How Mike Skinner of The Streets turned into a film director
Having seemingly kept a low profile for the past decade, Mike Skinner is well aware that his reappearance on stage, screen and vinyl is likely to represent – at least to the casual observer – a new era for his long-running music project The Streets.
“I think it sort of looks that way to people,” concedes the 45-year-old rapper, songwriter, producer and DJ in a video call with The Yorkshire Post. That’s not to say he’s been idle for the 12 years since The Streets’ last full studio album, Computers and Blues, made the top 10 in the UK charts 12 years ago.
“I haven’t really stopped, but I guess (it’s only) at the point at which you start to tell people about it, that’s when people think ‘What have you been doing since Dry Your Eyes?’” he says, referencing his best-known song, which topped the UK charts back in 2004.
For much of the past decade, the Birmingham-born rapper has operated behind the scenes, making a couple of albums with Rob Harvey of Leeds band The Music under the name The D.O.T. and starting his own record label; he also made documentaries on hip-hop, directed videos for others and composed the soundtrack for The Inbetweeners Movie.
The experience of working behind the camera stood him in good stead his debut feature film, The Darker The Shadow, The Brighter The Light, a shady tale set in nightclubs which is now in cinemas.
“I was directing for quite some time so that I could get some practice in or to show people that I could make this film,” Skinner says. “But then I ended up doing the film by myself, so it’s been a journey.”
A surprise tour by The Streets in 2017 and the 2020 mixtape None of Us Are Getting Out of This Life Alive were a way of buying time and raising money for the film. “Actually I learned a lot from making the videos for the mixtape because lots of those skills I would then end up using to make the film,” he says. “It’s all fed in, really. Everything I’ve been doing separately has kind of all come together (in the film).”
Ever since The Streets’ first single, Has It Come To This?, in 2001, Skinner’s song narratives have long suggested short films. He agrees that making a feature film was in many ways a natural extension of that. “It’s all just stories, really,” he says. “There’s a lot of skills in making visual stuff other than just music, and actually there’s a lot of sound that you need to understand to make a film, and sound is one of the things that I definitely understand better than others. I’m just adding elements to the things I was already doing.”
Filmmaking is a notoriously expensive business, and Skinner’s original budget for The Darker The Shadow, The Bright The Light was £3m. However, when other sources of funding failed to materialise, he cut his cloth accordingly, scripting, directing, producing and acting himself as well as creating the soundtrack. “It was the only and the best way,” he says. “I definitely learned how to make films not as expensive, put it that way.”
The storyline concerns a DJ – played by Skinner – who becomes embroiled in an underworld of drug dealing and murder. He says he drew on the “strange world” of clubs that he’d experienced. “That was a real lightbulb moment for me,” he says. “I wanted to do a simple Hollywood movie and I realised that actually there’s a lot of stories for sure in nightclubs.”
The film is also indebted to hardboiled crime fiction and post-war black-and-white film noir. “Raymond Chandler has been a big influence of me for ages, and films from the 1940s like Out of the Past and D.O.A. and The Maltese Falcon. I just like the simplicity of them.”
As for the acting experience, he says: “I didn’t really think about it; I was just saying the stuff that I’d written in the script. It was about the whole thing for me. I think if you’ve got a story that works, as long as you don’t overact, I don’t think acting is really the most important thing in the film – it’s the whole thing all happening together.”
By comparison to the intensity of the filmmaking process, composing the soundtrack was a breeze. “It felt like the old days and it felt like things were simple,” he says. “The music is about seven years old now, so it’s really had time to grow away from any pressure. Because the pressure was making the film, it definitely gave the music a sort of lightness.”
The diverse nature of the songs – that even at one point embrace ragtime jazz – is reflection of both the need to fit particular scenes in the film and a measure of how The Streets has evolved. “It’s a very natural evolution of The Streets, and it is the music that I love. It’s influenced by being a DJ a lot,” Skinner says. “If I’d just been coming up with an album on its own, I think it would’ve felt like there was more pressure, but it actually felt like a relief.”
He says the album “had to” work independently from the film. “I’ve done other albums where there’s been a story and I found early on if you have the story of the film in the music, there almost isn’t a reason to have the visuals,” he explains. “You need the visuals to tell the story in a film. So the album does work on its own, (the songs) become moods in the film but they sort of enhance it.”
Looking back on his earliest impulses to write, Skinner recalls being “into music at school, but I wasn’t really into music lessons so much”. “I was into rap a lot and actually I think it was wanting to get better at it,” he reflects. “As I got older, into my 20s, I was much more obsessed with how it worked. I didn’t write stories when I was younger. It was about making a good song as I got older.”
By the age of 22, he had sold more than a million copies of his debut album Original Pirate Material, a feat he repeated with its follow-up A Grand Don’t Come For Free. He says he was “not at all” prepared for that level of success – and its attendant attention. “I don’t think anyone is, but it’s all your dreams coming true,” he says. On his third album, The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living, he attempted to “show people what it was really like – good and bad – and it was very honest”, but swiftly learned from a critical backlash that “people don’t want to know”.
“That old mantra, never explain, never complain, that’s really what you learnt. Just shut up and don’t expect anyone to have any sympathy for you at any point.”
Skinner disagrees with the idea that the music industry is today more aware of the stresses it can place on young artists’ mental health. “I don’t mean that in a bad way,” he says. “If I was advising a young artist today I would come to exactly the same conclusion as I came to before. Don’t expect anyone to have any sympathy for you at any point. Just do your best, but no one cares. And that’s true, I think of anyone. If you get to the point where you can’t manage your mental health then you need to seek help, but on a day to day basis, no one wants to know what your problems are.”
The vignettes on his first two albums were “totally drawn from life”, he says. “They were rearranged, names were changed. It was turned into a story fundamentally, but it’s no different from any rap music – it’s all true but none of it’s true.”
Sudden fame presented him with a problem of what to write about, he admits, but he adapted. “It’s definitely less comfortable and less settled when your life changes – you’ve got nothing in common with the audience any more – so you either have to make it up or find the things that you feel you have in common.”
Skinner feels he has learned valuable lessons from DJing that he has brought to The Streets’ live shows. “What I just said to you before, actually DJing reverses all of that because when you’re just playing other people’s music all the time, and you’re looking at people reacting to other people’s music, it reverses all of those symptoms that I just described about not having a clue about what people’s are thinking.
“As you get older, it’s harder getting up in the middle of the night and going to a nightclub when you’re 45, but I’ll not stop doing that, it’s incredibly addictive because it gives you all the things you’ve lost.”
Despite all the strains of making The Darker The Shadow, The Bright The Light, Skinner says he would “love” to do it again. “And I probably will do it again, mainly because it’s the only thing I really know how to do,” he says. “I’ve learned so much from this film. It’s incredibly tiring doing it, but most of that came from learning how to do it. So after I’ve taken a bit of a break, honestly I think I would probably just do it again.”
The film The Darker The Shadow, The Brighter The Light is in cinemas now. The Streets’ album of the same name is also out on 679/Warner. They play at the O2 Academy Leeds on November 4. A planned show at O2 Academy Sheffield has been rescheduled to May 25, 2024. https://www.thestreets.co.uk/