"It's been a long, hard journey for British Hip Hop," says Rodney Smith, known to you and me as Roots Manuva. "But, finally the record industry is starting to take notice of us. You can hear British Hip Hop in the music of Pro Green, Tinie Tempah… you see it on mainstream TV. It's part of modern culture. All I can say is… it's about fuckin' time!"
Influenced by the political beats of Public Enemy and the streetwise poetry of fellow South Londoner, Smiley Culture, Smith has been banging the drum (machine) for homegrown Hip Hop since the late-80s. He followed a handful of acclaimed early singles with his ground-breaking 1999 debut album, Brand New Second Hand and almost became a genuine Pop star when 2005's ColossalInsight cracked the UK Top 40. Released late last year, his latest album, 4everevolution, is another mammoth, genreblending journey through the streets of modernBritain, guided, of course, by those familiar, loping beats and Smith's deep, deftly delivered vocals.
"There's nearly three years of my life in that album," he explains in that familiar rumbling, sub-woofer voice. "All the things I've seen. Everything that I wanted to say. And with all the shit that's been going down in this country lately… there's been plenty to talk about!"
"I realised that I had about a 120 tracks of synthesizers and effects. Just synths and effects!"
It sounds like 4everevolution was a difficult album to make.
"Making the music was easy. Actually going into the studio and recording was easy. But turning that music into an album… man, that's the difficult bit. I find it impossible to stop. I'm like a train, rolling the down the tracks. I just keep writing and recording and writing and recording. Then adding bits and taking bits away.
"One day, we were in the studio, sitting in front of this huge mixing desk, and I realised that I had about a 120 tracks of synthesizers and effects. Just synths and effects! I spent a week chopping up drum loops. Just for one song! Can you believe it? How does that happen? Shit… I know how it happens. I start working on a song, it gets handed round to people in the band, they add bits, I add bits and all of a sudden you've got a folder so big that it crashes the computer.
"In the end, there was a bit of a stand-off between me, my management and the record company. I had people coming round to the studio saying, 'OK, it's time to stop. Switch off the computer and step away from the drum machine. You need to put out an album'."
Was it all recorded at your studio in Tottenham?
"Nah, it was recorded all over the place. I only moved into this new place just under a year ago. Before that, I had a little mixing suite in Shoreditch. The problem was that Shoreditch is party central and we were doing more partying than recording. We recorded some stuff there, some stuff here, did a couple of sessions at a studio in Cambridge and a few other places around London.
"Writing works like this… I make a basic sketch of the song using Logic and whatever bits of kit I can put my hands on. It might be a few string sounds from the Alesis QS7, some madness from the Kaoss Pad or even a bit of viola…"
"Yeah, the violin and the viola were the first instruments I picked up as a kid. Even then my fingers were too big! I can still make a noise, though.And it all adds to the atmosphere I'm after. Layering some strangeness over the top of the straight-laced digital technology.
"When it came to getting my own setup, the Atari and sampler combination seemed like the obvious route. I had the Atari and an Akai S1000."
"Anyway, after I've sketched out eight or 16 bars of a song, I hand it over to members of my live band or people I might be working with on one particular track. A lot of the bass on the new album was handled by Chris Taylor from that brilliant improv band, The Bays. He gave me what I called the polyester sound. All hair gel and sparkly vests [laughs]. And one of the guys I work with has got a couple of Wasp synths. They are amazing for bass because you can really glide up and down the keyboard… crazy shit! There's a lot of Wasp on Banana Skank [from the new album], mixed in with live bass. Sometimes, it's just the Wasp, sometimes just the live bass and, sometimes, a mix of the two. Live, we often back up the real bass with a bit of synth. Bass – the sound and the power – has been with me since day one. The first music I heard was Reggae and Dub.
"The first studio I ever went to when I was a kid was a Reggae studio. The bass just filled your ears. I remember an SH-101 sitting there… this little machine. But the sound that came out of it was so powerful. It gave me that fascination for sound and the technology that makes sound."
