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A Quietus Interview

Roots Bloody Roots: Mr Manuva Interviewed
Stevie Chick , November 16th, 2015 13:23

Stevie Chick speaks to Rodney Smith about wanting to be somewhere between the Stone Roses and Linton Kwesi Johnson, Opal Fruits and sitting drunk in empty rooms 'talking' to people who aren't really there. Portraits by Shamil Tanna

Rodney Smith is not like others.

British hip hop, still in its nascent stages and struggling to shake the hegemony of the American model, developed a whole new sonic and verbal dialect when Smith delivered his first album as Roots Manuva, 1999’s Brand New Second Hand. Here was a landmark that put the label that released it, Big Dada, on the path to becoming the perhaps the UK’s most visionary imprint of the era (of any genre), and cleared the way for a generation of artists up for hammering the artform into wild, unique new shapes. Smith told me a couple of years ago that he made the album “for Brixton”, and in creating it he stewed up a sound that owed as much to the Jamaican music, old and new, that permeated his South London, as any transatlantic influence.

That sound of Roots Manuva was as indelibly personal as the words he wrote, which drew heavily upon his mental issues, and the conflict between his secular, sin-soaked life and his upbringing as the son of a Pentecostal minister, whose brimstone holler Smith invoked on the searing 'Sinny Sins', a standout track from his Mercury-nominated Top 40 second album, Run Come Save Me.

For all its intensity, though, the album also delivered a deathless pop hit, 'Witness (One Hope)', a squelchy, joyous monster of sci fi hip hop grounded powerfully in the every day. Still perhaps UK rap’s greatest anthem, it’s guaranteed to detonate whatever dance-floor its dropped upon. But if 'Witness (One Hope)' had taken this new British hip hop voice into the pop spotlight, Smith seemed happy to cede the frontlines to the soldiers that followed, grime grabbing the headlines as he explored further into his own dark turbulence on a series of fine albums: 2005’s Awfully Deep, 2008’s Slime And Reason, and 2011’s 4everevolution. That journey has taken him to this year’s Bleeds, a dark and heavy ten-song set that opens with 'Hard Bastards', a sulphurous muse on “poor cunts”, “rich cunts” and the titular tough nuts, before taking in moments of desperation, spiritual re-awakenings, and the pulverising 'Crying', which features Smith’s tear-choked sob as its eerie hook.

Sat in the worn, comfy armchair at the Kennington HQ of Big Dada’s parent-label, Ninja Tune Records, sipping a flat white with sugar (“I shouldn’t… But I’ve got to have the sugar”), Smith peers though shades and claims that the critics who’ve focused on Bleeds’ darkness have missed a perhaps even-darker humour running beneath the album’s bleak tales. “I’m also having a really good laugh at the direness of it all,” he says, drily. “It’s so dire, it becomes a joke. And a lot of people miss that, and start going off on how ‘serious’ it is. But then, they do say humour is a serious business.”

In conversation, Smith is relaxed, easy-going, but goes some distance to answer questions as honestly as he can, without any prompting. He’s unselfconscious, open, perhaps too much so for his own good, and if over our hour’s conversation he often amuses with his dry wit and gift for the surreal, he also drops the occasional glimpse into moments of despair and desperation that suggest the tears of this cosmic clown are very real indeed.

Bleeds, meanwhile, is one of Smith’s finest albums yet – a moving, electric, serious-as-your-life latest entry from an artist who seems only to be getting deeper as the years wear on. But, as he talks about talking to invisible people, what he describes as “séances with the spirits” to find the inspiration for these songs, and how he makes more money from madness than sanity, you have to wonder if, for Rodney Smith, his art is always worth what it costs him to make it.

Brand New Second Hand had such impact when it arrived in 1999, sounding like nothing else out there. Back in the early-90s, when you were piecing together the sound that would become Roots Manuva, did you know what you were looking for?

Roots Manuva: I was smoking so much weed… I used to listen to a lot of Studio One records and wonder, how did they get that shuffle? How was the bass so thick? How was each sound pushing and pulling against the others? And how could I possibly get a drum machine, a sampler and some keyboards to mirror the way that Studio One records were made? I had a whole lot of imaginary friends, playing as a Studio One band would play…

All those imaginary musicians were in your machines.

RM: Yeah. Basically. A weed-induced invisible-friend fest. I don’t bother with that no more. That’s daft.

Were you frustrated that you only had these imaginary elements at your disposal – that you didn’t have an actual bass-player or drummer.

