Roots Manuva. Witness The Fitness. Well, an introduction is highly unnecessary, but in case you were just born – he’s the man. The idea behind some of the most landmark pieces of music our humble little island has seen… Rodney Smith aka Roots Manuva was born and bred in Stockwell, South London.
His inspiration for the classic album ‘Brand New Second Hand’ was his mother’s use of the term to describe the occasional pre-used present. His parents were strict, as Pentecostal Church members and music was never meant to be a paramount inspiration for their son, but a sound system in the park one day, filled him with what he describes as ‘life giving bass’. Smith made his recorded debut in 1994 as part of IQ Procedure through Suburban Base’s short-lived hip hop imprint Bluntly Speaking Vinyl.
In 1998 he released the debut album, “Brand New Second Hand”. An album which, if you don’t own, whether you are hip hop or not, you need. From the initial 3000 records put into the shops it has now sold over 50,000 copies in the UK. For the first time a Black British hip hop soul was causing ripples further than his own waters. The Times declared, “his is the voice of urban Britain, encompassing dub, ragga, funk and hip hop as it sweeps from crumbling street corners to ganja-filled dancehalls, setting gritty narratives against all manner of warped beats”. He was awarded a MOBO as Best Hip Hop Act that year.
And 2001’s “Run Come Save Me”, (selling just short of 100,000 copies in the UK) gained him a nomination for the Mercury Music prize. The track “Witness” was voted the greatest UK hip hop tune of all time by the readers of Hip Hop Connection. This was also the record which led the Guardian newspaper, in October 2003, to proclaim Manuva fifth in their “40 Best Bands In Britain” feature.
The next album ‘Awfully Deep’ offered us a new personal display from new angles again, as Rodney too is out to progress and evolve as an artist. This summer, after a teasingly long wait, the new album – ‘Slime And Reason’ hit stores. And Nino somehow blagged the honour of probing on of British hip hop’s favourite artists, fresh and hyped from his Ibiza gigging…
Nino: Hey you alright man? Did you have fun in Ibiza?
Roots: Ye man Ibiza was so hot.
Nino: Good crowds?
Roots: Bonkers! It was in the Ibiza Rocks Hotel… pure kids!
Nino: Nice one. Could you tell us a bit about how you originally got into hip hop?
Roots: Everyone round Stockwell, Brixton used to do a bit of chatting, like. It was all about mimicking or ripping off other people and well known lyrics. Then about ‘83 I saw ‘Beat Street’, which was like a whole new world to me. I was more of a fan than a follower, I didn’t really want to make music. But then, I think, like a couple of years later, then the technology just opened up. With new drum machines around, and mini keyboards, percussion… So it was really the more technical side that I was interested in.
Nino: Which DJs were you into around then? Were there any particular ones you used to like checking out?
Roots: It was more like sound systems rather than actual DJs… there was like DMC, Road Show, Rap Attack.
Nino: Cool, cool. So, the first two singles of the new album are quite light hearted and fun. Is that the general atmosphere people should expect from the whole album? Are there any deeper tracks like we heard on ‘Awfully Deep’?
Roots: Haha. Well, you know I was still having fun with ‘Awfully Deep’. This album is more playful. After doing ‘Awfully Deep’ and trying to mess around with that dark side of humour, I was like okay, forget trying this dark humour shit and just get into to the studio and have more simple fun.
Nino: Since you debuted, years ago, in ’94. How have your perceptions of hip hop and the scene changed? Is what you think of it now the same as when you were growing up and just listening to what everyone else was listening to?
Roots: Yes, it’s definitely changed. I’ve got much more open minded. Back then, ’94, ’95, hip hop was East coast hip hop and I wasn’t really interested. And then after touring and travelling, I was like, oh shit. I really opened my mind to just the wider template of what hip hop really is. If you consider like, the fact that people like Dr Dre were part of the World Class Wrecking Crew, which was a crew that used to play synthesised and wear lipstick and eye makeup. There are so many facets to hip hop. And it’s quite and injustice for someone to just represent hip hop as the standard MTV issue of hip hop.
