Roots Manuva Interview

The man needs no introduction. He is the bionic zit splitter, Lord Gosh himself, he’s awfully deep, he’s the inventor of cyber-folk jazz and twat funk, he is Roots Manuva. After two incredibly well received albums and apparently the song for the UK scene (“Witness”), expectations for Roots to deliver big this time. Well, instead of getting that 40 piece orchestra, he concentrated on his own beat-making and his own delivery, went all introspective, and added more melodies and musical structure to his one finger bassline/sample mash-up, resulting in the album of his career. “Awfully Deep” is a strong album, rich with texture and full of hidden depths. It’s a shame that this could be his last LP.

Well, he’s had a good run, he’s smoked a few trees, he’s made a few G’s.

Nikesh caught up with him at the end of a long day of promotion at Big Dada HQ to talk about the new album, being romanced by majors and the intricacies of cyber-jazz-twat-folk…

Please re-introduce yourself to the UKHH.COM audience and tell us one thing we should do before the end of 2005.

%image_alt%One thing you should do before the end? Oh man, why do you start with such deep questions. Yes, this is Roots Manuva and I am introducing myself. One thing you should do before the end of 2005 is purchase my new record, “Awfully Deep”, out on Banana Klan/Big Dada Records. It will improve your life. If you can’t get a man, it’ll help you to get a man. If you can’t get a girl, it will help you to get the girl. It’s a beautiful record. Go out and buy it.

Your new album is even more of a dub-heavy album than your last one (“Run Come Save Me”). How long have you been working on it and what kinda sound were you going for?

You know, I was trying to get away from the dub. I was trying to make a more non-genre-specific album. People keep telling me it’s the most dubbiest one I’ve done. I keep thinking “Damn.” Sonically, I wanted to celebrate a synth-pop sensuality. I wanted to merge my favourite elements of Depeche Mode and Duran Duran with the cosmic sludge of George Clinton’s P Funk. I wanted to merge the most random elements, like soca with bits of B-list film music. Standard boom-bip drums mixed with the sonic structure of a power ballad. I was trying to put my finger on a sonic bravery. There’s no fear, no fear at all. I’m not trying to make music that I think will sell. I’m just trying to project myself as someone who’s comfortable with sonic experimentation. Someone with their chin high and their chest puffed out. I’m inspired by groups like Outkast and crunk music and wild underground house from Germany, like Pole or Basic Channel. Just in its out on a limb-ness. Music that isn’t made by numbers, that isn’t formulaic. I want to get back to that innocent spirit of what hip-hop meant to me when I was growing up. Hip-hop didn’t mean one thing. It meant loads of things. It had such an innocent. You know those tracks by Kraftwerk, “Tour de France” or “Trans-Global Express”. These tunes were seized upon by breakers and poppers but they were made by some strange German band. They were seized by hip-hoppers. Today we don’t seem to have that mentality of taking anything and bashing it and making it our own. We kinda seem to be a bit safe.

One of the tracks that seemed to really stand out for me on the album was “The Haunting” as it was so different to anything else on the album and in UK hip-hop, with its spiritual campfire Nyabinghi vibe…

I didn’t actually do the music for that track. I sat with the musicians, Easy Access Orchestra, who did that track. The plan for this album was for me to do my one-finger bassline with mashed-up samples thing but have it embellished with chords and melodies, embellished musically. In the process of doing that, I came into the studio one day and the producer Ralph Lamb was sitting by the keyboard playing the chords that were going on that track. I was mucking about singing and throwing mud at the wall. It was a total accident. I didn’t sit down and say “I want to do a track without drums.” It just sorta evolved. It was just a jam. I didn’t want it on the album. Will (Ashon) said he’d kill me if it wasn’t on there.

How was the recording process different to making “Run Come Save Me”?

I was a lot more sober. Before, I was weeded to kingdom come! This one I tried to do sober. I didn’t have that weed haze around my head. I had to create the vibe through the music. That’s probably why it’s a bit more psychedelic. There’s a lot of layers gone into it. I love minimal understated music. It’s such a challenge to introduce more musicality into it. Add more chords, overstate the choruses and add a sense of sonic theatre.

…I could smell Roots Manuva being turned into some kinda hip-hop for people who don’t like hip-hop….”

Going back a bit, did you ever expect “Witness” to become the monster hit it became?

Nah man, that tune, I just flung it together. I was in the studio for two weeks. I had nothing to present to Will, my manager so I just flung it together. All I was thinking of was one of them club jams that happen. I was thinking of small, tiny clubs with a shit system, full of pissed-up people. I wanted to do something that would translate on a shitty system. I was being wild and raw and I can’t believe it’s turned into what it’s turned into. It’s just my little bit of electro-punk-rock-cyber-jazz. I didn’t even put a proper chorus on it. I don’t get it.

It’s become like an anthem for a scene.

%image_alt%It blows me away. It blows me off my foot. I’m like, “are you guys sure?”.

Was the reaction to “Witness” and the kudos you received from the last album one of the reasons that on “Colossal Insight” you have a fair few digs at being described as UK rap?

UK hip-hop’s alright but UK rap is an awful phrase. It’s more of my frustration with the tokenism that’s out there. Take Choice FM, they want to back local talent and British music. But by trying to help them, they kinda undermine them. They have a special section that they call “UK Pressure.” And you can tell, they don’t play it with the same enthusiasm they play Twista or L’il Jon. It’s just weird. I’m kinda rejecting the term. Don’t call me rap, call me cyber-folk-jazz-disco mash-up, call me twatfunk! But you’re not going to, cos it’s too much to say!

