Roots Manuva: memories of a Stockwell childhood

Roots Manuva by Dan Medhurst for blog

UK hip-hop pioneer Roots Manuva is feeling his roots pretty strongly at the moment. In fact, he says he wants his old room back at his mum and dad’s house off Landor Road in Stockwell, despite his current pile in ‘stockbroker belt’ Surbiton, writes Megan Welford..

His old room unfortunately no longer sports the gold flock wallpaper and chintzy lamp (his choice) he had back then. The burst of nostalgia he is having is due to the fact that his dad, who is a preacher in Dulwich, is selling the Victorian house he grew up in with his two brothers (he’s the middle one). His mum, a caterer, moved back to Jamaica a few years back.

Roots Manuva by Andy Swannell

It may also be due to him having hit 40 in September. “It’s pretty weird,” he muses. “As I’ve got older I’ve got more immature. In my later teens I had my head screwed on. Today I’m pretty far off what I expected of myself – being responsible, being realistic, not buying £300 trainers or blowing a couple of months’ wages on a piece of equipment..I still haven’t grown out of that.”

His latest cause for financial self-flagellation is the European tour he’s just been on, where he shelled out on his entourage. “I took a crew of 14 to make sure I made a big noise. I’d rather make no money than just go for the sake of it.”

The show was a “hip-hop-based sound system, an audio circus… a human spaceship, a combination of this and that,” Mr Rodney Hylton Smith has a lyrical way of speaking, just like he does on his records. But he fell into rap, having planned to be a sound technician.

“My first love was listening to sound systems, in Brockwell Park, street festivals, street parties, in Angell Park off Brixton Road..The sound system has always been part of the common community, that construction was always there, at weddings and parties, some funerals.

“I never wanted to be a performer, I thought I would be a studio manager or sound engineer, I was an assistant in a community studio in Brixton – on the Angell Town estate.”

He recorded a track, ‘Next Type of Motion’ in 1995 at the studio and put it out “as a bit of fun”. But it went down quite well. “After that people kept asking me to do collaborations. People would give me a pair of trainers and I’d give them a rap and a bit of music.

“After the first album [Brand New Second Hand, recorded mostly at the Angell Town studio], which I did for two packets of crisps and a can of coke, I started doing tours and then there was more money about. Whoopee! There was sponsorship stuff, free trainers, champagne and a cheeseboard every night. I thought it was free, but it actually was coming out of my fee.”

While he was eating cheese, he was also changing the face of British music. “Back in 1999 the landscape of UK bass music in Britain bore no resemblance to what it is today. The whole concept of doing an album was pretty scary. No-one was taking risks back then, putting out UK MC-based records, we were told it was easier to sell a record without vocals.

“My label, Big Dada, and Ninja Tune [parent label] were responsible for changing that.”

In fact he’s being quite modest as, following his second album, Run Come Save Me, The Times described him as “the voice of Urban Britain” and he won a MOBO for best UK Hip Hop Act. Perhaps his modesty comes from his dad. “When I got my first gold record my dad asked, ‘How many records is that?’ I said 100,000. He said ‘I won’t be happy until you’ve sold a million’. But I know he’s proud. He shows his friends articles about me.”

His dad is not quite the demonic preacher of Sinny Sin Sins, though he is Pentecostal, nor did Rodney Smith ever steal collection, as he claims in that song. “I’m with Big Dada – we’re surrealists,” he explains. Ah! “I was always trying to get out of going to church though. I’ve always had that streak in me, I’m a convenient Christian. I’d go to church one day a week and ask forgiveness for the lying, cheating and stealing.”

He went to Stockwell Primary, famously going back there to film the video for Witness (1 hope), then Pimlico secondary. Was he a good student? “The teachers would say ‘He’s always up to something but we can’t catch him’.”

He talks about how his bit of Lambeth has changed. “Back then there was much more of a sense of families there, people would stay at least 20 years. Now there’s a tension, the artists move in, create trendy cafes, the entrepreneurs start venues and media villages. Brixton is like a new Soho.

“There were always amazing venues. The evolution of the Fridge… I remember it being the ABC cinema and going to see Porridge there when I was eight. When I was five or six I went to see the Metropolitan brass band at Brixton Academy.

“This area is rich, it is what helped create me. It’s special. Lambeth is on my birth certificate and it’s in my heart.” But it doesn’t mean you’re going to see me on Landor Road on the same wall… I’ve travelled.”

That’s all very well, but when is he going to play here? “I feel a bit guilty, I’ve played the Academy, Brixton Jamm, but not very often, it’s just one of those things. Over recent years I’ve found myself in east London. It’d be really nice to return to the Academy..but one cannot say.

“I do have some plans for south London, to play in some weird places..art galleries, car parks..a collaboration with visual artists where people come with a memory stick and leave with a piece of music and some art.” Pretty highbrow stuff. “Well, it was never screaming teenage girl fans. It’s different communication with a community of well-informed listeners and collectors.”

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