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Roots Manuva // Interview

As Rhythm Circus’ extended coverage of  Larmer Tree Festival 2012 comes to an end, and to mimic the still-lingering feeling of awe which the folk and world smorgasbord’s finale left upon us, the last slice of ‘Larmer pie’ comes in the form an extended interview with the most dapper of rappers, and the final mainstage headliner for the fest: the founder of the Banana clan, Rodney Smith a.k.a Lord Gosh a.k.a Brigadier Smythe, a.k.a Cecil P.Y.L.M. Pim Pimpernel. You best just refer to him as Roots Manuva though.

With a striking and recognisable voice, and a penchant for lyrics that blend hard hitting storytelling and distinct humour, Roots Manuva has cemented himself as one of the UK’s finest hip hop acts with five studio albums, alternate versions of those albums (including a superb dub ridden re-release) and countless collaborations. As one of many star struck audience members, it was surprising to see Manuva just as startled by wild huge audience reaction. To start off, I posed a question similar to that asked of Chandrasonic, the guitarist for last year’s big urban act Asian Dub-Foundation: How does a hip-hop artist feel when booked for a fest that is dominated by blues, folk and world acts?

Manuva: There’s always a feeling of…can we apply our self to the occasion without being too patronizing? We gotta be honest to the ambience that is the communication of audience and performer. It’s a two way thing. As I said, today I was totally thrown off, I was not expecting that.

As mentioned, throughout his eighteen year career, Roots Manuva has had the pleasure of lending his heavy accented and deep pipes to a wealth of well known and respected artists, including DJ Shadow, Amon Tobin and The Macabees. It’s obviously a tough as nails question to ask, but which one was the best experience?

Manuva: There isn’t one, you know? Working with people like Damon Albarn from Gorillaz was like a roller coaster ride into how things are done on the major scale. But then at the same time, even eleven years ago when I did that stuff with Leftfield, that was a massive step for me as someone who was properly back then from the brink of British hip-hop scene. It was even a massive decision of ‘shit…you’re gonna make stuff with an electronica band? I’m supposed to be moody British hip-hop!

Due to the continuing success of the Roots Manuva persona, the time for collaborations has slowed down in recent years. What can’t be doubted is that all of the artists have contributed to what Rodney refers to quite fondly as his ‘journey’. He pointed out that the ‘Roots Manuva’ side of his music career was originally meant to emcompass a single E.P. or album. As it’s grown, he tells us that much has suffered in the spectrum of Rodney Smith, that is to say the music engineer working in a community studio with young artists and bands.

Manuva: But it’s all worked out pretty well, I’ve been pretty fortunate. The journey has been pretty mindblowing. I’m now just about to turn 40 and I’m like, shit, there’s so much to the story that I’d like to be passed on. I’d like to be in a position to write a book about the inspirational side of the journey, and about this uncharted area of being an independent recording artist that has managed to make a living, and as a human being that has managed to contribute to the upkeep of children and general grown up life out of pure creativity.

One of our submitted reader questions addressed this, asking Rodney how his career, family and the world around him combined and what form they took in his song writing.

Manuva: I think as a creative person I like to write about the struggle of being a creative father and just the general parental worries that one has. But I don’t know that I necessarily want to be as pre-considered in my creative process. I think there’s a certain topicalness or overwordyness that I wouldn’t want to have in my music; I don’t want my music to be an essay. I don’t even want my music to be linear.  I want my music to flow like a dream.”

The influences within Rodney’s music are vast, but more importantly not limited to just other artists before him. Many factors include his Pentecostal upbringing, his early life in poverty and the distinct British edge of his song writing. The latter is widely touted by many critics and commentators (even the Larmer Tree program makes note of it), such as references to drinking bitter and eating cheese on toast cited in his lyrics. As seen with the Leveller’s non-existent folk denial, this isn’t always the thinking of the artists themselves.

Manuva: I don’t even know how they notice those things. There’s so much more in the package which I’ve done over the years in terms of the style of videos that we’ve gone for, the style of music, the structure of the music, the sound of the music. I’ve always been out on a limb in more ways than ‘your little bit of Britishness’. But it is what it is, a talking piece.

Clocking on to the mention of his ‘style’ of videos, one has to mention the broad range of filming that has accompanied Roots since the very beginning. Just looking at his more recent releases, the video It’s On featured a strange, stylized beach-set piece featuring Japanese influences, whilst as a viral video for the song Get the Get, he got someone to film himself and the guest vocalist Rokhsan on a simple flip camera.

Manuva: That was a bit of a sticking point actually on the last record. Kinda stuck my neck out and did that video for It’s On outside album cycle, expecting to go really deeply into making a whole bunch of films rather than videos for this record, and just the whole outlet of videos today is totally different, it’s all net based, so we didn’t really. I kinda used up all my budget making the video for It’s On. (laughs)”

It’s been a little while now since that last record 4everevolution came out on Big Dada records, being described by the BBC as “a pure, you’re-only-as-old-as-you-feel joy to hear British hip hop’s most original and inspiring voice hitting his peak as he approaches his 40th year.” Given that Roots is still going stronger and deeper, what was it that defined this particular album from the previous?

Manuva: I think it’s just the journey, just the honestness and also catching up with my sonic journey and being kind of true to the panic of what I do live. I think initially I started off making records and it was like a hermit, a studio based thing. It was just about me being in a studio expressing myself, and then that come to do it live, which kind of shocked me, was like ‘Jesus, things sound totally different out live! Now I gotta learn how to work on getting my brain on seeing the full circumference of the art form, part of trying to hear into the future of how it’s going to sound live.’”

This process of tailoring to the live setup lead to the memorable and completely unique backing to one of his most iconic songs.

Manuva: Witness (the Fitness) was made out of frustration at the sound systems that were in clubs back eleven years ago. I just needed something to make a rickety sound, whether it was on a good sound system or a shit sound system. I just needed to make that little squelchy stamp of noise, and talk three minutes over the top of it. Since then I’ve moved away from that, and sound systems have gotten a lot better.

And having heard that song playing once or twice during the Olympic games, I can assume it served that purpose. So what next? For Roots Manuva, it’s a manic onslaught of more festivals to fill out the season. For Rodney Smith, it’s the continued exploration of his journey, whether that transcends into other plains outside of hip-hop, or even music itself.

Manuva: I try not to make too much plans, but I wanna be true to the spirit of creativity that knows no bounds, that there aint thinking about budgets or returns, or trends. In five years time, if I was to project into the future, I see myself in a place like Wiltshire with a massive building trying to turn the building into a spaceship, or a portal to get me into outer space through creative means, however that is.

Words > Graham Ashton

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Listen to the the full audio interview with Roots Manuva right here:

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