August 29, 2008

Roots of Hip-Hop

By Andy Gill

The former Rodney Smith is the doyen of British rap. Andy Gill gets to grips with Roots Manuva

"Nobody heard of me," claims Roots Manuva on his splendid new album Slime & Reason, "I'm a new man, a brand new man."

He's taking poetic licence, of course, as might any self- respecting lyricist worth their trochee: with UK album sales averaging around 80,000 copies, peaking at more than 100,000 for Run Come Save Me, he's far from unknown. Indeed, Roots is probably the best-known British rapper other than chart-toppers like Dizzee Rascal and The Streets; and his stature is all the more impressive for having been sustained since well before they began releasing records when, effectively, he embodied British hip-hop all by himself.

But as "I'm a New Man" suggests, one's position and personality are always in a state of flux in relation to the changing world, always having to slow down or speed up to stay in step with circumstances. Hence Roots Manuva's vacillating stature among the hip-hop cognoscenti, something that surprised him as he toured his last project, Awfully Deep.

"It's a weird thing," he muses. "I always thought I was down with the movement, but I've been travelling around and hooking up with some of the younger guys, and they see me as a crossover. I say, 'I ain't crossed over yet, what do you mean?'

For young, hardcore, rap fans, Roots is just too popular, his street cred tarnished by his ability to sell hip-hop to white indie kids and fifty-something dads alike - despite the obvious sophistication and lyrical imagination of his records, which are fully the equal of any equivalent American "conscious" rapper, with the added bonus of the kind of sly humour that rarely features in hip-hop. It has to be frustrating for someone who clearly works hard to refine his toasts to find himself dismissed for exactly that refinement.

"Yeah, I think there is a British hip-hop scene that is just, like, 2,000 12-inchers sold to 2,000 hardcore fans across the nation," he says.

"They have their hip-hop nights, attended by 500 kids who nod their heads away to a pretty streamlined hip-hop sound, which needs to be done on a certain kind of drum machine, and uses a certain kind of sample that comes from a certain age."

It's a depressing reflection on the course of rap music which, in the hands of producers such as Rick Rubin, El-P and The Bomb Squad, was once the most interesting of all pop musics, their audio montages operating at the cutting-edge of sonic invention. Since then it's been rigorously P Diddy'd and Kanye'd into conformity, with tracks piggy-backing on the most obvious of samples.

"Yes, it's been pretty much dumbed-down," Roots agrees. "I still find some of the so-called not-so-intelligent stuff entertaining, though. There's only so much chin-strokey stuff you can take at a time."

Roots Manuva's career sounds like a desperate ongoing struggle to evade membership of any and every club. Not the least of his lyrical idiosyncrasies is that, in a genre whose adherents seem singularly concerned about appearing hard and callous, he's never been afraid of revealing his weaknesses, giving voice to usually guarded emotions, and even suggesting, on Awfully Deep, that his drinking was leading to mental instability - Roots pleading with his management not to send him to "the farm called funny". That particular gambit, he admits, was a put-on.

"Everyone tries to find themselves some kind of motif," he says. "I've tended to go for a sort of slow-release shock-value. I like to have that rewind impact - 'did he really say that?' I love to do that. There's been a massive bunch of stuff lately about therapy - Amy Winehouse with 'Rehab', and Charlotte Church saying she needs 'professional help' - everyone's talking about it. It's such a self- absorbed scene, with musicians and artists going away for a few weeks to get pampered with a bit of therapy - 'ooh, mummy threw my dummy on the floor when I was two.' With me, the melancholy aspect of my lyrics is really a learnt attribute, it's done for effect, mostly."

When he started out, Roots described his style on his 1999 debut Brand New Second Hand as "wonky beats, midtempos, bleeps and blurps, crazy, zany phraseologies and intergalactic organics", a definition that still holds true despite there now being, he claims, a whole new hip-hop sub-genre called "wonky", which is weird enough to twist even his well-travelled brain into knots.

This time, Roots aimed at a sound-mood equivalent to the Channel One and Studio One rock-steady and reggae records he used to love when he was growing up.

The Caribbean element is the not-so-secret ingredient that differentiates UK hip-hop from its American equivalent. Often (rightly) derided for its pale imitation of American mores, British rap comes into its own mostly when that island puts its own skew on the beat and the worldview, from dancehall right through to grime.

"Yeah, definitely," he agrees. "A lot of the time it's pretty hybrid. I listen to something like Wiley's album, and I think, 'bloody hell, that sounds like soca, or something.' This is quite a small island, and we mix and match influences from all over."

Another influence that's becoming more noticeable in Roots's lyrics is his Christian upbringing, which has left its imprint in tracks such as "It's Me Oh Lord" and "Well Alright". During his teens, his parents were not keen on his attending a community recording studio to pursue his musical dreams.

"I remember being quite stubborn about it, almost locked them out of that part of my life," he recalls. "But now I'm older - my dad came to see me at Brixton Academy, and he came over to my flat and saw the awards, and he said: 'Oh, this is very good, why didn't you tell me about this?' A few years ago, he actually introduced me to someone as Roots Manuva! So I think he's quite proud of me.

"Within music, I've always had that lyrical undertone, of a kind of lost priest - that character of the priest who's still preaching, but preaching with two cans of Tennent's in his hands! The drunks and bums of the world have some of the most poignant tales and stories and wisdoms."

For now, though, the former Rodney Smith is still grappling with the contradictions and difficulties of trying to maintain his individuality in an industry essentially built on being part of a crowd; balancing creativity and popularity in a satisfying way.

"I'm trying to gauge a path through the whole malarkey of it," he explains. "Just concentrating on what's important to oneself is pretty hard. There's a constant progressive need to develop things further. When I started out, I'd be playing small clubs, then my management said: 'We want to take you out of that club thing and put you into arenas with 1,500 people: we need to educate the crowds, so that you can be seen in these bigger places.'

"I was getting lost in all that, and losing connection with the old club scene of just jumping on the mic - my agent's trying to book me into Shepherds Bush Empire or Brixton Academy or wherever, trying to get me to the next level, and I'm out there playing at a jazz jam in some little pub in Hoxton.

"That's the big fight, 'cos there is more to the movement of music than just being in bigger arenas or getting more sales. That to me is my biggest test. When I'm around younger MCs or producers, they scoff at me, like, 'look at you now, look at that chain, look at those glasses, look at you!' I think, am I getting sucked up by all this? I thought I was one of the grimey boys!"

Grimey boy or not, there's no doubting the huge contribution Roots Manuva has made to British rap, and music in general - enough to get him acclaimed in some circles as the saviour of UK hip-hop, an accolade he modestly denies.

"No one thing, or one person, can be the saviour of such a wide cultural movement," he believes, searching for an example to show how deeply hip-hop has already seeped into the nation's cultural life.

"I remember when we were doing the 'Witness' video, we went to a primary school, and the school song was a rap song! The kids would rap the school song - to me, that's UK hip-hop: people say it doesn't really have an impact in the charts, but the kids are still rapping."

'Slime & Reason' is out on 1 September on Big Dada; the Andy Gill review is on page 19

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