Roots Manuva: Rolling Deep

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Thank Dizzee and The Streets–now that the pressure’s off Roots Manuva to save the soul of UK hip-hop, he’s gone Awfully Deep and come back with his strongest album yet. Fresh off a UK tour with M.I.A. and his eight-piece band The Manuvadelics, the man born Rodney Smith talked with XLR8R after lights out at his Waterloo, London studio.

XLR8R: Where are you calling me from?

Rodney Smith: This is the place, my office, called Banana Towers. This is where I coordinate the madness. It’s bananas, man!

Sounds kinda quiet, actually.

Yeah, all the monkeys have gone home.

So I just read that you stopped smoking herb.

I’m not getting up in the morning and smoking first thing, but I still take a puff. I still celebrate now and again but not as crazy as I used to.

Have you replaced the weed with something else? Exercise? Meditation?

Probably way too much alcohol! [Laughs]

The new album gets kinda dark and supernatural at times. You been getting into horror films like The Ring or something?

[Laughs] There’s this comedy program here called League of Gentlemen–you ever heard of it? Serious humor, man; on the verge of horror. It disturbs me, actually, and I’ve been quite inspired by what they do. I remember seeing one sketch about a butcher’s shop that everybody went to to get human meat, and they sing a little song about it called “Special Meat.” And it’s just so crazy that we’re just hoping in our heads about the whole fact that we don’t know what we’re eating. There’s been loads of scandals over the years. I remember one scandal in Brixton, they were selling donkey meat, and a few kabob shops that had been done for selling dog meat and pigeon meat. And that sense of humor just grips me.

Tell me about the lyric “I’m the hippie/I’m the gangsta/I’m the contradiction” [from “Thinking”]. Sounds like the motto of San Francisco’s Haight Street to me.

Yeah, I been there! I love to mess around with hippie ideology, but at the same time, if you do me wrong I’m quick to speak of the other side. In general I’m a people person, but as soon as the promoter doesn’t pay me I’m on the phone to the boys, like, ‘Come, come! We gonna deal with this fool!’ I wanna celebrate the peace, but at the same time I gotta eat.

How is it touring with a live band?

We’re kinda morphing the whole bashment mix with a little bit of rave mixed with a bit of rock mixed with a bit of P-Funk. Most people don’t hear it–most people just say, ‘Oh, it’s not hip-hop. It’s a dub reggae sound, that’s what it is.’ They can’t hear all the little subtleties. It’s all of the above. It just turns the music inside out, opens it out to connection to the Mothership.

George Clinton’s getting old, but he’s still talking some way out, cosmic shit.

And he’s got a mad hairstyle, too! And he’s still doing what he does. We try to emulate that stuff. Whatever they were smoking or taking, we’re trying to do it without taking the substances.

Think you’ll last as long as them?

If you can program your tours with some kind of civility, you can definitely keep it going. It’s not necessary to do, like, 100 dates back to back; you space it out a little bit. And do smaller things. Play early! Going on at midnight and finishing at four is a no-no at 60. [Laughs]

Yeah, now you’ve got a kid to handle.

He’s gonna be two on Saturday. He’s talking and walking, and I’m sure he’ll be rapping or making beats pretty soon. He’s got his little keyboards, and he’s into his music. It’s amazing–to me he’s a hip-hop baby, ‘cause hip-hop pays his bills.

What else you got going on?

Too many things. Trying this Banana Clan thing, to run this label thing, and having no idea how to run a label but just loving music and the whole culture of it. It’s Banana Clan. It’s not a label–it’s a collective, it’s an imprint, with some totally new and unknown people. There’s a guy called Ricky Rankin who dates back to the late late ’70s sound system MCs, and another guy called Jimmy Screech, who is like an amalgamation of, say, someone like Shaggy but with the lyrical dexterity of a Mos Def kinda all rolled into one. I’m gonna put together a little mixtape for the second quarter that should be all ready for Coachella. And I’ll leave ‘em all over America, so you’ll definitely hear from me.