Originally published in
Blues & Soul
January 2005
Hair of the dog with the Banana Klan king
It’s lunchtime and Rodney Smith is enjoying a well-deserved glass of red wine. He’s just finished a photo shoot and, surrounded by stylists, photographers and assistants, the strain is beginning to show. “I’ve done so much promotion in the last few weeks, I don’t know what’s going on,” he gasps between gulps of ruby. “I thought we was doing this interview for Q.” Clearly Rodders is a little rusty since he last rode the media bandwagon: it has, after all, been more than three years since second LP ‘Run Come Save Me’ was released. “It’s Hell, man. If you know anything about promoting a record in these times, then you wouldn’t ask me why it took me so long. Record companies stress about things they wouldn’t have worried about before. Even though I’ve always been with an independent company, they ain’t acting so independent any more. It’s much more calculating. I don’t know what they’re on about half the time.”
It’s wonky, it’s psychedelic, but it’s not like I want to start dressing up in sequin jumpsuits

Roots Manuva likes to play the cantankerous old so-and-so. If a recent feature in The Big Issue is to be believed, he’s at the least highly idiosyncratic and, at worst, a nutter. “That’s what you get for doing an interview with a bad hangover,” he sighs resting his head in his large hands. `’They always make me out to be some awkward weirdo but I don’t pay it too much mind. There is a part of me which is pretty out-there but I’m quite an ordinary person really.”

Blues & Soul aren’t so easily fooled. Even though the lyrics to his two most recent tracks are far from standard – last summer’s ‘Check It’ (sperm, lager louts, ice cream, Jack Straw) and recent download-only cut ‘Double Drat’ (Dick Dastardly, astronomy, curry, cricket) – they’re also clearly the workings of an able and quick wit. New album ‘Awfully Deep’ reels yarn after yarn, each one abstract and rambling, yet together they paint a picture of a thwarted, yet curiously hopeful orator. “That’s my unorthodox reverence, the character I like to play. It’s all audio theatre to me. Even though I suppose parts of my life are in there, it’s not meant to be that real. It’s my most cinematic album. There’s a little film in every track.”

The title of the LP also hints at an introspective nature that likes to push both personal and musical boundaries. “All I was trying to say on the first two records was that we don’t need to ape the American blueprint so much. I wanted to embrace our whole sonic heritage, put all the elements, cheesy and indifferent, good and bad, into the parameters of what’s so called hip hop. Now the British musical landscape has changed, it’s taken the gauntlet of being unashamedly British.” It was Roots Manuva who helped lay down this gauntlet and with his current single ‘Colossal Insight’ he’s back on the lap once again and running with it into acoustic territories that pass by dub, roots reggae, electro, grime and R&B, but don’t stop for tea. “It’s supposed to be my merging of P-funk and folk and glam hop. Glam folk-hop,” he chuckles before draining his glass. “But they’re all just tonations of resonance. It’s wonky, it’s psychedelic, but it’s not like I want to start dressing up in sequin jump suits.”

Someone should have told that to the video director. At first we see him flipping chicken at a fast food dive before he takes to the stage at a workingman’s club with a ventriloquist’s dummy in a seriously sparkly suit. If all goes according to plan, Rodney could make a mint selling the small effigy on Ebay. “I got to keep it but my son’s wrecked it. He’s pulled all the sequins off.”

Other album tracks such as gothic sermon ‘Too Cold’, the stream of subconscious ‘Thinking’ and bible-bashing ‘Rebel Heart’ cover the familiar Smith territories of religion, retribution and renewal but they hit home even harder now that the MC has become a father. “It’s crazy, I got to stop wearing trainers and anoraks and start looking like a dad – the flat cap, the slow walk, smoke a pipe. I definitely don’t feel like a dad but it’s good because now I can relate more to my parents. I’m slowly but surely beginning to understand.”

Roots Manuva’s music is very much a product of his upbringing. His parents moved to Stockwell, South London from a small village in Jamaica and his father, a lay preacher, raised him as a God-fearing boy. He completed a BTEC in Leisure Studies (“People laugh but I’ve got a certificate in a folder somewhere,” he smiles) yet it was the lure of the local sound systems and selectors such as Eek-A-Mouse and Asher Senator that took him on the more dubious road to hip hop. He started helping out a local community studio as a teen and had early releases on the Suburban Base subsidiary Bluntly Speaking and Sound Of Money. He went on to collaborate with other UK rap luminaries such as Blak Twang and Skitz before releasing his Big Dada debut album ‘Brand New Second Hand’ in 1998, which scooped him a MOBO for Best Hip Hop Act. ‘Run Come Save Me’ went gold and also earned him several award nods. It’s a case of good but no cigar as far as he’s concerned though. “It’s weird getting Mercury and Brit nominations,” he moans as his PR person refills his glass. “If you’re going to call me up and invite me along, make sure I bloody win, yer bastards! That was my best suit!”

This man loves complaining, however half-heartedly. The more crowns he’s given to wear by the press, the more uncomfortably they sit on his 32-year-old head. “I should be more grateful of the hype, it helps to keep people interested, but I can’t take all that responsibility. I moan about it because the Roots Manuva thing was only ever meant to be a small independent venture but it’s a whole different ballgame trying to sell tens of thousands to trying to sell a million. That’s not where I saw it going. After doing ‘Dub Come Save Me’, I was like, what do I do now? But this album has brought out the hunger to do another one.”

He’s got a national tour lined up for March and then big t’ings are afoot - an album of live versions, more DJing (“I don’t mix, fuck that, I want to know what tunes start where,” he mutters), executive producing Ricky Rankin, the first act on his own label Banana Klan, and then long player number four. “I’ve got to get another Roots Manuva album pretty quick. It’s not going to be another three years, that’s for sure.” See, that glass isn’t half empty after all. Pass the vino.