Clocking in at the right-side of 40 years old you’d expect Roots Manuva to say “That’s it, I’m done with music now folks” and walk off into the sunset. But Rodney Smith isn’t done yet, he’s not ready to be regarded as a relic of a bygone a age when music was a physical and viable thing which materialised in your hand. The Brixton born rapper, who already is already embedded himself as a cult icon in UK Urban Music folklore, is a wise warrior who is still as razor sharp and witty as he was he first perked up our ears with classic joints like the seminal 'Witness (1 Hope)'. He’s Master Yoda to the current crop of Padawan rappers, if you will, that are currently running rampant in the charts, on our TV screens and on our Internet browsers and his new EP 'Banana Skank' proves that this old Lion can throw down with the young cubs.
We caught up with the rap veteran, who’s career spans nearly 20 twenty years, to talk about ethics of the music industry, his hope for the future of the UK Hip-Hop scene and what keeps him inspired to continue making music.
First things first, HMV is going into administration, how do you feel about that?
[Laughs] Very bad man, 65% of my physical sales came from HMV so I'm gonna be broke…
What impact do you reckon it will have on the music industry?
I think for artists like myself who were still selling physical copies it's going to be quite a grind. It means that we all have to step up and man our own stations and make sure we have some sort of facility there to plug in the gap. I don't know if it means carrying more stuff while one is out and about on tour or if it means actually being like the old mixtape dealers and always having a CD in your bag to sell to them to people.
The Internet is partly to blame for music retail out business isn’t it?
It's not just that, it's part of the equation but the wider context is just the way people enjoy music in different ways now. Also one of the BIGGEST things, I think, is to do with the pressure put on artists from labels to just churn stuff out. I can remember a time when you had to wait quite a while for an artist to bring a record out, nowadays people just knock 'em out every year like it ain't nothing and I suppose it is easier to do that now. Really there isn't three albums in most living artists, you just start repeating yourself. There's very few artists - there's very few princes - in the world that have that ability where they just knockout very distinctive things constantly, there's very few artists full stop that have more one album, let alone three. It's only those that are really true to the essence of their art forms who will last, and I think in a sense that's a good thing. It will help to separate the realness from some of the mass in-generous that's going on.
Do you think it has killed artist creativity or it's dying?
I feel like that there's a switch now, people don't want to buy this chic music they want to buy a virtual drum machine or a virtual synthesizer, they can buy their own studio for £200 on a computer and make their own music. So that's a big switch in how people want to connect with creativity, rather than buy records they're just streaming it. I work with a few community groups and there have been times where things have not been going well in the sessions so you just leave the kids to do what they do and you watch what they do and it's amazing how they can see music. Especially with things like Youtube they don't buy anything and the thought of buying a record it like "Eh? Why on Earth would we?".
I guess, the reason why me and you would buy records is for sentimental ownership?
Yeah I think there's a different style of consuming now and that's what creative professionals have to be aware of. I’ve been in a quite a special place where my audience have been generally faithful to me actually going out and getting a record or paying for a legal download or coming out to concerts.
What's been the major difference for you since coming into the scene in '94 with IQ Procedure?
The expectations, going from those early beginning days it was - from a money point of view - really nothing, it was ordinary for groups to be getting signed like hundreds of thousands of pounds and it was just for the recording. Now people are getting signed and it's not as much money but they're getting signed for their whole life… FOREVER. Now that's a massive difference, as soon as you put your name on a piece of paper you're owned by a corporation forever and creativity, especially coming from those street art forms; hip-hop - or whatever you want to call it - raga, digital music, it's supposed to provide the ordinary man with more power against the machine and now it's like we live in a time where addicted to celebrity culture or the idea of it. We're much more willing to dance to with the devil as it were and we live in such money-drive- status-symbol-orientated times that I think in another 30 years when we look back to now we're going to be reading so much stories about how new artists didn't know what they were doing and they just thought someone was going to make them famous and they didn't realise…
… that it came at a cost.
Yeah, but more than just an ordinary cost, they didn't realise they were signing things that would mean even a percentage of unrelated arts industry income would have to be recouped against them forever and ever.
When you signed your first deal did you have people around you to guide you or did you immediately know what you were signing?
Like I said it was a different time, so when I signed my first deal it was non-exclusive, I could've then gone on to sign ten album deals with ten other companies. Nowadays those types of situations are seldom seen, people don't sign just the name they sign individuals now.
Did you have good people watching out for you?
Yeah in a way, my first introduction the studio environment was from a community studio in Brixton so they were constantly on us about "Don't just be a celebrity hungry emcee. Understand what you're doing, understand the history of what you're doing, understand your platform and understand your path". We constantly had quite radical people in our brains and at the time around 16-17 I’m thinking ‘I just wanted to make a beat’ and these people were annoying. They were like “Go to college do something else besides music” but everything they said was quite valid so I was quite fortunate in that respect.
What else have you learnt over time?
So many things it's really hard to articulate. This might sound a bit abstract but it's that perseverance and your commitment to your art form is priceless. If you can persevere and it's just second nature to you, you can’t possibly fail. If you’re chasing the whims and trends of the time your trying to play into something that's not necessarily your core substance as a human being. No matter how many record sales you got or how much ticket sales you sold you are losing.
