My porn star name would be Kimbo Moredon,” Rodney “Roots Manuva” Smith tells me with a sigh and a giggle. “I don’t think I could be a porn star though, they’d need to get a body double, you know, so they could use my face but I could still tell my mum it’s not me.”
We’re sitting over piping hot coffee in a Portuguese café in Stockwell a few blocks from where Roots grew up. Slumped heavily into his low-backed chair, he looks like he’s just rolled out of bed. His head explodes with a mess of hair, and he’s wearing an expression that says ‘I’d smile more if my head didn’t hurt so much,’ as he tells me about growing up with hip-hop.
“Hip-hop was just there, the roads are all around us in everyday life. Kids with lino, battles at school. It wasn’t something we even thought about, nobody was saying this is hip-hop culture, but when that movie ‘Beatstreet’ came out it all just took over South London like a rash.”
Having been described as “the voice of urban Britain,” by The Times, Roots is surprisingly laid back and humble, well aware of the industry’s tendency to over hype and exploit emerging scenes and artists.
“I’ve seen it loads of times with independent music where, you know, major labels have got involved, and not for the right reasons you know, they got involved just to cut down the market share.”
“I seen it man, with things like 2-step, well first initially it was with hip-hop then Jungle then 2-step, and they kind of killed these things off. Kind of kicked the ass out of the initial DIY ethic of it all.”
“And everyone seems to keep doing it, the minute a new scene comes out, and there’s a little vibrancy everybody seems to get hypnotised by the majors waving their cheques around. It’s unfortunate, but it’s only human nature. There is still this massive culture of young artists who just want to sign straight away and get a big contract.”
He’s like a shaman, a shaman that’s had a few too many blunts the night before, but a shaman none the less. Nuggets of wisdom flow forth from his mouth and every word he utters is drenched in the accents of South London; a vibrant mix of cockney, Jamaican and Portuguese ever present in his music.
‘‘There are loads of different schools of artists.” he explains. Maybe because we’ve got a mess of sound system culture over here that then morphed into pirate radio, just walking around anyplace, you’re likely to stumble across some interesting music.”
“Like, someone done a survey the other day, in Brixton, and they said it had more studios in a square mile than anywhere else in London. There are so many different people creating and so many different communities having festivals it’s hard to be stuck into just one thing.”
Roots’ sound has risen and evolved out of this rich tapestry of influences into a sort of cross section of contemporary British urban culture. His music, while firmly grounded in a hip-hop sensibility, incorporates a far broader musical range than most other hip-hop artists, rejecting the hardline sound of many of his American counter parts.
“The main reason, I guess, is that I worked as a studio assistant in a community recording studio. There was so many different influences and vibes, and just being around so many different types of artists, and just being part of a community, it kind of kicks that whole bedroom recording hip-hop attitude out of you.”
As well as this almost ‘world music’ bent, Roots always focuses on the fun and liberating. “I try to keep the giggle factor more important, to laugh and joke and to keep a playful element. The older I get the more immature I get, so I kinda ah, live it, I live it maybe more than I should. I live in the beats, I live in the rhymes you know, I live the lifestyle.”
“And even when it is serious it’s done with some kind of, ah, cathartic cadence, you know. I just try to ease our pain, or face our pain by talking about it and the strain of Babylon, of everything,” he says. “Of TV, of radio, of magazines, of make-up of brands doing mass marketing campaigns, major record labels, the strain of everywhere man.”
“With Slime & Reason [his latest album], there isn’t like a direct message, or ethos or theme,” he explains. “I think Slime & Reason, for me it’s like my own personal slang for getting your swerve on. However it’s also a corruption of the phrase, rhyme and reason. And rhyme and reason is… je ne sais quoi, it’s sophisticated, whereas Slime & Reason is more inbetweeny land, it’s more slippery more wobbly. I don’t know if it’s like a middle ground, it’s more in between the inbetweens.”
Roots Manuva’s ‘Slime & Reason’ is out now on Big Dada through Inertia.
Be sure to check out his music at http://www.myspace.com/rootsmanuva