Celebrated for its frank and evocative lyricism, The Streets’ sophomore album, A Grand Don’t Come For Free, captured a life of misadventure and mundanity. On its 20th anniversary, we asked 9 artists, creatives and collaborators about the record’s initial impact and why it still resonates today.

Arriving two years after The Streets’ disruptive debut Original Pirate Material in 2004, concept album A Grand Don’t Come For Free earned Mike Skinner critical acclaim not just as a musician and producer, but as a storyteller.

Appealing to UK garage and pirate radio heads as much as industry critics, the album struck a chord for its detail-oriented lyricism, pulling us in to experience its protagonist’s point of view and offering a place to romanticise the minutiae of everyday life without engulfing it in flowery clichés. Narrating the rise and fall of a fresh relationship (as well as a quest to redeem a lost £1,000), Skinner’s voice is laced with sentimentality and self-doubt as he rides the cautious thrill of a crush through to an ultimate betrayal from both his new love and old mates.

Commenting at the time, photographer and writer Pat Blashill wrote for Rolling Stone that its storyline felt “thoroughly mundane”, yet “Skinner’s ear for language and detail keeps it vivid and hilarious”, crafting, ultimately, “the best British hip-hop concept album ever”. As A Grand Don’t Come For Free turns 20 this week, Skinner’s skilled but sparse production is undeniably still influencing a new generation of artists, and those vivid, half-lucid lyrics – whether uttered from the sofa or coming up in a club – feel embedded in British popular consciousness.

“In retrospect, A Grand Don’t was the first organically, truly English hip-hop album I’d ever heard,” Blashill considers now. “For me it was a sign that this music really belongs to the whole world.”


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Just Album Covers (@justalbum.covers)


Alex Jenkins

Creative director, graphic designer & album artwork designer

I got to live a childhood dream and that was working in the music industry. I was the creative director at XL Recordings in the late 90s and left to become a freelance designer. Nick Worthington (ex-XL) from 679 introduced me to Mike to work on the first album. The beauty of A Grand Don’t Come For Free and Original Pirate Material was that I also loved the music.

I used an actual clipper lighter for the logo on this album instead of the graphic, illustrative clipper on the first album. The clipper logo idea came about after drinking six brandy and ports (not my choice!) in the pub in Victoria Station with Mike and Calvin. I asked Mike what kind of stuff he was into to try and unearth some ideas for a logo and he mentioned building spliffs using the filament from a clipper. Bingo.

I applied the white Streets text to the original clipper lighters used in the photoshoots and logo, using rubdowns (which work the same as Letraset). I’ve still got a few of them in the attic somewhere. Ewen Spencer did an incredible job on the photography and Richard Lloyd Lewis photographed the back cover in a semi-derelict mansion in North London. We stuck the printed track list on an old fridge that was left there from the 1960s. My mobile phone also makes an appearance in the album booklet, showing a text from Mike.

The album still sounds amazing and I play it often. So many of Mike’s lyrics have become embedded in urban folklore and popular slang. Friends still to this day take pleasure in telling me to dry my eyes. Fuckers.


Oxide & Neutrino

DJ and MC garage duo & So Solid Crew members

Mike Skinner made a lot of very influential tracks around the golden years of UK garage while also pushing its limits by experimenting with other sounds within that tempo and the album captures that. He’s always had a very distinctive flow too. There’s no denying he was, and still is, a pioneer for UKG and British music.


Murkage Dave

Artist, musical collaborator

Most of the time I’ve spent in the studio with Mike has just been us chatting shit, but he’s ended up giving me a lot of songwriting advice as well. I can remember him telling me to sing the things I’d say in a conversation instead of forcing the lyrics, stuff like that. So over time, I’ve soaked up a fair bit of his musical DNA just from us hanging out.

I know most heads are all about ‘Original Pirate Material’ but A Grand Don’t Come For Free has always had the edge for me. You’ve got this story that properly hooks you in, but it isn’t your typical musical. The music isn’t cheesy. Instead, it’s super creative. It’s aged flawlessly. Somehow, with a solid narrative running all the way through, he manages to weave in these three generational hits with Blinded by the Lights, Dry Your Eyes and Fit But You Know It, plus the masterpiece that is Empty Cans as the finale. I still can’t get my head around how he did it. I asked him about it the other day actually, hoping to learn the secret sauce. He just said, “It was pretty simple really. I had the beginning, middle and end in my head, and then I just wrote it.”


