I've made a grave error by announcing this series. I understand this now. 1000 posts will take me about 20 years at my current workrate but after years in the wilderness, I think British hip-hop is finally showing the promise it was in the early to mid-2000s again. It's great to see so many superb producers and emcees coming through with a new sound we can be proud of. The posts will be sporadic, but as mentioned in the introduction, I'm here to celebrate our sound. If you're new to this, hopefully you'll hear a large amount of great music you never knew about. If like me, you've had your ear to the ground for a long time, I'd like to think you'll be able to re-engage and experience this music for the second time, whether it's a forgotten gem or a well known classic.
I'll be going back and forth between new and old school hip-hop, from 80s classics that brought the scene its first shine all the way through to LPs from the last few years. With this in mind, I thought it would be apt to start off with an artist that seemed to usher in the modern UK hip-hop sound in the mid to late 90s.
Roots Manuva is as distinct a voice as UK hip-hop has ever had. Even today, when his prominence on the scene has diminished somewhat due to the change of trends in music, the Stockwell, London-born emcee has almost as much bass in his voice as the beats behind him. There is something almost soothing about his delivery - in the same way Guru from Gangstarr was able to sound both commanding and effortless throughout his life on the mic.
He truly hit the bigtime with his follow-up album 'Run Come Save Me', largely thanks to two massively popular singles, 'Witness' (arguably the most anthemic british rap song of all time) and 'Dreamy Days'. There will be more on this album and it's overarching influence another time. Before this album hit however, he was already an established name in the underground scene and threatening to make the crossover.
I remember hearing his breakthrough track alongside the legendary Skitz 'Where My Mind Is At' when I was 14 years old and it was one of the first times I can honestly say that my head had been turned from the US hip-hop that had dominated my life up until that point (sidebar: a few years after it first surfaced, the song turned up again on Skitz' Countryman album, but more on THAT another time).
His voice is what initially grabs you, but the largely introspective nature of his lyrics pulls you into his dream sequences as you rumble over basslines that sound like they're coming from behind a cellar door. It's an experience unlike any other, and it all started in full swing with BRAND NEW SECOND HAND.
Released on the then-upstart label Big Dada in 1999 after the success of the aforementioned Skitz link-up and lead single 'Juggle Tings Proper' (video below), Rodney Smith was able to lay down the foundations for his career to come straight away.
Largely self-produced and with minimal guest appearances, BNSH was a landmark album and this was apparent from the get-go. After all, he won a MOBO award that year for Best Hip-Hop Act back when that actually mattered. UK hip-hop had already been around for a long long time at this point, but as I recall it, this was seemingly the start of a new generation of artists ready to push through the soil and see daylight.
It's telling that one of the first things you hear on the LP opener 'Movements' is a filtered bass drone that blends with melodic keys. It sets the tone for the rest of the next hour and creates a soundbed that was imitated many times in subsequent years by many a british artist. He clearly influenced, whether directly or indirectly, everyone from New Flesh to Jehst in their production styles. The scene was finding its own sound, and the low-key, dusty & bass-heavy beats that earlier groups such as The Brotherhood had utilised were being tampered with and given a new lease of life.
90s traditional boom-bap was low-key and dusty too, but this was nothing like it. It sounded futuristic in a sense, moving away from samples but still heavily influenced by dub and reggae music (a huge percentage of UK rap always has been due to the music youngsters grew up listening to and living around, and of course the generational and geographical descent of many artist's families).
Huge swathes of artists still utilise this dub-influenced production style today, and it is one of the most definitively British styles we can boast. The cocktail of English slang, lyrics symptomatic of the claustrophobic urban experience and the music of our parents created this.
From Movements to Juggle Tings Proper, Inna to Soul Decay, the album's opening few tracks introduce Manuva as an intriguing stranger, he lures you in with the swirling production and hits you with pensive couplets that often leave you with more questions than answers.
For long periods he lets the beats do a lot of the hard work and his personality, although hugely apparent, isn't put to as much focused use as it is on 2001's Run Come Save Me or 2005's Awfully Deep. However, 'Baptism' with the at-the-time preeminent UK female emcee Wildflower is a superb back-and-forth that signals the first time on the record that Roots allows the beat to dissolve into the background as he trades bars with Vanessa George (she absolutely slayed Skitz' 'Domestic Science' by the way).
'Strange Behaviour' ripples with familiar bass, key stabs and guitar licks as the lyrics tell stories of drug-addiction and the negative effects it can have on one's mood and how you react to others. The point-of-view narration is a particular master skill of Manuva's, and he uses it to aplomb on multiple tracks throughout his career.
Seanie T drops by for 'Big Tings Gwidarn' as the dub-influence is turned up to a Spinal Tap Eleven. Its another great example of Manuva's ability to mesh superbly with other artists over something undeniably original.
Nearly all of the beats are by Roots himself, either under his artist name or the pseudonym Hylton Smythe (his middle name and rework of his surname), but there is some outside help. IG Culture of Dodge City Productions turns up both behind and in front of the boards on 'Dem Phonies' and Wayne Bennett AKA Lotek handles a couple of tracks. Bennett & Smith have worked together to great effect multiple times, both here and on the Lotek Hi-Fi releases of late 90s/early 2000s. But it's mostly a personal affair, and it works magnificently.
I've never been a huge fan of the major label, multiple dream-team producer line-ups, because for one it often detracts from the rapper's ability to get across his own point through his lyrics, but also prevents him/her from finding their own voice/sound. Roots Manuva has no issue with this and this has remained so throughout his career, even up until his more recent work with Toddla T on Rhyme & Reason and Wrongtom on Duppy Writer.
The album rumbles through like the perfect 2am soundtrack. Whether smoked out or sober it truly captures the English inner-city mindset in ways not many other albums have done since. 'Cornmeal Dumpling' and 'Yeah...' hit you heavy and Rodney rides the beat in his inimitable way, delivering lines such as 'raw from the south of the thames, bringing folks vision like a contact lense'. But there is one departure from this, and it just happens to be the jewel in the crown.
Sequenced at the end of the LP so as to not interrupt the narrative that preceded it, Motion 5000 was released as a stand-alone single months after the album's release, and it is unlike any other hip-hop song I've ever heard. It transcends genre and captures emotion in a way not even Roots Manuva himself has managed to compete with. The string arrangement is as beautiful as it is haunting, and above the violins and bass punches the man also known as Lord Gosh floats with lyrics that are reworked from the 1995 'Next Type Of Motion' track this was born out of. Its a wonderful end to the LP and both the original & the album version of this song are certified classics in my opinion.
For me, this album was important for the genre and as a singular work it sounds just as fresh & original today as it did when it was released 15 years ago. Roots Manuva announced himself to the world brilliantly on Brand New Second Hand, and built a continually memorable career off the back of it that we should all cherish while he continues to create music. Find the Spotify & iTunes links below and support the artist if you enjoyed the ride as much as I did.
Roots Manuva – Brand New Second Hand