Interview: Roots Manuva

Words: Jared Wilson
Photos: Kevin Lake
Monday 01 August 2005
reading time: min, words

As a warm-up to Glastonbury 2005, Rodney Smith brought his band to Nottingham and sold out the Rescue Rooms (with less than a week’s notice). We caught up with him for a natter…


Roots Manuva - aka Rodney Smith - is the highest profile artist in UK hip hop right now. Ever since he released the Mercury Music Prize nominated Run Come Save Me (and the standout single Witness The Fitness), he’s managed to appeal to traditional hip hoppers as well as mainstream audiences. That’s not to say he has become a ‘coffee table’ act. On his latest release Awfully Deep, there are conscious signs of him trying not to conform, as he continues to lead us down the entropic, yet enticing journeys that have characterised his career....

How has your day been today?
It's been murder. The trains were delayed and we started off an hour late. The ride was a bit bumpy. My son woke up at about 5.30. 

Where did Roots Manuva start out? When did little Rodney realise he wanted to be a rapper?
I started a rappin' and a chattin' when I was fifteen. I had a mate who was really into LL Cool J and I was really into Rakim. He wrote a rhyme and I thought to myself that if I wanted to rap then I had to sound like Rakim. It just started out from there really.

Everybody seems to ask you about UK hip hop in interviews and what you think to the scene etc. Are you sick of being asked by now?
I do get sick of being asked it, but I suppose that it is a good thing. It's good for copy and is something that can rumple me out of my laid back messin' and get the old sweats going and I'm left pounding the table.

What is UK hip hop? There are so many people across the country that are influenced by rap culture that don't call themselves UK hip hop. You might as well say drum and bass or grime or that slowbeat tempo. There are so many different schools of thought and, for me, what I'm concerned with more is the wider cultural context of post-second war generation Britain and the melting pot of this country today. And not just Britain, more than ever we have got people who speak more than two languages across Europe.

The whole concept of patriotism and the nation is changing. It's so much more than 'UK' hip hop. The phenomenon of hip hop itself is beyond just rapping and making beats you know. Things like graff and breakdancing still have as significant an impact on wider general society and life. Anyway, you got this out of me. I don't mind being asked about it all, all I'm trying to say is that a lot of the time UK hip hop surfaces in places that the media don't necessarily identify as hip hop. The moder perception of hip hop is warped by what MTV plays or whatever else is on the television. This is a sport that has existed before hip hop became TV friendly, and it will exist afterwards as well.

Who are your favorite all-time musical icons?
Someone like Ray Charles. It was the first time someone that came along and wanted to own their own masters. It was like the whole Master P and Jay-Z approach, he was doing it back years ago. People like KRS-One and Rakim, people like Jazzy B. There's so much to mention. Even people like The Streets and Tricky. I take inspiration from so many sources man!

On Awfully Deep you said “This could be my last LP”. Do you think of quitting the game often?
It's not about quitting out and out. It's more about the possibility of stepping down from the big chase of constantly trying to sell more and more. For every LP. It might be time for me to go more underground and keep more of the money. I'm in a position now where I could just manufacture 30,000 records and make myself more than any record company has ever paid me in my whole life. It's more about my effort to be a thorn in the side of the mechanics of the machine. Sometimes I think that I just want to annoy people a little bit more. That's what keeps me going...

What's your favorite of your own tunes?
There are so many for so many different reasons. It needs categories. My favorite three track that I've ever done was with Mr Scruff, a Jus Jus tune. As for my own tunes, there are too many.

So you can still listen to your own music then, you're not one of those artists that just hates listening to their records afterwards?
It's just now that I'm enjoying Brand New Second Hand. Time allows you to stand back from it and not listen so close and so deeply. I can sit back and relax to it and it takes different environments and scenarios. My son really likes Awfully Deep, so I'm forced to listen to it. He's only two years old and he sings certain songs. It's a total different listening experience when he's walking round mimicking “Mind your motion, swing your pants.”He sings that all the time and I don't even think he knows what motion means. Or to swing your pants?

Do you think being a father has changed your approach to music?
It made me more scared of losing my edge. It made me have a total panic attack in terms of becoming some kind of coffee table produce. It made me overreact and want to make my music even more difficult to listen to and try to be even more confusing. I'm not here to give people an easy time, I'm still trying to tap back into the spirit of being a fifteen-year-old, trying to sample all the time and, as nice as having your songs and radio and having hit records is, it ain’t about bowing down to the pressure of these people. It’s all about doing it because you can’t help doing it.

