[Part 1 of 2] Rodney Roots Manuva is a true original. From his unmistakable charcoal voice, to his dark, heady lyrics, to his ability to bring elements of Jamaican dub, U.K. electronics and U.S. hip-hop into one sound — Manuva is the musical equivalent of a one-man army.
Now, weï¿½re not talking about some G-Unit, money-grubbing army, mind you. One of the things immediately apparent about Manuva (born Rodney Smith), apart from his sense of humor, is the absence of the money fever it seems so many people in hip-hop have caught these days. What you feel is culture and a need for understanding, a need for him to translate his chaotic vision of the world into a sound that allows the world to understand him. And itï¿½s genuinely refreshing.
Prefix spoke with Manuva at New York Knitting Factory during his tour supporting Awfully Deep, his fourth full-length. Later that night, a laid back Manuva played to a packed house that he held in the palm of his hand, almost without effort. On stage, he gives the feeling that — in the style of the best Jamaican deejay — he will toast over anything and make those in the audience nod their heads. He has a rare presence and an authoritative voice that gets even further into your consciousness as you come to understand what it is heï¿½s saying under that thick dialect. You get the feeling youï¿½re looking at an artist, not just an emcee.
Prefix Magazine: Is New York the first U.S. date on the tour?
Roots Manuva: No, no. Chicago.
PM: And how was that show?
Roots Manuva: Proper, proper, proper. Down to earth. Grand, grand, grand. Such a rich kind of mix of people. A whole bunch of hardcore heads. A proper lyrical crowd. A lyrical audience. They all listen and knew their shit. It was great.
PM: Is there a band this tour?
Roots Manuva: No band. Two turntables. Two drum machines. It was good because I havenï¿½t done that for a little while. It was hard because for awhile we were trying to concentrate on getting the band to do the slop. And this is like the rebirth!
PM: Is it easier without the band?
Roots Manuva: Not easier. It provides the ingredients, the resonance for a whole different kind of performance capacity. Itï¿½s a mental thing. With the band there — I suppose Iï¿½ll be more on a trip where Iï¿½m trying to project my inner James Brown or my inner Bootsy Collins. But with the decks itï¿½s like, ï¿½Hey, this is my sound system. Welcome everybody. I am your host — check out my crazy sound system.ï¿½ Itï¿½s allowing me to get all into that imaginary sub-universe of the performance. You know? But you canï¿½t really say which one is easier, because with the band, I can let the band do the work.
PM: You like to have a lot of control over your records anyway. When you collaborate with people, you always have a strong hand in that too, right?
Roots Manuva: I try not to do collaborations for my stuff unless theyï¿½re organic. When I worked with Chali 2na he came over for a few days, we was chilling out, he was living with us — it was a proper union of minds. Most people that (are featured) on the past records ï¿½ we donï¿½t just know each other just through doing music. Itï¿½s people that I chill and hang with and reason with. I feel best with the kind of people that would come round to my house and drink a cup of tea.
Thatï¿½s the only kind of people I feature — itï¿½s never like [In A&R voice], ï¿½Dizzee Rascal is hot. Letï¿½s get Dizzee Rascal in here on the record.ï¿½ I really ainï¿½t into that. Because when you make a tune together youï¿½re kind of connected, you enter into a sort of business arrangement, and youï¿½re going to be connected for life because you donï¿½t know whatï¿½s going to happen to that tune.
To me itï¿½s got to be like this audio symbolism of making an alliance with another writer. So itï¿½s really important to be quite choosy about who you collaborate with — in the vocal sense. If someone just wants a couple verses thrown on their beat thatï¿½s different — I can do that all day [Smiles].
PM: How was it when you worked with, say, Cinematic Orchestra?
Roots Manuva: They were unmanaged and then they joined my old management team, so itï¿½s like they were family. And they used the same studio that I was using to do most of (2001ï¿½s) Run Come Save Me. So Iï¿½ve known Jason, Jason Swinscoe, because he used to work at Ninja. He used to do international travel. So I know him. That guyï¿½s caused me a lot of pain, boy, and mixed emotionsï¿½
PM: Why is that?
Roots Manuva: Why? Because a few times Iï¿½d turn up at Euro Tunnel like, ï¿½Yeah, Iï¿½ve got a booking. I donï¿½t have my reservation number, but hereï¿½s my passport.ï¿½ And theyï¿½re like, ï¿½Nope. No tickets have been bought, sir.ï¿½ And Iï¿½ve got to get to Paris, so I turn back, ï¿½No tickets have been bought? Jason, you fucker!ï¿½ And Jasonï¿½s got only one flat level. So I phone him up: ï¿½Jason you cunt. You didnï¿½t fucking book the tickets.ï¿½ And heï¿½s just, ï¿½Oh. Sorry.ï¿½
PM: When youï¿½re outside the U.K., where do you feel most at home?
Roots Manuva: Before I would have said San Fran or Barcelona. But then I like Toronto, and Chicago seems amazing. So I donï¿½t know.
PM: You were at Sonar (in Barcelona) last year, right?
Roots Manuva: Yeah, yeah.
PM: How was it?
Roots Manuva: It was crazy, man. Them people out there ï¿½ those Spanish crowds, they do go for it. We did two shows there. The first show was like an industry type of show, which was brilliant for me — for us. In fact, the show we did at Razmataz was probably one of the best shows I did with the band in terms of all locking together and trying to get to our world. The second show that we did in the airplane hangar was a good hype show as well, but we werenï¿½t in control. The crowd were like, ï¿½Rah, rah, rah,ï¿½ and we was like, ï¿½Reh, reh, reh.ï¿½ So it just ended up being like one big noisy mess. It was just rowdy.
PM: I heard the session you did on Gillesï¿½s show not too long ago.
Roots Manuva: The one withï¿½
PM: The parlor session with the piano. I have to tell you, I thought that sounded really good. Have you ever thought about using more live instruments on the studio records?
Roots Manuva: We always use live instrumentsï¿½