Sabrina Mahfouz remembers Original Pirate Material’s armchair garage revolution
The Streets – Original Pirate Material
Locked On/679 Recordings
Original Release Date: 25 March, 2002
“As we progress to the checkpoint/ I wholeheartedly agree with your viewpoint/ But this ain’t your typical garage joint/ I make points which hold significance” – Let’s Push Things Forward
I was never a big fan of The Streets. When Original Pirate Material was released, I was busy working at pirate radio stations (mainly Delight FM) and living for garage raving in real-life surround-sound every night of the week. Summers were spent in Ayia Napa, the rest of the year mostly in South London, so my raving team and me were spoilt for local choice. This didn’t mean we wouldn’t also travel North, East and West all in the same night just to catch the best sets as they happened in each of the four-step corners of a New Labour London, which seemed to be brimming with possibilities and a surplus of dancefloors. We devoured tape packs of the raves we’d been at, we tuned into stations we knew our mates were on, we had guest list to everything.
Mike Skinner’s slightly downbeat, everyday chat delivered in soft Brummie-accented lyrics – which were partly about a music scene I was embedded in, being experienced from the cosy doldrums of bedrooms and living rooms – didn’t fit with my reality. More importantly, it didn’t fit with my epic hopes for the scene. I believed in its ability to lift those who didn’t often see themselves represented in empowered positions to platforms of influence and progress. I looked towards it as a genuine pathway to a more visibly diverse representation, before diversity was a box-tick, rhetorical necessity for all companies. People I knew (granted, all male) who were mostly non-white, who had completely self-funded their music-making were in the charts, on billboards, TV screens. I imagined this was the first step to seeing those people in parliament, on business boards. Naïve perhaps, or not. Of course, that’s not what happened at all. Instead the music was banned from being played publicly in London and the myth of opportunity and social ascension dissipated as quickly as it had grown. But I didn’t know that then.
Then, within my immediate group of garage heads – which included promoters, managers, venue owners, MCs, DJs and producers – it was more than just not being a fan of Original Pirate Material, there was a tangible sense of annoyance that after so many years of developing a scene and guiding it (however misjudged that would prove to be) into the fickle mainstream, it seemed predictable – but still a piss-take – that a white guy doing what sounded like poetry about garage was the thing that the music industry press lauded and supported. NME ranked it at 46 in their 100 best albums of all time list and critics universally praised it.
Strange then, that eight years after being unimpressed hearing Mike Skinner speak plainly about the ‘sex, drugs and on the dole’ lifestyle, I found myself at an open mic poetry night in East London, telling lyrical tales of a different world I was by then a part of – strip clubs – to a small audience and absolutely loving it. This poetic storytelling unexpectedly became my new career, and it’s evolved over the years to include theatre – allowing me to put UK garage on stage for my show With a Little Bit of Luck at the Roundhouse in London. I owe more to Mike Skinner for this than I could ever have imagined back in those heady days of romanticised, credit-for-all capitalism punctuated by feel-good garage beats. I’m not saying he was the first, but he was the first I’d heard and unwittingly absorbed, and who spoke in stories about a non-American world, about people who were like me – even if at first I wouldn’t admit it.
Crucially, Mike Skinner made it seem accessible, this ability to get people who had never lived what you were talking about, to listen to what you were talking about. I still think it’s partly a result of an industry and society effected by endemic racism and prejudice that it took this album to give garage widespread critical credibility. But now I also have a deep appreciation of the way Skinner felt compelled to share stories from a very particular time in the UK with a huge audience, creating something that will remain as a reminder of not all, but much, of what a cultural movement garage was – whether it was being experienced on a sofa or a dancefloor.
Sabrina’s new book The Things I Would Tell You, an anthology of writing from British Muslim women, is out now