I was really rather young when Original Pirate Material was released; just coming up on teenage life and embroiled in the noisy cacophony of The White Stripes (who I still hold in high regard). As such, it took some time for the record to click for me, although I could already relate to the grim, working-class picture that Mike Skinner presents – having grown up around the images he conjures. I simply found the confrontational nature of such tracks as Don’t Mug Yourself and Sharp Darts to be distasteful and a difficult listen.
The power of its themes and the reality behind them was what compelled me to eventually buy it after a few years growth, considering it an essential album despite not being fully behind its musical context. That dubious attitude towards the beats and samples within disappeared when I first got it home and played it, where I found myself totally encapsulated by the sound coming out of my speakers. Since my understanding of it slipped into place that unassuming afternoon, Original Pirate Material has been one of my absolute favourite recordings. It’s also proved itself to be a generous gift that keeps giving, taking on new dimensions and appeals as one evolves ever onward.
From the opening rhythmic clacks of Turn the Page, the album is richly influenced by roots we can distinguish while clearly its own beast and statement; a beacon of camaraderie to all those jungle and garage ‘eads, along with anyone well acquainted with the comings and goings of Britain’s underclass. Almost every word that cascades from Skinner’s genuinely overlooked flow is cleverly and poetically constructed, while speaking a loud truth that demands to be heard. When it’s spoken so well, and helped along by fresh production throughout, it’s hard not to pay attention.
Dissecting subjects as diverse as lad culture, love, drugs, the evolution of music and creativity itself, Original Pirate Material effortlessly spins a variety of somewhat heavy plates with a humble tone. As mentioned before, it’s the sheer truth behind his fables and observations that strike out any feeling of trying too hard. Instead, Skinner constantly hits bulleyes without ever seeming like he’s consciously firing arrows (with the notable exception of The Irony of It All). Even without considering any of this, the inventive use of sampling and instrumentation throughout has as much depth as his words – and the same undeniable ease.
Unfortunately, and in my opinion at least, Skinner would never live up the grandeur displayed on this debut. I’ll concede that A Grand Don’t Come For Free is excellent on his own terms, but I think the problem might be that he was taken away from the truths I loved him so much for telling. When his lyrics began to follow different trends his observations often, to me, seemed trite and unremarkable. His celebrity lifestyle is clearly less interesting than the more obscure one he lived before, but we still have Original Pirate Material to use as a high watermark for releases in a similar vein.
It remains as glorious today as it ever did, a living document of its time and still immensely listenable. The sign of the greatest albums is that every track is at some point a favourite (sidelining skits and the like). Original Pirate Material will give you just that, if you allow its many rewarding tracks to seep in over multiple listens. Not as gritty and hard hitting as it may at first seem, you may find yourself laughing a lot more than you expected to as well – the pure ludicrousness of events and turns of phrase being able to comically catch you off guard even amidst an otherwise daunting scene. While the album assuredly already has its place cemented in the annals of history, it nonetheless deserves every word of spotlight it receives.