Proto hip-hop icon Mike Skinner crafts his indie-embraced, chart-topping tracks one day at a time.

What happened to the roughed up, tongue-in-cheek Mike Skinner that everyone knows…or thought they knew? The Birmingham-based Streets lead man has returned light-hearted. But as a precautionary disclaimer: he didn’t plan it to be this way. Just like he didn’t plan his career as a musician, or his success, or what he’s doing once he splits away from it all. It’s just that natural ebb and flow of artistic freedom that comes with the job.

“I’m quite a creative person,” says Skinner. Well, no shit. Of course he is. Breaking onto international charts from day one requires craft, not luck. Moreover, taking a hip-hop-by-way-of-garage-and-epic-funk-journey is far from a typical Billboard story. But even then, riding on the succession of hit after hit after hit over the course of nearly a decade makes people wonder, “what the hell is he doing right?”

Sitting with a newly purchased synthesizer in his London hotel room, Skinner plodded away at the beats, experimenting and adjusting the new sounds emerging in his head. “I’m making dance music,” says Skinner. Well, that may be because that’s really the only thing he knows how to do. “I don’t really do anything else apart from music,” he says bluntly. “I hardly ever do anything else. Everything just goes into it because for me, it’s the only about the music.”

Recording his first song at age 15, Skinner spent the late ’90s multi-tasking the start of his career; self-promoting while attempting to launch a label and working for the man (read: a fast food chain). While the latter two jobs resided as temporary stints, the primer got the insta-club-hit-maker label Locked On to release Skinner’s “Has It Come to This?” single in 2000. And so his supervenient stardom began.

With his influences migrating from hip-hop to house to jungle, Skinner roused up the critics with his unconventional style—juxtaposing a coarse rhythm with a lyrical flow that was punchy and abrupt. Whatever genre Skinner was channeling, a varied fan-base took on to this bastard form and loved it as its own.

The Streets’ three previous albums have been called-out as being smarmy in content and mood. And in his fourth upcoming album, Everything is Borrowed (Vice Records), Skinner pulled ideas from routine, rehashing aged storylines of self-destruction, imbalanced relationships, life-changing decisions and the like. “I get the inspiration for the music from everywhere,” Skinner explains. “The words come from music, stories and books…but nothing feels mundane at the time—there’s no moment that can be called simple.”

While Streets fans can anticipate the regression to an underlying theme of menial stories with monumental impact, Skinner is not always a man of repetition when it comes to style. He is, instead, always feeding off of the expectation of others, steering away from the familiar and previously accomplished hip-hop sounds.
Everything is Borrowed’s tunes of doe-eyed sanguinity leaves its audience concerned yet amused. Marketed as being “lit from within by a healing flame of optimism,” there is truth to it. It’s really not that easy to feel down about human extinction and unrequited love when it’s matched up with soulful boogie basslines and high-pitched vocal backups.

“I was a bit more conscious of the feelings and action this time,” recalls Skinner. “It was a bit more tricky this time around because in the past albums I knew more or less what I wanted. This time around I lost songs.” His technique isn’t quite clear-cut either. Skinner does more of a mass purge of the mind over several years, releasing the track when his thoughts are thoroughly developed.

Getting mildly defensive over the sincerity of each song (especially this time around’s buoyant tracks), Skinner insists that they all came from the heart and citing the time he spent on making his albums as proof.

“All the songs I’ve ever written are genuine,” says Skinner. “They take me a long time to write; it’s not like I get a flash of inspiration. They come and go throughout a few years, and I write them all at the same time. So take two and a half years, divide that by 11, and that’s how long it takes to write [one song].”

The heavy-hitting “On the Edge of a Cliff” proves to be Skinner’s most labor intensive three minutes and five seconds. Toying around with thoughts of suicide, the protagonist’s life is redeemed by the “lovely” advice of another. As Skinner warbles “Every single person on your mum and dad’s side successfully looked after and passed onto you life/ What are the chances of that like?/ It comes to me once and awhile,” it’s obvious that this smug, chipped-tooth Brit is finally feeling grateful. “I achieved a lot on that song,” Skinner states honestly. “It’s very simple, but it took a long time to find that specific sound.”

But having to struggle through the process of pushing out songs for his label is fading, considering he only has one more album to release before his contract is up. Nothing about that daunts the cynical frontman. “It’s exciting!” he exclaims (the only time he annunciated in our short conversation). “It’ll be 10 years since I’ve been with The Streets. Then it’ll be the end of my record deal, and I can move on and start fresh—be as creative as I can.”

However, even Skinner isn’t too clear on what will come. He wants take a vacation, but he doesn’t know to where. And he’d like to make a movie, but he’s not sure about what. “Maybe I’ll do it on whatever excites me at the time.” And then…and then? After that, trying to navigate Skinner’s next move is impossible.
“I’ll come back and see how I feel,” Skinner casually explains. “When you get into your 30s you have to have more of a plan. But I’m quite impatient. I only have more of a two-to-three-year plan. Not a ten-year one. I don’t really have a technique.” Sure he doesn’t. 

TEXT BY Meagan Brant