Roots Manuva Reluctant Hero

Roots Manuva Reluctant Hero
"I can't bloody think straight in here. Everybody's talking shit!" Rodney Hylton Smith, aka Roots Manuva, sounds like he's about to lose it. While you can detect mock incredulity in his booming baritone, he's clearly at least mildly agitated. He's just completed a soundcheck with his band, whom he's dubbed the Manuvadelics, for a show on his UK tour in Birmingham, England and the general hubbub around him is directly related to the genuine concern about how things are going to go later on. "The soundcheck was pretty horrific," relates Smith dryly. "It's so empty and you really can't gauge the sound. The engineer's like, ‘No, don't worry about that. When the people come in they will soak it up.' And you're like, ‘We need more bass.' If we got no bass, we've got no show."

Arguably without bass we wouldn't have Roots Manuva at all, given the integral role it plays in his music. While ostensibly a hip-hop artist, Manuva draws extensively from dub, reggae and electronic sounds to create his own distinctive musical blend. "I'm excessive about the colour of bass and the range of bass and the actual melodic value of bass," says Smith. "A lot of musicians see bass as the rhythm section, but for me it's much more. It's just as important as guitar is to guitar music. It's just a crazy obsession. It's the full spectrum of bass from actual bass that's played on a guitar, to the bass that resonates within the sound of drums. I haven't finished yet with my journey into different types of bass." So far this low-end exploration has yielded critically-acclaimed albums Brand New Second Hand (1999), Run Come Save Me (2001) and its largely instrumental re-rub Dub Come Save Me (2002). While Roots Manuva continues to sonically join the dots between Jamaica and South Bronx-birthed hip-hop, which itself traces its origins back to Jamaica, his music is also undeniably from the UK.

Born and raised in Stockwell, South London, the voice of Rodney Smith (a typically English name if there was one) is tinged with his Jamaican background, yet is a product of his immediate environment. Riddled with references to English idiosyncrasies, slang and pop culture, his rhymes wax lyrically about the joys of eating cheese on toast or downing pints at the pub. When he says the phrase "Nice to see you, to see you" at his live shows (the crowd is supposed to respond by saying "Nice"), he's borrowing a catchphrase from cheesy evergreen British comedian and game show host Bruce Forsyth, whose name would likely prompt blank quizzical looks on these shores. And much like his production pseudonym Lord Gosh, the title of Roots Manuva's latest album, Awfully Deep, playfully riffs on England's notoriously class-conscious society.

For many years, UK hip-hop artists struggling to assert their identity aped Americans; just as American rockers adopted working class brogues three decades earlier, English MCs rhymed in North American accents. While he certainly wasn't the first hip-hop artist in the UK to forsake this approach, Roots Manuva is certainly one of the first to do it well, forging a unique sound in the process. He is a forerunner to Dizzee Rascal and the Streets, the two artists North American hipsters are likely to think of when the rather amorphous term UK hip-hop is bandied about, even though he'd rather see himself as a peer. "I feel a part of what Dizzee Rascal is doing or what the Streets is doing," Smith says. "I'm not going to necessarily be so egocentric to say I'm the godfather of that, or they wouldn't have been able to come through without me, but I have a general affinity with what they're dealing with." Despite the fact he'd hate to admit it, Roots Manuva is a pioneering figure in the proliferation of an indigenous identity for hip-hop music in the UK.

Rodney Smith's first inclination that music would play a pivotal role in his life began innocently enough. As a child, he heard a soundsystem crew test their huge speakers in a skateboard park, and the quake-inducing bass triggered a lifelong devotion to soundsystem culture and a foundation of dub, reggae and dancehall. Later, he encountered hip-hop for the first time. "When I first started secondary school, it was everywhere," says Smith. "Everyone was breaking and seeing Beat Street. Hearing Herbie Hancock's ‘Rockit' — that was mind-blowing. Like wow, you can scratch the record and make a sound with it! I had no choice. I never chose hip-hop. Hip-hop chose me." While breakdancing on linoleum to electro compilations, beatboxing, and obsessing over the lyrical wizardry of Rakim were passions for a young Rodney Smith, he had to listen to his Eek-A-Mouse tapes on the down-low. His parents came to England (after briefly considering Toronto) from the small Jamaican town of Banana Hole, part of a post-World War II influx of West Indian immigrants; they were strictly religious and his father was a Pentecostal preacher.