Pat Blashill

Photographer, writer & reviewer of 'A Grand Don't Come For Free' for Rolling Stone in 2004

When I reviewed A Grand Don’t Come for Free in 2004, I focused on Mike Skinner’s lyrical gifts — his skill at evoking a British life of misadventure and mundanity. At the time, some of my fellow critics in the US still thought of hip-hop as an American thing. In retrospect, A Grand Don’t was the first organically, truly English hip-hop album I’d ever heard. For me it was a sign that this music really belongs to the whole world.



Artist, collaborator

Working with Mike Skinner on the How Long’s It Been project was such a vibe and good memory. Especially making the record at the legendary Abbey Road Studios. I was buzzing for this and Mike was so welcoming. Mike produced it so it was one of those ones where we both wanted it to feel right! His patience is incredible, on the day of recording we were just chatting over a glass of Hennessy – we asked questions about each other’s style and discussed the cray tour life. 

I discovered Blinded by the Lights as a kid and it painted a picture of parts of cold London for me. I wasn’t thinking about music in these times. I was just hanging out with friends on our bicycles, menacing or minding our business around the area.


Steve Stamp

Writer, DJ, actor & 'People Just Do Nothing'’s Steves

There were a few key music moments in People Just Do Nothing: Big in Japan, and Dry Your Eyes was one of the most important. Grindah and Beats have a massive fight and we thought it would be funny to find Beats and Steves at karaoke singing a sad song really seriously. I wrote Dry Your Eyes into the script from the very start because we all agreed it was the perfect Kurupt FM break-up song. Mike has a way of having a foot in both camps – he’s got the UK garage pirate radio kudos, but theres also a lot of emotion to his music. Dry Your Eyes is breakup music for geezers. 

One of the challenges of the movie was trying to build in heightened emotional scenes but avoiding cheese and still keeping the characters grounded in their world. Mike has a very direct way of talking about emotions. For a lot of men, it was reassuring to hear someone articulating their feelings in a way that didn’t feel like it wrapped everything in flowery language and cliches. Instead, it was more matter of fact. More relatable. More real.

I think for me it’s the details. The thought processes. The body language. Looking to the left slightly and looking back down. You’re hanging on every movement. Every word. You feel the confusion, the awkwardness, the uncertainty, the anxiety. These are the details that I’ve always been obsessed with when I’m writing comedy. The moments in life that we experience and the neurotic thoughts that go through our heads as we try and figure them out. Human relationships as experienced through someone who thinks too much.


Oscar #Worldpeace

Artist, collaborator & Mike Skinner's mentee

As far as albums go, I was too young to maybe understand what an album was until much later, but I was very intrigued and I always loved videos. Dry Your Eyes especially was a video that made me feel seen for the first time. It felt like it was in my world, and when you’re young you always feel like everything is revolving around you. Seeing the Dry Your Eyes video felt like it was shot on my road; it felt like everything that I knew. 

Outside of grime, we didn’t have that representation at the time which spotlighted UK British subculture with an underground feel. A Grand Don’t Come For Free felt like another layer to that. When revisiting the album later on I’d finally understand the concept behind it. One of my favourite songs is actually Could Well Be In; Mike Skinner produced one of my favourite Streets songs of all time. 

In short, this album is definitely a big part of my life and Skinner has played a big part of life. Getting to meet him later on is something that I’ll always cherish, as well as his help along the way. I love that guy. 


Bailey Slater

Writer, Locked On Records Creative Lead

Fast-approaching five when this album came out, and historically far more indebted to Girls Aloud’s rigorous sonic adventures in Britain’s pop arena at the time, it would only occur later in life that, actually, there might be something in this record for me after all. That’s Skinner’s true gift as a songwriter: his ability to put a voice of candidness (complete with many Brummy colloqualisms and wholly unembellished production style) to the tumult of modern living that is truly universal.


Thai Mason


Growing up in Birmingham, Mike Skinner always held that status as a hometown hero. I think part of what makes him so unique is that his music really speaks for the everyman, but at the same time he always existed as an outsider within the scene; someone who does things on his own terms, not dictated by trends.

A Grand Don’t Come For Free was a huge album for me and I remember knowing every lyric back to front. The way that the narrative was built throughout the whole album really left an impression on me; it was a masterclass in storytelling and probably the first concept album I ever got lost in. Seeing someone be so celebrated whilst staying true to their artistic vision continues to be a huge inspiration for my own work. 


[fbcomments title=""]