North London’s inimitable SkinnyMan has always played by his own rules when it comes to this game called UK hip-hop. Whether bursting into impromptu freestyle performances inside cramped record stores, jumping onstage unannounced at numerous jams, or speaking to the youth about walking a righteous path, the unofficial mayor of Dungeon Town has, throughout the years, shown himself to be an individual who always follows his heart and embraces life to the fullest.
After the 2004 release of his critically acclaimed debut album ‘Council Estate Of Mind’, many were no doubt expecting to see Skinny capitalise on the success of his poignant musical snapshot of inner-city Britain. However, the larger-than-life rapper, as always, had his own plans. Instead of rushing into the studio to record a second album to appease his newfound fans (‘Council Estate…’ received positive support from both mainstream radio and press), SkinnyMan instead chose to step out of the spotlight, with very little new music being heard from him in recent times, other than the odd cut such as the topical ‘Smoking Ban’ and a smattering of guest appearances.
HHC caught up with Finsbury’s finest to find out exactly how he’s been occupying his time since dropping a homegrown classic.
It’s been four years since the release of your ‘Council Estate Of Mind’ album. Is there a particular reason for the delay in you putting out a follow-up project?
“Yeah, I’ve simply been having too much fun (laughs)”
How would you define fun?
“Going out raving, linking up with my people, linking up with my gal, looking after my kids and walking the dog. I’ve just been having fun living.”
You had a massive buzz around the time of ‘Council Estate Of Mind’. In hindsight, did the album do better than you were expecting it to?
“It exceeded all my expectations by far. I didn’t think the album was going to get further than my local area. When I was putting the album together I was dealing with social issues that I saw plaguing my community, so I knew that people in my area would know what I was talking about as they were there going through the struggles as well. What I didn’t take into consideration was that there are communities throughout the country all suffering from the same social ills, such as single parenting, drugs, gun crime etc.
“Looking back on it now, at the time ‘Council Estate Of Mind’ came out I don’t really think there was anyone else out there acting as a voice for the frustrations of the youth and speaking on the social conditions they were living in. I think my album nailed it on the head and you could hear how passionate I was about the message in my music.
“Outside of my core audience, some of the flattery I received from highly-regarded critics in publications like NME and Q made me feel like, ‘Are they talking about me? I’m not worthy.’”
Recently you’ve been heavily promoting the WaterAid charity. How did you become involved in that?
“I’ve always been a great believer in charity and that was something I was first really made aware of by one of my heroes Sir Bob Geldof back when I was young and he was doing things like Live Aid. For a musician to put himself in a political position to enlighten Western society about the famines and plagues that were occurring in Third World countries, that was a massive thing to do. I did the whole Run The World thing when they organised that back in the day and I won’t tell you exactly where I came but it was good enough for me to get a medal and be up onstage shaking hands with LuLu, Cliff Richard and Bob Geldof. Let’s just say I’m a very good long distance runner. I’m like a white Cambodian (laughs).
“Seeing what was achieved through the power of music back then with Live Aid was something that really struck me. So when I started to achieve some success I looked at myself and thought ‘What am I doing to help?’ I started investigating different charities but I found flaws in all of them, mainly because of how much of the contributions actually go into the running of the charity instead of going to the people they’re supposed to be helping. But then God sent me in the right direction when I was at Glastonbury in 2004, and the reason why I believe it was a higher power that sent me to this particular charity is because James Brown was performing, and there was nothing more I wanted to see than the legend himself, the Godfather of Soul.
“As I was making my way to the stage, I came across this area with a big screen showing the work WaterAid were doing to help the children in Africa by giving them clean water. I just stood there looking at this screen and I must have watched it for about an hour. James Brown came on and went off and I didn’t move. I just thought, whatever money I’m getting can be sent straight to WaterAid because people around the world are really suffering. So I took the charity onboard as something that I wanted to push.
“It also made me realise that, with all of the problems the lower working class has to deal with here in the UK, we’re still blessed in many ways with things like the NHS, schools and pensions for the elderly. As much as we might think we’ve got it bad, we don’t have to deal with things like widespread starvation and malnutrition.
“So if anyone wants to come rob me for the money they think I’ve got, it’s already gone. What you gonna kill me for? My money’s been sent to those children across the world who need our help.”
