Rodney Smith aka Roots Manuva was born and grew up in Stockwell, South London. His grandfather had come over from Jamaica in the fifties. As he puts it, his family “were here to make it big time.” They worked hard, went to church, tried to live life the right way. His father was a lay preacher and tailor, a combination which goes some way to explaining the son’s preoccupation with the soul and the suit. 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, nodding to the rhythms, stretching his mouth around their words. But it was perhaps only when he heard hip hop and, in particular, the incomparable Rakim, that he realised that his voice could be used for more than toasting, that it was an expressive tool limited only by his imagination. But opportunities for Black British musicians in the nineties were few and far between. Hard work – his own kind of hard work – was the only way forward.
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 Blak 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. “It’s only now I’m listening to Brand New Second Hand and thinking, “Wow, that’s a really beautiful record.” It’s only now! I wish I coulda understood it at the time! 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.”
From an initial 3000 records put into the shops “BNSH” has now sold over 100,000 worldwide. 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.