Reasons to be cheerful
The quality and validity debate over UK hip hop trundles on, but Roots Manuva continues to stride ahead at his own languorous pace. Doug Johnstone keeps up
The likes of Dizzee Rascal and Mike Skinner might have higher profiles but there’s only one true king of British rap music and that’s Roots Manuva. London-based Rodney Smith has continued to amaze and delight with his idiosyncratic and original take on hip hop ever since his groundbreaking debut album, Brand New Second Hand, in 1999.
His new album, Slime and Reason, is as compelling and diverse as anything he’s done – his flights of lyrical fancy and musical ingenuity the match of anyone in the genre today – but it almost didn’t happen.
‘I booked into this posh residential studio in Yorkshire with six double bedrooms, a jacuzzi outside and massive gardens,’ he drawls. ‘I was there for six weeks and I didn’t do anything, just chilled out.’
It was only on a return home to ‘get my London head on’ that his creativity flooded back, and the result is a record which blends his tendency to laugh at himself and the world with the more intense soul searching of 2005’s Awfully Deep.
‘I wanted to push the templates of gospel, dancehall and dub,’ he says. ‘I wanted to have a kind of cheerful weeping and wailing going through it. I was trying to rip off old American negro spirituals, twisting gospel hymns inside out, trying to create a sweet melancholy. Halfway high, halfway to nowhere, coming up on some class As, coming down on cheap weed.’
Opener ‘Again and Again’ is a fantastic reggae dancehall romp, reminiscent of the classic Studio One sound from Jamaica, while elsewhere there is everything from lo-fi funk to homemade R&B, fucked-up gospel to ragga and electropop. As per usual Manuva hauled in various low-key collaborators, this time young producers Toddla T and Metronomy.
‘It’s so easy for me to be non-committal to my own ideas,’ he admits. ‘When I’m working by myself, just me and my laptop, I end up having ten million half ideas. It’s a lot more grounding to work with other people, it’s easier to reach a happy conclusion.’
Manuva has never rested on his laurels in the live arena either. He always likes to mix things up, and past tours have seen him delivering everything from NYC-style MC parties to full-band rock outs.
‘I don’t think I’ve fully been able to do the proper show I hear inside my head,’ he says. ‘But I still manage to present a relevant mutation of the recording to the live audience.’
Slime and Reason’s vintage Jamaican vibe suggested something else again. ‘This time it’s more of a soundsystem thing with musical elements over the top,’ he says. ‘We’ve got a few horns, keyboards, special effects and rearrangements but it’s all stripped down in an effort to be true to the record.’
Manuva’s creative energy and inventiveness will no doubt see many more quality albums in years to come, but don’t expect him to predict the future.
‘I don’t even know where I am this weekend let along in five years,’ he laughs. ‘It would be nice to make a film, curate my own festival, but these are wild pipe dreams, I don’t expect anything. Let the future do its thing.’
Liquid Room, Edinburgh, Wed 8 Oct; Arches, Glasgow, Thu 9 Oct.