Undeterred by his parents' disapproval, Smith became further immersed in the music. By the time he was 15, he was sending demos to record labels and frequenting a Brixton community recording studio, where he began training as an engineer. While heavily influenced by American hip-hop, Smith kept his ear open to UK hip-hop artists like Hijack, the menacing crew who were signed to Ice-T's label. He was also influenced by the English accent-flaunting London Posse, a duo made up of MCs Bionic, who lived near Smith at the time, and Rodney P, who would later drop a verse on Run Come Save Me.

After his recording debut in 1994, Roots Manuva began to make a bit of noise, appearing on a number of tracks and releasing his own singles on a variety of labels, negotiating the callow UK hip-hop underground while engineering everything from house to dub plates at Brixton's Angel Town community recording studio. In 1998, he hooked up with Will Ashon, who ran Big Dada, a subsidiary label of Ninja Tune. Weary of releasing singles, Smith only wanted to work with the label if they put out an album and gave him creative freedom. After borrowing a sampler from Ninja Tune head honchos Coldcut, Rodney Smith got to work.

The result was Brand New Second Hand, a dub-fuelled lo-fi affair that revelled in Smith's penchant for reconfiguring existing musical styles in his unique and inimitable way. While the album title was taken from one of his mother's trademark phrases referring to hand-me-downs, the converging styles on the record were a product of Smith's own generation who, despite the often ugly domestic resistance, viewed England as their home and not the temporary one their parents had envisaged.

Smith followed up his auspicious debut with Run Come Save Me. With its more experimental bent, the record was certainly not as free-flowing, but was considerably more conceptual. His sense of humour was not lost, but the internal tension between secular and spiritual themes — manifested in the tense relationship with his father — emerged as a dominant thread. Fuelled by the propulsive single "Witness (1 Hope)" — recently voted the #1 UK hip-hop single of all-time by venerable UK magazine Hip-Hop Connection — it garnered more acclaim and demand for cameo appearances, eventually shifting more than 100,000 copies, no mean feat for an independent UK hip-hop release.

But Roots Manuva felt increasingly uncomfortable with attempts to tag him as a saviour of UK hip-hop. A nomination for the prestigious Mercury Prize raised further conflicting issues.

"It's crazy being at awards ceremonies," he says. "One day you're getting picked up in limousines, the next day you are on the tube train. And then going through the whole thing of thinking you're going to win and you don't win. I really needed that. I could have done with that 20,000 pounds!" The acclaim wedged him into a creative bind as well. "I want to make even madder music so that I'm not even considered for their accolades, but I don't know, the stranger I make the music, the more kind of recognition and attention I've seem to got."
When I mention the critical acclaim that Awfully Deep has garnered since its January release in the UK, he acknowledges this is still an issue for him. "Yeah," he says in an unusually quiet voice. "And I'm trying to do the opposite thing."

For a while it was hard for him to produce music, and after Dub Come Save Me, very little surfaced save for a bizarre cover of the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" on his volume of the "artist as DJ" compilation Badmeaninggood. After a period of apparently erratic behaviour, including a bizarre magazine interview, his management became concerned and advised him to undergo a psychiatric assessment.

The title track of Awfully Deep addresses this, describing his visit to the "farm of the funny." The track deploys his trademark levity, but he admits, "I'm a bit cagey about it. I've been off the rails quite a few times. Too much messing about with things I shouldn't have been messing about with." But he does admit to some exaggerated yarn-spinning regarding the lyrics. "There are elements of truth. It's more like the paranoia," he says. "I've never been pleasured by the experience of having a nurse or doctor sticking their finger in my ass."

While Smith still uses his "cryptic displays of deadpan" to deflect serious issues, Awfully Deep's introspection is bleaker than his previous efforts. While he says he wrote the lyrics with a smile on his face, wrestling with issues such as self-doubt and depression hardly make for belly laughs. The album cover features various model-type women vying for his attention while Smith ignores them, staring implacably into the distance, presumably choosing substance over artifice. "I wanted to capture the energy of the mad ranting drunk or your mad cousin that comes round at dinner and starts going off and just over-philosophising about life. It's kind of playing a character, a spirited but lovable miserable bastard."