Nino: So would you say the UK has a purer scene nowadays compared to the US? Or do you think we still have a commercial style that artists aim for? Like, for example, Wiley, he’s gone from the deepest stuff to ‘Wearing My Rolex’…
Roots: Nah, I think it’s a good thing for MCs to have more than one trick and be prepared to stick their necks out and if it’s more commercial and more fun it’s a good thing. I wouldn’t have said that ten, twelve years ago, but I think that the world is a massive global village. If you’re looking past your own ends and you’re considering the world as a market place. I don’t think nobody really knows what hip hop is. It’s beyond definition. Everyone’s going to have their own interpretation of it, you know. People in Bradford aren’t really going to be listening to the same thing as people down in Devon or people in Cornwall.
Nino: Too true. Would you say the UK scene is a bit more diverse compared to the US scene then?
Roots: I don’t know that it is. I think the UK music is contingent of people who really are prepared to pick up new things and try them. But as soon as they pick it up they put it right back down. They don’t stick with it at all. Like how UK Garage got to prominence one minute and the next it was nowhere to be seen. That’s pretty bonkers. But it’s an interesting conversation how you’ve got your club scene that is now throwing up bassline which is something we’ve been doing for time anyway, they’ve progressed it a bit. But it’s an interesting audio dialogue going on. There’s some people doing interesting things, like them boys from Manchester – Broke ‘n’ English rapping over broken beat music and people are more prepared to collaborate. But no one knows what’s what! I don’t know of anyone of late who says they know how it is, or how it should be.
Nino: So are there any other people from other genres in the UK that have caught your eye, perhaps even someone to do cross genre collaborating with?
Roots: Well yeh man. I like Benger and Scream, they’re making some interesting dub step. I like The Kooks. I think they’re alright. I’ve met them a few times, they’re cool.
Nino: So, if you had to have an egg and spoon race with any other UK emcee who would you pick?
Roots: What?! Well. I don’t know man! I think it’d have to be Wiley…
Nino: Any reason why?
Roots: I don’t know. I can’t see him in an egg and spoon race!
Nino: Do you think you’d ever do any work with Wiley?
Roots: I don’t really plan that kind of stuff. It’s definitely something that could happen but it’ll happen when it happens.
Nino: That makes sense. You don’t want it to be forced and fake… So, about the new album then. What’s behind the name ‘Slime and Reason’? Is it you talking about yourself? You talking about your music? This country?!
Roots: Nah. It’s more about an underlying dastardliness. Just the corruption. Like there’s a subtext to the record. Where I’m coming as an unorthodox quarter drunken priest, town crier, madman on the road. It’s just about twisting and corrupting modern day forms. Like you take you take a hymn, you turn it into something else.
Nino: Interesting concept… If the album was a sport. What sport would it be and why?
Roots: Well. Can mud wrestling be counted as a sport?
Nino: Haha. Yeh, okay then. You do a bit of mud wrestling now and again then?!
Roots: Nah nah. But it’s that motion…
Nino: Alright then. If you had to pick another track off the album other than the two current releases as a favourite which one would it be?
Roots: Probably ‘It’s Me Oh Lord’. It’s just focussed. It’s a pure focussed old church tune which just keeps with the theme of ‘Slime and Reason’ and of corrupting and twisting modern day forms. It’s a whole bunch of weeping and wailing and chorus like hymn crying. I’m trying to tap into that tearful crying.
Nino: Might save that one for the right time of day then… Let’s look back from ‘Slime and Reason’ then. Back to ‘Brand New Second Hand’. When you made that record did you think it was going to have the impact it has? I mean – It’s one of the top all time classic British hip hop records now.
