He got mad style, he strictly Roots
Never mind your Mike Skinners and your boys from Bow, Rodney Smith remains the most charismatic, most wilfully eccentric and most sonically adventurous British MC to transform uncomprisingly individual music into international acclaim and (relative) commercial success. Roots Manuva shot onto the scene with the organic warmth of Brand New Second Hand—his Anglocentricity best exemplified in track titles like “Cornmeal Dumpling”. The follow-up, Run Come Save Me, was a bizarrely brilliant look at the trials and tribulations of a black English preacher’s son, told in gruff-yet-friendly Jamaican/Sarf London patois littered with vocab of his own invention, and powered by a signature sound perhaps best described as a dub-powered double-decker bus playing host to a riotous party of rave, IDM, hip-hop and R&B, driven by a drunk, stoned driver headed out somewhere beyond Alpha Centuri.
This spawned club monster “Witness (1 Hope)”, perhaps the only British track still being regularly played out by West Coast DJs like Nu-Mark, and certainly the only one to feature praise for beans on toast. Within a year there followed companion EP, Dub Come Save Me, an equally excellent collection of new tracks and dub remixes by Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys amongst others. By this time Smith had really started getting around, “mixin’ up the Guinness with the raw egg yolk” for Leftfield on the killer “Dusted”, becoming “All Things For All Men” for the Cinematic Orchestra, getting the best out of Jurassic 5’s Chal 2na on two great collaborations and demanding “more bass!” of UNKLE on their dancefloor destroying remix of DJ Shadow’s “GDMFSOB” (on which he also noted the positive effect “the gin, sin and acid” had on his manhood, the rum dodger). The “Rooty-toot Manuva” was beloved by all, and seemed unstoppable.
The diversity and depth of his appeal are still blatant two years later with a glance at the list of remixers of lead-off single “Colossal Insight”: New Flesh’s dub scientist Part 2, relative unknowns Jammer & Mizz Beatz, the less-than obvious Röyksopp (who do a wonderful job nonetheless) and… camp glitch-house experimentalist The Soft Pink Truth? More importantly, the track itself is a hypnotically woozy slice of electro-hop over which Roots lurches in pseudo-gospel mode: “Colossal insiiiiight/ Inviting of soul/ The study of the Good Foot” goes the wavering drift of the chorus, or thereabouts. He’s back on form, once again fusing knowing, playfully overstated melodrama that borders on the Edwardian with soul, perceptive humour and hope, to wit: “Hurt and pain made me/ Nothing came to save me/ I walk with disaster/ Prefer to be plastered”, delivered with a defiant grin. He’s trying to have his beer and drink it too, whilst pleading to the Good Lord to remove his hangovers. And you can dance to it! But what’s this?
This could wellabe my
I’ve had a good run
I’ve made a few gees
I’ve hadda bag a fun
I’ve smoked a few trees
Now I want to rest my
All in all I’ve been feeling the pinch, and
those boojois blacks have been far from convinced, but
I don’t give a damn about UK rap
I’m a UK black making UK tracks and
I’ve got love for every one of those scenes
and those pigeon holes were never nuffin’
to hold me…”
I put the lines before you in this fashion both to give you an idea of his affably laid back delivery, which follows some unknowable, wonkily flip-flopping inner metronome whilst remaining on beat, and to let him spell things out for those of you yet to travel with the Roots Fi Discotheque: he’s at the end of his tether, and may soon be gone. In fact, the title track finds him urging his management not to send him to the “farm of the funny”, because he reckons it’ll only make him worse (and because he’s worried about “kinky nurses” prodding his arse, ya hear). Indeed much of this album is rumoured to have been recorded in the wake of a mental breakdown, as also alluded to obliquely on betrayal-avenging fantasy “The Falling” and “Thinking”, which lays bare his worries about brooding excessively (and berates himself for being “30 years old and never had a job/ Who’s that layabout/ Professional slob?”, which more musicians might do with applying to their work ethic). Much better to request women “Shake your pants/ Shake your skirt/ Shake away your hurt” as he does on the chorus of opener “Mind 2 Motion”.
The swaying reggae bass tones of “Mind 2 Motion”, incidentally, make it a “brown” tune. Roots Manuva “suffers” from synaesthesia; you hear, he sees—sounds as shapes and colours. Thus the sublime stuttering technoid funk and looming bass waves of “Chin High”, the closest thing to a “Witness” this album has to offer, are apparently silver (Lord knows what this makes the instrumental ending, with DJ MK’s run-out groove scratching somehow complementing what sounds like a choir gargling a hymn through a vocoder). I’m willing to bet that Awfully Deep runs the gamut of Smith’s audio/visual spectrum, which to us more conventionally wired-up folks means electrifying rave paranoia, or slightly camp string-led whimsy, or ska brass flowing out of the murk, or traditional dub drifting along on a bed of subtle Indian percussion, like the Ganges through summer heat, or dancehall both conventional and operatic: sounds that are icy, glowing, distorted, joyful, wistful, simple, wide as vistas, always colourful. Far-too-brief interludes “Cause 4 Pause” and “Pause 4 Cause” in particular ride on a glimmering marvel of a beat that’s simultaneously nostalgically old school, soulfully futuristic, G-Funk indebted and undeniably both British. I could probably listen to the scant two minutes and 40 seconds of the two combined for an hour on loop.
Where this album falls down badly is the choruses, which tend to be simplistic, repetitive chants (easier to sing along to when damaged in the club?), and the initial impression of a loss of focus, nay, point on some of the verses. However, repeated listening reveals that he’s still kicking his moral reflections, his “cryptic displays of deadpan”, just in a looser, less bothered style. Smith’s ability to truly be one with the musical backdrops he concocts for himself remains more or less unparalleled, and if his wordplay is no longer as intricate as it was he still gets past your resistance by fusing with the groove, provoking involuntary smirks. His flow has never been his strength, it’s the way he speaks through his music as a whole, and he’s now square with expectation: “UK rhyme saviour/ No, never quite: that was just some media totality of hype”. So you, too, can ignore the nepotistic hysteria of the British media and see this for what it is: not a brilliant album, not his best (that remains Run Come Save Me), just a damn fine selection of mood-groove-dub-flavours by one of music’s true inimicables, back for what may be the last time. Come bear witness.
// Notes from the Road
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