RM: I wasn’t frustrated, I was just happy to have a machine to be able to make a sound with. For years, all I had was a tape deck, and I had to do pause-button loops, beat-boxing through headphones, tape-to-tape. So when you go from that, to having a sampler – even the shittiest sampler in the world, which could only contain six seconds worth of sample – it’s a massive step. Then you go from that sampler to Coldcut borrowing me an S-1000 that could sample loads and loads, and just kept growing and growing into now… Those ain’t issues anymore. Now there’s so many options, it almost kills it.

Those early limitations made you more creative?

RM: Definitely. The early limitations were the source of the original spirit, of accidental originality. I never set out to sound original. I set out to copy Studio One, to try and copy Happy Mondays, to have a hip hop record that would have some kind of sensibility that was going to land somewhere between Oasis, Stone Roses and Linton Kwesi Johnson. It was a whole bunch of mimicking, which I didn’t do that well. That’s what I say, my career’s based on mistakes, but that’s not a negative thing. I didn’t set out to be original, but it accidentally become quite original. The source idea was to copy those artists. I wanted to make a hip hop record that was as poignant and as personal as a Linton Kwesi Johnson record. As he says in one of his songs, "England is a bitch". It’s delivered in such a cold tone, you think he’s complaining, but he’s not complaining, he’s just having a real laugh. That is what I like to do in music.

When you started landing on the sound that you found on Brand New Second Hand, did you recognise it like, "Okay, that’s what I wanted to do"? Did you have confidence in that voice you’d found? Because you didn’t sound like anyone else.

RM: I didn’t give a shit. I was coming from that climate where putting vocals on the record meant commercial suicide. It was just a pleasure to be getting some money and being connected Ninja Tune, to one of Britain’s biggest independents. I went from personally pressing up a thousand records and hustling them myself, to being hooked up to the Big Dada/Ninja Tune network, which was a worldwide network: twenty territories, European tours. It was a whole new world for me. So from that moment, I was walking on air. Because I never thought that I would really get past the Watford Gap.

UK Hip-Hop was still in its infancy. The idea of rapping in a British accent was still really new. But there’s an ‘accent’ in your music, too. You told me a few years back that you made the first album for Brixton. It was uniquely British, really personal. Was that your ambition?

RM: It was on purpose, and it was an effort, to try and have a voice and not just be a carbon copy of everything else I heard. It was definitely a definitive break away from the British way of doing things then, which was to mimic the East Coast/New York sound to a tee, and then stick a British accent on top of it, which I always thought was stupid. Like, no, we need to find the accent in the groove, as well as the accent in the voice.

'Witness (One Hope)' is such a universally beloved track, British hip-hop’s greatest anthem. But after that, it seems like you chose to pursue an identity as an albums artist, rather than a singles star. Like, you’re not in the tabloids, you’re in the broadsheets, where people talk about your music rather than what you got up to last night. Was that a conscious choice?

RM: It was a stroke of luck, because if I was in the tabloids, they’d have a lot to write about. [laughs] I’d be totally fucked! Shit.

But you’re taken seriously as an artist.

RM: It’s hard. I try not to overanalyse it. My dad always says, "You’re not really working until you have all the angles. You need to have some tabloid coverage as well as broadsheet coverage." But I don’t know how I’m going to get that without embarrassing my family. [laughs] As a bad gambler, and a shopaholic.

What shops would the paparazzi find you in?

RM: Everywhere, from Harvey Nicholls, to down Hatton Gardens, doing very bad deals on antiques and all kinds of shit. Because I’m just so impulsive. I’m like, "What’s that? How much does it cost? How much money do I have this month? Oh shiiiit." And then the money’s GONE. I do come home after two days, begging the missus’s forgiveness, with a massive diamond watch and a new diamond chain, swearing, "It’s a good investment! It really is a good investment!" And she’s just fuming, she’s going through all the figures, trying to work out how we can pay for our holiday, and I’ve gone and bought a stupid watch and a stupid jacket that costs like £700. I love technology, I love clothes. But I don’t even get the time to enjoy what I’ve got. Why am I buying all this stuff?

Do people recognise you in the street?

RM: People recognise me all the time. Everywhere. Going through airports, police officers – I get recognised loads.

What sort of things do people say to you when they recognise you?

RM: They ask for autographs, pictures… Some people are into showing you they’re a real fan, knowing some really strange fact about you, the lyrics to really obscure demos…

How does that make you feel, knowing that your music has that effect on people?

RM: It’s quite nerve-wracking, really. I think I’m alright speaking the words, but when they’re spoken back to me, I’m, like, "Oh shit! You can really move minds with these words." And it makes me quite scared. It’s a privileged position to be in, and its influencing people. People are doing the maddest things – they’re living their lives by these words. I never write things down thinking, yes, I want people to live their life by these words, you know? People telling me they’ve got friends out of comas with my tunes, they got married to a certain tune… Really? I never imagined people would get married to hip hop.

