About Roots Manuva
Rodney Smith aka Roots Manuva was born and grew up in Stockwell, South London. His grandfather had come over from Jamaica in the fifties. As he puts it, his family "was here to make it big time." They worked hard, went to church, tried to live life the right way. His father was a lay preacher and tailor, a combination which goes some way to explaining the son's preoccupation with the soul and the suit. As Rodney sees it now, "my family are such good, decent people. I'm the runt of pack." The runt found music.
An avid but secret collector of the soundsystem tapes which were easy to find in Brixton at the time, Smith studied deejays like Eek-A-Mouse and Asher Senator, nodding to the rhythms, stretching his mouth around their words. But it was perhaps only when he heard hip hop and, in particular, the incomparable Rakim, that he realised that his voice could be used for more than toasting, that it was an expressive tool limited only by his imagination. But opportunities for Black British musicians in the nineties were few and far between. Hard work - his own kind of hard work - was the only way forward.
Smith made his recorded debut in 1994 as part of IQ Procedure through Suburban Base's short-lived hip hop imprint Bluntly Speaking Vinyl. He debuted as Roots Manuva the same year on Blak Twang's "Queen's Head" single, before releasing his own single, "Next Type of Motion" the following year through the same label, the hugely influential Sound of Money. 1996 saw the release of his collaborations with Skitz ("Where My Mind Is At"/"Blessed Be the Manner") on 23 Skidoo's Ronin label. The release of "Feva" on Tony Vegas's Wayward imprint followed in 1997. This was also the year that saw the first releases from Big Dada, a collaboration between Coldcut's Ninja Tune label and hip hop journalist Will Ashon. Ashon had tipped Smith as the "Most Likely To..." back in '95 and soon came knocking asking for a single. Roots replied that he was tired of making one-off singles and would only sign to do an album.
In 1998 he joined the label and the following year released his debut, "Brand New Second Hand". At the time, Rodney couldn't see what he was doing. "It's only now I'm listening to Brand New Second Hand and thinking, "Wow, that's a really beautiful record." It's only now! I wish I coulda understood it at the time! I just thought "I can do what I want. Only 1500 British hip hop fans are gonna hear it anyway." That's the basic sentiment I've tried to tap into with all my records."
From an initial 3000 records put into the shops "BNSH" has now sold over 60,000 copies in the UK. It also made the first dents in the wall of complacency and indifference which has often greeted home-grown Black music in this country, with The Times declaring that "his is the voice of urban Britain, encompassing dub, ragga, funk and hip hop as it sweeps from crumbling street corners to ganja-filled dancehalls, setting gritty narratives against all manner of warped beats." Manuva was rewarded for his breakthrough with a MOBO as Best Hip Hop Act that year.
Big things were now expected of Smith and he delivered with 2001's "Run Come Save Me," the record which gained him a nomination for the Mercury Music Prize and which has sold well over 100,000 copies in the UK (certified gold). More importantly, it spawned the all-time classic "Witness" (voted the greatest UK hip hop tune of all time by the readers of Hip Hop Connection) on an album that ran from the broad, swaggering pop of "Dreamy Days" to the dark, odd meditation of "Evil Rabbit." It is also the record which led the Guardian newspaper, in October 2003, to proclaim Manuva fifth in their "40 Best Bands In Britain" feature, proclaiming that "his influence is incalculable and he opened the doors for the Streets, Dizzee Rascal et al." That influence also stretches to the Arctic Monkeys, who are on record as saying that "Run Come Save Me" was almost all they listened to whilst recording their debut album.
"Awfully Deep" followed four years later, a more focussed, more ornate and fully-produced piece of work, and once again hugely acclaimed on its release. The album entered the national charts at 21 and, in "Colossal Insight" and "Too Cold," was bookended by two Top Forty singles. Smith remains bemused by its reception, though, and in particular people's tendency to take his lyrics a little too seriously. "A lot of the jokes and humour of "Awfully Deep" went over people's heads," he explains. "I was pretty disturbed by the misinterpretation of that record!"
Nevertheless the record, the sell out shows at Brixton Academy, his contribution to the Gorillaz album and tours that came soon after, all established Roots Manuva as a major player in UK music, and one with almost unique longevity in a genre in which people usually produce one or two great albums and then vanish.
Manuva's fourth studio album, "Slime & Reason" was released in 2008. Although much of the production still came from Smith's own hand, he also took to the opportunity to work with up-and-coming young producers like Toddla T ("Buff Nuff" and "Do Na Bodda Me") and Metronomy ("Let the Spirit"), both of whom are only now starting to make real in-roads on the public consciousness three years later. The album was hailed as "a work of genius" (Observer Music Monthly).
Since then, Rodney has been keeping busy. He has toured festivals the world over (on one memorable night being joined onstage by Usain Bolt). He has developed a sideline as a "DJ/selecta." He has become increasingly obsessed and fascinated by the possibilities of the internet, including broadcasting regularly on Ustream. There has been the first part of what may become a regualr comic book. He has begun composing an opera about the end of the world. "And I've been trying to do the right thing, trying to be a daddy." In addition, Banana Klan and its artists have taken up an increasing amount of Smith's time. He has been producing for the forthcoming Ricky Ranking album, plus curating and promoting a series of "Dub College" events that have featured everyone from Micachu, The Bug and Dawn Penn. As long as it pushes what Smith describes as "bass culture" in new and interesting directions Mr Manuva is there.
And the records have continued to come. 2010 saw the download-only release of "Snakebite" (complete with an excellent video, shot on the same Kent beaches as the album cover to ‘Run Come Save Me'), new remixes and collaborations for Ninja Tune's twentieth anniversary "XX" compilation and the release of "Duppy Writer," a reggae reinterpretation of his back catalogue by Wrong Tom featuring the brand new blazer "Jah Warriors".
Rodney Smith's motivation is the same as it's ever been. "You wouldn't have reggae if you didn't have these people from the Caribbean trying to reinterpret the soul and funk they heard on American radio. I'm trying to do that all over again. I'm trying to stretch the template." He sums up the approach which has led him to be considered one of the most exciting, honest, multi-faceted lyricists and musicians working in the UK today. "You got to sing like no one's listening." He pauses, searches for a way to expand on this, smiles as he thinks of one. "You gotta fart like there's no one there to smell it!"