He conquered the game somewhere around the turn of the century. He’ll be forever regarded as the godfather of UK hip hop, never quite slipping from the collective consciousness, experimenting with new productions of his own, popping up from time to time to guest on friend’s albums, and generally presiding over the British hip hop and grime scenes. It’s that very status that’s given Roots Manuva the platform to explore new ideas, and the perspective to attempt to reshuffle the relationship between himself and his followers. The emcee/producer has been in the studio getting hands on with a new website.
“A new multimedia base to bring awareness to our music,” Roots AKA Rodney Hylton Smith explains, “a place to transform the whole thing of Roots Manuva and Bananaklan [a loose collective of associated artists] into more of an audio circus, a new wave soundsystem, rather than just your typical hip hop act or pop act. I want to kind of turn it into… everything… doing theatre and workshops and have people do collaborations with our artists.”
Inspired by the Jamaican soundsytem culture he witnessed growing up in London, Roots is interested in bringing back that performance ethos, and in breaking the industry’s current model – the cycle of album, tour, album, tour.
“We’re trying to create a wider continuum of output. We can make our own CNN, or our own kind of smoke signal, a multimedia new-age war drum. There might be a film, or an art installation, or a different cross-section of underground warehouse shows in strange disused public places. Or mixing that up with b-boy competitions, skate competitions, as well as having mini carnivals and things like that.”
Within the extended Bananaklan family there’s visual artists, poets, musicians, photographers, as well as recording artists. Roots is building an online home for their collective output, and attempting to reconcile his passion for the arts and street culture with the necessary evils of making money.
“For example there’s a massive resurgence of grown-up ex-graffiti artists who are now selling canvases, and photographers, and the whole kind of advent of street culture is being sold to the coffee table crew.” So the site will eventually be a sales point for those type of products.
“The graffiti from back in the day has taken on a new value,” he continues. “The bass culture and soundsystem culture has made proper inroads into mainstream media. Beatboxers have gone from the streets to the national theatre and orchestras are messing around with kids who do grime and hip hop and rock, and there’s a lot of crazy shit happening. There’s the high-end aspect of the terrestrial media, they’re still more centred on Pop Idol, but there is a more informed appreciation of different creative spectacles.”
The new portal – bananaklan.co.uk – while up now, is still a work in progress. Roots is working on it himself, taking the time to learn Photoshop, Dreamweaver and the assorted tools of the trade. The various dimensions will be added as they’re ready, with interactivity being a primary focus, and rhythm tracks available for people to use and/or remix themselves. “A lot of labels are supposedly trying to celebrate forward thinking, but a label will just do a certain type of thing with a certain type of people. I want to celebrate a cross-cultural hybrid. I want to folk artists and poets and jazz artists alongside straight up ragga guys alongside dubstep producers.”
One of the last public appearances for Roots and the Bananaklan was the Bananklan Ball, held on London in September this year. The party also doubled as Roots’ birthday.
“That was just a way to get the mob together”, he laughs. “It’s hard to get people together. It’s easier to get them into one space at one time without having the pressures of payment, so I used my birthday. [As a result] It was a more relaxed atmosphere. A lot of the times at hip hop or reggae shows or even just underground club events it can turn into a bit of a sausage fest or a chin-stroking event. To build that relaxed informal vibe I tried to push the birthday angle to make everyone chill and come together.”
One of the albums Roots guested on recently was the Mercury Prize winning Speech Therapy, from Speech Debelle, a newly signed Big Dada labelmate. Lotek, the album’s producer used to be Roots’ musical director, so therein lies the link. Roots has been extremely publicly supportive of Debelle’s sound, using the new media channels like Twitter and Facebook to help spread the good word.
“[Speech is] her own person, she’s a fully rounded young businesswoman. My relationship is that I’m a fan of her work, it’s more metaphysical than that. If I had an audio sister or a cousin it would definitely be someone like her.”
However Roots says her success doesn’t lend him much hope for the state of British music scene. The seasoned campaigner has quite a cynical view of the awards process, himself a MOBO winner for Best Hip Hop Act in 1998. “A lot of the awards and the cycle of how they give awards is not really based on any kind of entrepreneurial actuality, a lot of the time it’s a bit of tokenism, and that can often backfire. But Speech Debelle with this, has managed to use it to her own advantage.”
For the moment the live shows have calmed down. Roots and his band (the BK All Stars) have finished the UK and European festival circuit, which took up most of the summer. The last time he was in Australia was in 2005, on the back of the Awfully Deep album. So the headline performance at the Days Like This! Festival in January will be his first in 5 years. Along with the All Stars band, Bananaklan emcees Ricky Rankin and Jimmy Screech are “supposedly” going to be joining the tour. We can expect a good selection of the considerable Manuva back catalogue.
“We’re always trying to do that, but we’re bringing some new things as well. We try to bring the jazz and the mayhem to freestyle. But get in touch [via Twitter, FB, or the website] and let me know what you want to hear. Make sure my mind is on the catalogue. I’ve been scolded a few times for missing a major tune from sets sometimes, I’m more on it now.”
PULL QUOTE: “The graffiti from back in the day has taken on a new value… bass culture and soundsystem culture has made proper inroads into mainstream media. Beatboxers have gone from the streets to the national theatre and orchestras are messing around with kids who do grime and hip hop and rock.”
Who: Roots Manuva
What: Slime & Reason out now on Big Dada
Where: Days Like This!
When: Sunday January 10
By Tony Edwards