Roots: I don’t know. I think people come back to me after hearing it and say some pretty weird shit to me, some pretty weird lyrical contexts. I think for that record the main element about it is that it wasn’t like a record that was just made. It took a lot of time and experience. You know, a lot of time in community studios just training and being around a wide range of different artists. It wasn’t like I was just stuck in a hip hop house eating hip hop cake and drinking hip hop water. I was having that combination of massive learning experiences. Being around rappers, being around traditional African artists, being around Caucasian Jazz artists. There was just so much musical and audio knowledge and rhyming. The company was intimate. I had a real kind of schooling period before I put out that record. And I think that speaks out of it ‘cos I was just around so many different musical forces. I couldn’t make a record that would be anything other than the representation of the environment in which it was made. That’s what a community record does. And I was predominately in a community recording studio.
Nino: What is it about you as any MC that makes you Roots Manuva? The man! What makes you different from any Rhyming Richard round the corner?
Roots: I don’t think that’s up to me to say! I know that I do this from a learning stand point. I do this as a vocalist before an MC. Its more about enjoying the beauty of twisting language and vocabulary. Not just saying ye ‘Man are bad man from da endz…’ Haha. You know?! It’s a little bit more than that. There’s a bit more to get used to cos I’m trying to mould and shape shift language.
Nino: Is that the kind of advice you’d give to any of these other MC’s then? Play with the words…
Roots: I’d tell them to READ. Read some books. Extend your vocabulary.
Nino: Any recommendations?
Roots: Ah well… The Bible is interesting. The Qu’ran is interesting. It’s a representation of beautiful writing.
Nino: Wow. Alright. I’ve got to agree with you on that one mate. Are you into the whole spoken word tip then?
Roots: The open mike scene is just as important as putting out records.
Nino: Would you ever do a full spoke word show yourself?
Roots: That’s my albatross you know. Someone’s saying I should do it. I’d like to do it but it’s pretty petrifying for me. I like the comfort of the beat. I’ve done some shows where I’ll spit my songs but do them acoustically to kind of give you more space and time to really build into the lyrical composition.
Nino: Are you using at live band at your upcoming gigs?
Roots: There’s a live element but it’s more of a sound system. To use a live band at the kind of venues I’ll be playing isn’t really possible. It’s just so much easier to control with a drum machine and computers. I have a tough time trying to balance organic with toughness. I’m not saying it would be impossible at all the venues. I could have done it. But it would have had to have been a smaller tour with a few different venues.
Nino: Was there a particular album that really affected you growing up?
Roots: Yeh definitely. Erik B and Rakim – Follow The Leader. I was fascinated by that album for a long time.
Nino: Since you started out. What’s the biggest compliment you’ve ever got? What’s the nicest thing anyone has said to you about your music?
Roots: It’s when people come up to me and tell me that the records have got them through difficult stages in their lives. And everyone picks up different things, different meanings to the music. That’s the most mind blowing thing. From the lyrical point of view I’m being the devil’s advocate. I’m just being a wind up merchant, then someone comes up and tells me that such and such has made them think of this and blah blah. I’m like, I didn’t actually mean that! But I see what you’re saying.
Nino: You don’t realise the power and depth your own words have ey! Is there a particular track that you have to pick you out of your darker moments?
Roots: You know, it’s the weirdest one actually. From 50 Cent’s The Massacre album, that track Somebody Gona Die Tonight. That’s my pick up track. That’s my warning track. My super hero track when I need some powers!
Nino: For real? I can’t say I’m a 50 Cent fan, but whatever works for you…
Roots: I never was man! But that track…
Nino: What do you think of the whole tick list idea within US Mainstream with the whole T-Pain generation? Is UK Grime similarly tick listed? Have the lyrics and the mental impact of tracks been lost?
Roots: There are so many different levels and different types of rap. I don’t think we can say one element is more important than another. That’s what makes hip hop – hip hop! It’s an interesting conversation that gets batted about and there are things getting knocks. But to me that means hip hop is not dead. Hip hop is still alive. People have new ways of navigating themselves around the way of music.
Nino: I’d better let you go then mate. We’ve run way over… Just to finish off then any final words?
Roots: Yeh. Keep looking out for the 7 inches and come to the door.
Nino: One final question I’m sure fans of Witness The Fitness wonder… Have you ever fallen off a treadmill?
Roots: What?! No!