Rodney Hylton Smith nostalgic walking tour
When I arrive at Ninja Tune’s Kennington Lane headquarters to speak to Rodney Hylton Smith, it becomes clear, quickly, which of us is the most nervous about our interview. As I clutch my neatly folded list of questions, the elder statesman of British hip hop is getting stuck into his Greggs in a pretty big way, barely looking up through round, pitch-black sunglasses as I’m introduced. “What did you get?” I enquire, trying to break the ice as an avalanche of crumbs tumble. “Huh?” comes the mumbled response, Smith’s full mouth agape. “What did you get in Greggs?” “Bread puddin’!” is the terse reply when it eventually comes, as if to say, “What difference would it possibly make if it was a cream finger?”
He seems to be enjoying it, at least, and we settle into things swiftly, with Smith soon revealing himself to be a warm, beguiling soul; every bit as eccentric as the genre-defying work he makes as Roots Manuva. He is overwhelmingly confident; self-possession doesn’t come close to describing the performance I’m treated to as he jumps, both from topic to topic and literally, springing to his feet and bounding around the room whenever a subject proves sufficiently inspiring. Perpetually spiralling off on apparently unrelated tangents, it is pure theatre as he flicks between characters and accents; acting out both sides of conversations he’s had with scolding Jamaican aunts, a booming Pentecostal preacher father, and his own young sons.
But before we embark upon our trip to Stockwell, the South London neighbourhood where it all began, I’m keen to get a feel for what makes the 43-year-old veteran rapper tick. We discuss his latest offering, ‘Bleeds’, an album that takes its name from Smith having bled for his art. “I was put through the wringer doing it,” he says. “An album made by committee is just a nightmare. I would never do it again. Management, label, everyone said their piece. And every piece had to be put into this jigsaw.” He sighs heavily and counts the various interferences on his fingers. “The order of the tracks, the selection of the tracks, the number of the tracks, the title of the album. Everybody had a fucking input. Normally I just say, ‘There it is. Gimme my money.’ Not this time.”
It seems strange that creative licence would be an issue so deep into a career that’s garnered critical acclaim at every turn, but Smith explains that his options have become limited now he’s signed solely to Ninja Tune’s Big Dada imprint, handing the power to the label he’s called home since dropping his bedroom-produced debut ‘Brand New Second Hand’ in the spring of 1999. “It’s primarily because I’m not signed as Roots Manuva anymore. I’m signed as Rodney Smith. So it’s hook, line and sinker. I’ve got no way out from this place.” He laughs wryly and glances around at the four walls of the label’s nerve centre. “I’m fucking stuck! Before, I had one foot in BMG, one foot here, one foot doing another thing but now I’m HERE.” He looks up at the ceiling in faux anguish and shouts, fists clenched. “My two feet are here!”