Perfect Sound Forever

Blunts and Crumpets

Britain’s Roots Manuva's in the Hip Hop Game
by Wes Freeman
(June 2005)

Roots Manuva looks like he’s enjoying himself. He’s onstage in Chicago, where the cold is legendary; he’s dressed appropriately, in thick, furry, hooded winter gear, but the club is hot and close – it’s May outside.

He ditches the coat after the first tune.

The coat is the cherry on Roots’ camouflage sundae. He’s sporting an Army green cap, combat boots, camo pants, a pair of who-you-fuckin’-with shades and – in perhaps the ultimate bit of self-concealment – he is a British MC in America. No one’s on the lookout for that.

When the show started, Roots wasn’t onstage. Two of his henchman – in dope British-millennial fashion, one at the drum machines and one at the mixer – were kicking up his stumbling, dub-influenced beats, but Roots wasn’t in sight. Tellingly, much of the audience didn’t seem to know he was missing: most of our visual information comes from his album covers and obscure lyrics (“I’m not an MC, I’m a psychic link”). In my case, I had a couple of recent Canadian articles to go on, but what they suggested about 32 year-old Rodney Smith (aka Roots Manuva, Lord Gosh) was disconcerting – definitely not your standard portrait of a high priest of hip hop.

He’s into dub, and wary of praise. Like more and more modern MCs, he’s often his own producer, runs his own label, and has his own alter ego (Lord Gosh). Reading between the lines, one could conjecture that he’s favoring the sampler (as Lord Gosh) more than the mic (as Roots Manuva) lately. But this was all a little vague and out of context; the truth is, Chicago doesn’t know what to expect of a British MC. That’s why we were there.

Using shadows as a final mask, Roots, still not onstage, spoke to the audience over his beats. “This is my first visit here in 6 years!” He announced. “I almost didn’t get it in! It is very hard to get into your country, now!”

But getting into the country wouldn’t be Roots’ real test on this particular visit. Tonight, we would see if the country could get into him.

British hip hop has always been an unknown quantity, and not just in the U.S. Born in the early to mid ‘80s, to the same graffiti-breaking culture that produced drum n’ bass impresario Goldie, Brit hop was a dubious deal arguably until the early ’90s when MCs overcame the accent barrier that prevented many UK critics from taking it seriously – the consensus among said wags being that British accents were not adaptable to the genre.

The much-discussed London Posse (whose releases are all but unattainable stateside) were the first to fly in the face of this argument with any real success, amping young heads from Newcastle to Brighton. Tricky followed soon after with his career-making verses on Massive Attack’s Blue Lines. But British heads are not American heads, and the latter slumbered peacefully on their brothers from across the Atlantic. The inroads British hip hop did make in those halcyon days were in the middle class, mostly the white college radio market, and it’s that demographic that’s turned out to see Roots Manuva tonight.

Yet the game is different now than it was when Tricky was dropping bombs about Studio One, when we were about to move from The Low End Theory to The Chronic. Jay-Z took himself out of the game almost two years ago. G-Unit is mining the rich veins of gangsta-nostalgia (a bold paradox if ever there was one) and Eminem seems to have found a game winning strategy in his heavily-produced tales of young crackerhood, but new ground? Even the Li’l Jon crunk-bangas on the radio are two and three years old in many cases. If anything, the only bright lights in the last six months have come from the underground, with LA MC/producer Madlib and NYC’s metal-faced MC/producer MF Doom leading the way.

Ever since Sasha Frere-Jones’ article on grime appeared in the New Yorker, I’ve been on pins and needles about this British stuff. Ostensibly a product of the rave era with its myriad of subcultures and infinite variations on a few different electronic dance forms (gathered together in the U.S., a little ungraciously, under the single, time-saving label “electronica”), grime seems to be what’s jumping off in the UK right now (trans-Atlantic trend-drag not withstanding). Originally, critics called it an offshoot of garage, a sprawling and ambiguous scene that produced the Streets (aka Mike Skinner) as well as London’s Pay as U Go Cartel and Roll Deep Crew (both feature grime’s most notorious producer, Wiley). Grime started becoming an individual form with Wiley’s 2002 single “Eskimo,” and the nascent movement found support on pirate radio, nurtured by stations like Heat FM, Deja Vu, and Freeze.

Grime producers build sparse, eerie, heavily electronic tracks that grime MCs spit over in a hyperkinetic and explicitly British fashion. It’s music that manages to be brash and subtle all at once. The grime MC’s attitude is right there on his (and often her) sleeve, managing the peculiarly British trick of being aggressive and confrontational, without being rude or unaccommodating. The subtlety in the music comes from its often menacing tracks. What can be endlessly fascinating about some grime tunes (and Dizzee Rascal’s Showtime has many such examples) is how craftily atonal beeps interlock into something almost melodic – and dance-ably so.

Rumbling melismas of toneless squall guide you through a forest of cracking branches, as they seamlessly syncopate themselves with tricky beats. The beats themselves sound nigh impossible to flow over; indeed, they suggest the antithesis of flow; they snap when they should bump and shudder when they should roll. They are jarring. They jerk and hesitate.

