Feature: Skinnyman – The story of a rascal from Leeds who became one of Britain’s hip hop legends

When you think of the early days of hip hop in Britain, Skinnyman is one of the names that automatically come to mind. In the late ’90s, early ’00s, Skinnyman was shutting down shows in London with Chester P and Mongo under the name of MUD Family. Together they wrote history with records such as “Itchy Town”, “Camden Wildlife”, and “In Da Park”. Their shows were always packed, DJs were spinning their records at all the motives in town and together were making music that paved a path for the next generation of hip hop artists.  

In 2004 Skinnyman dropped the first and only album of his solo career called “Council Estate of Mind”. The record made headlines at the time, receiving massive attention from the media and becoming a symbol of the harsh reality that some people in Britain were facing at the moment. Skinnyman became the voice of those who lived a deprived life on the council estates that the members of the upper-class society knew nothing about, exposing the ugly truth that the media didn’t show until then: drugs, gangs, violence and poverty, just to name a few. 

The artist played an active role in this narrative: having moved from Leeds as a child on a council estate in Finsbury Park, North London, he had to step up at a very young age and provide for his single mother and two siblings. His bars described the type of life he was living, which eventually led him behind bars right after “Council Estate of Mind” dropped. Whilst his music was getting played everywhere across the city and everybody knew his name, Skinnyman was in a cage, not knowing how good his music was doing outside. 

Knowing his life story makes it seem like he hopped on a rollercoaster as a child and never got off. However, he is still enjoying the ride and has agreed to slow down just for a few seconds to let us join him and get a feel of it, so buckle up! 

This is a 2&6 Interview with: Skinnyman

What do you get up to these days, Skinny?

Just looking after family. And musically speaking, just having fun around the house with music.

Are you working on any new music at the moment?

Yes, there’s going to be new music coming out. It should be for next year or the end of this year. It’s going to be my second album. So I only have one bit that I put out before, which is my first album (n. Council Estate of Mind, 2004), but that was years ago so I’m working on new music to put out a new album

Who would you like to collaborate with from the hip hop scene and the grime scene? Do you think you would ever jump on drill?

Yes, I love drill music. I would kind of collaborate with them all. In terms of grime, I would collaborate with Skepta, D Double E and Ghetts. (In terms of) drill artists (I) will put down OFB, Fredo and Santan Dave.

Last year you were supposed to play Bedford but the gigs were obviously postponed. So when and where can we hear you live?

I think there’s going to be dates getting announced soon. We’ll be doing a Jazz Cafe gig with a live band, and the Bedford gigs are going to be getting rescheduled, so look out for future dates for that. They will be rescheduled. There’s going to be two gigs at the Jazz Cafe in London with a live band, with a third in Manchester. 

What is your resolution for 2021?

My resolution? As it was the year before. Pay no attention to anything the government says. Musically, lots of collaborations. We’ve done a couple of collaborations already, (there’s) people reaching out asking if they can get a verse from me so yeah, there’s collaborations in the pipeline already. There’s a young artist from Bristol called Blacksmith and me and him have worked on a new song called “The Price of Love”. The producer for the track is a very famous American producer called Statik Selektah.  

You and Fliptrix dropped Thriller last year which is just pure excellence, tell me about this project! I love it and everyone on YT loves it, we need to know more! 

I love Fliptrix, I love The Four Owls, I love the whole High Focus family, the movement. I see them as the new wave, the new generation of kind of like the generation before them, they’ve continued to hold the flame. It was an honour for Fliptrix to reach out to me and ask me to jump on a track with him. I thought he only wanted 16 bars but I think it was about 32 bars or something. I enjoyed collaborating with him. We did the video very spontaneous, he was like “Oh, what are we going to do about the video?” and I said “Well let’s just get a camera man and just rap to the camera.” He wasn’t sure how we were going to do the video and I said “Just get someone with a camera and we will just do a video.” It was very organic, you can say. Very organic.

In 2016 you were working with Music Lessons on a project in Norwich. Are you still working with them? What happened to that project?

Yes! Music Lessons have just released a track with myself, Cappadonna from the Wu-Tang, and Ricky Lix, and that’s just been uploaded onto YouTube. I think the track’s called “God Over Everything”. That’s just been recently uploaded onto YouTube with the Music Lessons family.

Now let’s dive a bit into your background. There are some things that I would like you to shine some light on. When you were about seven you did a school play where you costumed into a Rubik’s cube and rapped about a Rubik’s cube. Then at the same age of seven you got arrested. How do you go from rapping about Rubik’s cube to getting arrested?  How does one even get arrested at 7-years-old?

Shoplifting. I was stealing A-Team slippers for my little brother and A-Team figurines.

How did they catch you?

I think I’d be returning day after day, helping myself. It was the store detective that eventually caught on to me. I was taken into the store, in the room at the back, whilst they waited for the police to come and take me to a station called Millgarth Police Station in Leeds. And then my mum had to come and get me out. When my mum came to get me out I still had stuff hidden up my sleeves. She wasn’t impressed. 

In an interview a couple years ago you said “I left Leeds as a child and I arrived in London, and by the next day I was a man.”  What did moving cities actually mean to you, both emotionally and in the day to day life? 

I think I was living in a childhood bliss in Leeds and the first day of moving to London was the dawning of the reality that we had no money. Single mother, three children, no income. So the responsibilities of manhood were immediately recognised through the realisation of poverty. I think in Leeds it had never occurred to me that we were getting by and that mummy was the hero who was providing the dinner on the table. And the first day that we arrived in London was when I realised there’s mum, my sister, myself, my younger brother, and no money and we were all hungry. I think the bubble of childhood bliss burst on my first day of arrival. It gave me a sense of responsibility to provide. 

But that also got you into trouble. 

