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Mike Skinner on Jay Z, grime and the election

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The artist formerly known as The Streets' Mike Skinner on streaming, Marx, Chris Martin and what’s big in grime karaoke

Over the past couple of years you've dialled back performing, instead DJing at Eastern Electrics and concentrating on your underground Tonga night. 
Why the change of focus?

It’s the decisions you make. It was just what I was into, the idea of doing a club thing. Doing The Streets would have meant repeating myself. At a point you have to decide. If I wanted to make loads of money, then I probably would be better off working in the City anyway. Or you decide that, no, you don’t want to waste your life, you want to do what makes you really excited.

You’re also working with new artists, such as Murkage and Oscar #worldpeace – they’re entering a different world to the one you broke into. What’s the hardest thing you’ve had to get your head around?
The modern role of a manager – it used to be about communication. A buffer between the artist and the outside world. Twitter and social media has taken over that. It’s incredibly stressful. You get a lot thrown at you when things go well. But you get a load of money as well, and you get to do what you want. So if you want the money and the opportunities, then you have to take the sh*t. And if you can’t handle it, you can walk away any time.

You once said that Darth Vader had a point: “If the whole world is going to the Dark Side, you’d better join in, because otherwise you’re going to die.” Do you think that helps to explain the rise of extremist pundits like Katie Hopkins?
I am actually a big fan of boring politics. The 20th century was completely shaped by big ideas, and it was the most genocidal, crazed, warring 100 years that we've had. So I don’t believe that we should be trying to seek out big ideas. I feel that when politicians are all kind of the same it means things are going OK. Not that I think things are going OK.

What do you think are the big problems?
The wealth gap is getting bigger, and that’s definitely going to cause problems. But it will get to the point where people won’t take it any more, and something will have to happen. I’m not a raging socialist, but Marx was kind of right, in that the wealth gap naturally gets bigger all the time. But I think the two World Wars actually upset capitalism enough to make us think that capitalism and free markets work.

Speaking of unfair capitalism, were you amused by the fact that headlines are already branding Jay Z’s Tidal a “flop”? 
Unfortunately, that was how it came across to the people. And yeah, Jay Z was looking to dominate streaming, but I don’t think he’d have pulled all those artists together had it not been for an idealism. You can’t start Spotify overnight: those guys have been at it for years. You can’tgo from zero to Coca-Cola in a week. But I think that it was more well-meaning than people thought. They’re like, why should we give our money to Jay Z and Daft Punk? Well, to be honest, if I’m being harsh, I’d rather give my money to Jay Z than to some tech billionaire.

Grime is big news again – is it strange being around for the revival of something you were there for in the first place?
No, because it’s different now. It’s a different set of people. The tough guys have all gone from grime – I’m talking about the crowds. Back in the day, in 2001 or whatever, it was all young kids. Whereas that equivalent in society now aren’t really listening to grime. They’re listening to hood rap stuff. So it sounds the same, but it’s a different section of society.

What difference has it made to the shows?
It used to be very political. Certain rappers wouldn't work with other rappers. I didn’t really understand it because I came from Birmingham, but it was quite territorial. But now, it’s weird, it’s like Standard Oil – it’s all sort of become [UK grime collective] Boy Better Know. A monopoly has happened. I wonder whether we should call up some Grime Monopoly Commission and get that broken up a bit.

Are there any new artists we should know about?
Apart from Oscar #worldpeace? We have this thing we call grime karaoke: these are tunes that are so big that when you play them everyone knows every word. There’s probably only been about five or six grime karaoke tunes in the history of grime. Stormzy’s got the 2015 grime karaoke anthem [Know Me From]. He’s sitting on top of the mountain right now.

Before the second Streets album came out, you did a version of Dry Your Eyes with Chris Martin. How much of that creative decision was down to drugs? 
None! No, there were definitely a lot of things done under the influence, but that was not one of them [laughs]. A lot of guys I knew, who were into hip-hop and garage, were listening to that Coldplay album, and it was all part of the culture. I don’t know what I was thinking. I justified it somehow. The thing is, it’s very easy to look back and say: “Oh, that was a hit record.” In fact, Coldplay’s A&R said it wasn’t going to be a hit. Lots of people said that, and it was only a few people who said it might actually be big. It was a surprise.

Mike Skinner DJs at Eastern Electrics Festival, 1 August, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire; easternelectrics.com 

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