It was as a kid. Before I even knew what a soundsystem was. I was walking past Stockwell skateboard park and there was this sound being set up. They were probably just trying out their speakers. I was with my mum, holding my mum's hand. And I remember my mum being quite intimidated by the whole affair. Such a barrage of bass coming from it! And these dodgy-looking blokes standing beside it just admiring the sound of their bass. It's just a bass thing. A volume thing. I don't know if I rose-tint the memories, but I remember it sounded so good, so rich. It's not like today when we go to clubs and it hurts. It was more of a life-giving bass."
In this simple recollection it's easy to locate the driving force of a whole lot of what Rodney Smith aka Roots Manuva is all about, what he remains all about right up until this very day. His fascination with and love of soundsystem culture informs not just his music and lyrics but his whole attitude towards life and goes some way to explain his popularity both as an artist and an individual.
"It's the bass thing. It's the whole organic thing. Back in those days the sound was probably built by a local carpenter. The whole communal aspect of a bunch of people getting together and doing whatever they have to do to build this sonic monstrosity. It's just the love that people get together and project into this one physical thing."
Rodney Smith was born and grew up in Stockwell, South London. His parents both came from a small village in Jamaica called Banana Hole. His father was a lay preacher and tailor, a combination which goes some way to explaining the son's preoccupation with the soul and the stitching, or as he puts it, describing his new album, "the internal/external struggle." His family weren't exactly rolling in money (hence his mother's use of the term "brand new second hand" to characterise the occasional pre-used present), but they were strict, as befits members of the Pentecostal Church. Music was never meant to be the chief inspiration in young Rodney's life, but the soundsystem in the park that day moved his spirit in mysterious ways.
Many tapes were collected in secret, much study was made of deejays like Eek-A-Mouse and Asher Senator. But it was only when Smith heard hip hop and, in particular, the incomparable Rakim, that he realised that his voice could be used for more than toasting, that it was an expressive tool limited only by his imagination. It's tempting to see the combination as some sort of cold fusion, a nuclear mushroom cloud forming from the realisation. But opportunities for Black British musicians in the nineties were few and far between. Hard work and commitment were the only way forward.
Smith made his recorded debut in 1994 as part of IQ Procedure through Suburban Base's short-lived hip hop imprint Bluntly Speaking Vinyl. He debuted as Roots Manuva the same year on Blak Twang's "Queen's Head" single, before releasing his own single, "Next Type of Motion" the following year through the same label, the hugely influential Sound of Money. 1996 saw the release of his collaborations with Skitz ("Where My Mind Is At"/"Blessed Be the Manner") on 23 Skidoo's Ronin label. The release of "Feva" on Tony Vegas's Wayward imprint followed in 1997. This was also the year that saw the first releases from Big Dada, a collaboration between Coldcut's Ninja Tune label and hip hop journalist Will Ashon. Ashon had tipped Smith as the "Most Likely To..." back in '95 and soon came knocking asking for a single. Roots replied that he was tired of making one-off singles and would only sign to do an album. In 1998 he joined the label and the following year released his fiercesome debut, "Brand New Second Hand". From an initial 3000 records put into the shops "BNSH" has now sold over 50,000 copies in the UK. It also made the first dents in the wall of complacency and indifference which has often greeted home-grown Black music in this country, with The Times declaring that "his is the voice of urban Britain, encompassing dub, ragga, funk and hip hop as it sweeps from crumbling street corners to ganja-filled dancehalls, setting gritty narratives against all manner of warped beats." Manuva was rewarded for his breakthrough with a MOBO as Best Hip Hop Act that year. As if to demonstrate the broad appeal of his style, he also featured on Leftfield's "Dusted" from their "Rhythm & Stealth" album.
Big things were now expected of Smith and he delivered with 2001's "Run Come Save Me," the record which gained him a nomination for the Mercury Music Prize and which has currently sold just short of 100,000 copies in the UK. More importantly, it spawned the all-time classic "Witness" (voted the greatest UK hip hop tune of all time by the readers of Hip Hop Connection) on an album that ran from the broad, swaggering pop of "Dreamy Days" to the dark, odd meditation of "Evil Rabbit." It is also the record which led the Guardian newspaper, in October 2003, to proclaim Manuva fifth in their "40 Best Bands In Britain" feature, proclaiming that "his influence is incalculable and he opened the doors for the Streets, Dizzee Rascal et al."
But the process of the promoting the record and the pressures of recording it left Mr Manuva feeling battered and bruised, which goes some way to explaining the long gap until his new album, "Awfully Deep".
"I had to do a lot of recording to get back into the boogie. Cos I kinda stopped for a little while. I kinda fell out of love with the whole studio environment. I just wanted to create. Just make endless ditties that go nowhere. Just make music for the sake of it. Have fun." But slowly, slowly, he inched his way back into it, giving himself the room and time to make mistakes. And to recognise them as mistakes. "It hurt a lot more, making this record. It was really painful. A lot more intense. I had a lot of rope and I strangled myself a few times!"