Taking in elements of ragga, dancehall, and trip hop, his albums became required listening, and his third offering, Run Come Save Me, was garnered with a Mercury Music Prize nomination. Then, like many Mercury nominees, it all went very quiet…
Three years after the release of Run Come Save Me, Rodney is back with a brand new single and album. musicOMH caught up with him on the eve of the release of what is sure to be one of the more eagerly awaited albums of the New Year.
For someone who takes great delight in rapping about English subjects, it’s entirely appropriate that our interview finds Roots Manuva, aka Rodney Smith, tucking into an enormous plate of fish and chips, with a cup of tea on the side. It allows him a pause for breath from a hectic promotional single that’s seen him visit Cologne, Frankfurt and various other European airports, plugging the forthcoming single Colossal Insight and its parent, the Awfully Deep album.
So did the Europeans ‘get’ the style he offers? “Yeah, they do pretty much, although sometimes there’s confusion and they say, “you are like…something to do with trip hop. How much are you into Tricky?!”
Regarding more general reaction to his music, Rodney is puzzled: “My music is about merging the most unlikely bedfellows, but no-one seems to hear it. I tried to eliminate the more raga influences but people still ask me about them. I’m like, ‘don’t you hear the ’80s synth pop inflections?'”
“My music is about merging the most unlikely bedfellows”
– Rodney Smith, AKA Roots Manuva, on how he’s difficult to pigeonhole.
On the styles he incorporates into the finished article, he admits to “this strange fixation, which could be described as a behavioural disorder, about putting my stamp on British funk. Music has an accent, it’s easy sonically to personify a parody, like ‘right, we’re gonna do a funk track’, but I try and blend loads of different influences towards something that’s the cultural heritage of the UK. The Specials gave it a British sound, Terry Hall didn’t start to sound like Bob Marley!”
A lot was made of the three-year gap between the Manuva second and third albums, but Rodney says about the new record: “I tried just to be lyrically cloaked and cryptic rather than giving a plain open thesis. I tried to write more with connotation and subliminal messages. In a strange way, The Haunting (a new album track) talks about the whole spirit world, the afterlife, what my son is here for.”
For Rodney has a son, whose birth and development has had a profound effect on his life. “It’s the thing where you say ‘can I be a man for my family?’ It’s a massive pressure!” Roots lives in Kennington now, just down the road from his South London roots of Stockwell, whilst “the mother of my child”, as he references, lives in Surrey. A vivid contrast of abodes? “Odd. It was too weird living outside London to start with, better for a spiritual peace rather than inducing a heart attack. There’s so much traffic in London these days, and everyone’s aggressive, whether they’re driving or walking.” Having said that, Rodney notes “people in the inner city seem to have more time for you than people in the suburbs, who communicate by cleaning their cars on a Sunday.”
“It was one of the most professionally and creatively satisfying episodes of my career”
– Mr Manuva on his collaboration with Leftfield.
Talking specifically about Stockwell, he notes the “amount of thirty-somethings who don’t have kids but still wear trainers.” As I cast an eye towards my own footwear, he adds, “the landscape of the place has changed, but it’s still pretty vibrant.” Roots himself is a thirty something by nigh on two years, and seems chastened by the event and his recent fatherhood. “I’m having problems. I should get on with growing my beard really! It’s given me a massive learning experience. To be beside someone for nine months and then go through labour was amazing. I’m in a constant wonderment about how much we don’t celebrate!”
A key development point for Roots Manuva was working with Leftfield on their Dusted track. “It was one of the most professionally and creatively satisfying episodes of my career, just being left with a band to go on a sonic journey. We hired a studio and turned it into their front room. It wasn’t hectic, we stopped for lunch and dinner and stuff, there were no crappy headphones..it was the nicest studio experience.” Stylistically the period was massive for Rodney, too, as he says it “massively affected the way my records have sounded, and taught me how to use distortion.”
So does he take pride in helping to re-open the door for British hip hop? One again his answer is typically modest. “It’s been more of a general sonic pride in what we do naturally, and what comes to our creative selves, rather than do something that sounds naturally American.”
For Christmas the plan is to go to the West Indies, although “I’ll probably be ill when I get back, getting used to the British cold again!” His family are baffled by his current status. “They used to be like, ‘there’s Rodney the maverick!’ and at times if I’ve helped them out at all they say ‘where did you get that money, you’re never on Top of the Pops!'” That day may not be too far off though, for when he responds to a question about his success so far, he says, “I haven’t even started yet!”