Roots Manuva interview: ‘It’s like a mud fight instead of a ballet’ (2008)

Not renowned for their modesty, most commercial hip-hop artists assign some ethereal majesty to their MTV-bankrolled ‘vocation’. For Rodney Smith Aka Roots Manuva, it’s a base instinct, a subconscious tic

“I find it hard to explain how I do it,” Manuva says over the phone from a soundcheck in Brighton. “It’s like you can’t explain how you wipe your ass cos you wipe it all the time.”

The south London MC-producer is in Dublin’s Academy tomorrow to roll out his sixth album Slime and Reason. He describes the album as “like a mud fight instead of a ballet”, alluding to it being more clumsy or instinctive, and adds: “It’s not about the lightness or the heaviness, it’s more about the movement and the willingness to push the envelope, push the motives, with no embarrassment, and the willingness to tell a shit joke or use a really crappy snare. It’s not about anything that sophisticated.”

He’s backed by a live band on the tour, “so don’t expect hip-hop hey-ho hands in the air – it’s more like a Royal Variety Show”, he jokes. “It’ll be a blend of everything, trying to do quite a lot of the newer stuff, with a lot of stuff we’ve reworked.”

The set will draw from a decade’s worth of dubbed out beats, cryptic rhymes and squelchy electro FX from his back catalogue. Smith is one of the UK’s most accomplished MCs, drawing on street poetry, sound system culture, absurdism and fire and brimstone sermonising.

When Roots Manuva started in the 90s, before releasing his 1999 debut album Brand New Second Hand, British MCs and hip-hop artists were hanging around in long shadows cast by US artists, but the last decade has seen a distinctly British rap style veer off in tangents, through UK garage, grime and dubstep, informed by UK sound system culture.

“This is something I’ve been really enthusiastic about,” says Smith. “I don’t come from a straight traditional hip-hop background either, I just see it as MC culture. I used to love breakdancing, but I could never do it. I used to love it, I could never body pop but I could never escape it. I always liked drum machines and keyboards and writing little rhymes.

“And I grew up in south London with sound systems playing bass and having MCs on the mic, it was a very natural thing for me to be an MC.”

Critics have latched on to Slime and Reason as the return of a more upbeat Smith, after the claustrophobia and paranoia of his rhymes on 2005’s Awfully Deep. It’s true that the infectious dancehall of Again and Again and Buff Nuff seem more playful but he laughs off critics’ diagnoses of spliffed-out mental collapse on the last album, saying he’s the same guy, “playing characters from a lyrical, egotistical point of view, playing different characters from being the Mac, to a drunken uncle, it’s all contained within there.”

He says: “All the melancholic stuff, it’s done for the motif, done for having a laugh, for licking one’s wounds… it’s just a daft arrogance. My life is so positive really, I’ve a fulfilling career.”

And he does make some character actor; the video for 2001’s underground anthem Witness (1 Hope) has him returning in a Ferrari to his old school to win sports day by cheating the kids, and he’s been a gentleman cricketer and a psychedelic ice cream man in his last two promos.

Is it a two-fingered salute to macho rap stereotypes? “It’s not a conscious thing,” he says. “My whole catalogue is done out of fun, and my connection to the Bannana Klan boys and the people I’ve associated with over the years is a big practical joke. Being daft is just like breathing to me.”

  • Interview appeared in Irish Daily Star, October 2008