Talking new album and posh lady drivers

For the past two years, inimitable UK hip hop legend Roots Manuva has been in and out of the studio – whilst also juggling a mammoth live schedule – recording his much-awaited fifth full-length album, currently under the working title of ‘4ever Revolution’.

Roots (Rodney Hylton Smith) has been mixing several of the album tracks at the Red Bull Studio in South London – a slick recording and production space which hosts performances, mix sessions and studio work from a range of renowned and upcoming artists across the board.

Before hearing a couple of the new tracks being mixed (sounding like Roots back on top form, exploring a purer, heavier sound, with one track featuring a tweaked dubstep wobble and a typically vast lyrical palette), Clash caught up with Rodney at the studio, for a chat about his new album and why London’s posh lady drivers are providing him with lyrical inspiration.

Clash: How’s the mixing going?

Roots Manuva: It’s a bit of a monster. We’ve been mixing it since Christmas and we’re in the last stages. I’ve been recording since the age of 15 and I’m just naturally getting a lot more fussy with the whole process. I actually started recording this record just after the ‘Slime and Reason’ [Roots’ last full studio album] tour, which ended in 2009.

Clash: How would you say the new album compares to your previous records?

Roots Manuva: With age and touring experience under my belt, it’s a different ball game. And with today’s technological advances and mechanisms, there is a much more open and immediate dialogue about the brand of Roots Manuva. That dialogue is in my lap and accessible everyday, so that definitely has a big effect on how I’ve messed around with the template of what it is to create a Roots Manuva record.

It used to be simply that I got an advance and bought a new toy, and I messed around with it until the record came out. Five albums later, things have totally changed. It’s not as simple as that anymore. Back in the day I bought one machine and made music until a record appeared. The very first album was done practically just on an Atari 1040, which is a 4MB computer with a sampler that could only hold about 20 seconds of sample time.

Clash: What’s the writing and recording process for you?

Roots Manuva: There is no structure, it’s just everyday. I’m on a biking kick since riding in to the studio all week, so today the thing that’s been in my head as far as songs are concerned is writing about lady drivers, and that’s just because I’ve been riding and admiring posh women driving posh cars. So, that will become a song. Might not be tomorrow, might not be next week, might not be next year, but it will become a song. It’s a constant, there ain’t no set writing model at all.

Clash: Are there any surprises on the album?

Roots Manuva: The whole record will be a surprise to most people. Out of all the records I’ve made, this has been more as part of a team. There’s more of a moral capacity that I want to capture. We’ve had the period of making a record with next to nothing, and then making some money. Then getting some money and having all the champagne, and making a crazy record. The bar kept stepping up. Now, it’s just back to the basics of the music.

The physicality of the first two records was a weed-head and a boozer wanting to hear some loud bass and an interesting electronic shuffle. Now it’s not just that anymore – I regularly rehearse with musicians, I regularly go to see musicians, I’m hearing music from all over the world. It’s a wider sonic palette that I’m drawing from.

Clash: Your last record, ‘Duppy Writer’ [a dubbed-out rework of various Roots Manuva tracks] had a big Jamaican influence running through it. Is this something you’ve continued with the new album?

Roots Manuva: No. If anything, the new album is the opposite of that. ‘Duppy Writer’ was all about taking the Roots Manuva vocals back to a traditional Jamaican reggae template, whereas this is much more about the sonic experience that I’ve had over the last 12 years. The track we’re mixing [in the Red Bull studio] is nothing to do with reggae, it’s more like a sleazy, late eighties number.

Clash: Are there any collaborations on the album?

Roots Manuva: I was rehearsing with Toddla T on Wednesday, he makes an appearance. Ben Westbeech is on a track, and I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, but I got Skunk Anansie on a track! I was recording in a studio and said to them as a joke, ‘Can you come over and give me some vocals on this track?’ And they came over and did it! It came out really well and made a lot of sense [The track is called ‘Skid Valley’, featuring Skunk Anansie singer Skin on backing vocals and the band’s bass player, Cass, on bass].

Clash: You’re seen as one of the leading figures of UK hip hop, but you’ve always been willing to experiment with the traditional hip hop sound more than most…

Roots Manuva: It was never an issue to me, because of how I first got access to a studio. It was a community studio, and at the same time as me getting to make my hip hop songs – or what I thought was hip hop – I was helping other people to make house, to make drum’n’bass, to make ragga. And these influences just naturally leaked into what because my first album. And that whole gannet-like mentality has leaked into what might be termed the Roots Manuva motif.

Clash: Do you ever get sick of playing ‘Witness’ in your live sets after all these years?

Roots Manuva: No, not at all. Because to this day I still listen to the track and it

sounds different on every system and every time we play it! I hear it in different ways. But it’s bonkers to be here in the Red Bull Studio, because ‘Witness’ was actually created just off this street! [Tooley Street, London] I was based in a studio just down the road from here when I was making the ‘Run Come Save Me’ album.

Clash: You’re known for putting out alternative versions of your full-length albums after they’re released – will you be doing that with the new record?

Roots Manuva: This time I do not want to do it! Releasing the ‘part two’ of albums is because we make so much music and we really want to get it out there. This time I’m more focused on trying to make a record that I could play from start to finish in any circumstance. So my time and effort will be put more into rehearsing and learning this record, rather than getting a ‘part two’ together.

It’s a very colourful thing for me to sit here and say, but it’s not just about having a number one record or a number one single, it’s about the quality of the word and the groove.

Words by Tristan Parker

‘4ever Revolution’ is currently scheduled for release on 26 September.

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