Given your charity work, do you feel that people in the entertainment field have a responsibility to be role models and set a positive example?
“I believe it’s a personal choice that one has to make. I myself feel that I’ve been given the responsibility. I feel that even if you don’t think you’re a role model, you already are a role model because you’re in the spotlight and people will be looking up to you. Now whether you want to be a good role model or a bad role model is up to the individual. Personally, I’m motivated to make music so I can be a voice of the people and be someone that people can learn from, rather than doing it to obtain superstardom or for any other reason.”
Thanks in-part to the success of ‘Council Estate Of Mind’ you’re one of the few older UK hip-hop artists to also be embraced by the younger Channel U generation. Do you see any similarities between the hip-hop scene you came up in during the 90s and the grime scene of today?
“It’s the exact same energy. I remember, for example, when I used to hear Onyx ‘Slam’ and as soon as I heard the opening bars of that riddim my face would be screwing up and I’d have a big vein on my forehead. The music just gave me that feeling and that’s exactly what these kids are doing at the moment with grime. I feel the exact same energy from these grime kids today as I used to get from the hip-hop scene back then. It’s the same thing and I really can’t find a difference between the two. I love it and it’s a beautiful evolution.”
So is there a new SkinnyMan album forthcoming?
“Yes, there’s definitely something in the pipeline that’s under construction for presentation next year. The next album is going to have a wider political view that’ll be going for the jugular of the United Nations. I’m definitely going to be in a radical, revolutionary mind state on this one. Just like ‘Council Estate Of Mind’ the title will be a play on words, with the album being called ‘World Of Fairs’, so when you say it out-loud it’ll sound like world affairs.
“The cover art I have in mind will depict the United Nations leaders riding around the globe on a carousel. The concept of the album will be based around how we view the idea of freedom and what freedom means in the present day with new laws and legislations being passed regularly which contribute to us living in a controlled society.
“Whereas ‘Council Estate Of Mind’ was dealing with issues I was seeing in my immediate surroundings, the new album will be dealing with bigger subject matter on a world scale.”
Who are you planning to work with on the new album?
“I’m probably going to oversee the production myself, but as far as featured artists are concerned, I would love to be able to work with Chuck D and dead prez and also reach out to someone like Shabazz The Disciple. Plus, I’ve always wanted to work with Morgan Heritage and Louie Culture, although right now that’s a dream that’s far from reality, but you never know.
“In the meantime, I’m going to be releasing the ‘Smoking Ban EP’, which is going to contain material that I felt didn’t suit ‘Council Estate Of Mind’ and that wouldn’t suit the new album either. It’s still material that I believe my fans will appreciate, so why not give it to them. The EP will have about ten or twelve tracks on there like ‘Warrior’s Chant’, ’Lady Heroin’ and, of course, ‘Smoking Ban’. It’s gonna be a lot. I’m also doing an EP with MC Trip called ‘Horrorcore’ and we’re going to be spitting some grimy lyrics over acid house.”
Acid house? Really?
“Yeah. I even want to sample Shut Up & Dance. We’re going to be on some hip-house vibe like Doug Lazy and Fast Eddie (laughs). My music will be going in all directions from now on as I don’t have to stay focused on establishing myself as a hip-hop artist anymore because I’ve done that now.
“Back in the day when jungle was blowing up and you had emcees like Navigator and Creed, I was thinking ‘I can do this, but it means I’ll buss as a junglist emcee’ and I didn’t want to do that. I’d go to raves and people like General Levy would be like, ‘Skinny, jump up on the set!’ I’d jump up, kill it and he’d say ‘Are you coming to the next dance?’ and I’d be like ‘Nah, blood’ and people would say ’Why not? You’re killing it on jungle.’ I’d be like, ‘Exactly! People will be saying that Skinny’s a jungle emcee when I’m a hip-hop rapper.’
“I had to bite my tongue in nuff dances when I wanted to jump on the mic because I knew I’d be labelled as a jungle emcee and it was very important to me to come up under hip-hop. But now that I’ve done that I feel like I can branch out and do anything I want because I’ve already got the backpackers with me.”
Any parting words for the people?
“I want to encourage everyone to make a donation of any kind to http://www.wateraid.org and I also want to say sorry that there’s been such a long gap in my creativity since ‘Council Estate Of Mind’, but the fire is burning strong once again.”