We talk to legendary The Streets front man on the musical landscape in 1997, going out in the 90s and the legacy of the Nike Air Max 97.
GOODHOOD: You were in Birmingham in 1997, what was happening then – what can you tell us about the musical landscape at that time?
MIKE SKINNER: 97, for me personally, was all about speed garage. Grime was when I came to London in like 2001 and before that, around 95, was house. Birmingham was a funny one because I hung out with guys that were rappers, really, because I used to record other rappers. Because we were from, like the suburbs really, I didn’t really feel safe at Drum’n’Bass events at that time. It did quickly go quite studenty, probably around 97. Certainly before 97 going to drum ‘n’ bass events wasn’t really, I mean it was alright but it was always something; someone firing a gun or kicking off. I wasn’t really into that. You know, ecstasy and gun fire doesn’t really go together. Weirdly, speed garage really worked for us because they played it in all the House clubs. Because it started with Armand Van Helden putting those sort of big jungle basslines on house records, so it really started in house clubs. The House clubs at that time were quite safe, you know, although they did try and put on a few bassline events at the Que Club and that was a total nightmare.
GH: What was the style like at the speed garage nights in 1997?
MS: People were sort of OK with living this dual life that you had to have, which is like, in the day you wear your tracksuit and your trainers etc. But when you go out it’s always been a case of, oh you can’t wear trainers. You wouldn’t go out like that unless you wanted to get turned away. It was funny because in America at that time people would listen to Wu Tang & Mobb Deep, but they would wear quite fitted jeans, and loafers to the club. It’s a bit like going to work. In the evening you would have to dress smart, no one liked doing it particularly but it was the only way you got to go to nightclubs. When I first moved to London, with Fabric it was like ‘what I can just wear whatever I’m wearing? And go and listen to drum ‘n’ bass?’ I must’ve been there from the start, every week!
"YOU KNOW, ECSTACY AND FUN FIRE DON'T REALLY GO TOGETHER"
GH: Do you think that sort of restriction on getting into clubs had an influence on the DNA of the style?
MS: When I go back to Birmingham now, it’s kind of still the same. It’s changed a little bit because tracksuits have become quite common with the sort of sportsluxe style. But still in Birmingham it’s like ‘we’re putting on a shirt now, this is my going out look’. There was a note that Potter Paper put up on his Instagram, and it just said ‘guys if you’re coming to my show in Birmingham; no trainers, no hats’. It’s funny because he’s like the most hip hop guy. He’s like the truth in UK rap right now, but you can’t wear a cap or a pair of trainers to his show. That’s Birmingham. That is Birmingham.
GH: So you had to take a part in that, the dressing up smart to get into clubs?
MS: I wasn’t interested in the smart bit at the time. That didn’t interest me, but you had to do it. You know how you just have one suit for weddings? It was like that. It was your going out clothes. I didn’t really feel that, well I was taking drugs so I felt pretty good, but I didn’t feel that great in it. You felt like you were at a wedding, a bit. But going back to Birmingham now, a lot of what made it unique was how guys work with that. Birmingham has always been really designer, where as London is kind of cool. Different areas of London were different vibes. Back then in West London you had the sort of Che Guevara caps, Hackney was just straight goons back then. Even places like Kilburn and those areas, they’ve always been a bit like Birmingham; designer led. If you look at Chipmunk, he looks like a Brummy, he always has.
"ACTUALLY BIRMINGHAM WAS LIKE THE WORLD LEADER IN DOOR BITCHES!"
GH: As far as I remember, around 97, club culture in terms of House clubs was dying. It had gone a bit handbag. You could only get in if you were wearing designer clothes. People would go down the queue and pick people out, you couldn’t wear Ralph Lauren and stuff. Did you have that?
MS: Actually Birmingham was like the world leader in door bitches! It was out of control, Miss Moneypennys [house club in Birmingham] and stuff! I think it’s the biggest, least culturally encouraged place. That’s why the rap is so meat and potatoes. People love it so much now because it’s like Detroit, there’s nothing showbiz about it it’s just ‘I’m gonna fuck you up, this is what I wanna do tonight’, you know. In London, the wearing designer clothes thing, people just wouldn’t do it.
GH: You mentioned those clubs; it’s quite nostalgic actually remembering some of them! Were there any shops at that time that stood out? Where were you shopping?
MS: I was kind of into it a little bit, but I just couldn’t afford it really. I was also really into music, so back then you had to buy records and that was expensive, and I also used to buy keyboards and equipment for making tunes and stuff. I just couldn’t justify it. The Ibiza thing as well, I had friends doing £1500 on credit cards every summer, you know. It just didn’t interest me in the slightest. I did work for six months at Burger King to pay for like two keyboards.
GH: What keyboards?
MS: It was actually a sampler; it was the worst investment I’ve ever made. It took me like six months and another year of debt to buy this Akai S5000. A couple of months after that I ended up going to Australia, and the first audio card for a laptop came out in about 99, and it rendered all hardware sampling irrelevant overnight. I’ve still got it though; you can buy it if you want [laughs].
GH: What are your memories of seeing the Air Max 97?
MS: I’m not being funny, but it really was as powerful to me as like the Audi TT, when that came out. I know, you can laugh, but it was amazing. When it first came out, it was like looking into the future. I think it was the 96s that were really bad. The 95s are a classic, the 96s were a bit strange. If you look at them, you won’t remember them because they were really unpopular. It was a different market. Goons [2016 translation = roadmen], basically, wore 95s, and to this day really. Whereas the 97s were taken up by drum ‘n’ bass ravers, cool people and Italians! Italians went crazy for them, and they’re still wearing them now.