So, it was Reggae rather than Hip Hop that got you interested in music?
"The studios I knew in south London were all Reggae studios. The first song I learned was Warrior Chant by Aswad. I remember my music teacher at school saying,
'Learn this song, then try to twist those chords and beats and basslines into something new'. That's exactly what I did. In fact [laughs], if you listen to all Roots Manuva songs, they're variations on Warrior Chant! Oh, my God. I'm gonna have Brinsley [Forde, bass player with Aswad] on the phone now!
"Hip Hop came later. The late '80s, when I was about 15 or 16. Memories of Erik B And Rakim's Follow The Leader… Public Enemy's second album, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. That was about the time a little Casio keyboard appeared at my mum's house. Somebody had nicked it and I was holding on to it. And, somehow, there was an 808 floating around in my orbit.
"Heaven knows who got hold of it, but I would spend ages programming that thing. I could write a whole composition just using the sounds from the 808… adding a bit of Reggae chat like I heard on the sound systems."
Did you know you had a 'voice'?
"I knew my voice was different. I was a big kid. I had a deep, deep voice. And, whereas a lot of kids liked to slur their words or mumble, I was very heavily into pronunciation. The science of language. How words felt and sounded. My father was a lay-preacher and he taught me the value of communication at an early age. He hated it if I was mumbling or only half-forming my words.
"But, even though my words were very, er… specific, my grasp of metre and the number of bars was all over the place! In hindsight, I was incredibly lucky. Instead of putting words and emphasis in the obvious places, I was just going by instinct. Instead of four bars, I might go for five or nine. It was all instinct. Today, I still have no natural feel for the number of bars. I have to keep an eye on the computer screen or I lose where I am in the song."
Apart from the Casio, did you 'own' any other kit?
"Not till I was way into my 20s! During those early years, I was hanging around at the local community studio so often, that I eventually got a job there. I was the house engineer. By watching the older guys at work, I taught myself how to use the sampler and the mixing desk. I knew about the Atari 1040. Cubase, Creator and Notator.
"My father was a lay-preacher and he taught me the value of communication at an early age. He hated it if I was mumbling or only half-forming my words."
"When it came to getting my own setup, the Atari and sampler combination seemed like the obvious route. I had the Atari and an Akai S1000. That was what most of the first album was done on. If I needed an instrument, I'd borrow it. If I needed help, I'd ask around. It was a direct and minimal approach to making music and, I'll be honest with you, I still think that is some of my most inventive work."
Looking around your current studio, you still seem to have kept things minimal. The shelves aren't groaning with studio gizmos.
"I ain't got the money!"
Apart from the Alesis, all the synths are software?
"Yeah. You get the usual stuff with Logic and I've got the Arturia Moog and Arp. They contacted the label and asked me if I wanted to try them out. They have sort of become my main synths, really. They've got that old school feel. The Alesis has been very reliable over the years, though. There's a great string patch on there called… I think it's 'Tron'. It's cheesy, but has a great vibe.
"The best tip I can give is if you've got everything working against everything else, then it will never sound right."
"Recently, I suppose I've been lucky enough to actually record real strings on my albums. I get some ideas together on the Alesis and then bring in a string quartet."
This does sound like a very live album.
"Well, it's live in terms of recording… but then it's all been chopped up by me. That's where all the studio hours go. Altering and shaping the sound after it's been recorded. Warping the strings, filtering the guitars, sticking drums through guitar pedals or sending them through the Kaoss Pad. All sorts of processing that adds my 'thing' to the sound. The Boss GP-20 [Amp Factory] is a crazy piece of work, too. Turns all your nice sounds very nasty.
"Some of the drums were recorded and then re-recorded again. I miked up the speakers while they were sitting in the concrete corridor outside the studio in Tottenham. I'm sure somebody will read this interview and tell me that I'm not supposed to do that, but, who cares… the end result gave me the sound I was after."
