Albums of the decade No 1: The Streets - Original Pirate Material

Original Pirate Material gave British rap an authentic new voice and provided the link between the Kinks and Dizzee Rascal

Who else made our albums of the decade list?

"Ooh, the pizza's here ... will someone let him in please?
We didn't order chicken ... Not a problem, we'll pick it out."

At first hearing, the almost pathological self-effacement of Tim (the mild-mannered bong-builder who goes head to head with lagered-up Terry the law-abider in the Streets' Socratic dialogue The Irony of It All) seems about as far from the defiant self-assertion of the Who's "Hope I die before I get old" as you could possibly get. But for those who would like to remember the Noughties as a period in which British pop actually moved forward at the same time as regressing into The X Factor's primordial ooze, Mike Skinner's generational rallying cry is every bit as potent as Pete Townshend's ever was.

The two most important criteria for any self-respecting album-of-the-decade contender to meet are that it could not conceivably have been made in any other 10-year period, and that it should be impossible to imagine how that decade might have sounded without it. And the Streets' triumphantly down-home 2002 debut, Original Pirate Material, ticks these boxes for the first decade of the 21st century with the same winning flourish as Massive Attack's Blue Lines did for the 1990s.

Whatever bold claims you might make for Derek B or Mr C or even Massive Attack's 3-D, Mike Skinner was the first to prove that a British rapper could speak directly to a nationwide constituency in a voice entirely his own. The raw-boned but finely honed debut of this "45th-generation Roman" established that British hip-hop could be more than just an aspiring frontier outpost of the imperial American homeland. It also turned out to be the missing link between the observational songwriting of the Kinks and the Specials, and the current pop apotheosis of Dizzee Rascal.

As large as the album looms over the British musical landscape of late 2009, its roots were to be found in the heyday of UK garage. "Every garage MC to my knowledge at that time was really a rapper," Skinner remembers. "The thing about garage was, it gave you a chance of breaking out and reaching a wider public, whereas if all you were doing was making 'UK hip-hop', there was no hope of that happening. Yet at the same time, being a garage MC was not generally regarded as prestigious. If you're a rapper, that's a good thing: you're a wordsmith. But if you were an MC – at least until the momentous Dizzee Rascal came along – that was more like being a holiday rep."

So as well as giving Skinner confidence, did the crossover success of UK garage also give him something to react against? "I've probably said it too many times now," he nods apologetically, "but that's where Original Pirate Material came from: all this stuff about get the girl and drink champagne on the dancefloor, it sounds nice to my ears, and I like that bass line, but sorry mate, I don't know what you're talking about.'"

"My experience of listening to UK garage, which was huge," Skinner continues, "was in people's cars and houses … and the idea behind Original Pirate Material was to make music which reflected that – to be someone who was on the one hand very English, but at the same time a bit like Nas, and could come up with these cool-sounding couplets about all the weed that gets smoked and all the little adventures that you go on."

The big adventure that Skinner was sent on by the success of Original Pirate Material is expected to come full circle with the release of next year's fifth and final Streets album. But in the meantime, how fresh and inspired every track still sounds – from the marvellously grandiloquent opening fanfare of Turn the Page ("Stand by me my apprentice!"), through Too Much Brandy's Marlon-quaffing bacchanal and the ecstatic reverie of Weak Become Heroes, to Stay Positive's nervy and uncertain finale – testifying to the fact that nothing lasts better than music which is truly of its time.


Ben Thompson

The GuardianTramp

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