Featured Artist: Roots Manuva (March 2020)

Continuing on from last month’s featured artist article, this month we take a look at another rapper whose career has become synonymous with the record label Big Dada. Roots Manuva is another one of the class of rappers that came to the fore around the turn of the century, when UK hip-hop was once again finding its feet and emerging after the doldrums of the mid-1990s. With a sound and style very much steeped in the sound systems of South London, Roots Manuva is a name familiar to many outside UK hip-hop circles thanks to a plethora of collaborations not to mention his own musical output.

Coming out of Stockwell in South London, Roots Manuva’s musical beginnings started on the reggae sound systems in the area. This developed into forming the group IQ Procedure, under the name Baron Smith, with fellow rapper Mr Million and DJ Danger, performing a style soaked in dub reggae mixed with hip-hop. The group would release an EP in 1994 called Run Tings on the short-lived Bluntly Speaking Vinyl label, but poor distribution and press coverage meant the group never went any further than this single EP release. That same year he featured on the Blak Twang single Queen’s Head, this time under the moniker Roots Manuva, bringing him to the attention of a wider hip-hop audience. The following year saw the release of his own debut single Next Type of Motion on Sound of Money, before collaborating with Skitz for Where My Mind Is At and Blessed be the Manner and with Skeme for Feva, all in 1996. All this would catch the attention of Big Dada, a collaboration between Coldcut’s renowned experimental hip-hop label Ninja Tune and journalist Will Ashton, starting an association that has lasted right through the rest of Roots Manuva’s career.

A year after signing for Big Dada in 1998, Manuva’s debut album Brand New Secondhand would be released. The title referenced a phrase used by his mother for presents that were pre-owned, and the album, particularly tracks such as Juggle Tings Proper and Motion 5000, attracted a decent amount of attention from the international hip-hop community. From initially putting 3,000 in record shops, the album would go on to sell over 50,000 copies and would earn Roots Manuva a MOBO award for best hip-hop act that same year. 2001’s follow up Run Come Save Me would prove to be even more successful than his debut, selling well over 100,000 copies and gaining a nomination for the Mercury Music Prize that year. Known best for the classic single Witness (1 Hope), voted the greatest UK hip-hop track of all time by Hip-Hop Connection magazine readers, the album also contained stellar singles such as Dreamy Days, Join the Dots and Sinny Sin Sins. The album had such an impact that Roots Manuva has often been lauded as one of the best rappers in the UK and helped bring attention back to UK hip-hop at the time, opening the doors for many new rappers to come through. A dub version of the album, Dub Come Save Me, would be released in 2002, once again looking back to the dub traditions of the rapper’s upbringing.

Roots Manuva’s third album would appear in 2005, with Awfully Deep breaking into the top 30 in the UK album charts. This album would take on a more introspective feel than previous releases, but still spawned some excellent tracks such as the likes of the title track, Too Cold and Colossal Insight. A remix\refix album of the same tunes, along with some outtakes would be released a year later under the name Alternately Deep that saw collaborations with other grime and UK hip-hop performers. Roots Manuva would also appear on the second Gorillaz album, Demon Days in 2005, further exposing him to a growing international audience. The introspective theme of Awfully Deep would continue into 2008’s Slime & Reason, another critically acclaimed release from the rapper spawning singles such as Let the Spirit and Again & Again. This critical acclaim would continue for his 2011 release 4everevolution. In between these came the 2010 release Duppy Writer in collaboration with Wrongtom, producing dub-infused cuts of tracks from Roots Manuva’s back catalogue. Manuva would also start up his own label, Banana Klan, at this time, who have released music from artists such as Jimmy Screech and Ricky Ranking.

The following years would see a whole host of collaborations with the likes of Jamie Cullum, The Maccabees, Toddla T, The Bug, The Cinematic Orchestra, Leftfield and Mr Scruff and many others. Additional singles would also appear like 2013’s Stolen Youth written for the last series of the TV show Skins and 2015’s Facety 2:11\Like a Drum a collaboration with Four Tet and Machinedrum. Manuva’s sixth and, so far, last album was also released in 2015. Bleeds brought a more mature and focussed Roots Manuva bringing together the sounds of hip hop, reggae, techno, funk and neo-classical, thanks to production from the likes of Adrian Sherwood and Four Tet.

The scope and range of collaborations Roots Manuva has done over the years shows the extent he is respected in musical circles as a UK rapper, as well as a flexibility in styles not seen in many MCs. He has played his part in influencing and paving the way for a whole host of rappers that potentially otherwise would not have been looked at by the British media or record labels. There is certainly a question of where UK hip-hop would be now if it hadn’t been for the likes of Roots Manuva and other rappers in the early-2000s achieving the success and attention they did.