The Streets at the Mod Club (722 College), Friday (June 25). $20. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
North American hiphop heads may be baffled by the UK's the Streets, aka Mike Skinner. Not only is he white and British, but his rhymes, layered atop sparse beats inspired by 2-step and UK garage, include no references to bitches, hos, busting caps in any asses or cruising around with any homies. They're also conspicuously devoid of name-dropping. So is it still hiphop? Well, yeah, sort of. But some places are apparently marketing Skinner's latest album, A Grand Don't Come For Free, as "alternative."
"I think American hiphop is very conservative, and really it's more about the market that it serves," says Skinner on the phone from a Utah resort. "It's the same with garage in England. [That's UK garage the dance club music, not garage the rock 'n' roll, for those of you who might not know the terms.] Because I'm never going to be that kind of person, I can never fit into that genre. There's really no genre out there for me, so alternative is the closest thing."
Chances are, hardcore fans of the yo yo and the bling bling will pass over A Grand Don't Come For Free. Skinner doesn't mind.
"To be honest, I don't spend much time in America. I don't think I could write an album like that and hope that anyone in America could even understand it. Any sales we can make are great, but I'm concentrating on the UK market."
He's never been to Canada before but is looking forward to it even if he does have a few fears about crossing the border.
A Grand Don't Come For Free is a concept album, but Skinner hates it when people say that. What else is it, then?
"No, you're right. It is a concept album. I just don't want to be thought of as pretentious, and that whole 70s prog rock thing took it a bit far, didn't it?"
The record relates a tale starring a main character named Mike. Mike loses a thousand quid, and the ensuing events change his life. The whole story is just very British, as Mike does things like trying to get out of tea with mum and losing all kinds of money on football.
Skinner is terribly clever with lyrics. He has an amazing ability to make the mundane riveting, and the narrative is by turns hilarious and pitiful.
His delivery can be stunted, but that just adds to the charm. The beats are infectious and the melodies fetching. I listened to the damn thing over and over again for a week.
"In England it works well because I'm telling a story about being British, so to them I'm a rapper who's like them rather than like you."
There's an element of melancholy as well that doesn't usually characterize local hiphop and rap.
"Well, we haven't got the attitude that Americans have. America is all about success. I find everyone you meet in America is always telling you how successful they are, and you're always being sold something. In England and Europe as a whole that element isn't there, so I think that comes across in the music. It's more emotionally honest. We show weakness more."
Women on this side of the Atlantic seem to appreciate this about him.
"Particularly in L.A. they don't seem to be getting what they want out of their blokes. They seem to latch onto the British."
Skinner says he encountered this phenomenon even before he was the Streets.
"And I don't think it's just the accent."