Mike Skinner was born on November 27, 1978, in Birmingham, England. The son of a retired salesman and a hospital administrator, Skinner grew up listening to records that his older siblings played, which consisted mostly of American rappers like The Beastie Boys. Skinner also became fond of American artists such as Ton Loc and De La Soul, and his favorite rappers were Wu-Tang Clan and Redman.
At age nine Skinner started making music in his mother's house. He often experimented by recording the introductions from songs by groups like Run DMC, and then rapping over the beats. Soon he was programming his own beats, and by age 15 he was writing and recording his own music. Skinner did not study music in school, but experimented in his free time with the guitar, keyboards, and music recording devices.
Inspired by Guns 'N Roses' Slash, Skinner learned to play guitar and started his own band, Harry and the Krishnas. He also rapped in a group modeled after the Wu-Tang Clan before deciding to take a stab at a solo career. After quitting high school when he was 16, Skinner enrolled in a two-year college-level engineering course and in a six-month program that helped young urban kids establish their own businesses, and tried to start his own record label. "This thing was my whole life for six months, and then at the end of it, they said, 'We're not gonna give you the money,'" Skinner told the Washington Post. "It was probably the hardest blow really that I've ever had." Determined to succeed, Skinner worked odd jobs and saved money to pay for his music himself. The money he earned while working at Burger King paid for the equipment that he used to record his first songs, which eventually launched his career.
For a brief period of time Skinner lived in Sydney, Australia, and then he returned to England, where he came up with The Streets concept and began recording his music. In his teen years Skinner produced dance music and DJed in London, and in his early recordings he dabbled in rock, indie and heavy metal, before settling on rap/hip-hop and garage.
In his early years as a rapper Skinner imitated the American rappers he admired, but later decided to try his hand at developing his own vocal style. "At some point you have to decide that you have to be yourself if you want to be like these people you idolize," Skinner told the Washington Post. In 2000 he signed a deal with London's XL label and recorded a concept album about a day in the life of a "geezer" (British slang for a young man), called Has It Come To This? In 2001 the single off the album reached Britain's top 20.
Skinner released his first full-length album in 2002, Original Pirate Material, after working on the project for two years. He recorded the album himself, under a blanket in a closet in his mother's house. "If you sit under a duvet with a microphone, the duvet just absorbs the sound and you don't get any reflections," he told the Washington Post. "Then ... I got a wardrobe and filled it with clothes and then hung a microphone in the middle of it.... I still do that to this day. You can buy professional versions of that, but they're about four grand."
Original Pirate Material was soon released in the United States and quickly earned a spot on music critics' "Best Of" lists. The lyrics depict life growing up in England. NME declared, "It's like an entire generation has suddenly found its voice." Original Pirate Material earned Skinner nominations for several British awards and for the Mercury Prize. In 2003 he won an Ivor Novello songwriting award for Best Contemporary Song, and was nominated again for several British Awards, including Best Male Solo Artist, Best Album, Best Breakthrough Artist and Best Urban Act. Entertainment Weekly hailed Original Pirate Material as its Best Album of the Year in 2002. It scored four successful singles and spawned handful of remixes, selling close to 300,000 copies.
In 2004 Skinner released his sophomore album, A Grand Don't Come For Free, on Atlantic/Vice Records. "I wanted to make something honest and entertaining about the things I knew," Skinner told Atlantic Records. The album was considered one of the most anticipated indie albums of the year, and soared to number two on the British charts the week it was released. The album's single, "Fit But You Know It," received heavy rotation on MTV; it topped Billboard's electronic charts, spent a week at number one on the independent album charts, and peaked at number 82 on the Billboard 200.
Skinner may be one of the most important voices of his generation, but don't describe his work as "urban poetry." "I do not think on the streets, or where I'm from anyway, that you have urban poets," Skinner told Sydney, Australia's Daily Telegraph. "You don't have people standing on the corner reciting poems. You'd get beaten up for that."
Despite his fame, not a lot of things have changed about Mike Skinner. The 26-year-old rapper still writes his lyrics on his cell phone (he sends text messages to himself), and he prefers staying home to hanging out at the hottest nightclubs or basking in his celebrity. "The myth of rock 'n roll means you think people like me are always partying," Skinner told NME. "But I can honestly say that city boys and tradesmen party harder. I find I'm trying to get away from it, most of the time."
The Streets has attracted a lot celebrity fans, including David Bowie and Coldplay's Chris Martin. But neither prestigious accolades nor fame and fortune seem to hold sway over the young artist. "I don't think I've made English rap credible, I've just made something that was genuine," Skinner told the The Daily Telegraph. "I think what people respected in The Streets is that it's genuine, and that's become credible."