Remember a time when people treated The Streets like it was all a joke? Before grime, before dubstep, when UK garage was anathema to 99% of 'serious' music lovers, when the word 'chav' was at its vicious peak, when Britain didn't really have much of a voice of its own in the music industry, when Eminem was the biggest star on the planet, when a white rapper could be found on every channel (usually fronting a nu-metal band), here was a lad from deepest Birmingham talking over garage beats shorn of the American sheen that dominated the charts at the time. First there was "Has It Come to This?", and everybody missed the beat and laughed at his 'rapping' (and there's no insult implied in those quotation marks - Mike Skinner has never rapped, and to judge him against any other rapper is missing the point completely). Then there was "Let's Push Things Forward", and people shook their heads at this not-reggae, not-garage, not-rap concoction with such silly lyrics.
Then there was "Weak Become Heroes", and people started to realize that he had something profound to say. As scene-setting opening lines go, 'turn left up the street/nothing but grey concrete and dead beats' takes some beating, but the song really peaks in its final verse....
Then the girl in the cafe taps me on the shoulder
I realize five years went by and I'm older
Memories smoulder, winter's colder
But that same piano loops over and over
The road shines and the rain washes away
The same Chinese takeaway selling shit in a tray
It's dark all round, I walk down, same sights, same sounds
New beats though
....and maybe, just maybe, this was when people started to realize that the critics who'd called Mike Skinner a poet from day one might have been right. Still, some needed more convincing. Then "The Irony of It All" arrived - and then he was undeniable. True, it's probably the worst song on the album outside of the excruciating "Who Got the Funk?", but the concept and the execution were both brilliant - as a call to legalize marijuana and to demolish the stigma that surrounds its users, it was erudite, memorable, funny, and convincing.
Somehow, this felt right. Original Pirate Material was a true eureka moment for British music, the spark that lit a fire that burned through both Dizzee Rascal and Arctic Monkeys, laying down a gauntlet for UK garage to go and expand into the future (and thus into grime, dubstep, future garage, and beyond), and making it acceptable for British people to sound British, in a way Britpop never did. Britpop begat Blur and Supergrass; The Streets begat The Futureheads, The Enemy, Maximo Park, The Libertines, Art Brut, Arctic Monkeys, and dozens of others, and whatever you might say about the quality of their music, there's no doubting that they were very definitely Brits, and were probably more proud and unashamed of it than any wave of rock bands ever to come from these shores. And at the front of this wave was Mike Skinner, a man who looked and sounded like the kind of guy who was always going to win you over in time by sheer virtue of his charisma. If he hadn't, would this album have had even half the impact? I wonder. It was inevitable anyway - think of any lad down your local that's anything like Skinner, and truth is, you probably didn't him at first either, until you got to know him.
There is more to Original Pirate Material than just that, though - the lump-in-throat "Stay Positive", for instance, a no-bullshit ode to overcoming heroin addiction that ends the album on a note more downbeat than anybody could see coming. "It's Too Late" is in similar territory too, and is something of a dry run for the more famous (and, it has to be said, more moving) "Dry Your Eyes". There's a lot of old-fashioned humour too, like the one-two punch of "Too Much Brandy" and "Don't Mug Yourself" halfway through the album, the still-startling "Let's Push Things Forward" (a song that sounds like everything ever recorded in Birmingham that's not metal distilled into one track), and obviously, "The Irony of It All".
Truthfully, I thought Original Pirate Material sounded a little dated upon its release - UK garage had basically already been and gone in 2002, the reggae and ska influences were completely at odds with the rest of the charts at the time, and the pop elements seemed to hark back to the more gleefully dumb end of post-punk (Jilted John, I guess, would be the best example, or maybe the more famous tracks by Ian Dury & the Blockheads). Yet it didn't take long for everybody else to catch up, and nowadays, Original Pirate Material just sounds completely singular, a one-off so umatched that you couldn't even really say it was ahead of its time. It has its weaker moment, sure, but the best tracks here stand completely alone, and that's what makes this an absolutely vital album.