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Music: Hip-hop goes into credible mood

ROOTS MANUVA may be the saviour of British hip-hop but in these parts you'd be hard- pushed to pick him out of a line-up. On arrival, he glides in past the audience unnoticed, and have you ever heard of a rapper carrying his own equipment? He's never going to get in with Puff Daddy and the boys pulling stunts like that.

But then his easy-going understated persona is all part of his charm. Roots - his name's actually Rodney - clearly believes that the rap, rather than hip-hop affectation, should speak for itself, a factor that is underlined by a gloriously simple show. He wears one gold necklace next to Puffy's 99 and refrains from using all the usual hip-hop expletives.

Even his two twitchy-looking sidekicks keep the posturing to a bare minimum.

Manuva is one of a growing set of acts - Jurassic 5, Blackalicious, Latryx - who are working to put credibility into British hip-hop, making a sound that owes as much to Jamaican dance-hall as old- school American rappers such as LL Cool J. Such is his standing among his contemporaries that fellow south Londoners, Basement Jaxx, have recently declared it a disgrace that he wasn't nominated for the Mercury Music Prize.

Roots is one of those people that makes it look gallingly easy. His authoritative, mile-a-minute rapping looks as simple as breathing, while his diatribe, delivered in a misleadingly laid-back manner, brims with sharp political observations, and imbues his sound with a sense of urgency.

But best of all his habit of letting friendly chatter enter the rap. At one stage he lets out a small, childlike giggle - something that is usually inconceivable in the realms of hip-hop. This unique delivery, rapping as if he is engaged in conversation, borders on spoken-word performance and makes for one of the warmest and unpretentious rap shows I've ever seen. Unfortunately, the array of influences seen on his beguiling debut album Brand New Second Hand - dub reggae, pneumatic techno and drum `n' bass - are lost in the Venue's murky sound.

An earlier altercation between the support act, Blacka'nized, and the sound engineer - "everybody shout `the soundman's a wanker' "- had done nothing to improve artist-technician relations and the subtleties of Manuva's groove, played out on a pair of turntables, are rendered a distant rattle.

It is up to Roots then to salvage what he can, and he does this through force of personality and the quality of his rap. His loose-limbed basketballer gait makes him move around the stage with effortless grace and his infectious grin and warm banter put you in mind of a seasoned entertainer, not a hard-edged rapper with a social conscience.

But, as he becomes increasingly animated, even Roots cannot resist the odd bit of hip-hop hyperbole. "Big up your shoes, big up your shirts, big up your trousers," he yells. The crowd look at one another quizzically.

Roots may be the fresh new voice of hip-hop but he bears testament to the fact that you can't keep the rapper from his baggy trousers.

Fiona Sturges