“When I first started DJing properly,” says Mike Skinner, “I thought it would be a sort of dignified way to grow a bit older.
“And… it’s not that. It’s Saturday night, everyone’s 18, 19 and there’s no escape.
“It wasn’t very dignified, but it was an incredible education. Every day you learn something about music that you didn’t know – usually from the DJ before you or the DJ after you – and you can’t buy that sort of experience.”
The 41-year-old creator of The Streets has been hard at his second career behind the decks for almost a decade, since happily bringing his influential UK garage rap act to an end with a fifth and supposedly final album – 2011’s Computers And Blues.
After his hard-earned success (two number one albums); marriage, fatherhood, and being the wrong side of 30 in an exhausting and youth-oriented industry, had deemed his term as the “geezer” poet laureate for the young “sex, drugs ‘n’ on the dole” crowd to be done and dusted.
But following an emotional sell-out Streets comeback tour in 2018, Skinner says he regained his “focus”. He began dropping singles under his famous moniker once again and then set about resurrecting a music film project that had been simmering in some form since the very start.
Now, his experiences of DJ sets around the continent with his balloon-and-bass night Tonga, alongside Murkage Dave, have formed the basis of The Streets’ forthcoming sixth album.
Quadrophenia for ravers
The record, when it arrives, will also soundtrack a nightclub-based celluloid musical, entitled The Darker the Shadow, the Brighter the Light, directed by and starring Skinner.
“The album is like two years old now,” he explains. “I spent a few months with a script editor which was great and then at the end of the year I decided to kind of do it myself really, and we’ve since got different funding through the music industry, rather than the film industry.
“The film has definitely got things in common with Quadrophenia [The Who’s concept album and film],” adds Skinner. “Also, in a weird way, kind of Tommy [the same band’s rock opera] as well, because in my film it’s a musical but the songs are the voiceover.
“Tommy has got a bit of that, although it’s not surreal like Tommy.”
The Streets’ hit 2004 second album A Grand Don’t Come For Free – which contained generational anthems like Blinded By The Lights, Dry Your Eyes, and Fit But You Know It – was written and acted out on record as a rap opera.
It told the tale of a bloke who’d lost a bagful of cash and, in attempting to retrieve it, some friends and a girlfriend along the way.
So Skinner’s move into the movie world seems a natural progression.
The London-via-Birmingham star made his name as an early laptop bedroom producer and quintessentially British working class rapper, at a time when more glamorous Americans still ruled the rap game.
As such, he inspired a succession of UK artists, including some that would ultimately spearhead the grime scene, to find their own voice. Kano has cited Skinner as a musical inspiration, and he showed what he could do in front of the camera as Sully in the recent crime drama Top Boy.
With Skinner’s film yet to be finished, due in part to the coronavirus pandemic, fans have to wait a little longer to see how he fares on the big screen, and to hear the accompanying comeback album.
But while they do, The Streets man has been sharpening his skills with a “freeing” new mixtape of all-star collaborations, or “rap duets”.
None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive has got all the multi-cultural, genre-straddling ingredients of a Streets party – drum and bass, heartfelt ballads, hip-hop, house, and wry observational humour – except this time with added on-trend guests like Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, UK rapper Miss Banks, and Mercury Prize-nominated punks Idles.
“It’s total chaos,” he says about pulling together such a stellar guest list.
“In the film industry, decisions are made rationally, and they have to be justified. Music just is not like that at all, and it made me realise that’s what’s good – music is genuine chaos.
“I mean, yes, artists are cynical, absolutely, record labels are bureaucratic, but really, you are hearing as much chaos really as is possible, particularly with things like rap music, which is another level of chaos on top of that.
“People just really do what they think is right at the time, and it’s often wrong most of the time, but when it’s right it’s like a window into a freer less bureaucratic world.”
That world involved hanging out with Parker at European festivals, bumping into Banks in nightclubs, and sharing ideas with others over Instagram, as well as hooking up with rapper friends, or friends of friends, like Oscar #Worldpeace and Jesse James Soloman.
The new tracks tended to start with a beat, Skinner says, made in the studio (or in the taxi en route) before a vocal melody found him.
After that, it seems, anything else was fair game for all involved – with lyrics inspired by influences as varied as smart phones and social media, William Blake and Lidl.
“I used to try and plan stuff,” he recalls, “but I just think you can’t plan a song really, it’s too complicated, there are too many possibilities.
“I just feel incredibly lucky really, and I think everybody gets something out of it.
“All musicians are just musicians really, whether they are rappers or indie bands, there’s a sort of generational respect that you don’t necessarily get in front of the camera.”
When Skinner penned his seminal breakthrough record, 2002’s Original Pirate Material, he was driven by the desire to leave his odd jobs and temp work behind.
His return as one of the elder statesman of UK rap follows a lengthy period of varied employment. Along with DJing, he’s been involved in music side projects, making rap documentaries for Vice, and podcasts for his own amusement.
He’s glad he waited until now before turning the page on the next chapter of The Streets. “You don’t want to let the air out of the bottle without having anything to show for it,” he says.
What will follow from the rapper-turned-actor, on record and on screen, may not be dignified, and may well be chaotic, but it certainly won’t be boring.
As he promises on his new mix tape: “I don’t party hardly / But when I do I party hard.”
None of Us Are Getting Out of This Life Alive is out now.