29 February 2012

Interview: Roots Manuva


Roots Manuva has a reputation as a sweet but somewhat grumpy interview subject. Yet when VOLUME magazine spoke with him prior to his forthcoming New Zealand shows, he came across as more of a loveable rogue. Settled back home in Stockwell after an evening spent downing a few pints of bitter (some things never change), Roots Manuva aka Rodney Smith opened up about learning to embrace growing older.

"I'm having to slap myself and wake up to that! For years I wanted to play that down - now it's getting a lot serious. I've got kids of my own that show interest in creativity and music, I work with music projects now that kids are just getting into music at the same age as I was, and I've kind of seen the full responsibility, I'm working things out," he says, chuckling - not for the first time - in his deep, treacle-smothered baritone, "It's like I have to try and package my story and my experience to try and share and give back to them and keep the culture alive, because I think it's a really socially and spiritually significant art form and a worldwide movement that should be celebrated and nurtured."

Roots Manuva has long been held up as a leading light of UK Hip Hop, though it's a term he dismisses. "I can understand it: it starts conversations and it's good hype at the time, but you know, after (long deep breath), after more than ten years in the game now, you gotta look at things a little more thoroughly in their context to the universe and the art and creativity." Even so, it's clear he's still passionate about hip hop music and the lifestyle. "If it wasn't for hip hop I wouldn't be doing music. It was because of people like KRS-One and Chuck D that brought a whole different perspective to the subject matter, it seemed like more than music, and the fact that hip hop as a culture is more than music, that's what was attractive," he pauses, chuckling again, "It wasn't so much like, 'Hey, let's put on lipstick and a wig and flares and let's get famous!' - we're doing this for a living, we're doing this regardless."

Rodney Smith has been 'doing this regardless' for the best part of two decades, first appearing on a handful of singles in the mid-'90s, then dropping his ground-breaking debut album Brand New Second Hand in 1999. His fifth full-length, 4everevolution was released late last year, and many are saying it's his best yet. Certainly it's one of his most innovative, blending reggae, '80s pop-funk, straight up hip hop and even a sung ballad - but it has always been one of Smith's strengths that he is able to take inspiration from all corners and produce something uniquely his own.

"The first sonic palette was obviously Jamaican-made music, or UK Jamaican-influenced music, but at the same time I always liked things like Human League and even Duran Duran," he says. As a young Black man growing up in post-Second World War Britain, he had an increading opportunity to seek out new sounds, but travelling back to Jamaica as a young teenager exposed him to an even greater variety of music. "Jamaicans like cheesy British and American pop more than they like dancehall. I mean, often in a party you can hear something like Michael Bolton alongside the most crazy ragga tunes. That was when I was about twelve. It just blew my mind and freed up my mind to think, hey, I can be into anything!"

Smith says he still has the desire to perform and record music, and continue pushing boundaries while doing so. When asked if his approach to making music has changed since he first began, his answer is typically disarmingly honest - and tongue-in-cheek: "Oh yeah, I think it's just growing up as a professional, tax-paying musician, I kind of learned how to condense and compartmentalise the kind of emotional tantrums into the context of song."

Growing older has become something of a recurring theme in our conversation, with the allied feelings of having an obligation to pass on to the young what has been learned from many years in the business ("A lot of the young kids just think of the pizzazz straight away!") to planning a career beyond being Roots Manuva. "It was always my thing to develop a label and have artists coming through, and the Roots Manuva thing was never supposed to be beyond a couple of records. I just wanted that to be where I just expressed myself. The thing that paid the bills was I wanted to be a jobbing studio owner, or a jobbing beatmaker," he chuckles once more, "It's not really worked out like that at all!"

But it has worked out. Despite an approach Smith himself describes as "A bit more organic, a bit more like if the vibe and the feeling is right", the man has carved himself a place in the hip hop history books, and remains as relevant and vital to music - let alone hip hop - as ever.

Interview originally appeared in Volume magazine

Roots Manuva - Volume's Video Picks
Watch a Roots Manuva video and you're not going to see shimmering silver jumpsuits or giant wind tunnels, yet many are among the more entertaining hip hop videos around. Here are five of our favourites:

* Witness (1 Hope) from Run Come Save Me (2001)
Smith visit his former primary school and competes in the egg and spoon, three-legged and obstacle races, before being chased from the field by an angry mob of kids.
Watch for - 2.59 - when the headmistress, realising he's there to compete rather than host, says "This puts us in a very difficult situation really..." while Smith continues peeling off his tracksuit.

* Again and Again from Slime and Reason (2008)
Continuing the sporting theme, Smith is last man standing for his cricket team who need two runs to win with two balls remaining in the match. The first knocks Smith out briefly, but our hero recovers and smashes the second to the fence, winning the game at the death.
Watch for - 3.30 - the victory dance.

* Buff Nuff from Slime and Reason (2008)
So wrong it's right. Smith as "Bad Ice Cream Man" dispensing his dripping wares to a group of overly enthusiastic, lycra-clad women.
Watch for - 1.40 - oral sex simulation taken to the next level. (NSFW!)

* It's On from Ninja Tune XX (2011)
One of the bigger budget videos from Smith sees him dressed in a sharp suit and backed by a trio of black and white-clad, doll-face painted Japanese dancers. Also one of the few videos in which he looks genuinely cool.
Watch for - 1.56 - when the old man on the beach waves to Smith, beckoning him to play chess.

* Get The Get from 4everevolution (2011)
Fashion tips from the Pim Pimpernel, as Smith goes bag shopping with guest vocalist Rokhsan - while wearing a cravat, yellow-striped trousers and carrying a golf club.
Watch for - 2.06 - where Smith and Rokhsan almost forget the words...

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