Skunk Anansie’s Skin: “Rage Against the Machine gave me permission to be political”

And so they just created their own nightclubs and shebeens. They sold alcohol and had DJs playing. My grandfather probably had one of the most famous. There’s a photo of Cassius Clay, before he became Muhammad Ali, entering through the door. Bob Marley came, Peter Tosh came, and Norman Manley came who was president of Jamaica at the time. It was quite a celebrity festival.

I just remember everything was this kind of etched glass and white tablecloths and really beautifully done, very dark and minimal lighting, lots of cigarette smoke.

You know, I still love reggae, rock lovers, dub to this day.

Cassius Clay poses for the camera on May 17, 1962 in Long Island, New York. He was among the people to visit Skin’s grandfather’s shebeen. Photo: Stanley Weston/Getty Images

Religiously watch Top of the Pops

So in terms of my first memory, it’s like ska and reggae, which I kind of ran away from and tried to find things that I liked. This led me to indie music and rock’n’roll.

I religiously watched Top of the Pops. I was one of those kids who sat a meter away from the TV. I just remember when TVs went from black and white to color. It’s my age!

Top of the Pops was my invisible secret friend. I used to watch Top of the Pops every Thursday at 7 p.m. I never missed that, all my childhood and my adolescence.

It was there that I saw another world. It was my Alice in Wonderland down the rabbit hole. I thought, wow, what are these people? Boy George, is it a girl or a boy? And what is David Bowie wearing? I realized there was another world of music out there that I just didn’t see in my local community.

Rage Against the Machine gives permission to be political

In terms of the modern sound of Skunk Anansie, [the important thing] It was the first time I heard Rage Against the Machine – Killing in the Name. I was like, this is the kind of sound I want to make!

My friend had an early white label copy of the single. The first time he played it in the club and the crowd blew up. I remember that light bulb moment: it sounds like the music I love. What I want to do. Because there was also politics in it and everything I wrote was political.

I’m a black girl from Brixton. We went through two riots. For all the Thatcher years, all of inner city, south London – all the places that didn’t vote for Thatcher, basically – were left to rot. At the same time, we were completely brutalized by the police. So, you know, people are going to say to me, ‘Why do you have politics in your music?’ Well, because I grew up in Brixton in the 80s. That little girl from Brixton is still with me and that’s where a lot of the songs come from.

Rage Against the Machine gave me permission. I was like, well, if they can manage to write songs about their experience and their politics, so can we.

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Nirvana blast hair metal

I remember Smells Like Teen Spirit simply because it erased everything that was happening at the time. I mean, it was the end of cock rock, spandex, and big hair, which had become so overdone and ridiculous.

You know, in England we had an amazing metal scene. Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Black Sabbath. All really cool, dressed in black, British sounding metal music, which was amazing.

And in America you have this, you know, Guns N Roses and all kinds of spandex and their hair and the really over the top and incredibly camp music scene.

And then Nirvana came along with this record. In two weeks, all that American hairspray stuff looked awful. He just looked so dated. I remember we were all like, yeah, that’s our sound, that’s our thing now. Because it was us. We were already in military uniform. All of our clothes came from thrift stores in Camden and Soho.

So that was another defining moment for us as a group.

Specials theme will change

I remember I was 15 and I was really into anti-apartheid groups, so I participated in many protests. And a few years later, I was living in a housing co-op when I was about 17. [the residents] were Namibians who had been exiled because they had a pro-apartheid government, then black Britons [people] and a white.

It was just a hotbed of political activity. There was always a big pot in the fire and somebody was always cooking chicken wings or meat or something, because there was always a meeting. We were always making banners in the basement and doing demonstrations.

Free Nelson Mandela was a song that really summed up the feeling of a generation. And I think that’s what political song can do sometimes. It’s not like this song changes anything. But this song may be the theme to change.

Skunk Anansie begin their UK and European tour on March 25th at the O2 Academy Brixton. Learn more at skunkanansie.com

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