The first time I try to interview Roots Manuva, AKA British MC and producer Rodney Smith, there’s a problem: he isn’t actually there. “Sorry,” says his PR, looking a bit flummoxed when I arrive. “He was up all night recording with Adrian Sherwood in Ramsgate and we thought it best if he went home.”
My second attempt also fails on the morning we are due to meet – doctors say he has got flu and he’s not to do anything for 10 days. So it’s not until third time lucky, at Alaska Studios in south London, that I finally get to meet him – he is slumped behind the reception desk, brown roll-up dangling, and sporting the unique sartorial combo of shorts and a German military jacket.
“I picked it for the colours, I actually thought it was Belgian,” he shrugs, before swerving off on the first of today’s many tangents. “I got it during one of my Shoreditch sit-outs. Sometimes I like to go to Shoreditch and just stay in a hotel, do some club cruising. And I never find any club I want to go to, so I don’t know why I bloody do it. But at least I try and get a funny bit of clothing to mark the occasion. Although,” his voice quietens, “this occasion was not that happy. It was a little bit … sore.”
Smith is a hard man to pin down, and so is his music. Yes, you could call him a rapper, a beat-maker, a hip-hop producer, but such genre-boxing does a disservice to one of the most singular voices that British pop has had over the past two decades. Since his stunning bedroom-produced debut album, Brand New Second Hand, and the follow-up smash Witness (1 Hope) – which, even 14 years on, sounds like it was beamed in from some distant alien galaxy – he has inspired everyone from Dizzee Rascal to the Arctic Monkeys, and informed styles from garage to grime, without ever seeming to swerve from his own individualistic path.
He denies that he’s an innovator. “It’s all just soundsystem culture,” he says. “As original as we are, we’re just copying what the original guys really did: Kool Herc, Grandmaster Caz, Busy Bee – all those earlier-generation guys. But [my music] was never supposed to ape what came out of Brooklyn or anywhere else. It was supposed to be its own nasty little mutant.”
The latest mutation is Bleeds, his ninth studio LP, on which Smith sought to leave his comfort zones, teaming up with eclectic producers – Four Tet, Switch, Fred – and relinquishing control so they could have free rein to cut up, chop and reorder the 60 or so tracks he provided them. It was, he says, a “harsh” process, but the resulting sound could only ever be Roots Manuva – dank and claustrophobic in places, prone to flights of fancy, worldly yet distinctly British.
Yet he thinks it stands apart from his other releases, at least in one aspect: “I finally made a record that I could play at my son’s school open day and not feel too self-conscious about it,” he says.
What does he mean?
“Other tunes are full of slang, they could be about crime, girls … they’re nutty little creative exercises that not everyone gets. This record has a vocal and a lyrical maturity that is good for a cross-section of listeners.”
If you think this means Bleeds adopts a softer, more commercial approach then you’re mistaken. The opening song is called Hard Bastards, and covers such school assembly-friendly topics as joblessness, drugged escapism and the brutality of “rich cunts”. It paints a bleak picture of British life in 2015 but it’s not, he says, informed by the country’s rising inequality. “Selfishness is everybody, from the broke to the rich,” he says. “We can be rather nasty people whether we have £200 for the day or £200m for a lifetime.”
Is that something he’s witnessed getting worse in recent years?
“Nah, it’s always been bad! What will get worse is that, as the middle class develops, they will start doing really horrible things to each other, in terms of how sophisticated they can be to vote, or defraud the tax man. The amiable middle class will become the mean, hard bastard class, trying to hang on to their assets.”
It’s not inequality Smith sees as British society’s chief problem, but the education system. “We’re constantly being beaten around the heads with ‘You’ll be nothing – you’ll end up sweeping the streets, Rodney!’ Well, what’s wrong with that? Why shouldn’t I sweep the road if I want to? A teacher should have no right to say anything like that. What’s more important – a judge or a roadsweeper? We need both! Every other person wants their child to be a doctor or a lawyer – shouldn’t we just want every person on earth to be educated? Then everything else should take care of itself. So yeah, that’s what that song’s about. ”
He doesn’t even agree that his music is particularly political. “It’s just a train of thought over some interesting chords,” he shrugs, dismissively. “It’s been said on a million albums, a million times before. When it’s time for me to get into politics, I’m going to get into politics. Take time to make that my only thing, put as much energy into it as music. Actually go out there, talk to people, help my party become what they need to be.”
What’s his party?
“I’d rather that wasn’t in the press.”
This seems to be the pattern for much of this interview. One minute Smith can be in full flow, the next he’s delivering a pretty good impression of someone who doesn’t fancy being here: “I told them I didn’t want to do the interview in this room,” he mutters at one point; at another he instructs me: “Hurry up man! I gotta go soon!”
On two occasions he even gets up and leaves the room and I’m tentatively asked if I need him to return (er, yes, that would be helpful). But if he is keen to get this out of the way, he really should try to be less entertaining company. Because pretty much everything he says over the course of 57 stop-start minutes – from his love for Will Young (“he’s really got those tonsils, you get tired just listening to the albums”) to spontaneous outbreaks of botanical inquiry (“I would like to develop seeds. How do you get a bloody seed? How do you get a different breed of apple?”) – is delivered with the same mix of humour and insight that marks out his best music.
Take our chat about the skittery, trap-infused track Crying, which twitches with paranoia over samples of a sobbing baby, and features the line: “When I look inside my head and find it so disgusting / When I speak to myself, and myself said ‘Go cause disruption’.” It seems to document genuine torment, but Smith bats it off with a story about the way mental health and creativity clash.
“I would never tell a doctor about the inspiration or dreams I have,” he says. Because creative thoughts could be interpreted as madness?