Grime is decidedly not American, and given the low level of innovation in the current U.S. mainstream rap scene, that might be part of its appeal. Here is a music, creative and novel, that sports traces of exotic futurism and maybe even the barest whiffs of nationalism as it’s so completely British (grime MCs rock beats virtually tailored to the British accent, borrowing in their stuttering way from drum n’ bass). This is a new animal, so far outside the confines of hip hop that it might not even be hip hop, and this is apparently a matter of fierce contention back in the UK. There are no traces of the evergreen funk of yesteryear; no James Brown, no “Apache,” no recognizable holdover from the roots of hip hop. But it’s got one thing going for it that very little on U.S. radio has – grime has that indefinable smell of Next.

While U.S. hip hop hasn’t really taken its cues from our cousins across the way, the UK has frequently embraced U.S. artists that had nothing but cult status on these shores. A perfect example is New York’s now defunct Anti-Pop Consortium, a trio of MCs that built their own tracks using laptops, synths, and email. After releasing an album on Dan the Automator’s 75 Ark label and doing a full-length for exclusive release in Japan, the APC signed to Warp, a British label primarily known for its electronic music. There the trio (with producer Earl Blaize in tow) went on to record an EP and long player that pushed chrome-plated tracks replete with so much electronic ear candy they sounded 20 years past Blade Runner. After a legendary split at the top of their game, the kings of Next regrouped (without the charismatic Beans, who has since released three solo joints on the Warp imprint) to form Audio Airborn on another English label, Ninja Tune.

With their emphasis on the MC-as-producer, each of these entities (APC, Beans, and Audio Airborn) has had an effect on the UK scene, where the man at the mic and the man behind the boards are often one and the same. The UK boasts many such artists, including the sci-fi surrealists New Flesh or the dubby, beat mechanic Roots Manuva, whose shimmering, self-made tracks seem to point the way to some future school of hip hop, where everyone is an auteur and no one needs to specialize. Here is a world where the wheels of steel might be crushed under the mighty cyber-treads of Pro Tools. Heady stuff for Chicago in May.

But there we are, disillusioned with our domestic product and ready for the Thames to overflow its banks Nile-style and water the fallow grounds of our Hip Hop Nation. Audio Airborn opened the show, showing us what’s next in Next and now we’re prepped for the Man. From the second Roots takes the stage, he’s got us open: He runs the show like it owes him money, stomping from one side of the stage to the other, his voice lilting, dipping and booming, the malignant red-eye of his wireless mic’s power light twinkling in the dark of the club.

And he’s a gentleman. He chats with the crowd between numbers. He and his crew are all blunts and crumpets, hamming it up with exaggerated British accents. Instead of telling us to throw our hands up or holla, Roots and his man chat amiably in twee English lisps about how “absolutely splendiferous” they feel. “Can you say, ‘splendiferous’?” Roots asks the crowd.

The songs are pummeling eruptions of thick, stoned beats married to huge, rolling globs of electronic sound, and we are all up in them. He’s reportedly a man obsessed with bass and it shows. This is electronics at their down-deep dirtiest. He’s just finished “Doogoo Machine,” his first single on his new Banana Klan label, when he turns to his backup singer/dancer/drum machinist.

“This is nice. There is a vibe here, I think,” he says. Welcome back, Roots! He turns his head toward his man at the mixer. He turns back to us.

“Oh shit,” he says, bemused. “Our mixer just died.”

We pause.

“Does anyone have a fuse?”

A fuse? Does the future school need fuses?

In the U.S. hip hop was born in the most humble of circumstances – jacking its beats from the artists of the day and its turntable juice from the light poles of the Bronx. But in the U.K., which has always had a more club-oriented youth culture, circumstances have produced hip hop with a dazzling electronic sheen, full of self-made beats that make the old James Brown samples of yesteryear sound dusty by comparison. Roots Manuva is no different. His beats may have less in the way of squelching and clicking than grime stalwarts Jammer and Wiley, but they are still board-generated nonetheless. This is not lost on us. Stripped of his fab gear, Roots has to answer the question, what is British hip hop? Is there more to it than just the funny noises and quixotic flows? Was it still the style that was born in the Bronx? We wait.

This battle is on. Without Pro Tools, without drum machines, without a mixer, Roots Manuva, armed with nothing but his abstract lyrics and a two-man crew of nervous-looking British heads, has to find a way to turn out a club filled with increasingly disinterested yanks (mostly pale of face) to prove he is on the real. He shoots a glance at his man behind the wheels (now de-funked and defunct) and does the only thing he can: He takes it back to the beat-box.

Now, Roots doesn’t have Biz Markie back there or anything. The beats are slow and thick, just the barest funky heartbeat of a song, but Roots Manuva uses them like a springboard and drops five minutes of freestyle on us. When his first boy runs out of breath, he passes the mic to the second and Roots keeps on, his lilting Jamaican inflections intact and undiluted by electronic frippery. When he wears that man out, he calls out for more.

“Are there any beat-boxers in the audience?”

I won’t dwell on the details of what happened next, it was too strange. A diminutive white man answers the call. He calls himself Louie Lane and he comes on like Rahzel Jr., breaking Mouth Fu on us like he’s Bruce Lee and we’re after his lunch money. He goes so fast, Roots doesn’t even try to flow over it, he just turns the stage over to him and Louie abandons hip hop altogether going into drum n’ bass beats.

It was a weird night.

The folks from the club resuscitated the mixer, but it kept dying. The drum machines went out all together about halfway through the show and Roots never really regained the momentum he had before his equipment shit the bed. But whether he knew it or not, Roots had something to prove to us, he was there to represent his neighborhood (a bigger, more remote hood than most). He rep’d it. Splendiferously.

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