Leah Greenblatt quizzes the British rapper about his growing fame, his lyrics about the States, and more

By Leah Greenblatt
Updated June 14, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
The Streets

Mike Skinner is antithetical to nearly everything in contemporary hip-hop culture: Slight, almost translucently pale, and possessed of a Guinness-thick British ”mockney” accent, he is hardly the stuff Hype Williams videos are made of. But the 27-year-old Birmingham, England, native known as the Streets has still managed to sell some 3 million albums worldwide, and his signature spare, grime-oriented beats and stream-of-consciousness lyrics remain on his third album, The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, which he’ll be touring the States to support through the end of June. In his music he’s a gifted chronicler of both day-to-day minutiae and broader social issues, but Skinner nonetheless turns into something of a sphinx on the phone; below, the best of what we could squeeze from the laconic rapper.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It used to be that people who Googled ”Mike Skinner” got mostly responses for the NASCAR driver…but I think you’ve got that guy beat now.
MIKE SKINNER: Wow. Really?

Yeah. But he does own http://www.mikeskinner.com — too bad for you. Anyway, your last album, A Grand Don’t Come for Free, was kind of a day-in-the-life theme record, and this new one seems to be mostly centered around the hazards of fame…
I don’t like to say it’s about fame, but I suppose a lot of the issues come up in it, yeah.

Are you a tabloid target in England?
Pretty much. I suppose because there’s just one of me, and quite a lot of music videos, and kids buy the records. It just ends up like that.

Does the Streets get recognized much on the streets in the States?
Well, more now, especially in places like [Manhattan’s] Lower East Side, hipsterville. And certain areas of America as well, like Seattle and San Francisco, which are more European.

You are like the king of the rap ballad. On the last album, there was ”Dry Your Eyes,” and now you’ve got ”Never Went to Church.” Is that tough to do as a rapper?
Not for me really, it just comes naturally. But I think that’s because I don’t really have a rap background.

But you are a fan of American hip-hop, right?
Yeah, it’s my favorite thing really, all the big stuff: Beastie Boys when I was really little, and then when I was older, all the Death Row [records], Wu Tang Clan, Mobb Deep, Nas…but also now I listen to British rap.

Until pretty recently, “British rap” would have been kind of an oxymoron.
Ten years ago, you wouldn’t really say you listened to British rap music, but nowadays it does seem to be happening.

You seem to have kind of mixed feelings about America, especially on the song ”Two Countries Divided by One Language.” [The lyrics include the lines, ”Biggie man, God bless America and that / But you lot keep killing all your best talent / We build up our stars and then papers sweep on them / And you build on stars and maniacs shoot them.”]
That’s more just bringing my take on it. It’s a bit of a joke, to be honest. If you speak to the British people, they kind of see it for what it is. I don’t really write music for Americans, and on our website, we do get Americans who are offended by that song. But we’re different, you know? That’s part of the point, isn’t it? That they just don’t quite understand it, the Americans.

But wasn’t that song originally supposed to be on the Notorious B.I.G.’s posthumous Duets: The Final Chapter album?
Yeah, it was written for that originally, in New York, and then obviously it wasn’t really deemed suitable for an American mainstream rap release.

Well, besides the English-speaking places, are there other countries that have responded to you? Like, who’s the Germany to your Hasselholf?
We’re pretty big in Germany, and in France. Scandinavia is really strong as well.

One final question: Is it true that cigarette lighters were invented before matches, like you say in ”War of the Sexes,” or did you just make that up?
It’s totally true. Look it up!

You bet I will. [Editor’s Note: We’re still looking into that…]