How do you view today's fodder of young urban artists? Has the scene grown or has it devolved?
I think that the mechanics is wonderful. There’s of a wealth of able artists that are rapping well, choosing good beats and making a living. But beyond that I really don't have that much promise for how long it will last if we carry on in the fashion that we’ren in. I mean as far as hip-hop culture is concerned there needs to be more people talking about the wider context of the culture no matter how disconnected you are from it. Say for instance some new producer that’s making Dubstep convinced himself (or herself) they're absolutely nothing with hip-hop, they make Dubstep, but it if it wasn't for hip-hop there wouldn't be no Dubstep. So I wish for there to be a more culturally informed time, but that's me I'm 40 and I can say that.
I guess you've got the right to say it though.
All creative people that earn off their creativity need to be protecting themselves by having some kind of circular income projecting regeneration. We need to be walking with the past school and the future school as well as the present school to make it more than a fad, to make it more of a staying vehicle for change. At the end of the day, to me, as much things have developed in a commercial and commodity sense it's still the initial message of hip-hop: the ‘do it yourself’ attitude, peace and love, the fact that Afrika Bambataa doesn't mean nothing to most emcees around the corner. You talk about him "Yeah this is the guy that was part of the gangs of New York that said "let's stop the fighting. Let's do something constructive, lets have dancing battles, lets have rapping battles". A lot of kids don't seem to understand that.
Hip-Hop in general has changed so much, how does it still inspire you?
Yeah without doubt it inspires me. Where it's been studied to an extent, where the reference points are beyond the 'Internet age' I suppose. I've managed to travel over the years and just to know that there are people in Australia, in all parts of Africa that have their domestic scenes and rap in different languages that's all very inspiring to me. I got into music through being totally mesmerized by synthesizers and drum machines. Art of Noise were on Tizwas one day talking about how with midi-music you can make music from anything and that really blew my mind afterwards. So I will always be a hoarder of the technologies and I will always want to create something. I always want to be active from a creative standpoint.
What new artists are you vibing to - really feeling right now?
I'm glad to say there's no one that I don't really like. There are people I don't get but there's a lot of good music and amazing writing out there and to say names seems a bit unfair.
So are you hopeful for the current crop artists then?
Well yeah there's a whole different vehicle right now, there isn't the same amount of financial economy. Say about ten years ago, you and a couple of friends could club together a few grand and you press up a white label or a thousand CDs and within a space of three-to-nine weeks you triple or quadruple your money, that isn't there anymore so that's quite scary. But It's just not the music now it's more about the art form so it's not just about selling your CD, it might be about putting on a show in a theatre or having an exhibition in unusual places or creating a whole new festival idea. So I think there's enough innovation out there that should help sustain the new generation of creative thinkers. And as I said before it helps to weed out those who are really in it and have a spirit and a true passion for it from those who are just doing for a quick buck or doing it so they can shag girls - or shag boys - or whatever they want to do. People do all kind of things for all kinds of reasons.
You've just released your new EP 'Banana Skank', can we expect a new Roots Manuva album in the foreseeable future?
I honestly don't know, I would love to put one out but I'm not in a rush. It is a different time today and it's a risky financial business putting out music. I'll definitely put out more music this year but whether I will put out a body of work and say: "This is an album, please go out and check it out" I don't know.
How about future collaborations? Are you and Damon Albarn back in the studio working together again?
Yeah there's a lot of ideas that we've had bubbling, the collaborative efforts are definitely something that there will be more of this year.
Can we expect that in another form of an EP or a collaborative LP?
Yeah something like that, definitely. I think it's coming up to nearly 20 years of me being in the business I'm going to mark that point with something. Either a show or recording or something.
What's it like working with such an amazing and versatile artists like Damon?
Damon is a special character he kinda blew away because he was still into music. I've worked with loads of people over the years and not everybody is into music as you would think, it's like a full-time job to really keep up or be interested in new music. Damon's thing with working with international artists and running his own label was pretty mind blowing because he's putting out records, he's signing records, he's making records, he's putting on these events and creating all kinds of vehicles from The Gorillaz's to just his own solo work to the Blur records. It's like he's constantly throwing it up against the wall and then having time to do things with all kinds of different people at all levels so it was really inspirational. And it wasn't just token, as well as me going to Damon's studio to do stuff for Gorillaz he would then come to my studio with my band and try to do stuff for me. Within what we created some of it will appear on Gorillaz album, some of it will be stuff that I thought I did for me and it appears on Martina Topley-Bird's album. You just never know what to expect with Damon and whenever the result comes back it's always a nice surprise, it's good on so many levels.
He always sticks me as someone who takes proper care with what he does.
He's just in it, he's got so many hats. He's got manic immature energy that's so compelling and he's got a more grand elderly energy. I don't know if he's a religious person, I don't think he's under any denomination, but he has this Buddha-Ghandi like aura around him.
Words by Jerry Gadiano
Photo Credit: Dan Medhurst
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Roots Manuva’s new 'Banana Skank EP' is available on iTunes now.