The bulk of my school years were spent on an estate in North East London, kicking footballs around, loitering in stairwells, wasting time, surrounded by rows of post-war council flats painted a mixture of brothel pink and dirty white. The estate was a far cry from the surrounding war-zones of Tottenham or Hackney, where you'd be nothing short of suicidal to visit as a teenager from another area at the time, but it was still a place people would rather walk around than through. Some people's dads went to work and earned decent money, some people's dads were inside, a lot of people's dads weren't around, it didn't really matter, we all seemed to be in the same boat drifting nowhere in particular. Petty crime and casual violence were a part of life, but born out of boredom and mischief more than anything malevolent.
By the time I was coming of age musically, Britpop, supposedly the voice of lower class youth, was part of the establishment. Blur may have had Walthamstow Dogs on the cover of their album, but their romantic art-pop London where everybody talks like Phil Daniels bore no relevance to us - in fact, the dog track was round the corner but nobody we knew looked, dressed or talked like Damon Albarn, and nobody gave two fucks about him either.
We'd be piled 15 strong into somebody's front room locked in to pirate radio stations, Deja Vu or Rinse usually. Grime was flourishing, we'd heard Dizzee Rascal through the crackly airwaves, and Mo Fire Crew were from an estate down the road, but even theirs was a different world from ours. We were still seeped in the traditions of working class Britain: bookies, caffs, and pubs, but the music in our speakers was dark, the beats on edge, aggressive MCs. We even spoke differently, you'd hear cockney and Jamaican slang in the same sentence, a result of the harmonious mix of white and black families in the area. To me, it seemed like this was the only place where such a mismatched culture existed, we hung in limbo, nobody acknowledged us, we had no representation. Then I heard Has it Come to This.
I froze on the spot and tried to make sense of what I was hearing. Over hard-edged, euphoric garage beats Mike Skinner spoke with an honesty I'd never heard in music before. I needed to get the album, and sure enough I tracked down a copy of Original Pirate Material at my local Woolworths, of all places. Tunes like Same Old Thing and Geezers Need Excitement resonated with me and through every piss-soaked alleyway on the estate. The bravado of gang-banging hip hop which had dominated 'urban' music in the '90s came tumbling down in one memorable line: "round here we say birds, not bitches", dismissed with the bluntness of an old pub landlord. Skinner was able to understand and speak for a forgotten section of society, for whom the media and politicians hand't yet created a pigeon hole.
Realising that not only were there other people out there like us, but the wider world was now listening and taking notice, was life affirming, "This ain't a track it's a movement" says Skinner in Lets Push Things Forward. During Same Old Thing, our hero laments "Apparently there's a whole world out there somewhere, I just don't see it", but walk out onto the balcony of your mate's flat and you'd see it there in the London landscape, scattered with high rise blocks identical to the one on the CD's front cover. This was much more than an album about the banalities of a humdrum life, it signalled a newfound self awareness from a previously anonymous class.
Skinner was patronisingly hailed 'King of the Chavs' by the media and given a pat on the back and certificate of acceptance by the middle class music industry in the form of a Mercury Prize nomination. The follow up albums were never quite as poignant, but Original Pirate Material had made such an impact on me that I knew it was a turning point, and the next time walked down a street littered with posters for "last week's big garage night and the next Tyson fight", I felt nothing but pride in my surroundings.