SkinnyMan has been a stalwart of the underground British hip-hop scene for years, working with his crew Mud Family.
But his latest album, Council Estate of Mind, looks set to propel him into the mainstream. The NME described it as a “triumph” and “a dizzying paranoid record littered with grimey-sharp rhymes”.
The album focuses on what SkinnyMan calls “tower block dreamers”, powerfully articulating the hope and despair of young people in Britain’s cities today.
SkinnyMan says his new album is about “the aspect of choice in the elements we’re surrounded with, choice within urban surroundings – to do or not to do”.
Choice is a buzzword for politicians these days, but SkinnyMan is talking about the fundamental choices – and lack of choices – that people are faced with.
“Can we choose recreational facilities? No. Can we choose outlets for our artistic expression, for anything positive, opportunities for betterment? No. Can we choose crime? Yes.
“We can ‘choose’ to be criminals, junkies and all these negative things. But the means of becoming something positive – there’s no availability for us.”
He talks about how “the educational system is at an all-time high in terms of expulsion, suspension, truancy and underachievement. Impoverished boroughs of London fail to succeed in providing school facilities for their children.
“Children wishing to pursue further education are now given little, if any, financial help and support, making some areas of education seem almost unobtainable.”
He also rails against the police’s treatment of young people: “The increase in the number of stop and search routines feels like it has become a point of harassment for the youth in that community, making tension levels rise and communication levels fall, causing a social rage.”
But music, he tells us, is something that can “remind us of the godly works that can be acheived within”, and create a spirit of “united brotherhood and sisterhood”.
“It’s inspirational, motivational. The power of a song can make you do something. If it’s a love song it can make you kiss your girlfriend. If it’s a revolutionary song it can make you get up and kill Tony Blair!”
British hip-hop has been on the rise recently, but SkinnyMan sees this as things coming full circle. “I feel that from the introduction of hip-hop within the UK since 1980, it rose to a climax with such acts having success in the British top ten like Derek B, Cookie Crew, She Rockers and Monie Love.
“Then came the rise of the acid house scene, which overshadowed British soul, reggae and hip-hop, and anything else coming out of Britain at that time.
“Since the rise of acid house, developing into jungle, back to speed-garage, the listening masses have again returned their ears to the eldest son of all categories – hip-hop, the son of jazz.”
And the militant dimension of music has always been present, he adds: “The kids on the street are reflecting their oppression vocally, whether that medium be through the music of garage, jungle, hip-hop or whatever.”
Despite being an unsung hero of the British hip-hop scene for so long, SkinnyMan remains unfazed by the recent rush of mainstream media interest in his work: “I blank all that. If I started paying attention to it, I’d start voting and paying attention to what politicians tell us!”
Over the past year SkinnyMan has been getting involved with movements against war and racism. He has performed for Love Music Hate Racism, which uses music to campaign against the BNP.
SkinnyMan also performed at the Peace Not War concert earlier this year. “Lots of people are fighting their own wars with their own problems, while weapons of destruction are being manufactured for the sole purpose of taking life,” he says. “I do not share in the opinion that violence, bloodshed or murder should be the resolution of mankind’s indifferences.”
He draws a direct link between hypocrisy and waste associated with war and the continued poverty across the world:
“Without clean water in the Third World countries, two million children a year shall die, while our very own government spends an unprecedented mass amount of wealth on the development of nuclear defences.”
And SkinnyMan has every intention of carrying on fighting for justice: “Anything that I see that’s fighting for a righteous cause, I will do my best to help. If that means devoting a performance to that cause, it’s the least I can do.”