We need to talk about drums in more detail. Programming drums… getting that famous, Roots Manuva loping, lopsided groove. Do you know where the idea first came from? Some of your earlier tunes are certainly 'straighter'. There's a far more quantised feel.
"Well, it's not like there was suddenly a day when I thought, 'OK, let's un-quantise the music'. The inspiration probably came from listening to old records… maybe James Brown and the JBs. They were the tightest band in the world and yet they were so loose and funky too. I started listening to that and thinking, 'How can I get that sound?'
"The best tip I can give is if you've got everything working against everything else, then it will never sound right. What you need is something loose working with something that's very straight. Y'know… take a straight drum loop and put that in your song. That's what everything locks in to. But then you programme some other drums of top of that. Programme by hand and get as loose as you can. DO NOT QUANTISE! Listen back. Some bits will work, some won't. Find the bits that work.
"Programme your bassline. Push the beat a little bit. Hold back a little bit. Same with your synths and your strings. Everything! As long as you've got that one original, straight drum loop that's keeping everything else locking down – and it doesn't have to be a drum loop, it can be a bassline or anything that will keep time – then everything can hang out all over the place."
Do you ever try and programme rhythmic glitches and mistakes on purpose? Trying to catch us out?
"It's never really that calculated. I'm just trying to give it some human imperfections. If you've got a group of people playing music together, it will never be quantised.
"It will not be the same eight-bars of music played over and over again, with the same tone and rhythm. It will live and breathe. It will slow down and speed up. It will rise and fall. It's like having a swing function with a little bit extra. Just turning on your computer generated swing is… well, it's complete anathema. That's too easy.
"It's too easy to have the same piece of music rolling round and round. I want to make the machines bounce!"
Where do the drum sounds come from?
"It's mostly live on this album – backed up by the 808 or 909. Actually, the two of them work very well together if you're after an interesting kick drum. A short 909 and a long 808.
"I still use the MPC, occasionally, but I don't really sample drums, anymore. Not from records. I just sample the ones that we've recorded."
The Tottenham studio isn't sound-proof Does that mean you have to pick and choose the times when you record vocals?
"It's not normally this loud, but I think they've just bought a Neve desk and they're very excited. There are enough quiet moments when I can just hook up the U87 or the SM58, depending on what kind of mood I'm in.
"The most important thing with vocals is that you need a nice, clean, flat signal. As clean as possible. Once you've got that as your starting point, you can go anywhere. Stick it through a cheap mixer and crank up the distortion for that close, pirate radio feel. Probably my favourite preamp is the SSL Alpha Channel. They say it's an SSL channel strip in a box and… yeah, it does the business.
"That fancy-sounding Variable Harmonic Drive really does crack-up the signal in a very real way. I sometimes stick the hi-hats through there and it has them dancing around like crazy. Most enjoyable!"
Is the mastering done here?
[Laughs] "Does this look like a mastering suite?
[Pointing at the chaos and clutter of his studio.] No, what I do here is get the parts together and get them into the computer. I have got some nice mastering software – there are a few T-RackS bits and pieces and the PSP Vintage Warmer – but I tend to just do the bare minimum here in the studio.
"I might put a bit of warmth and compression on things, but that's it really. All the mastering was done with Dillit Harris, who used to master a lot of Carleen Anderson's stuff. We had everything spread out over a nice big desk at Soundmasters in London and he brought in his collection of Ureis, Neves and SSL outboard.
"During the mastering process, I need to be away from my studio. Getting me out of my space is like putting a full stop on the recording. Once it was in Dill's hands, I stopped tweaking… I stopped re-recording vocals. All we did was listen to what was there and mix it.
"Sometimes, I'd say, 'That vocal's wrong. The bassline need a bit of work', but Dill would just look at me and say, 'No, that's enough. We don't need to replace that word. We don't need another bassline'. If it was left to me, I'd go on forever!"