GH: If we remember rightly, they were about £120?
MS: Sounds about right. TN’s were £109, I remember that. It’s etched into my memory!
GH: Did you take the plunge?
MS: I couldn’t afford them. As soon as I got money, basically, I went crazy [laughs]. You used to get robbed quite a lot, that’s the thing. So I spent my life really just wearing cheap stuff, and like TK Maxx clothes if I’m honest, with nothing on my person because you would get robbed quite a lot! As soon as I did well with music, it was like how much money can I really put on my body, because I knew I wasn’t going to get robbed and in the 97s I just couldn’t do that. Berghaus was another one. The first thing I did when I got my first big cheque from ‘Has It Come To This’, was buy a laptop and a Berghaus coat for like £500. I’m on the front of NME in a shopping trolley or something, wearing it, this hideous yellow, grey and black Berghaus jacket [laughs]. I was so pleased with it, just because I could afford it and it wasn’t going to get stolen. If you actually look at Skepta, he’s very influenced now by Manc and Brummy guys. I’ve sat down with him and he’s asked me about it. Gore-Tex for example, it’s all about Gore –Tex. Londoners never did that. I think even now with guys like AJ Tracey, they get a lot of influence from outside of London.
GH: In terms of style, Skepta has quite famously been a proponent of sportswear. An interesting thing is that he is trying to empower the youth, and schooling them on the fact that actually you don’t have to wear these designer labels. What are your thoughts on that?
MS: It is amazing. The way that Skepta does it is that you can’t lecture people. He gives it to them quite hard, like ‘I will fuck you up, but you don’t have to wear Gucci’ [laughs]. If you look at people in say Visions [Dalston], the culture has changed a lot. I think he was there at exactly the right time to take all that energy. It did seem like as soon as he dropped ‘That’s Not Me’, everyone was in a black tracksuit overnight; literally overnight. He was there at the right time but he was feeling the same way that they were.
GH: Do you think it will last?
MS: Oh absolutely because it’s progress. If you go to Visions now people are taking ecstasy and doing bumps of coke, carrying champagne and listening to hood music and it’s different. That is, weirdly, progress, because it’s people saying I’m not a stereotype. It’s that simple.
"FOR ME, 2017 IS ALL ABOUT NORTHERN RAPPERS"
GH: Even though you categorise people as ‘goons’, for me growing up there was such a stark divide between people who were like me, into music or skateboarding etc., and the absolute nutters! I consciously didn’t dress that way because I didn’t want to be seen to be a certain person.
MS: I think you’re right, I remember that a lot in Birmingham. You tended to dress differently depending on where you were, and it felt fake at the time. It felt like people maybe weren’t doing that but I think they were. I think actually what Skepta’s done is to say ‘well you know what, some people wear tracksuits and it’s OK’. But you wouldn’t go for a job interview in a tracksuit, would you [laughs].
GH: Maybe here! What is your opinion of the current music landscape and club culture in the UK?
MS: It’s exciting. 2017 for me is all about Northern rappers. I think it actually is going to happen, it’s not just me willing it to happen! You’ve got A Star on the Giggs album, and obviously Bugzy [Malone] is huge. JayKae has the biggest record on Grime Shutdown, which is Spotify’s grime thing. The stats are unbelievable. It’s happening. I’ve been quietly doing events up and down the country and I’ve been watching grime happen for the second time. I wanted to get involved really, and everyone knows me but I don’t have that ‘thing’, you know? We made a record with a load of guys from Birmingham and it really clicked. I realized that we can actually be of help to these guys, who maybe don’t really understand London and at the same time the music just sounds exciting. Londoners are scared of Brummys in rap, let’s be honest.
GH: You have mentioned the Criminal Justice Bill and the Public Spaces Act, there’s a lot of that in the media at the moment with the closure of fabric..?
MS: 696 is the thing that is seeing people like Giggs and 67 [grime crew] getting shows shut down. 696 is actually a form that clubs have to fill out at the request of the Police if they think the event has the potential to become violent in any way. But the events are all black events; it’s all rappers basically. There are loads of places where people smash glasses round each other’s heads and stuff that don’t get locked off by the Police. I think if you actually documented incidents of like, violent attack, I think you’d be incredibly alarmed at how high it is say at The Forum on a Sunday compared to the darkest, darkest rap music. Because, coming back to what I said before is that rap guys don’t really drink that much, really. Or maybe they think they are, but they’re not getting nearly as drunk as Irish people at The Forum on that all day thing! I mention The Forum because that’s where Giggs played, and the worst thing at the Giggs show was the underage girls falling all over the place, savagely drunk. I’m actually doing a documentary with Vice at the moment, about shows getting locked off.
GH: When’s that coming out?
MS: Oh it’s going on and on. I think it will probably be done in the spring, but it probably should have been done last spring [laughs].
GH: One last question, which is maybe quite hard for you to answer out of thin air, but what are your top five tunes of the 90s?
MS: Hmmmmm, it would probably be Burning by Daft Punk, Triumph by Wu Tang. Triumph is the only song, until recently, that I could sing karaoke without screwing up. We’ve all got one haven’t we? Do you remember that really random record in the 90s that was like, someone just giving you advice? Was it Suncreen by Baz Lurman?! Skepta literally put that on his Instagram yesterday. When you said best records of the 90s that would probably be in there. That really influenced me a lot.