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Roots Manuva, the undisputed king of UK rap, talks music, car accidents and his new album during our exclusive photo-shoot
Roots Manuva exploded onto the UK scene in the late 1990′s and has yet to show any signs of bowing out. Beatnik’s Rob Boffard spoke with a legend you might know for his signature flow, charismatic presence, or maverick driving.Roots Manuva: Movements
“I hit a cyclist with a car once.”
As conversational openers go, Roots Manuva’s is a doozy.
We’ve been talking about his Classic Car Club membership, and suddenly we’re on an entertainingly brutal tangent. The rapper was heading to an ITV filming when his car became tangled with the rider.
“I was rushing about trying to avoid paying for parking, and I hit her,” he says. “I couldn’t interrupt the filming, so I had to take this wounded person—and her bike–back to the filming location, film for ITV while the tour manager looked after her, then take her bike to the bike shop to get it fixed. Bit of a nightmare. But I was on the TV going “Hey! Yeah!”, while thinking, shit, I could have just killed that girl.
“But as it happens, she was a big Roots Manuva fan in her younger years—before I got commercial, she said!”
He’s telling this story between delicate sips of a Mochachino, sitting in a Shoreditch café on a sunny Thursday afternoon. The drink looks too small in his massive hands, his angular frame too big for the table. He’s just come from a photoshoot across the street, where he modelled some elegant suits while seated amongst vintage gramophones and furniture. Most people would change into something more casual after a shoot. Not Roots. The man born Rodney Smith is dressed like an English dandy, with a yellow V-neck jumper, a striped purple shirt and bow-tie paired with track pants, and a Panama hat.
Perhaps the photographer should have stuck around. After all, it’s not often you get to catch the man with alter egos like Lord Gosh, Brigadier Smythe and Cecil P.Y.L.M Pim Pimpernel in his natural setting. The Car Club membership comes up again. Lord Gosh has got a bit of a Mercedes fetish at the moment, apparently.
And have their been any more vehicular incidents we should be aware of? “We drove a 1962 MG all the way from London to Manchester. On the way home, the key melted in the ignition. We had to pull over, get out, stuck there for two hours. Nightmare. That’s the one drawback about the Club. If you’ve got a show to get to, you could miss the show. But it’s great to drive to a festival in an old car.” Of course it is, Roots.
He’s got a right to act how he likes—he’s certainly earned it. Roots Manuva is the closest thing UK hip-hop has to a superstar, an instantly recognisable musician who didn’t so much carve out his niche as dynamite an entire quarry to make it fit. His strange, bass-heavy, dubbed-out hip-hop is among the most distinctive music ever released in the UK, and his albums—from the rumbling Run Come Save Me to the bouncy Slime And Reason—are landmarks.
The song Witness (1 Hope) was voted the best UK rap single of all time by Hip-Hop Connection Magazine. This is a man who is to British hip-hop what John Bonham was to rock and roll. It would probably exist if he’d never been born, but it would look very different indeed.Roots Manuva: Witness (1 Hope)
He’s done this through his absolute, fanatical dedication to rap music. “I was the only guy who wanted to learn how to use the S900 sampler [growing up], he says. His early days were spent locked in studios, learning how to put together every aspect of hip-hop production himself. This, he says, was the foundation for his numerous alter egos—although frankly, were not sure whether he’s being serious or just taking the piss. It’s a little hard to tell, with that hat on.
Like his clothing choices and his on-record personalities, his conversation is impossible to pin down. His awfully deep voice bounces around from cycle accidents to the soundsystem setup he bought last year (“My girlfriend cried for two nights when it was in the front room. She couldn’t get to the TV.”) to the new album that he’s been working on (It’s called 4Everevolution—yes, we double-checked the spelling, and no, not even Roots pronounced it right first time).
Selections from the new album have surfaced online already: ‘Watch Me Dance’ is a festival-ready piece of thumping electronica, more dance-friendly than previous Roots tunes, but rocking nonetheless. What’s interesting, however, is how he made the album, making a deliberate attempt to return to the recording circumstances of his first songs. He might have finished up the music at big, professional studios, but it was made somewhere a little closer to home.
“I rented a house and fitted it out with a studio,” he says. “The house was dedicated to making music. I could set up drums in the kitchen, microphones in the toilet. I rented the house for about four and a half years [before using it] but that gave me the right outlines for the record. I’d take the stuff I did there to other studios across London [to finish it up].”
He’s on a roll now. “It let me have freedom! I kind of returned to that child-like state. It let me focus on making pure music, getting good vibes.” There’s a sense that this album, despite the focussed circumstances of its recording, was very much a team effort. There’s his Banana Klan collective, which is his opportunity to create something bigger than himself: a launching pad that others can use when he’s gone.
He says his proudest moment in his time at Big Dada—the legendary label he’s come to define over the course of his career—wasn’t even his own. “When Speech Debelle won the Mercury Prize—that was the best moment,” he says, name-checking the young MC who took home the prize with her Speech Therapy record. “They didn’t invite me to the show, though!” he rumbles, sounding awfully put-out.
2011 has seen Roots doing his usual round of festival performances—including what was by all accounts and outstanding set at Croatia’s Soundwave festival. “Sun! Sand! Sea! Sex!” he bellows, causing a nearby table to look up in alarm.
“Different festivals have their own ecosystem. There are people who seem to have pledged their allegiance to certain festivals—Big Chill fans who would never be seen dead at Glastonbury. It’s intriguing…That brings out a whole intergalactic nuance to the performance. There are some bands who will just go there and do the album, but there are some bands do go out and do a different set for each event, like we do. The Soundwave set which I’m doing will be nothing like the Jamie Oliver Feastival we’re doing…but festivals are the best job in the world.”
We’re not entirely sure, by the way, what the Roots Manuva summer collection looks like, or what he feels is appropriate for wearing in thirty-degree-plus beach weather. Plus fours and spats, probably. Still, his new album—however awkwardly named—is unlikely to be a poor showing. Just sayin’.Cinematic Orchestra feat. Roots Manuva: All Things To Men