Roots Manuva: Colossal insight

By David Carroll

Roots Manuva has a reputation as a sweet but somewhat grumpy interview subject. Yet when VOLUME spoke with him prior to his forthcoming 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, Roots Manuva aka Rodney Smith opened up about learning to embrace growing older.

'What moves me are beautiful songs on the piano on the guitar and really, really heavy music.' - Roots Manuva. Photo / Supplied
'What moves me are beautiful songs on the piano on the guitar and really, really heavy music.' - Roots Manuva. Photo / Supplied

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 more than 10 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 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 increasing 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 12. 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 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. "It's not really worked out like that at all!"

But it has worked out. Despite an approach Smith 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.

* Roots Manuva plays The Front Room in Wellington on Wednesday 29 February, The Powerstation in Auckland on Thursday 1 March and The Colombo in Christchurch on Friday 2 March.

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