AFTER TEN YEARS THE GODFATHER OF BRITISH URBAN MUSIC IS FINALLY COMING TO TERMS WITH HOW INFLUENTIAL HE HAS BECOME
Roots Manuva – aka 39-year-old, south Londoner Rodney Hylton Smith – has come a long way since the release of his debut album, ‘Brand New Second Hand’, at the tail end of the last century. From humble beginnings, his life journey has so far taken in the release of a series of highly heralded albums, several Brit Award nominations, a Mercury Prize nomination, high profile collaborations and a deep influence on UK urban music, which casts him as a highly respected figure for many currently emerging artists. It’s been a journey quite unlike any other, and one that is unlikely to come to a halt anytime soon.
Rodney has developed a habit of making genre-hopping albums that pull from a vast range of influences and merge into death-disco, raga, grime, hip-hop and reggae, yet he’s remained largely on the underside of the mainstream – a familiar name to many, but one who has been left enough room to be inventive and forward-thinking, and in the week of his fifth album, ‘4everevolution’, being released, he can be found in his North London studio, in and upbeat, talkative mood.
He begins by telling me how the creation of his latest record was not part of a pre-planned turnaround – it was a lot more organic than that.
“From start to finish I’ll say it was two and a half years,” says Rodney of ‘4everevolution’’s… erm… evolution. “I never sit down and keep going. I have intense periods of two weeks and then stop, stop for half a year and then keep going back to it and then there are other times where it is a six week or a two month run straight. I’ve never been disciplined enough to just hire a cottage and go there with a bit of equipment and record, then say that’s the album. I just don’t have that kind of focus.
“It’s good, but it’s not economically viable at all, I tell you. Making this record has really stretched me on loads of different levels – on personal levels, a financial level, a business level to artistic integrity level, every single level you can think of.”
With Roots Manuva there is an overall sense that the pressure to push things forward is not from an external source but instead one that flourishes from within. As Rodney puts it, “it’s a pleasure never a pressure.”
“But it’s an expensive pleasure to indulge in,” he nods, “to keep trying to further yourself and delve into a love of sonic exploration.”
Over the past twelve years, Roots Manuva has obviously established a loyal following who eagerly await what’s coming next, but it doesn’t silence the nagging voice in Rodney’s head; the one that asks ‘what are people going to make of this?’. He needs to think about his new fans too, because unlike other acts as established as he, Roots Manuva is constantly picking up admirers – the Godfather of UK hip-hop who inspired everyone from Dizzee Rascal to Dels and Toddla-T.
“The thing is, the audience grows,” he explains, “but I’ve not really been in touch with how the audience has been growing of late, because my kids have gotten older and they are into certain albums and certain songs that their friends are into. I wouldn’t say my kids’ friends are super fans, but they know of me. I’ve been to pick up my kids from school and from their friends’ house and have been referred to as Roots Manuva by a friend of one of my sons. That really knocks me for six – that’s too weird! I don’t really expect a five year old or a six or seven year old to have heard of me, but their parents listen to it and we live in the age of the internet where it is not necessarily someone who has bought your record that knows of you. It constantly shocks and startles me every day,” he says, wide-eyed, “the different amount of people that recognise me while I’m just going about my daily business. Even on the phone using the company Roots Manuva card and someone at the insurance company knows who Roots Manuva is, or went to a concert recently or happened to be in America while I played in some strange place in Cincinnati, it really is a revelation.”
These same people may not exclusively know Roots Manuva from his own pure work. Rodney is fond of collaboration; an artist that has worked with a vast array of musicians that stretch from the Black Twang to The Cinematic Orchestra and The Maccabees. His most high profile stint, however, can be found on The Gorillaz album ‘Demon Days’, specifically on the track ‘All Alone’.
“It really pushed things forward,” he says. “That was seven years ago and it was a real push out into the mainstream as such, and seeing how the mechanism works on that big multimillion pound level. I had just finished my own awfully deep tour, which I had been moaning about, and then I went out onto this massive, massive Gorillaz monster. In all, I only did ten dates on their own tour (five dates at the Manchester Apollo and five dates at the Harlem Apollo). I did one of those crazy sub dates that Damon Albarn does too, the African Express. I did one of those dates in Paris, which is another monster as well, because there are so many people, so many different artists that you know over the years and you want to talk to, but you can’t talk to them as you’re half in shock and half star struck and you have to behave yourself.
“I remember sharing a dressing room with Neneh Cherry and constantly wanting to sing one of her songs and you just have to restrain yourself as it’s really annoying. If people come up to me and starts whistling ‘Witness’, I would really get annoyed as I’ll rather they knew another tune, something less obvious, even though people are only ever going to know what they know. I can’t chastise someone for only knowing ‘Witness’, can I? It’s one of those weird things.”