How would you describe your progression over the last three albums?
The first album was like making a record with a blindfold on because I didn’t really have a knowledge of the infrastructure that was out there. That was about the club and festival environment, so I suppose the other albums have got more of a confidence to them and more of a hindsight. Because of the success of the first on it has provided me with access to more facilities to embellish the whole thing. It’s given me a sonic flamboyance, I like producer like Quincy Jones and Dr Dre and listen to their stuff and think ‘if only I had access to their kind of facilities I’d do something as groundbreaking as that.' For the first album I was using a high 8 and a handheld. For the second I was using a 16mm and now I got just stumbled on 32mm. The next one will be super digital widescreen stereo with quadraphonic sound.

I heard that you tried to get Kate Bush in for some guest vocals on Awfully Deep
Yeah. We always try and get her, every album. I think she must be quite bemused when she gets my records through the post. Sinead O'Connor came to see me in Dublin the other week and so we might try and get her in on the next album.

Is there anyone else that you’d particularly like to work with?
A whole bunch of people. I’d like to do some more stuff with Royksopp. I wouldn’t mind getting the Aphex Twin to do something. The list is endless.

I read that you listen to a lot of Radiohead…
I listen almost exclusively to their Kid A album. I don’t know their other albums that well, I’ve got a copy of The Bends, but I just can’t get off listening to that one. I’ve listened to it for the last four years. It’s a record that I listen to and enjoy, but I don’t get it. Every time I hear it there’s something new that I discover that I didn’t notice that was there.

Did you ever think that Witness The Fitness would break as big as it did?
I didn’t have a clue. To me it’s a very annoying tune, a moronic boogie, but I think that it’s what the people have made it into that makes it special, not the technicalities of the harmonic and rhythmic structures that make it. The people have gravitated to it and it’s just one of those piss-up tunes. I think we got lucky with the video as well…

It is a brilliant video. Was it your idea?
It was my idea to film some sort of sports day. Without having the budget to make a super-glossy video and we ended up just using what was there to make what we could and that’s my albatross. I’ve never since been able to do a video that has impacted on people as much as that video.

Any views on Nottingham’s recent issues of gun violence?
It’s just the hype. Nottingham is known for the most guns per square mile or whatever, but that’s just the nature of news and it sells papers. There’s a whole bunch of amazing communal developments that are going on in this city, but the tabloids don’t want to print that. There’s probably a community spirit here that doesn’t exist in certain other regenerated areas in London and elsewhere.

Any favourite haunts around here?
My brother supported Nottingham Forest way back in the days of Viv Anderson and Trevor Francis. I’ve always grown up hearing about it and it’s been like a little mecca in my head. Especially with all the Robin Hood stuff, it's made it a good place. Also some of the music that has come out of here is of a high quality. People like Joe Buhdha and Tempa. It’s always had a quality to it. I’ve got Cappo’s Sapz The World and I like it. He beats the beat! He’s an amazing lyricist.

What does Roots Manuva mean?
It means movement of the root.

What do you think to Border Crossing’s track Searching for Mr Manuva?
It’s a cool boogie, but I wish they had sorted out their business and actually got me on the track. It’s not a finished story.

Are you going to do a sequel?
Well, if they get round to sorting out their business then that would be good. Maybe they should do that on my label…

How many times have you performed Join The Dots with Charly from J5?
Only twice, in front of about 5,000 people. And I fucked it up. It was at Reading and Leeds Festivals.

Have you ever been to Russia?
We were supposed to be going last week, but we had a little accident. One of the guys in the band had a little accident. We were supposed to go to Moscow. We’ve got to sort that out. For all the people in Moscow, the gig hasn’t been cancelled, it’s just been postponed.

What are your favourite films?
Do The Right Thing and Back To The Future 2.

What was the last book you read?
It was a Johnny Cash biography called The Man In Black.

You’re playing at Glastonbury. Do you think your set works better in a club or in a festival vibe?
Well, these days the music means there are different types of performances. We’ve got the soundsystem style, the old fashioned two turntables and me on the mic style, and then also the live band thing. It all depends. If we get all the set-up done right then the band can really tear arse into the tunes. It’s like a live remix. These gigs are harder because they’re more intimate. The more people there are the easier it gets. The hardest performance I ever had was in front of that class for the Witness video.

Anything else you want to say to our readers?
In the words of my good friends Oasis, don’t believe the truth. Seek your own realness. Don’t watch too much MTV. No disrespect to MTV, but it’s like you musn’t eat too much McDonalds. Not only because it’s not good for you because you must try and expand your mind. Read a book, eat at least one meal a month that you haven’t tried before. You know I never used to like couscous. Now I eat it all the time.

Roots Manuva website

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