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.
“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.”