“Total madness! At the moment my doctor thinks I’m totally bonkers. I have to keep bringing in records and press cuttings, going, ‘Look it’s real, it’s true! This review in this magazine, it’s me, it’s me, it’s me!’”
He thinks you’re deluded for thinking you’re a well-known rapper?
“He says: ‘I don’t know you,’ but what does he want me to do? Rap for him? I only came in to say I was having trouble sleeping, but he ends up saying: ‘You need to take these for seven days.’”
Roots’s problems with the medical profession go way beyond his own doctor’s lack of UK hip-hop knowledge.
“Conventional medicine’s whole attitude towards brain meltdowns is scary,” he says. “I hate the word ‘schizophrenic’. It’s such a stupid thing to say, it’s insensitive. Everyone is built of different characters. They might be acting in a certain manic way in public that is socially unacceptable, but schizophrenic is daft diagnostics, doesn’t tell you anything.”
I wonder what he made of Benga’s recent openness about his own mental health issues. The dubstep producer was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia in 2014, and has linked his condition to his recreational drug use and heavy tour schedule.
“I saw that, he’s a brave guy,” Smith says. “He’s not alone, though – 95% of artists have gone through a similar thing. There are some crazy addictions and manias going on, because of the lack of love. The industry is willing to have you out there dangling by a string, getting by on painkillers or anti-psychosis drugs. It’s just so sad – things like Amy Winehouse or Michael Jackson. The doctors are killing artists. And yet the middle classes just want their kids to be doctors. To be killers. Fucking middle classes, man.”
Making Bleeds was a mentally arduous process: he says he spent days just working on a single snare sound. “Days! Three days, just tweaking and pushing the desk, trying to get the kick and the snare and the hi-hat to shuffle in just the right millisecond of a way.”
He slides his chair over to the mixing desk: “Then, when we’re ready to do stuff here, we cook this. This becomes a stove, and we leave it on for days. Until … the internal wires start to heat and you get a real individual sound, you know?”
He describes the studio as “a manky old place with a real dirty vibe” but it’s still a long way from his first record, which was made on an Atari 1040 with a whopping 4MB of memory. Back then, Smith says, he was a “studio bod” who didn’t go to clubs. Instead he recorded in his flat, which must have annoyed the neighbours. “Nah, they were cool,” he says. “We lived in a really rough part of south London. They were used to gunshots at night time, or police knocking on the door and asking if they’d seen or heard anything. Somebody smoking weed and making beats is not really your first concern.”
Does he romanticise those times now?
“Of course! I’m now 15 years away from having to think that. I’m not on the street. I was actually in Stockwell the other day and I burst out in tears when I saw my school. And the place is still relatively the same: the same skate park, the same off licence, bloody people still getting killed in the off licences …”
Roots has spent the last decade or so living a much more domesticated life in Esher, Surrey. His chief concerns now are fatherhood (he used his kids as a soundboard for Bleeds); cooking (“not to celebrity chef standard”) and gardening (“I’ve just bought a winter cherry today, but we’ve got to stop the birds from eating the bloody cherries.”). He refers to this new life on the track One Thing, with the line: “Ambles over, no Land Rover / So what the heck are you doing in Surrey?”
How often do people ask him that?
“Never,” he says, before suggesting the opposite. “Just don’t act surprised! I’ve been here in Esher for 12 years, you’re going to see me in Esher some time – don’t fucking double take. Just come up and say hello … then be off. And no, I don’t look like that video, because that video was 15 years ago.”Back in 2005, Smith confessed to be worrying about remaining a relevant force in hip-hop: “I don’t want to become anybody’s coffee table project,” he said. “I’m 32. In music terms, I’m an old man.”
A decade on, happily settled into middle age, has this fear grown or passed? “Now I don’t care,” he says. “Fuck it, I can be coffee table now! I haven’t got there yet, though. I’ve not managed to make the most anodyne, David Guetta, sensible music, but at some point I’m gonna embrace that.” His voice loudens: “So you tell them, tell them all! David Guetta! Bloody Calvin Harris! I’m up for writing, I’ve got some wicked hooks for you!”
Suddenly, he loses focus, his eyes dart across the room. “Oh look,” he says, distracted by a piece of long-forgotten studio kit. “I haven’t used this for years. An old reverb unit, great for making snares. Shit, I better tell ’em.” He leaves the room.
I sit for a few minutes and wonder if Smith’s coming back. He eventually reappears and plonks himself back down but I’m sensing it’s time to wrap things up. I ask a final question about his father, who was once a Pentecostal church preacher, and someone Smith has cited as an influence on his own style of rapping.
“My dad was so particular about voice projection, just in everyday conversation,” he says. “You couldn’t just,” – he mumbles something under his breath – “because he’d say: ‘Speak up! Address the situation properly!’”
He launches into a full impression of his dad, his voice booming: “‘In the morning you say: ‘Good morning!’ In the afternoon you say: ‘Good afternoon!’ That’s not very modern for a boy living in Stockwell, a modern place, modern thinking. But he always hated the way I spoke. Using slang words. Said it wasn’t quite right.”
It seems to tie together with what Smith said at the start of the interview, about wanting to make a record that he could be proud to play at his son’s school. Did he also want to make a record his dad could be proud of?
“Yeah, there is a link,” he agrees. “Before, I was on a Thom Yorke thing, don’t tell anybody anything, paint the emotions with whatever you paint them with. Now it’s more a thing to show off the language, to be clean and clear with the linguistic projections. It’s not just a record for the sake of it. It’s supposed to take your mind on a really weird and wonderful journey.”
After an hour in his company, I’ve no doubt that Roots Manuva is a master of that.