Interview: Roots Manuva

Roots Manuva is a UK hip hop pioneeers and a true musical one-off. Now he's bringing his latest collection of wonky reggae, pop-funk and epic death-disco to Norwich. SIMON PARKIN reports.

Rodney Smith — aka Roots Manuva — can rightly be considered a pioneer. Back in 1998, when he released his debut, Brand New Second Hand, British hip hop was considered something of a joke, American rappers ruled supreme.

At the time, Rodney couldn't see what he was doing. 'It's only now I'm listening to Brand New Second Hand and thinking, 'Wow, that's a really beautiful record.' It's only now! I wish I could've understood it at the time! I just thought 'I can do what I want. Only 1,500 British hip hop fans are gonna hear it anyway'.' That's the basic sentiment I've tried to tap into with all my records.'

Contrast that with today. UK hip hop stars regularly top the charts and are being courted by US artists to appear on their tracks. Quite a change, but to his credit, Roots hasn't sort to cash in on this long awaited turn around. His last album, Slime & Reason, saw him working with a string of interesting collaborators including indie-pop outfit Metronomy.

And his latest album, 4everevolution, his fifth, is his most diverse yet, consists of 17 tracks that cover an eclectic array of styles — from wonky reggae through to pop-funk, street spitting, straight up hip hop, sung ballads and even epic death-disco.

Rodney was born and grew up in Stockwell, South London. His grandfather had come over from Jamaica in the 1950s. As he puts it, his family were 'here to make it big time.'

They worked hard, went to church, tried to live life the right way. His father was a lay preacher and tailor, a combination which goes some way to explaining the son's preoccupation with the soul and the suit. As Rodney sees it now 'my family are such good, decent people. I'm the runt of pack.'

Most Read

Then the runt found music. An avid but secret collector of the soundsystem tapes, Smith studied deejays like Eek-A-Mouse and Asher Senator, nodding to the rhythms, stretching his mouth around their words. But it was perhaps only when he heard hip hop and, in particular, the incomparable Rakim, that he realised that his voice could be used for more than toasting.

Rodney made his recorded debut in 1994 as part of IQ Procedure through Suburban Base's short-lived hip hop imprint Bluntly Speaking Vinyl. He debuted as Roots Manuva came the same year on Blak Twang's Queen's Head single, before releasing his own single, Next Type of Motion the following year through the same label, the hugely influential Sound of Money.

A collaboration with Skitz followed before pioneering hip hop label Big Dada, a collaboration between Coldcut's Ninja Tune label and hip hop journalist Will Ashon, came knocking. Roots replied that he was tired of making one-off singles and would only sign to do an album.

Brand New Second Hand made the first dents in the wall of complacency and indifference which has often greeted home-grown black music.

Big things were expected and he delivered with 2001's Run Come Save Me, the record which gained him a nomination for the Mercury Music Prize and which has sold well over 100,000 copies in the UK alone. More importantly, it spawned the all-time classic Witness.

Awfully Deep followed four years later, a more focussed, more ornate and fully-produced piece of work, but looking back, Rodney remains bemused by its reception, in particular people's tendency to take his lyrics a little too seriously.

'A lot of the jokes and humour of Awfully Deep went over people's heads,' he explains. 'I was pretty disturbed by the misinterpretation of that record.'

Slime & Reason, released in 2008, saw him take to the opportunity to work with up-and-coming young producers like Toddla T and Metronomy. Since then, he has been keeping busy. He has toured festivals the world over (on one memorable night being joined onstage by Usain Bolt) and developed a sideline as a DJ.

He has become increasingly obsessed by the possibilities of the internet, including broadcasting regularly on Ustream. There has been the first part of what may become a regular comic book. Oh, and he has begun composing an opera about the end of the world.

'And I've been trying to do the right thing, trying to be a daddy,' he adds.

And the records have continued to come. 2010 saw the download-only release of Snakebite (complete with video shot on the same Kent beaches as the album cover to Run Come Save Me) and the release of 'Duppy Writer,' a reggae reinterpretation of his back catalogue.

Rodney Smith's motivation is the same as it's ever been. 'You wouldn't have reggae if you didn't have these people from the Caribbean trying to reinterpret the soul and funk they heard on American radio. I'm trying to do that all over again. I'm trying to stretch the template.'

He sums up the approach which has led him to be considered one of the most exciting, honest, multi-faceted lyricists and musicians working in the UK today.

'You got to sing like no one's listening.' He pauses, searches for a way to expand on this, smiles as he thinks of one. 'You got to fart like there's no one there to smell it!'

? Roots Manuva plays Waterfront on February 1.

? 4everevolution is out now.

? Further listening: