Roots Manuva, The Sage, Gateshead
Wednesday 02 March 2005
Roots Manuva’s raps are delivered with the kind of gravel-distressed, ganja-soaked growl that takes years of larynx-burning inhalation to achieve. Strange, then, that he should open his latest tour in a no-smoking venue. But then, Rodney Smith (as Manuva is known to his family) is well used to playing the fish-out-of-water act. When he emerged as a part of the mid-Nineties UK hip-hop scene, his lyrics and delivery stood out from those of his Highbury-obsessed associates. Where they perfected their cock-er-nay drawl, Smith delivered rhymes that drew as much on the parlance of Jamaican back-a-yard culture as on London slang.
Through the course of his three albums, Smith has continually subverted the hip-hop form. Not for him simple funk breaks – instead, he has drawn on old soul, free-form jazz, contemporary dancehall and Eighties Sleng-Teng reggae, and contorted them through the filters of British techno. The resulting sound paved the way for Dizzee Rascal and the rest of today’s east-London grime movement.
Roots Manuva has just delivered his third album, Awfully Deep, to huge critical acclaim, and his recent single, the stunning “Colossal Insight”, gained round-the-clock Radio 1 support. So, at tonight’s show, Smith is riding a wave of near-hype. After an electrifying support set by MIA, Smith appears with an air of nonchalant bemusement. Just as his lyrical style has him delivering words slightly tardy of the beat, so his on-stage gait is a lazy shuffle. With hands constantly hoisting up his white tracksuit pants and his huge smile flashing nervously, he presents a vision of pure discomfort. It’s only when he looks up at the venue’s three circular tiers that he finally engages with the source of his outsider feelings. “Man, this place is so clean,” he laughs. “And no smoking.”
But far from being a negative force, the unusual (and quite beautiful) setting quickly draws out of Smith and his band a performance that is little short of inspirational. The robotic funk of “Chin High” develops into a scratch-a-delic showcase for DJ MK, the band turntablist, before the jump-up chorus has Smith and Ricky Ranking throwing hands in the air, and even threatening to throw down some breakdance shapes. The soul lament of “The Falling” evolves into a raw, aching expression of love lost. “Too Cold” becomes an exploration of Brechtian dislocation, its oompah beats exaggerated nearly to the point of burlesque. The crowd favourites “Dreamy Days” and “Witness” bring with them hip-hop’s obligatory call-and-response audience interaction. Not that you can imagine the likes of Eminem demanding shouts of “cheese on toast”.
“This could be my last album,” Smith sings on the set highlight, “Colossal Insight”. But on tonight’s showing, any suggestions of early retirement would be a huge loss to the musical landscape. For Roots Manuva is emerging as a unique voice and one of Britain’s most important artists.