I don't want people to not know who I am. I don't want to be pigeonholed as the new George Michael, or the guy that won the reality TV show, or Mick Hucknall for the Noughties, or whatever nonsense gets said. It's just me and it's about having a bit of self-belief and turning up the volume a bit" – Will Young, in a café by the Thames, November 2005 Hold onto your trilby... In fact, take off ...
Skinner acquired his first keyboard by the age of five. As a teenager, he built a miniature recording studio in his bedroom. He began writing hip hop and garage music in his home in West Heath in Birmingham, with a crew of other rappers. He describes his background as “Barratt class: suburban estates, not poor but not much money about, really boring”.
In the late 1990s, Skinner was working in fast food jobs while trying to start his own independent record label and sending off demos. At the end of 2000, the Locked On label, who had had success with The Artful Dodger featuring Craig David, agreed to release “Has It Come To This” under the name The Streets. Skinner moved from Birmingham to Brixton to pursue his recording career.
“Has It Come To This” proved to be a breakthrough hit for The Streets, going top-twenty in March 2001. For his debut album, Original Pirate Material, Skinner wanted to take garage in a new direction with material reflecting the lifestyle of a section of British youth, sometimes called Chavs. The album track “Let’s Push Things Forward” reflects the philosophy of the album. The album was released and proved to be successful both with critics and the general public. In the UK, the album was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize and was favourite with the bookies to win it (which was later won by Ms. Dynamite). The Streets was nominated for best album, best urban act, best breakthrough artist and best British male artist in the 2002 Brit awards. The NME named it as one of their top five albums of 2002.
Subsequent singles included “Don’t Mug Yourself”, “Weak Become Heroes” and “Let’s Push Things Forward” which all reached the top 40 in the UK. Many of his songs have a UK Garage feel but have in the main found popularity in the ‘indie’ scene. Original Pirate Material had debuted and peaked at number 12 in the UK album charts, and wouldn’t reach any higher until his next album was released.
The success of Original Pirate Material in the UK led to a US release of the album through Vice/Atlantic in late 2002. It quickly became a critical favourite with Rolling Stone, Spin Magazine, The New York Times, Blender, USA Today and the LA Times all nominating it as one of the albums of the year. The album reached number two on the Billboard electronic charts and the top 20 on the independent and Heatseeker charts in the US in 2003. The cover photo was designed by German photographer Rut Blees Luxemburg.
Topping the charts
In May 2004, he released a new single, “Fit But You Know It” which became his highest debuting and highest selling single ever, reaching number four in the UK. The single, which Skinner revealed was an ode to his lust for pop star Rachel Stevens, is notable for its simple tune which has been compared to Blur’s ‘mockney’ Parklife song. The title appears to be a play on the lyric “you are so fit, and you know it”, from Busted UK number one “You Said No” – the change from ‘and’ to ‘but’ implying that the self-assuredness of many beautiful women is a bad thing.
“Fit But You Know It” is from his second album, A Grand Don’t Come For Free which is a concept album about a short period in the protagonist’s life. The events depicted include losing a thousand pounds (a ‘grand’ in British slang), the start of a new relationship, going on holiday, breaking up, and eventually finding the grand again.
The album debuted at number two in the UK album charts, but later reached the number one position. Soon after the album was released, his success grew even larger in July 2004, with the second single “Dry Your Eyes” debuting at the top of the chart in the UK. The success of this album and its singles led to a re-kindling of interest in the first album Original Pirate Material, which re-entered the UK album charts and beat its original chart peak of two years earlier. “Blinded By the Lights”, the third single from “A Grand Don’t Come For Free”, hit the Top 10 in September 2004, and a fourth and final single, “Could Well Be In”, was released in late 2004.