Do you always know what you’re talking about when you’re writing the lyrics down?

RM: No. It’s definitely a gift. I’m channelling something. I’m out there, having séances with the spirits who want me to say something to this plane. I can’t take much credit for it, because I hear things in dreams, I hear things all the time. I’ve been known to get drunk and sit in an empty room like this, ‘talking’ to a roomful of ‘people’, who are giving me all this information. But if I told that to my GP, he would give me a really high dosage of Prozac, and I wouldn’t be able to talk to those people and get the inspiration to write new albums. It’s a very fine line. If I don’t have my team around me, I could easily get locked up any minute.

But you need to keep yourself open to some of that, to make the music…

RM: Yeah.

What makes it worth that risk?

RM: I make more money from madness than I do from sanity. So I have to do it. I don’t know how it happens. I have to have a strong faith system, and I have to watch my diet, I have to watch my substance intake.

How does the diet affect it – too much sugar?

RM: Yeah. Sugar is the hardest one to get over, sugar is hard, hard. My missus is all like, ‘Come on, you’re going to get diabetes! Put the cake down! Have an apple!’

What’s your poison?

RM: Opal Fruits. Sour Opal Fruits. My kids are always on at their mum, "Why is daddy always chewing gum?"

In an essay you wrote about Bleeds that got send to the press, you described yourself as “a British Black musical Jackson Pollock” and talked about art being a product of some emotional difficulty. Pollock is the archetypal tortured artist.

RM: I’m not as tortured as him, but I admire his torturedness. I try, in method creativity, to mirror the desperation. Jackson Pollock, I never been to anyone else’s exhibition and actually had to run out and fucking cry. Because what he was doing, I could feel what was inside his head. Like, "Jesus, I know how that feels, I’ve got to fucking get out of here." And I’ve never looked at that painting ever again.

Art is powerful.

RM: It’s serious stuff. Don’t mess with art. Don’t mess around with that shit. There’s a lot of songs on this new album that really do make me cry. And I don’t wanna cry. I’m sick and tired of crying. And there’s even a track on the album called 'Crying'.

It’s quite difficult to listen to.

RM: It’s insane. I like it. I’m addicted to listening to that at the moment. But I’m listening to the bass. I was driving to it in the jeep the other day, playing that really loud and distorted, going round Surrey. It’s like a creep game, creeping out the whole world. Not quite driving with tears in my eyes, but definitely a chill up the spine. The singer on that track, she’s like a witch. She’s a witch! Don’t fuck with that witch, she’ll make you cry for a day!

You wrote that the album was quite hard work to make.

RM: It was a pain in the arse. I got my own studio in the back yard, the album could have been finished and made in my back yard. But Big Dada didn’t accept that, and my management didn’t accept that, they didn’t want nothing that was easy, they were pushing, and pushing, and pushing. I had to go to Ramsgate a lot, which is a two hour trip, to work with Adrian Sherwood. I would hand the tracks in, and they’d be like, "Nope, you have to go back to Ramsgate." Please! No more Ramsgate! I’ve had enough of Ramsgate! Every time I thought I was done in Ramsgate, there was two weeks more, or five days more, or three days more in Ramsgate.

What’s so bad about Ramsgate?

RM: Ramsgate’s lovely, but the fucking journey there is long. It’s long, so long, you know? I live in Esher, it takes fucking ages to get from Esher to Ramsgate. In Esher I’ve got a different lifestyle; it’s like Surrey’s Hollywood. We’re chi-chi up there, we’ve got Rolex shops and a Carluccio’s. We’re not in a rush, we’re nice to each other, we’re all quite affluent, and we’re together in that affluence, we’re not jealous of each other, we get on with each other. We sometimes even say hello to each other, if you’ve got the same car, or the same Bulgari ring.

And it’s not like that in Ramsgate.

RM: No! It’s not like that! In Ramsgate, you fucking hide your Bulgari ring.

You also said you’re “a digital artist who happens to rap”. When I interviewed you in 2001, for the Evening Standard, you were talking about the proliferation of cheap digital video cameras, and how you wanted to be the next Steven Spielberg.

RM: It still goes on. I keep telling my management that all this music malarkey is putting in too much effort and getting peanuts back for it. They need to get me a film. When I direct a film that’s when we’re gonna get some real money. Forget this music stuff, that’s just like a hobby, let me at a film! And they just laugh at me.

What would your film be like?

RM: It would be like a new kind of genre. Like semi-pornographic horror, with some comedy.

