ROOTS MANUVA – Evening Standard, 16 Sept 2011

While London hip hop stars such as Tinie Tempah, Wretch 32 and Chipmunk crack open the champagne to celebrate a gala year for rapping with a British accent, it falls to their 39-year-old forefather to put something of a dampener on things.
I previously had Roots Manuva pegged as perhaps a rap equivalent of Elbow – ploughing his unique furrow for years, adored by his sound’s purists and the music industry (which gave him a Mercury nomination for his second album, Run Come Save Me, in 2002) and only missing that breakthrough hit to reach full national treasure status. But the Stockwell native christened Rodney Smith proves to be a pricklier proposition than that. Interviews rarely go too well when your subject states at the off that he didn’t want to meet any press to promote his new album, and that you are “kind of a forfeit”.
He’s also got far more important things on his mind than me enquiring after his favourite colour, having come for a coffee just after registering the birth of his three-week-old newborn at Hackney Town Hall. He’s in Eeyorish mood, sitting side-on behind vast black-rimmed glasses with gold legs, thumping his fingers on the table in a spider shape to emphasise his points. When I try to get him talking about the UK hip hop scene when he started recording in the mid-Nineties, an obscure underground world compared to the chart acclaim that the younger generation now enjoys, he replies: “I don’t want to talk about back then, I want to talk about my new album. I find that really boring. You can find out about that. Why are you dragging me away from my three-week-old child to talk about that?”
Oops. So, about that new album: 4everevolution is his fifth, not counting dub remix versions of his second and third releases. It covers his trademarks – tough electronic bass, Jamaican dancehall clatter and delightfully parochial lyrics rapped in his deep, rumbling voice. The man famed for namechecking pints of bitter and cheese on toast in his best song, the 10-year-old single Witness (1 Hope), now covers fried chicken shops and NHS gastric bands. But the 17-track length also allows him to branch out with dramatic strings on Revelation, energetic dance music with a fluttery female chorus on Get the Get, and a gentle, absolutely gorgeous ballad, on which he sings, called Wha’ Mek.
Making it was “Hell”, says Smith, describing a laboured process that included stints in studios in Clapton, Shoreditch, Cambridge, the Red Bull Music Academy and “a flipping hot, noisy little shipping container in bloody Docklands”.
The variety within, which also stretches to poppy funk on Beyond this World and menacing industrial growls on Here We Go Again, is explained by the fact that Smith began writing many of these songs with the intention of his publishing company selling them to other artists to record. “But everyone I played them to said I should do them myself.”
His long association with the independent record label Big Dada, the experimental hip hop division of overpoweringly cool dance imprint Ninja Tune, has given him an edgy reputation that he has maintained with guest spots on songs by Gorillaz, Leftfield and The Maccabees. But he has no aversion to his poppier descendents, he insists, praising the “amazing production” of Chipmunk’s high-gloss hit Champion when it comes on the cafe’s radio, and announcing: “If Nicola Roberts [Girls Aloud’s latest solo breakaway] called me up today I’d be there in a flash.”
“Everybody’s trying to do the same thing: sell units and make a profit. Nobody wants not to sell records,” he tells me. “Money is very important. I don’t want to fly the flag of ‘Don’t Make Any Money’. Make as much money as you can.”
Yet he remains an outsider in the pop charts when he does creep in. When the London riots exploded last month and our star rappers were criticised in the press for doing too little to stop the looting, no one laid any blame at his dense, introspective lyrics. His labelmate Speech Debelle gave away a song written before the riots a few days afterwards, Blaze Up a Fire, on which Smith rapped a verse: “These streets are paved with thievery/False prophets, false hopes, false believery.” It received little attention beyond specialist websites.
Today he has much less to say on the subject, batting off questions with sarcasm – “It was a good media circus I thought. More work for journalists, rappers getting a little profile” – and a simple “I can’t even begin to go there because it is a really complex issue.” I bring up what sounds like a rare state-of-the-nation moment on his new song Skid Valley. He raps on the album: “It’s insane Britain, vanity claim Britain, nothing can change Britain, Britain’ll stay Britain,” but plays down its sentiments now. “It’s just a song! If you’re looking for that [a big political statement], I don’t wanna know. I’m too busy just expressing myself.”
Awkward, combative but never less than fascinating, Smith’s conversation matches the thorny menace of his best music. He’s still going his own singular way. And without a backward glance, he strolls away from the disagreeable task of promoting another excellent new album and back to family life.