Rock and Pop: The roots of a hip-hop revolution

Before Dizzee Rascal, before The Streets, Roots Manuva was making defiantly British rap. He talks to CHRIS MUGAN
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First, the good news: on his latest album, Rodney Smith has surpassed what he achieved on the acclaimed Run Come Save Me. While that record was a landmark for British hip hop, Awfully Deep is already a contender for "album of the year". Not long into it, though, you start to worry about its creator's mental health. On the album's title track, the rapper with the pseudonym Roots Manuva talks about giving up rap music and persuading his management not to send him for psychiatric treatment. Over an ominous rolling bass-line that dominates the track, he intones, "My sanity is back on the line again/ And last year I said I wouldn't rhyme again/ But now I'm back for punishment time again".

From the marijuana haze that enveloped his last record, Smith has now moved to a pervading atmosphere of paranoia and insecurity. It is surprising, then, to to find that in the flesh he is garrulous company, a laid-back but entertaining interviewee, with a laugh reminiscent of Frank Bruno and a succession of daft voices to illustrate his points.

It has been four years since his last album, a long time even if you count the mix album BadMeaninGood and Run's companion, Dub Come Save Me. His dry-humoured delivery and unique sound, based on dub bass and reggae rhythms, had won critical acclaim for devising music that was definitely in the tradition of hip hop, but in a defiantly British idiom. It was one where Smith could rap about "pints of beer" and "cheese on toast", but it a sly manner that ensured he never sounded corny. Run also sold by the shed-load. Smith came away with a gold disc along with his Brits nomination and Mercury award. So why did he take so long to return?

"It was like being smacked over the head with your own potential," he explains. "It's a massive leap from doing PAs in little clubs to playing a venue with 2,000 people looking at you. I can remember doing Nickelodeon when "Dreamy Days" came out, thinking, "Should I be on this kids' show doing my `E' tune?'."

Having released his debut album, Brand New Second Hand, to indifference beyond the hard-core hip-hop fraternity, Smith was ill-prepared for such success. "It has been a double-edged dagger. There's always a little part of your brain that thinks `Mmm, this is the track that's gonna buy me a Porsche', but the rest of the time you are just happy to make music. I saw myself as an underground kind of artist.

"I'm the old scoundrel, the one that says stuff that shouldn't be said, that goes against the grain. And I'm on national TV with my Mum watching, my brother and my cousin, and I'm talking about pissing in the bottle while driving in a car. Whoa! should I really be doing this?"

Smith was even more disconcerted to find himself recognised by people who he could never imagine speaking to through his records. "I'm going about my normal duties surrounded by suits and this one man comes up and goes `I heard you on the radio!' as if I knows me. That was strange."

His concern was that, by entering the mainstream, he would somehow lose his edge. "I'm paranoid, or scared, about becoming sanitised. I don't want to be known as the hip-hop geezer for people that don't like hip hop." But there was also the expectation that he would continue the success of Run. "It's a weight on the shoulders. That's why there was a bit of angst getting Awfully Deep ready. I had to go through a bit of pain."

Smith denies he was serious about giving up his music career. Instead, he contemplated leaving Roots Manuva behind to return to a low-key way of working. "I'm always saying I've had enough. It was never in my head to be out there, like I am now. That was an accident. I wanted to be like Zorro: wear a mask, not do too many PAs; but have a presence. It drives you nuts, all the attention, but there is an attraction to being the person on the front line."

He is also keen to gloss over the next line: "Tell the management not to waste good money/ sending me to the farms of the funny".

"I'll get into a legal battle if I start pointing fingers over that. But it is reflective about artistic figures having a rest, like George Best or Gazza. I'm not on that scale, but I have instances where I go off on a wild one. When people say you should have a rest, that just makes you worse. Leave me alone! I'm just me!"

Smith admits that he has changed his representation, moving from what he calls "street" management to the same management as Leftfield, the dance duo he collaborated with on the single "Dusted". "I wanted to get some reins on it and set some targets. Leftfield were always true to their art, even with Sony knocking on the door for a new album. I thought their management would be able to put up with me."

Not that everyone has been supportive. On the first single from his new album, "Colossal Insight", Smith talks about "bourgeois blacks" who are "far from convinced" with his work. "That's a big bone of contention. It's more about a snottiness than the actuality of the word. There's certain radio stations and video stations that don't deem me worthy, or black enough. People have this perception about music and like to put things in boxes. What they think of as hip hop nowadays is just straight pop music. People hate me for doing what is basically my hobby. It's murder, but it gives me freedom."