Bleeds is only ten tracks long, a really concise statement.

RM: It could’ve been a long record, but Adrian kept saying, "You better make it succinct, otherwise it’s not coming out!" This record is a fucking monster! So much people on this record… And well-known people. Doug Wimbish is on this record. He was at the concert! I was talking to Doug Wimbish! I know Doug Wimbish! I can phone Doug Wimbish up now and say, "Doug! What’s up?" It’s too weird! Is this real? Is it a dream? I’m sitting with Doug Wimbish! I’m like, "You’re Doug Wimbish." I’m trying not to freak him out. Because I do fuck up, I do get star-struck. I sat on Kate Moss by accident. My mate was like, "Don’t you know who that is?" And I looked at her, and I looked away, and I said, "That’s Kate Moss!" I was frozen! Like, is that you? Is that really you? I couldn’t say anything. I turned into a blithering idiot!

But you must have had people do the same to you…

RM: Yeah! So why am I doing it to other people? I should have some decorum about it. I’ve always said, I’m not media-trained. The older I get, I need more media-training, to sort it out. Just to learn how to conduct myself in life. I need to maybe go to Pop School, or something.

On 'Me Up', you talk about being “Face to face with the sacred”. What are you referring to?

RM: It’s love, the sacred is love. Face to face with love, the love of your life: kids, women… Lovely uncles, wise fathers… I’ve got a wise old father that I should never, EVER mess with, just never challenge him on no level. He is a brilliant man, and his dad was a brilliant man too, and his dad’s dad – my granddad, Samuel Smith – was even more brilliant. The Smiths are quite brilliant, and the dead Smiths expect a high standard from the living Smiths. These Smiths, from where we come from in Jamaica, in St Catherine’s, great things are expected from us. We come from very little, and now we have quite a lot, and we need to look after it, and not lose it.

You’ve done great things.

RM: Yeah. And it’s because of these guys, primarily Hilton Smith the First, who came over and hustled ice cream. Now I have a leisure consultancy company called Hilton Smith, named after my granddad. My middle name is Hilton, I’m the last living Hilton Smith. I see even my work in music as part of the leisure industry. Great things are expected. Our businesses are growing – we’ve got resorts in Ibiza, properties in Jamaica… It’s not easy, man. It’s not fucking easy at all… These things need maintaining. It’s like, you wish for these things, but be fucking careful what you wish for! Because it’s hard. I know what fixed assets I’ve got, but trying to make them all work, so they’re fitting of the legacy. The words of my great-grandfather are still being spoken to me, and I understand it. And I’m like, fuck, that guy was so forward-thinking, back then. Some of his stories are a little bit harsh.

Some of your stories are a little bit harsh. Perhaps that’s where you get it from.

RM: [laughs]

Did you always recognise that your dad was a brilliant man?

RM: No. But I grew up. Anybody that could make a suit has got to be quite brilliant. And anybody that can speak to a roomful of people about the Bible has got to be quite brilliant. All priests are quite brilliant, no matter how boring they might seem, to study the Bible and derive some sense out of it that can relate to here and now.

I remember, when we first spoke in 2001, you said your dad initially disapproved of you doing hip hop.

RM: He always ridiculed my love of music, he would always be passing comments on the type of music I was listening to. He’d call it, "Fake revolutionary music." He would never use a word like "Bollocks", but basically he was saying, "That stuff you listen to is bollocks, man. C’mon, these guys are just fucking idiots. If you want to listen to something, listen to Bach. Now that was a revolutionary." And I was, like, "What you talking about? This is fuckin’ Yellowman! He’s revolutionary!"

On 'Me Up' you talk about finding your faith again – how literal is that? How spiritual are you?

RM: I fall in and out of love with the church, with the mosque, with the synagogue, the whole fucking lot. I’m REM – I lose my religion every now and again.

What brings you back to it?

RM: Mother god brings me back! Shows me, don’t mess around. I want to get out of here sometimes, I got those suicidal tendencies. But my team don’t mess. When my mental health team find me – because they do find me, when I disappear – they know what to do.

Do they find you because you want them to find you?

RM: I don’t think… I don’t want them to find me. I’m in some crazy crack-den or some gambling house in Mitcham, and I think I’m untraceable, I’ve got no mobile on me or nothing, and then suddenly someone appears and say, "Oi! You! Get the fuck out of there." Or something happens and I get nicked and I have to spend a few days in a cell somewhere, somewhere really fucking far.

I’m from Colliers Wood, so I know Mitcham quite well. I’ve never been to Esher, though.

RM: You should go, man. Go to the cinema. Our cinema is the best, it never gets that crowded.

Bleeds is out now on Big Dada