion in his white Sub­aru van with its dis­tinc­tive chunky orange trim. Ear­li­er that day wait­ing at a junc­tion a woman dodged through a cou­ple of lanes to pay trib­ute to his taste in trans­port. Rolling down the win­dow he smiled yeah, they mod­elled it on a Louis Vuit­ton hand­bag” and joked with her for a minute, still laugh­ing as lights change. Eight hours on he’s bare­ly paused for breath and he’s still chat­ting with the same glee but a day of intro­spec­tion and plot­ting, social analy­sis and fiery preach­ing has left him a lit­tle melan­cholic too. I feel like back then we didn’t do as much as we could have done,” he laments. The vision should have nev­er stalled. If I’d have applied the same things I’m preach­ing into my prac­tice there could’ve been a Mud Fam­i­ly Records, there could have been artists on the Mud Fam ros­ter. There could have been a label that enables youth oppor­tu­ni­ty to do for self.”

What Skin­ny­man sees today is a UK music scene thriv­ing beyond any­thing he would have dared imag­ine back when he was first active, artists who look up to him as some­thing of a god­fa­ther to more recent gen­er­a­tions. I always respect­ed the kids when they were kids and now they’ve grown they respect me for respect­ing them always,”he says, Now the cur­rent artists such as the J Hus­es, the Skep­tas and the JMEs, the AJ Traceys, the San­tan Dav­es recog­nise that I was the foun­da­tion for a scene that helped open doors.”

Sure enough, the week after we speak man of the moment Loyle Carn­er is cel­e­brat­ing the release of his top three chart­ing album with an appear­ance on BBC Radio 6 Music where he talks of how Skin­ny­man was a for­ma­tive influ­ence. So my ten-year-old son will be like, dad, Skep­ta said he loves your album Coun­cil Estate of Mind’ and I’ll be like, c’mon, stan­dard,’” Skin­ny­man says, laugh­ing again. But for him, it’s a big thing.”

@skinnymanmudfamily


Relat­ed

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