British rapper Mike Skinner telling his story

June 18, 2006


After 2002's "Original Pirate Material," a debut recording that made him an underground hero, British rapper Mike Skinner, a k a the Streets, won accolades and multi-platinum sales for 2004's "A Grand Don't Come for Free," an effort about an average bloke just trying to get through the day, return an overdue video tape and maybe scrounge a few pence for a pint at the pub.

Now that he has a spare thousand pounds in his pocket at any time, Skinner has devoted his recent third album, "The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living," to chronicling the pleasures and, to a greater extent, the difficulties of fame and fortune -- though problems such as being too well-known to do drugs at a dance club don't really seem all that difficult. ("How the hell am I supposed to be able to do a line in front of complete strangers / When I know they've all got cameras?" Skinner whines at one point.)

The disc is hardly the artist's best work, but his endearing sense of humor still comes through at some points; his mix of hip-hop and electronica remains a musical treat, and he shows new depth on tracks such as "All Goes Out the Window," an honest critique of male infidelity, and the tender ballad "Never Went to Church."

Plus, he's always an amiable interview. We spoke from his home in the United Kingdom as he prepared to come to Chicago to perform at next weekend's Intonation Music Festival.

Q. What was the difference going in to make this record? There had to be more expectations -- you've had quite a bit of success.

A. I think in a way it was kind of reassuringly familiar. That's one of the only things that were similar all the way through -- making records. It's not about how rich or poor you are; you still have to work out a good song. But it's easier to get distracted.

Q. How do you block out the distractions of fame?

A. It's just the age-old approach of sitting in a room with no one there and no noise. I went to New York for two months and did a lot of writing there. It was good because I couldn't stand going away to the country. Going to New York was good because I don't know that many people; I only have a handful of friends in New York. It was a bit like when I first came to London to write the first album.

Q. Were you worried about the New York scene influencing your music when you've always been so closely associated with growing up in England?

A. No. I think doing things in a unique way or trying to do them in a unique way has nothing to do with where you are or even what your interests are. So I think I actually needed the stimulation of a new city, because there are only so many stories I can tell.

Q. That brings up a point that a lot of reviewers have made: Many noted that the songs on this album are about being famous, whereas your first two albums were about the desire to make it.

A. Yeah. I've been reading the same review over and over for my whole career. But it's important for people to be able to work out what you're doing and where you are. I think what's interesting in a way is that people have lost a bit of the sympathy or empathy, but they've gained a little bit of excitement, because the stakes are higher and there is more drama.

Q. So you think that in rapping about being rich and famous, people are living vicariously through you?

A. I think so, in a way. There are a lot of different reasons why you're entertained by something. I like to think that people feel that they would do the same if they were in my shoes. I think that's what makes people want you.

Q. You talked about having only so many stories to tell. Will there be a point when you say, "Gee, there's nothing left to rap about"?

A. Never. I think there might be a point where I can't be bothered to put so much effort into it. But no, we've been telling stories for millions of years. In a way they are all the same story, but we still love the good ones.

Q. Do you find that you're getting a measure of respect from American rappers after three albums?

A. I think it was the last album that won over the rappers. I don't necessarily think it was that album, but I do think that was the point in hindsight in terms of the amount of time I've been around.

The American hip-hop I'm most excited about is Kanye [West]. I haven't met him, but he's an interesting cat -- he's really smart. I know that he knows of me, because he has spoken of me before. It's great to know that someone like that has heard your music. I think it takes quite a lot of courage, particularly in America, to get out of that competition to be the hardest. If you don't do that, then it feels empty.

Q. What's the first hip-hop record you remember hearing?

A. Probably [De La Soul's] "3 feet high and rising." And [the Beastie Boys'] "Licensed to Ill," as well. That probably was the first album that really meant something to me. Before that it was just music on the radio, and I wasn't thinking about it too much.

Q. So you looked at the Beasties and said, "Maybe I can do that"?

A. I don't think I ever thought I could do it. I used to make the music at home, but I don't think I ever thought it was going to go anywhere. I think that's probably the purest form of music-making, when you think it's not going to go anywhere.

The Streets are one of 13 acts performing at the Intonation Music Festival in Union Park, 1501 W. Randolph, next weekend; they take the stage at 9:20 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $20 for the day or $30 for a two-day pass; for more information, including the full list of all 26 performers, visit