It’s been more than 10 years since the emergence of that track, though, released on Rodney’s second album, the 2002 Mercury Prize nominated ‘Run Come Save Me’. It remains his most well known song, which must be annoying for any artist that has continued to create for a decade.
“For me, ‘Witness’ has always been the fluke. The tune I never heard at all. It wasn’t just me. The musicality – the words, the drumbeat, the bass-line – was all made by me, but the wider production of it was done by a team. Big Dada Records and my old management team who I am no longer with put a lot of effort into moulding what would become the Roots Manuva sound and it’s just one of those weird things that happened and that we can’t seem to top yet. It’s like England winning the world cup in 1966, that’s what has happened here. 2001 was a great year for British music and we can’t seem to achieve the same heights again.”
While some artists tend to view such crossover hits as a mainstream launch pad, Rodney outlines that there was already an underlying confidence beforehand, that things were progressively moving forwards. There was, back then, however, a particular pivotal point in his career.
“Before ‘Witness’ I was getting offers of work,” he says. “After the first album it led to working with lots of other scenes and genres. The thing that really opened the door, though, was working with Leftfield. That was probably the most significant element that influenced the way in which I approached making music. Sitting around the studio with those guys opened my mind as to how to abuse technology.”
As we sit in Rodney’s studio, he tells me about how his desire is to “just make good music”, citing himself as “a writer” who covers everything from “the mundane to the political astute to love and the respect and honour of your team”. With Britain being in a bit of a state, us being in Tottenham, the epicentre of this years London riots, and with many of ‘4everevolution’’s tracks having a political bent, we discuss politics, albeit briefly.
“At first [with the riots], I was a bit like, ‘this is just a load of bollocks! This is rubbish! This has been orchestrated by the powers that be for them to be able to change laws and create a state of emergency!’. Now I’m realising that it was a lot more serious than I thought. Walking around talking to people who really got affected by it, and seeing how much damage was truly done to small businesses (not really to big businesses) and how it is going to affect working people, it’s a real complicated issue and I’m a bit uncomfortable talking to you about it, as I’ve not quite worked out what’s gone on. I’m in this artistic bubble in this warehouse, living quite comfortably, working as a self employed creative person and I’m not really that in touch with what is really going on out in the street.”
Another notion that doesn’t quite penetrate the Roots Manuva bubble is the influence Rodney has had on acts that have followed.
“People have had to sit me down and really explain quite pedantically what was happening at the time of the very first Roots Manuva album and afterwards, step by step, as I would be an arsehole to try and claim all of that, but I have to respect the fact that I did play a part in it and I do have to somehow find it in myself to say, ‘Yes, I influenced that new bloke, whatever he’s called, and yes, that new girl quotes that rhyme.’ I have to start saying yes, yes. It’s not very respectful to be over polite, and to answer your question, yes, I did influence a whole wave of British music, both urban and indie related. I even remember that before the Arctic Monkeys blew up, even they came to see us play.”
Many of these artists that Roots Manuva has influenced, particularly that of an urban disposition, have gone on to have some level of success in the USA, but Rodney Hylton Smith isn’t of the perspective that UK based acts have now suddenly got breaking the States any easier.
“British urban music has always had a regard in America,” he says, “it’s just never managed to get the right funding over there. It just works on a corporate level, from a micro-corporate to a small person to the massive majors, it just works so differently – it’s a lot faster. In Britain we are just ho-hum – over there things work! You see someone give them the masters and they put it out. Things just angle and move forward so differently. You don’t take eighteen months to negotiate one point on a contract over there, it’s just move, move, move. You don’t sleep, you eat, drink and breathe it. The British way is a bit slow, a bit archaic, sitting around playing nicey nicey and being all civilised when we should be saying what the Americans say: ‘You’re breaking my balls man, we can’t have that!’. We need to start expressing ourselves with some of that direct language instead of playing around with long words.”
And for emerging artists who are currently hoping to make music a long-lasting career, Rodney’s advice is simple, if not what many musicians would like to hear. “I would just say avoid viewing music as something you can just depend on straight away. Avoid that. It’s an illusion. Today’s artists have to be open to having other careers as well, open to working ten or fifteen years for the gas board or for the council. It’s the total opposite of what happened to me. When I got offered a job from the council when I was nineteen, I didn’t take it, I was like, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to do music’. I would not advise that to anybody. Your music would be all the better for the fact that you have more of a rounded life experience than just being a musician and experiencing a musician’s life. As wonderful as it is, there is more to life than being a musician.”
By Nathan Westley
Originally published in issue 32 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. October 2011.