Did you feel like the tag hindered you in what you felt you could do?

No, it was more frustrating having to speak about the struggle of UK hip-hop. I don’t give a fuck. I’m here doing my thing and the vibration is successful and I’m on a spreading label and so many people don’t see it. Our perception of success is so warped. There is a proper sustained musical culture that is following on from the legacy of sound systems and independently made music. From people like Lee Perry who pressed up 300 records in Jamaica. And that’s got to be the backbone of small self-financed independent scenes. And it’s not forced. It picks up a momentum of its own. It’s spread through word-of-mouth. And Scratch still tours today because of that foundation of putting out limited runs of tunes way back when. People often say to me, “Why isn’t there no British hip-hop millionaires? Why haven’t they had more success?” But it is success. The strength of it and the longevity of it will come when people have a strong business model that operates on its own terms and doesn’t have to buy into tiny token spots within the machine. When bands like NWA came out, they weren’t getting any support from radio. They didn’t have any big videos. They generated a mystique. It’s a mad one and it’s a wild one. But I’m tired of you motherfuckers talking to me about UK rap. It’s alright, it’s fine. Let’s talk about the whole phenomenon of British music.

…But I’m tired of you motherfuckers talking to me about UK rap….”

Where do you hope to be sonically and professionally by the end of this album’s promotion?

I’ve got to actually learn an actual instrument. I have to learn to play the guitar, or at least learn a few new chords. I also hope for the Banana Klan thing to get more releases. I want to try and develop my producer head. Not just beat-making. I think there’s a lot of beat-makers out there who call themselves producers. A producer brings out ideas, zones in and works with the artist, placing them with the right facilities and being like a creative sounding board for artists. The old-fashioned producers, like George Martin…

That’s SIR George Martin to you…

Sorry…. SIR GEORGE MARTIN. Like SIR George Martin, I would like to develop the producing aspect of my self. Which might mean stepping back from doing big crazy promotional campaigns and releasing more obscure, understated releases that just come out. More hush-hush releases. Not like this one, with big poster campaigns and all that crap.

So, when you say on the album, “This could be my last LP”… you actually mean it?

I’m in reflective mode. I’m just singing the blues. I’m singing, “I don’t care, you can take my money, you can take my girl, but I’ve still got my soul.” It’s coming from that kinda standpoint. I’ve been very privileged this far. I’ve been making a living from what has primarily been my hobby. So I’m fine. I don’t think I can help making music. I love making music. I don’t like having to commit. I’m frustrated by the fact that it’s there and it’s cast in iron and I can’t change it. The record is done. I like to be able to change it forever. I should develop a record I can alter. People can send it back through email every few months and I can do different versions…

…I was trying to put my finger on a sonic bravery….”

What made you stay with Big Dada for this one? You seem to be constantly be courted by major labels…

They always seem to come around. They came around, they spoke their speak but I could smell Roots Manuva being turned into some kinda hip-hop for people who don’t like hip-hop. Maybe I was being paranoid but they didn’t seem to be that into what I did. They liked the brand and they wanted to use the brand a launchpad into something else that I would just be attached to. There was no other label out there that had a history of taking challenging music to wider audiences so Big Dada was the place. The money would have been nice from a bigger company but the creative strait-jacket would have been crippling. It would have changed the sound. It would have changed the thing that has brought me here and that’s experimentation and sonic bravery and daringness…

%image_alt%(Roots decides to belch loudly into my microphone)

I should e-Bay that microphone and say Roots Manuva belched on it. See how much I can get…

(Laughing): You’d be rich!!

Who else you feeling on the Big Dada label?

Bigg Jus, Ty, ttc… They blew my head off. When I heard them, they push the limits on that record. It’s just the best album I’ve heard for years. It’s amazing. I just wish my French was better.

(We’re interrupted and told we have to wrap things up. I still have half a page of questions left. I decide to ask the most pertinent ones…)

OK, I better peel through these. What is a bionic zit-splitter?

It’s one of the metal blackhead things. It’s a metal thing to squeeze your blackheads with.

Who were your influences… who were you listening to when you made this album?

Radiohead. The “Kid A”, not necessarily a direct reference but that body of music really fit together in it’s own universe. Eric B and Rakim, “Follow the Leader”… for the same reasons. OutKast’s “ATLiens”. What else? There was just so much. “Buckaneer,” the opera.

What are your live plans for this album?

I’ll be taking a live band out. Live drums, live bass, live guitar and keyboard. Someone firing samples. DJ MK on the turntables. Ricky Rankin’s gonna be backing me up. Loads of fun, loads of improvisation and music from all the albums. Don’t expect to come and hear “Awfully Deep” from start to finish. The live experience is about the whole catalogue and messing it about and mutating the dancehall stageshow vibe. Don’t expect any rock’n’roll. I use the band as I would use the turntable. I will make them rewind, I will make them start again, I will change the arrangements of songs. There will be sporadic jamming. It’s pretty punk and pretty raw. It’s still respectful of the syncopated boom-bip ethic.

…Don’t call me rap, call me cyber-folk-jazz-disco mash-up, call me twatfunk!….”

Shameless plugs?

Look out for Ricky Rankin’s 12”, “Can’t trick I” Out soon on Banana Klan records, the anti-label. Look out for the Roots Manuva DVD, Manuva TV. I have DV tapes and edit them all together and show you some of the shenanigans and performances behind the scenes.

“Awfully Deep” is out now on Big Dada/Banana Klan Records. The single “Too Cold” is about to drop on 12”. Watch out for more live dates and go to the website to ask Roots’ advice.

Nikesh Shukla