Rodney Smith aka Roots Manuva is one of the titans of Black British music.
Smith made his recorded debut in 1994 as part of IQ Procedure through Suburban Base’s short-lived hip hop imprint Bluntly Speaking Vinyl. He debuted as Roots Manuva the same year on Blak Twang’s ‘Queen’s Head’ single, before releasing his own single, ‘Next Type of Motion’ the following year through the same label, the hugely influential Sound of Money. 1996 saw the release of his collaborations with Skitz (‘Where My Mind Is At’/’Blessed Be the Manner’) on 23 Skidoo’s Ronin label. The release of ‘Feva’ on Tony Vegas’s Wayward imprint followed in 1997. This was also the year that saw the first releases from Big Dada. In 1998 he joined the label and the following year released his fiercesome debut, ‘Brand New Second Hand’. From an initial 3000 records put into the shops ‘BNSH’ has now sold over 50,000 copies in the UK. It also made the first dents in the wall of complacency and indifference which has often greeted home-grown Black music in this country. Manuva was rewarded for his breakthrough with a MOBO as Best Hip Hop Act that year. As if to demonstrate the broad appeal of his style, he also featured on Leftfield’s ‘Dusted’ from their ‘Rhythm & Stealth’ album.
Big things were now expected of Smith and he delivered with 2001’s ‘Run Come Save Me’, the record which gained him a nomination for the Mercury Music Prize and which has currently sold well over 100,000 copies in the UK. More importantly, it spawned the all-time classic ‘Witness’ (voted the greatest UK hip hop tune of all time by the readers of Hip Hop Connection) on an album that ran from the broad, swaggering pop of ‘Dreamy Days’ to the dark, odd meditation of ‘Evil Rabbit’. It is also the record which led the Guardian newspaper, in October 2003, to proclaim Manuva fifth in their ’40 Best Bands In Britain’ feature, proclaiming that “his influence is incalculable and he opened the doors for the Streets, Dizzee Rascal et al.”
Smith followed up that album with “Slime & Reason” in 2008 and “4everevolution” in 2011. Both records were acclaimed by critics and fans alike. In addition, 2010 saw the release of “Duppy Writer,” Alongside these releases, he contributed to the first Gorillaz record, started up his label-come-gang, Banana Klan, and guested on countless records for other artists.
Between times, he toured festivals the world over (on one memorable night being joined onstage by Usain Bolt) and developed an occasional sideline as a “DJ/selecta.” In addition, for a number of years, Banana Klan and its artists took up an increasing amount of Smith’s time, as did curating and promoting a series of “Dub College” events that featured everyone from Micachu and The Bug to Dawn Penn. As ever, Smith was less interested in genre than in pushing “bass culture” in new and interesting directions. He has also collaborated and guested with a long list of artists over the years not only Gorillaz, but a diverse selection of artists including Jamie Cullum, The Maccabees, Toddla T, The Bug, The Cinematic Orchestra, Leftfield and Mr Scruff and many others. The records continued to come. 2010 saw the download-only release of “Snakebite” (complete with an excellent video, shot on the same Kent beaches as the album cover to Run Come Save Me), new remixes and collaborations for Ninja Tune’s twentieth anniversary XX compilation and the release of Duppy Writer, a reggae reinterpretation of his back catalogue by Wrong Tom featuring the blazer “Jah Warriors”.
Having had music featured in the very first series of Skins back in 2007, when Rodney was asked to compose a track for the very last series, he jumped at the chance. With a brief that covered everything from tempo and feel to hints at lyrical content, Manuva cooked up “Stolen Youth” – a classic Roots Manuva moment built on mournful strings, heartbeat drum programming and the kind of lyrical flights that made his name, all delivered in that trademark chocolate-growl.
After a wondrous performance at the BBC’s Maida Vale with fellow sonic adventurers The Invisible, the last two years have seen Rodney back in his laboratory, brewing up the ingredients for his next brand new album. The first results of his latest experiments were astonishing. An initial double A-side single, Facety 2:11 / Like a Drum saw Smith recruit two of electronic music’s most brilliant talents, Four Tet and Machinedrum. Summer 2015 was spent appearing at a series of fesitvals, including supporting Blur at Hyde Park, while putting the finishing touches on his new record, ‘Bleeds.’
His sixth studio album, ‘Bleeds’ is his most concise and focussed record, his most emotionally affecting and powerful release since his breakthrough, ‘Run Come Save Me.’ Drawing upon production assistance from young British producer, Fred, together with musical heavyweights Four Tet, Adrian Sherwood and Switch’s new production team, With You, the title of the record is, in the man’s words, an “egocentric jest of daring to do things in the tradition of Jesus: I’m ready to bleed for the artform.” It is, of course, also a reference to the way in which genres, in the sonic world of Roots Manuva, have a tendency to bleed into one another, so that hip hop, reggae, techno, funk, neo-classical, all blend together to create “liquid soul, the blood, the bleeds that paint infinite sacred wonders in our dreams and unfold in our day-to-day.”
From the opening chords of “Hard Bastards” you know “Bleeds” is going to be something special. The tune combines melodramatic strings and choral work with hard-hitting social comment and leaves us in no doubt that there will never be any sell-out in Manuva world, just a relish for being “a voice for those who how have little or no voice.” First Switch tune “Crying” is best described by Manuva himself: “a very paranoid fidget affair,” all tricky rhythms and deadpan delivery. Four Tet’s “Facety 2:11” has already blown minds and ears on both sides of the Atlantic, a jump-cut, oddly beautiful meditation on the power of the word. “Don’t Breathe Out” is an uplifting crossover moment with reggae lilt. Rodney describes “Cargo,” tongue only slightly in cheek, as his stadium tune and, with its emotional build, its easy to imagine a sea of lighters greeting it. From “Stepping Hard,” Smith unleashes a suite of emotional showstoppers, interspersed with the playground-knowingness of single “One Thing.” The album culminates with the stunning, raw and beautiful “I Know Your Face,” which could leave you devastated if not followed up by the revived vigour of “Fighting For.”
One of the true pioneers and originals of British music, any album from Roots Manuva is an event. When it’s as good as ‘Bleeds’ it’s one of the musical events of the year. Both genre-defying and deeply rooted in what he describes as “the culture of Bass and Verb,” the record innovates and consolidates in equal measure. Rodney Smith describes himself as “a British Black musical Mark Rothko” and ‘Bleeds’ is another masterpiece from this abstract wordsmith.