How far that character is from himself isn't clear, but his urge to spread wisdom and stay on a righteous path is quite apparent. "A Haunting" finds Manuva paying his artistic debt to his rocksteady and dub ancestors in a spoken word performance that captures the warped nature of his metronomic flow. "I was trying to do a Gil Scott-Heron impersonation. It's supposed to be like a sermon," says Smith. "A bunch of warriors smoking a peace pipe going back in time to transport the courage to this time — it's like a warrior's travel mantra. Some old voodoo shit!" The track was born out of sessions with the Easy Access Orchestra, the Herbaliser's horn section, and at the time Smith was listening to Negro spirituals and jazz.

While his earlier work has been largely self-produced, Smith worked with a number of collaborators on the new album. His penchant for electronic synths has come to the fore, and he began consciously applying traditional music theory in the studio. "The whole energy of Run Come Save Me was just to make noise," says Smith, his voice rising. "Make a noise! Blur the noise so people don't understand what the fuck it is. It's still musical. You don't quite understand why it's musical, but it's not definitely a chord that's playing, it's not four loops. It's the same sonic aesthetic that's in a lot of old ragga, where it's just a load of ridiculous banging but it makes sense 'cause it's wrong. It's not right. It totally defies the standard perception of rhythm or musicality. For this album, I wanted to actually cross-reference specific types of musicality, like turning the power ballad inside out. Or trying to draw reference to how the grime stuff over here is the same as early '80s digi-dub."

There is an intense debate in the UK over whether grime is actually hip-hop, but Smith is clearly inspired by the artistic and entrepreneurial zeal he sees in grime adherents. The irresistible bouncement of "Rebel Heart" is a nod to that movement, processed through his own distinctive sonic filters. "It's definitely a child of hip-hop," Smith says of grime. "I think when you look more deeply, in terms of the socio-economic conditions that created hip-hop, what they're doing is closer to it than a bunch of people sitting down marvelling at the old classic sound. Most of these guys doin' it are 15 to 22, but they've grown up hearing the Southern influence in hip-hop alongside two-step garage and drum & bass, so their sonic character is different than mine, being 32 and listening to a lot of dub."

The sense that he's getting too old to keep up rears its head more than a few times on Awfully Deep. On the incongruently carnivalesque "Too Cold," he infers that he's too old too. And on lead single "Colossal Insight," he opines "This could be my last LP / I've had a good run, I've made a few G's / I've had a bag of fun, I've smoked a few trees / Now I wanna rest my knobbly knees." What's that all about?

"That was more in the vein of blues and sensationalist creative songwriting," says Smith, his voice degenerating into a barely audible mumble before rising dramatically. "Your baby left you, the goldfish died, I don't even know if I can take it anymore, I hate my own voice. I hate my face when I look at it. I'm going to cut off my nose!"

Returning to a normal tone he continues, "It wasn't actually literally to not make music anymore. It's being tired with the business of music and longing for the day when I don't think so much of the other side of music. The whole financial side of it. It's all pretty clandestine and sinister."

But Roots Manuva has no intention of quitting just yet. Having started his own label, Banana Klan, and with plans to start his own Lord Gosh and the Shook Out Roadshow soundsystem, he seems willing to play within and outside of music industry machinations and accept the fate of his art when it leaves his control. "Once you send out the energy, you draw the energy from the universe. It just operates beyond what I can envisage. It takes on a life and people attach themselves to elements of the albums, of the live shows. It's just one wild beast."

This is probably why Roots Manuva is still tentative about further upsetting the delicate balance between art and business. "I get so much hassle about the fact that I've been offered two major deals and I didn't take 'em. And I still complain that I've got to ride the tube," he says. "I get stressed now. I get motherfuckers coming to my house with their demos and wanting to jump on shows halfway into the show. If I had an amazing deal it would just quadruple. I've been told to look at a deal as the beginning of your problems, not the end of your problems."

His parents have come around slowly and now his father is even dispensing music business advice. "They want the big success," Smith reveals. "‘You sold gold? You need to sell a million. You need someone to discover you. You need Chris Blackwell or Clive Davis,'" he says, impersonating his father. As the din of people chattering around him markedly increases, Smith remarks contentedly, "I'm happy where I am."