Arguably the UK’s leading rapper, Roots Manuva infuses his music with a strong sense of place — not just because of his South London-via-Kingston accent, but also because of what he raps about and his music’s diverse stylistic flavors.
Born in Stockwell to Jamaican immigrants, Roots Manuva (Rodney Smith to his parents) grew up absorbing the many vibes of multi-cultural London, revelling in particular in its sound systems. He didn’t get to go to Jamaica till he was a teenager, by which time he’d already begun to write lyrics. Naturally, the trip further enriched his experience, giving his music eclecticism and a healthy disdain for fleeting fashions.
eMusic spoke to the busy artist by phone while he was taking a break from recording at a studio in London’s Waterloo, and began by asking about his formative years:
I spent six weeks in Jamaica about 13 years ago when I was about 13, and that experience has always stayed with me … just the way the sound systems and the DJs played music, the whole kind of eclectic vibe of it all…it was really “music is just music,” it wasn’t related to a “cool” or [fashion], people enjoyed all kinds of music.
You’ve said this new record Slime & Reason is inspired by the [Jamaican] Studio One ethic or aesthetic, but there’s a lot of other things in there as well…
Yeah, in the sense of not being scared of the mistakes…there’s a lot of stuff which I see as technically slightly wrong on the record and it’s just [about] having faith to just land somewhere, even though it’s not quite trailing the original template of a calypso song or a jazz song or … ambient electro or a P-Funk song, you know? Just like the creation of reggae and dancehall, these were like trained jazz and blues musicians who just happily landed somewhere that was left of jazz and right of funk and they just got on with it and just were happy with what they came up with. That’s what I was trying to tap into.
I can hear the P-Funk thing on C.R.U.F.F…
Yeah, even though it’s not exactly [P-Funk], like we ain’t got that big old clappy snare and… I ain’t quite got the falsetto right, but it’s just like being happy with it, you know?
Some of the most interesting music happens when people are hearing something in their head and they try to reproduce it but come up with something slightly different.
Yeah! And that’s what I’m talking about…it’s like, “oh, well that could be more close to it,” but you don’t really wanna replicate or emulate — just be cool with the mistakes. It’s just mostly flingin ‘mud at the wall and seeing what sticks.
There’s a few more references to Christianity on the new album than usual… what’s that about?
There’s always like a lyrical subtext of a preacher that I’ve always been fascinated with. It’s a character that I play, like, the fallen priest that has been kind of disowned by the church but he’s still out in his dog collar on the corner of the road, still preaching with his two cans of Tennant’s [lager] and he refuses to stop! It’s quite subtle, it’s not in your face.
But is there something of your family background in there?
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, my dad’s a deacon … I’ve got godfathers who have their own churches and congregations. My dad could’ve been there [too] ‘cos he was extremely talented at presenting the word, but he always liked to play the background.
You’ve also mentioned you were a bit distressed by how people took stuff you said on Awfully Deep quite literally. Obviously a rapper plays various characters, like any narrator, but is the tone of Slime & Reason deliberately lighter?
Yeah, just more straight. I think with the previous album, from a lyrical point of view, I really got into the subtext of a stand-up comedian, kind of self-deprecating stuff and maybe I got too carried away with that. On this record I tried to up the giggle factor. There’s a lot of fun, a lot of jokes, a lot of simplicity.
“Buff Nuff”, for example —that’s pretty hilarious.
It’s a bit stupid, yeah!
And “Again and Again” is something people can groove along to. This seems to be a bit more of a party album.
Well, I think with all the records I try to go into the sides of it on a different angle. This time around, just the way I was living, the time that I had to do it, the pressure I had on my back, it just had to be more simple and in your lap rather than anything too technical.
There are a lot of vintage synths by Rob Earland. How did that happen?
It’s just…beautiful accidents, man. Rob, he’s like a synth enthusiast, he’s made his own synthesizers and there’s loads of stuff lying around in Alaska studio [where much of the album was recorded and mixed] and I’m really into just picking up something and trying to make a noise from it. It’s really hard to credit the record right as well because even the lady Beverly Lodge that owns the studio would pop her head in and say: “Oooh, you wanna try that…you should use this microphone,” [so] there’s a massive communal feel on the album. Everyone had a say.
There are still plenty of raps that are simply about being an MC, but you somehow manage to make this limited subject surprisingly interesting, unlike many rappers. How do you do it?
I’m always trying to rap and write songs that are relevant and can connect with everybody from all kinds of situations. I really fear being perceived as someone that sits in their bedroom with loads of skunk and an MPC —I’m not from that world. I have lived that world and I know what that’s about, but I’m thirty-six and I’ve got four kids and a lot of heartache and a massive story to tell. You know, I can’t really sit round and talk about how ‘phat ‘my MPC 1000 sounds, you know, I can’t do it.
That’s a good note to end on. I’m sure you gotta get back to your MPC!