Rodney Smith was born and grew up in Stockwell, South London. As he puts it, his family “were here to make it big time.” As Rodney sees it now, “my family are such good, decent people. I’m the runt of pack.” The runt found music.
An avid but secret collector of the soundsystem tapes which were easy to find in Brixton at the time, Smith studied deejays like Eek-A-Mouse and Asher Senator. But it was perhaps only when he heard hip hop that he realised that his voice was an expressive tool limited only by his imagination.
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 Black 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 debut, “Brand New Second Hand”. At the time, Rodney couldn’t see what he was doing. I just thought “I can do what I want. Only 1500 British hip hop fans are gonna hear it anyway.” That’s the basic sentiment I’ve tried to tap into with all my records.”
BNSH” has now sold over 60,000 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.
2001 saw “Run Come Save Me,” the record which gained him a nomination for the Mercury Music Prize and which has sold well over 100,000 copies in the UK (certified gold). 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). 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.
“Awfully Deep” followed four years later, a more focused, more ornate and fully-produced piece of work, and once again hugely acclaimed on its release. The album entered the national charts at 21 and, in “Colossal Insight” and “Too Cold,” was bookended by two Top Forty singles. Smith remains bemused by its reception, though, and in particular people’s tendency to take his lyrics a little too seriously. “A lot of the jokes and humour of “Awfully Deep” went over people’s heads,” he explains.
The fourth full album, a marvelous, freewheeling summation of his career so far is “Slime & Reason” – the conflict between doing what you want and what you know is right. It’s a simple idea but perhaps one that goes to the heart of Rodney Smith’s work and creativity, the basic tension that drives him.
Roots Manuva sums up the fearless approach which means he continues to be one of the most vital, exciting, honest artists working in the UK today. “You got to sing like no one’s listening.” He pauses, searches for a way to expand on this, smiles as he thinks of one. “You gotta fart like there’s no one there to smell it!”