Rodney Smith aka Roots Manuva is known for eccentricities in dress, but even by his standards he’s looking odd in a bowler hat, a kind of billowy academic gown, chinos and a bow tie. But perhaps this is no less weird than the pink jumpsuit he was wearing last time this reviewer saw him perform.
Smith is touring his new album, 4everevolution, and in keeping with the album’s cheerful, almost poppy style, the show is a lively affair, especially because Smith is joined by several members of the Banana Klan, a slightly oddball musical association he helped form in 2001.
These include three vocalists, a drummer, a keyboardist and a white-dreadlocked guitarist who looks like he’s on loan from a nu-metal band next door (the Banana Klan website reveals his name to be Hash Basey). There is also Smith’s established turntable man DJ MK.
It’s a good concoction and the easy interplay between the players reveals their long involvement with the project. Roots Manuva’s style has always been to mix UK hip hop with dub, reggae and dancehall in an exuberant blend. Tonight it gets the full band treatment, and it’s a lot of fun.
At times, all the artists are jumping up and down to favourites such as Witness (1 Hope) and it feels like you could be at a rock gig. Again & Again gets a big reaction as does the more thoughtful Dreamy Days, a kind of love song in some respects.
In fact, nearly all the songs tonight are played with an energy and positivity that belies the serious content in several of them. Smith has written about mental health problems and psychotic episodes, exploring areas most MCs won’t touch, notably on the album Awfully Deep. But tonight the emphasis is purely on the bounce, the wiggle, the fun-loving dancehall element. This, in fact, is the style of the new album, which is a pleasing frolic through various forms of bass music – there are even tracks that lean towards disco.
So lively are the artists on stage, you’d hardly know that Smith was the frontman. He doesn’t hog the limelight but wanders from side to side, a mere player among many, allowing the other vocalists to spit rhymes for him. It’s been noticed by others that, unusually for rappers, he rarely resorts to superlatives in his lyrics, never claims to be the best or the greatest. At one moment you have the notion that he is a circus ringmaster, quietly in control despite showing off few fireworks.
But you can’t miss his distinctive, warm delivery. And it’s pleasing that he sounds coherent and fresh, as on his albums, whereas at some shows he has been known to sound muffled or slurred.
Smith’s upbringing often features in his music – on the Slime and Reason album he describes himself as “a Pentecostal son, coming from the hard left”. Tonight he looks like a kind of itinerant preacher, a tramp-cum-sage. There has always been a political edge to his lyrics and this is deployed in the new album, for instance when he describes Britain as “the birthplace of the gentlemen that ain’t gentle when they wish to gentrify”.
The same track, Skid Valley, goes on to criticise attitudes to food, mentioning gastric bands on the NHS, poor quality fare dished out by chicken shops, and linking the “poison on the streets” to the food we eat. Amid the humour and the skanking rhythms, there are layers of wisdom in Smith’s songs.