[20 September 2010]
Roots Manuva has come a long way in the last decade. From the bedroom bashment of his debut album, Brand New Second Hand, to consolidating his status as the elder statesman of UK hip-hop on 2008’s Slime & Reason, Rodney Smith has consistently made music both sonically and lyrically engaging. Unfortunately, Caribbean-inflected UK flava works according to its own internal logic. Further, with the exceptions of Duran Duran, perhaps Radiohead, probably Coldplay, and some of the more successful trip-hop acts, UK artists have largely struggled since the 1970s to make a stateside impact.
However, the musical situation is more complicated than the charts would have us believe. While the Caribbean and America are geographically close, the mass post-war immigration of the Windrush Generation completely changed the UK’s urban cultural landscape. Though American radio stations playing New Orleans R&B were primary influences on the development of ska and thus rocksteady, soca from Trinidad, and the reggae continuum, the British-born children of the Windrush Generation embraced the reggae riddims and politics, and so did their punk peers. While hip-hop owes its very existence to the wordplay of Jamaican deejays, whose ability to toast over pre-existing tracks was taken up by the emcees of the South Bronx, these influences bleed into one another in UK hip-hop. This lends a distinctive tone to their tales of British urban grit. Roots Manuva is certainly not lacking in this department, but Duppy Writer sees him move his crossover potential into even more accessible territory.
Duppy Writer contains only one new track in the wonky skank of Jah Warriors. Otherwise, the tracks here are original Rodney Smith vocal manoeuvres dubbed out by Brixton-based producer Wrongtom. Wrongtom has worked with Roots Manuva before, providing an extra disc of dubs to Slime & Reason, and he has also proven his credentials by working with Lynval Golding’s Pama International, with legendary label Trojan Records, and—for better or worse—with Staines lad’s mag rockers Hard Fi. Duppy Writer includes reworkings of tracks from all of Roots Manuva’s releases, including the outtake-tastic “Dub Come Save Me” and “Alternately Deep”. The cuts here are, then, retro-dubbed. They anachronistically drag verses written in, and perhaps about, the noughties into productions with the imagined markings of previous decades. Indeed, these productions are warm and sunny. They bring their own barbeque, totally lacking in grime ultraviolence or the apocalyptic sentiments of dubstep. Wrongtom opens up the echo chambers, making for tunes that trundle, urged along by big, rich basslines.
As is so often the case with remix or dub albums, the standout tracks here are often those with a history—those that were most effective or interesting as original cuts. Of course, opener “Butterfly Crab Walk”, “Son of Bodda”, and “Lick Up Ya Foot” are great. They are given tropical sun, tan, and organ-led elasticity respectively. However, “Chin Up”, “Proper Tings Juggled” and “Dutty Rut” have been completely reconfigured, re-imagined. Where “Chin High”, from Awfully Deep, was a call to arms, consolidated by a storming bass and a sputtering scratch that completed its chorus, here “Chin Up” is more approachable and light-hearted. The original found Roots Manuva delivering a street sermon that listed Babylon’s ills, but Wrongtom replaces its palpitating dread with shimmying hi-hats and swaying synths. The story behind “Dutty Rut” is even more compelling. It’s a version of “Colossal Insight”, again from Awfully Deep, three times removed. The original was wearily catchy, propelled by the repeated ascent and descent of a central squelch. In Jammer’s hands, remixed for Alternately Deep, it was deranged digital dancehall, all slo-mo daggering and trembling cellulite. As “Dutty Rut”, it skips and wobbles, but it’s largely placid, hosed down with guitars and cowed sirens.
Ultimately, Duppy Writer is very easy to listen to and it will perfectly soundtrack all manner of summertime activities both musical and physical: personal sound system skanking, living room head-nodding, and committing to cruise at too few miles an hour. It’s not perfect simply because it retreads a road often travelled in the genre, and one that Roots Manuva himself has visited on three separate releases. Nevertheless, it’s a delight. Upon further listening, it will reveal interesting twists in its production. In turn, the musical differences between these cuts and their originals will throw new light on old lyrical touts, displacing them without ever making them seem unfamiliar. Thus, this record presents some high quality versioning, some well thought-out interpretations of already excellent songs, that can act as standalone cuts and can enrich the originals. Duppy Writer adds something to Manuva’s oeuvre that highlights his experience as artist, and his constantly open mind. Hopefully, it will see him march into his third decade of recording with consistency well and truly under his belt.