Pop review: Roots Manuva, The Plug

On his adopted home turf of Sheffield, rap pioneer Roots Manuva delivers a bold and moving set

Out of the clouds from the smoke machine comes a man we once called the saviour of British hip hop. He wears a Bananaman T-shirt and knee-length shorts checked like graph paper, and a jacket that shows he means business. 'I was saving this jacket for London,' he murmurs, 'but then I thought, "Fuck it".' To explain why, he channels the spirit of Dorothy from The Wizard Of Oz. 'Because, you know, Sheffield, there's no place like hohhhhhhh-me!'

Tonight Roots Manuva is the city's proudest son. Born Rodney Smith in south London 36 years ago, he settled here in 2006, drawn to the city by its music, and - if we're to believe his dancehall-flavoured single from this summer, 'Buff Nuff' - its women. Sheffield is a city known for its observational songwriters and electronic music pioneers, and he fits in well.

The move also distances him from the London MCs that have sprung up in his shadow, like Dizzee Rascal and Wiley. Like Roots Manuva, they were formerly recipients of critical acclaim but not commercial success but this year they have both gone overground with chart-topping hit singles. Manuva has remained underground, wombling free.

It's easy to forget how Manuva's second album, 2001's Mercury-nominated Run Come Save Me, inspired modern British music. His heavily accented rapping and singing, and everyday lyrics about drinking bitter and eating toast, were taken to the charts by the Streets and Lily Allen. His experiments with primitive electronics inform grime and dubstep, and also burble their way through contemporary pop.

So why has Roots Manuva never had his moment of glory? It's a mystery. His pop personality, for starters, is utterly lovable. Tonight he is tireless on stage, skanking around with oodles of energy. He cracks jokes, impersonates Bruce Forsyth ('I've come home to see you, to see you nice!') and encourages us keenly to yo-ho-ho along. He's our Flava Flav or our Andre 3000. Britain should be proud of him.

His new songs are great too. The sunny reggae of 'Again & Again', the opening track from his recent album Slime and Reason, kicks off the show like a statement of intent. 'A lot of people don't know about Smith/ How I came to the scene and came to uplift,' he raps, as the crowd holler back their approval.

He follows it with 'Kick Up Ya Foot', a track full of icy electronics and a wry, slinky chorus that jerks all our bones. Both are clear indicators of his range and his talent, and how they remain with him.

Nevertheless, it's his best-known song, 'Witness (1 Hope)' from 2001, that bowls everyone over tonight. Driven by a squelchy bass and an intergalactic electronic riff, it still sounds like a song ahead of its time. If Dizzee or Wiley released it today, it would be huge. And Manuva knows this, letting one squelch out of the song before temporarily halting it. 'Every time I play this, I get complaints,' he goofs, watching as

his band collapse in laughter behind him. The audience boos heartily. 'Oh, all right then,' he gurns. 'But only because I live here.'

But as the gig progresses it becomes clear why Manuva has never got lucky. As he plays the dub-inspired 'Too Cold' from 2005's Awfully Deep, an album that followed a psychiatric assessment at his label's behest, its black heart pumps darkly. At the end of the moodily cinematic 'Join the Dots', he ends the song nervously playing with his belt.

And on 'Dreamy Days', the gorgeous, chilling track that climaxed his 2001 album, neck hairs bristle as we sing along to its chorus: 'Dreamy days/ Come what may/ We feel no way/ There's going to be fun and lots of laughter.'

The pop charts often don't make room for these depths of experience. More fool the pop charts, I say, although it's clear from tonight's show that Manuva doesn't care. Clearly happy to be home and expanding the horizons of his inventive music, he finishes his gig with an improvised spurt of reggae about how much he loves Sheffield. The home crowd laps it up, booing and hollering when the house lights come on. They know how special he is. It's a shame there are so many other people who don't.


Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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