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Jamaican music is a defining element of the modern London sound.

For the past 30 years, Jamaican vibrations have animated the capital’s sonic nervous system: from hip-hop to jungle, grime to dubstep. The music, culture, and traditions that the Caribbean community brought to London are also a foundation for many of its most captivating musical figures.

Born Rodney Smith, Roots Manuva first emerged in the mid-1990s London rap scene with a memorable appearance alongside Black Twang on the latter’s 1995 single, ‘The Queens Head’. Whilst the capital was moving full tilt into the sounds that had emerged from the splintering of rave at the turn of the decade, a vision for British hip-hop affirmed itself on the sidelines.

Inspired by the success of its American counterparts — yet forever doomed to live in its shadows due to a shared language — British rappers edged toward a brief moment of recognition in the late 1990s. Smith’s debut, 1999’s Brand New Second Hand, the first album on the Big Dada imprint, an offshoot of Ninja Tune helmed by journalist Will Ashon and tasked with representing the country’s growing rap credentials, remains one of the scene’s most stunning statements. A reflection of the city’s melting pot, Brand New Second Hand was a singular vision of hip-hop fashioned through Smith’s south London upbringing, Jamaican roots, weed, and borrowed equipment from Ninja Tune founders Coldcut.

But while Brand New defined a scene and moment in time, achieving classic status, it also confined its creator to a limiting role: UK rapper. The rest of Smith’s career — five albums, tens of singles and EPs, appearances across a multitude of electronic projects — would be spent trying to extricate himself from the straitjacket his debut placed him in. Smith managed it by moving through sounds and collaborators, setting up the Banana Klan collective, and becoming a DJ on the side, all the while remaining rooted in the musical diversity and urban grit of his hometown.

There’s an interesting parallel to be drawn between Smith and another modern London icon, Wiley. Over the past 20 years the two have defined themselves by their roots, both in the capital and, through their parents, the Caribbean. They share a propensity to experiment, a penchant for eccentricities, and a single-minded vision. But while Wiley is grime, it could be argued that Roots Manuva is London, more than he is UK rap.

Following the release of Smith’s sixth studio album, Bleeds, earlier this month — featuring production from different eras of London technicians such as Four Tet, Switch, and Adrian Sherwood — we selected 10 cuts from his extensive back catalogue and asked him to provide some insights into their origins and what they mean.

From road raps to sound system bombs via beans on toast and dubwise reflections, this is 20 years in the life of a London icon.

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Blak Twang ft. Roots Manuva
‘Queens Head’
(Sound Of Money, 1995)

“That wasn’t even Roots Manuva! That was Baron Smith. Not seen that guy for years! As soon as I did that song I had to change my ways. Singing so untastefully about getting money, it’s not on really. You need to have more suave, I had to abandon the Baron Smith character and become Roots Manuva, the dub superhero. I was young and foolish! Blak Twang is family, although his lane is in Deptford. I am born and bred Brixton/Stockwell, I still have a room in the family house. If my dad says ‘you need to go your room,’ as a 43 year old I need to go to that room.”

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Roots Manuva ft. Taipanic, Seanie T, Robotic EBU, Juice Aleem
‘Skiver’s Guide’
(Big Dada, 1999)

“Old new slang, shape-shifted dialect on slackers. Slackers guide line rap book. Hip-hop about what slackers do. Eating junk food and retail therapy. God awful tune in terms of subject!”

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Leftfield feat. Roots Manuva
(From Rhythm & Stealth, Columbia, 1999)

“This was the beginning of big things! Leftfield opened my mind to the deep explorations of dubwise contours. Leftfield are scientists. And they are still going strong today. I don’t see them much, but I consider them sonic family.”

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Roots Manuva
‘Witness (1 Hope)’
(From Run Come Save Me, Big Dada, 2001)

“This was just to grab people’s attention. It was inspired by Bestival’s first Sunday Best club in Clapham. I had a gig there and I needed a song that would translate on that system. Knocked up by me in four hours, meticulously mixed by a character called Soca Casual. He is the hidden element on this track, he took this ugly monstrosity and transformed it into the so-called classic it is now known as. Soca Casual has the answer, someone needs to find him, that guy can mix songs that sound regular hip-hop then sheen them into this pop mix that is actually a noisy monstrosity underneath.”

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Skitz feat. Roots Manuva, Valerie Etienne, Deckwrecka
‘Inner City Folk’
(From Countryman, Ronin Records, 2001)

“This is a lovely song, it really does explain some of the traumas of growing up in south London, it really gets it to a tee. But I can’t fucking remember all the vocals on these guest tunes. It features Valerie from Galliano, one of my heroes. Lovely, lovely, lovely song!”

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Roots Manuva
‘Colossal Insight’
(From Awfully Deep, Big Dada, 2004)

“Written on a piano in Miloco Studios, Old Kent Road. I was waiting for Steve Dub to mix some tunes off Awfully Deep [Roots’ third album] and was very bored. This was the last song made for the LP. Will Ashon, the mad man, decided this would be the lead single on Awfully Deep. It ended up as the highest charting single of my career and I believe that’s because it was written on a baby grand piano. Pianos dominate everything so it was made electronic in the end, there are so many crazy layers. I can remember performing at Worldwide Festival one year and the whole crowd really got it. I thought everyone was off their heads.”  

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Roots Manuva
‘Do Nah Bodda Mi’
(From Slime & Reason, Big Dada, 2008)

“This is the tag team supreme in action: Toddla T and Manuva MC. Whenever we get together we smash up buildings, we break them down, we fuck things up. Don’t fuck with that team. If we ever go back to Sheffield to make some tunes, the game is over. Don’t mess with those guys. If they ever make a clash dubplate, every other sound is dead!”

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Roots Manuva meets Wrongtom
‘Proper Tings Juggled’
(From Duppy Writer, Big Dada, 2010)

“This was a remix by the doctor of dub WrongTom, and it’s a lovely refreshing take on the old classic from Brand New Second Hand.”

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The Bug feat. Roots Manuva
‘Tune In’
(From Infected, Ninja Tune, 2010)

“The Bug called me down to his studio to make this tune. He’s still not paid me shit, but he did play in my club and I didn’t pay him shit, so we are even stevens. Kevin, what is the next move? I’ve got some of your beats! It’s a good song, I got into that mix. I could never remember it to perform, though I did big up Kode9 in there.”

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Roots Manuva
‘Facety 2:11’
(From Bleeds, Big Dada, 2015)

“2:11 is the the codeword for Banana Klan, my gang. Four Tet seems to have got me, I heard that and I was like ‘wow, someone understands me more than I understand myself.’ It’s just what I needed at the time. The tune basically wrote itself, it’s an extremely feisty sort of groove. It works cos’ it doesn’t work. It’s a cousin of ‘Witness’.” 

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