Well, nobody was hiring. Here’s an exclusive one: One time we went to steal from the bakery and we got caught. And the baker ended up employing us. That was one time when I came home and I said “Mum, I went out to be a rascal and I came home as an honest man, with a bag full of bread for the family.” We ended up working there for months, it was a great little gig. It ended up closing down eventually because there was to be a new estate built where the land was. The bakery was closed eventually. It was good whilst it lasted, fun memories. Days in the buns! 

Do you wish the move never happened?

I often entertain what life would have been like had I remained in Leeds and that’s why I thank my mum and feel that I am so fortunate that she did make the decision to come to the city because it expanded my horizons and my avenues of opportunity. I wouldn’t change a thing. I was in Leeds two weeks ago, when everybody else was being told they can’t go anywhere I was going to see my mum. She’s back in Leeds, in the same area. Little London it’s called. 

It is said that you have won against Eminem in a battle. Tell me more about that night and what that experience meant to you.

I think it’s so unfair that it’s being spoken about that way. What it actually was was a promoter called 279 who had put on an Eminem show. He had put that on hoping to regain favouritism from his audience because the gig that he had put on before, that was the Busta Rhymes show at The Town & Country Club, which is now The Forum in Kentish Town, Busta Rhymes didn’t appear. So he suffered a major backlash from Busta Rhymes not appearing. So the next gig he went to put on was the Eminem gig. So we all heard Eminem with the Rawkus stuff and that he had been signed to Dre, we had heard the single “Hi My Name Is” and we had heard a couple of other bits from Eminem.

So we were all happy to go hear this artist perform his new album and get down as fans. And I think what happened was when Eminem came on he did a Redman cover of “Pick It Up” and then he did “Hi My Name Is” and then he walked off like “Yeah, that was my set.” So he did a very short, impromptu set which the audience wasn’t happy about and neither was the promoter happy about. And I think all there was was I got on the mic and started rapping about my displeasure at such a short set and Chinese whispers kind of turned it that Skinny won Eminem in a battle when, in actuality, that wasn’t the case at all.

I think a lot of people left that night saying “Skinny battled Eminem and won”, where I would more say Eminem did his performance, I voiced my displeasure and people left in their heads saying “Skinny battled Eminem and Skinny won” where that wasn’t the case at all.

Was he still in the building when you did that?

Yeah, I did it to his face. 

And did he react?

He was out of his territory to be able to react. You know, I’d say it was unfair. He wasn’t in no position, you see what I’m saying? The odds were too stacked against him I believe, so it wouldn’t have been fair. He was at an unfair disadvantage I would say to be able to even talk back. 

So you never exchanged words. 

No, I just voiced my grievance about the performance and that was the end of it. I think there was a lady called Jasmine Dotiwala, who was a young journalist, and I believe she had footage of it but it’s never came to surface. I would understand why at the hype of promoting Eminem they wouldn’t want any negative press. And for what it’s worth, I think Eminem is a great rapper. I was then, I am now and I have always been a fan of his music. I believe for the audience it was some sort of saving grace for the promoter. I believe the audience, the ticket buying participants felt that they were being ripped off. And I think the promoter didn’t know what to say to the crowd fearing that he was going to get a second backlash like did with the Busta Rhymes thing.

So I think me jumping up on the mic was for saving grace purposes for the promoter. So Eminem’s walked off, the promoter is asking if he’s going to come back on, he’s not going to come back on.  The crowd has started to get anxious, and they’re directing their anxious energy toward the promoter, who then asked me to get on the mic. So I just voiced my grievance about the performance that we just witnessed. He was out of territory, the whole crowd was against him, there’s me telling him off. Looking back on it I’m thinking “Was I being a bully?” Which I don’t agree with the nature of a bully.

Did you diss him in any way?

Oh yes, I was totally disrespectful in every essence. That’s why I say that looking back on it I think I was somewhat of a bully and I don’t like bullies. Looking back I think I was something that I disagree with. Sometimes ego and arrogance can get the better of our true nature.

When you came out of prison you had the whole Council Estate of Mind album written as poems on the back of prison applications. You dropped it, signed a distribution deal and then went back to jail. You came out just a few days before the Notting Hill Carnival and a bunch of kids came to you and started spitting your bars and telling you they’ve seen you on Channel U. How did you feel at that moment?

It was a moment of shock because I didn’t know what Channel U was. I kind of felt like I was out of touch. It was a pleasant surprise but it left me more in shock and anxious because I didn’t know what they were talking about. I was like “What the hell are you talking about?” So I then had to go find out what Channel U was, to then watch the video for the memories to come back to me, to be like “Oh, ok, yes.”

You know some days you do things and then you just kind of like forget that you ever did it? Because your lifestyle is so hectic at the time every day is a new adventure? Like Forrest Gump? So that was just one day, one adventure, and then when I was reminded of it I kind of forgot so I had to see it for myself to remember it.

You’ve made it clear that you haven’t been paid a penny to this day for that album, which you financed yourself. In the light of this, what would you advise the up and coming artists to do when they are approached with deals by certain entities or even labels?

There is one simple rule: It is illegal for a record company to not tell you to seek advice. If a record company doesn’t tell you to seek advice on the contract, that’s illegal. So, by law, a record company has to say “Seek advice and come back,” which most artists just turn the page and sign. If it’s deemed a legal requirement for you to seek legal advice on any contract given, why would you not? Why would you do any less? That’s the one rule that we all fail to do.

If at the beginning of any contract or proposal one was to take the documents of the agreement and get legal representation on that, it would be a whole new ball game. We’ve learned that from Michael Jackson, we’ve learned that from George Michael, we’ve learned that from Prince.

To wrap up, could you please describe your past, present and future in one word each?

My past was mischievous, my present is humble and my future is bright! 

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