If anything sorted Smith out, it was becoming the proud father of a boy, now aged 21 months. "I'm much more angst-ridden about growing up now. I can't be singing about pissing in bottles anymore! Now I'm trying to get a pushchair on a bus with a screaming child and no one helping me. You bastards! Can't you see how hard it is?!"

"This album might be the last of the wildness. Get it all out of your system now! I have to make an attempt at an out-and-out pop record at some time in my career, but I'll do it on my own terms, see what I can get away with. Not like Steps, just a bit more easy on the housewives."

As he sings, again, on "Colossal Insight": "I should cut down this drinking/ Too many late nights and not enough thinking." Smith explains, "The way I live my life now is totally different. I've taken up rollerblading and dirt-biking, though I wasn't any good at that. The first record was a smoking album, Run Come Save Me was weed and champagne and Awfully Deep was nothing! Sober!"

He finally knuckled down in mid-2003. He recorded about 40 songs, plus another 60 audio doodles, even more than on his previous sessions, that led to him releasing the dub version of Run.

"I was just throwing mud at the walls. I didn't have any clear idea of what I wanted to do. Sometimes I wanted to scrap the whole lot. It was all self-inflicted, pretty crazy." It is all a bit much for Roots, who now has to worry about paying for engineers and studio time. "Don't tell anyone people's wages!" he exclaims.

After an epic, 18-month, stint, Smith has come up with a record that explores the mind of someone at odds with the world around him. Awfully Deep's title track records the comedown after Run's carefree "Dreamy Days". There is also "Chin High", a stern anthem over disorienting drum and bass patterns where Smith barks "The choice is there ain't no choice but to pursue it".

Smith is at pains to point out this is not meant to be a doleful experience. Instead, we are meant to look for the "dingy" humour within. He denies, though, that he has aimed for a darker album. "Because I didn't want to be mainstream, I've swung to the other side. I've become more outrageous. I hope my past albums have been a little awkward and strange, but I've cranked it up on this album. It's supposed to be a peculiar niceness. A dangerous beautifulness. It's like the way a film like Fargo makes you uneasy, but it's good with it."

So we should not take every line at face value. Smith has pushed himself to explore different personas on this record, as with the murderous jilted lover on "The Falling" "trapped in a downward spiral of drugs, weapons and STDs. "Russian roulette with a naked flame/ Dangerously slow, but in the fast lane".

"I was trying to play the character of a person that drinks too much at a family dinner and starts going off on one. I wanted to move beyond the actuality of my own moral fabric."

Despite his "peculiar niceness", this ought to be Smith's most accessible album so far. From the trip-hop sparseness of Brand New, through the twisted funk of Run to his current recording, this determined rapper-cum-producer has worked at developing his own tuneful style. With an insistent electro pulse and his first decent chorus, "Witness (1 Hope)" was head and shoulders above any other track of Smith's second album. Its arresting layers of analogue sound set a benchmark that almost every track on Awfully Deep matches.

His next challenge is to take the album out on the road. In the past, Smith has relied on his easy-going charisma to make two turntables, backing tracks and a microphone work in some fairly large spaces. But now he has put together a band. They played 12 gigs last year and he admits he is still finding his feet.

"I get into different modes. Sometimes I want to be hip hop's Shaun Ryder, sometimes I want to be Henry Rollins. Sometimes I want to be Frank Sinatra. When it's right and you're in the zone together you can totally freak people out."

After a lukewarm reception at London's Somerset House during the West Indies test series last summer, Smith and his band blew away a crowd of techno-heads at Barcelona's Sonar electronica festival. A date at the Brixton Academy, Smith's home-town venue, is going to be a different prospect. "I'm totally petrified. I was hoping no one would turn up, but now we've sold 2,000 tickets. I keep thinking I'm going to see Mrs Ross from my primary school. I am not looking at anyone!"

Whatever traumas Smith went through to record Awfully Deep, he does seem to be over them. Now he is looking forward to his next trip to the studio. "I want to go back in and make another one. I've got so many ideas now. It's a job now, a job that I like." Let us look forward, then, to raps about the difficulties of taking pushchairs on public transport.

`Awfully Deep' is out on Big Dada