The 90s have always been seen as a dark time for British hip-hop, an era defined by impersonation over innovation. Grime had yet to become the critical and commercial juggernaut it is today, producing Glastonbury headliners or Mercury Prize winners. Maxinquaye (1995) felt like a turning point upon release, but was something of an outlier – it didn’t really sound like hip-hop despite the fact Tricky was a rapper.
But in 1999, squeezed in before the end of the decade, Roots Manuva’s Brand New Second Hand was released. Whilst it might be flippant to suggest the album saved British hip-hop from ignominy during this period, Brand New Second Hand’s impact cannot be understated as it celebrates a 22nd birthday this month.
Born in South London to immigrant parents, Rodney Smith’s debut seemed equally indebted to Jamaican culture as the melting pot that he grew up in. Dub and dancehall are the foundation of this record’s production and the first slang he falls back on lyrically is Jamaican patois. In a time when British rappers were concerned with aping successful American counterparts, including dodgy accents, Manuva stood out as someone whose sound was unique.
This is not to disparage the influence of MCs like Rakim and Chuck D, who empowered Manuva to pick up a mic, but vitally Brand New Second Hand was not a tribute to those pioneering artists. Critics relentlessly point to what is explicitly “British” in his lyrics (cheese on toast and bitter), as if mentioning these things was what set him apart from contemporaries. It is a focus that has irked Manuva in the past, and arguably does him a disservice.
Brand New Second Hand was largely self-produced, borne of spending long, late nights fiddling away on different ideas and the result was profound. Exploring themes as varied as morality and capitalism, all infused with an intoxicating production style, the record sold modestly at the time but is now rightly heralded as a classic.
The fact Manuva isn’t a grime artist has likely impacted his public visibility, as well as the decision to continually work with a smaller label, Big Dada (subsidiary of Ninja Tune). Whilst some of his tracks like ‘Witness (1 Hope)’ are recognised as anthems, he has never really been considered mainstream over the course of his career.
It is interesting to consider how different his career might have turned out had he won the Mercury for Run Come Save Me, two years before Dizzee Rascal shot to stardom. It is probably safe to say a Calvin Harris collaboration would never have been in the reckoning.
Read on for a rundown of Manuva’s finest moments:
‘Next Type of Motion’ – Roots Manuva (1995)
The first Roots Manuva EP slid under the radar when it was released, barely shifting 200 copies. It did however draw him to the attention of Big Dada who offered him a record deal in 1998. What is striking about ‘Next Type of Motion’ is how it doesn’t sound remotely deferential to any of the hip-hop artists that were making waves across the Atlantic during the 90s. The slow, sluggish beat has more in common with Tricky’s Maxinquaye (‘Hell Is Round The Corner’), another British MC that came to success on his own terms.
‘Inna’ – Roots Manuva (1999)
“It were me on my jack jones, lone getting down
Freaking to the sound as the bass bins pound
Ostensibly ‘Inna’ is a song about stealing drinks on a night out. Hardly novel material, but the eloquence and humour with which Manuva shares the tale means, much like the woman in the song, it is impossible not to be sucked in. Production-wise this stands out as a near perfect evocation of a nightclub’s dark spaces and murky corners.
‘Hol’ It Up’ – Roots Manuva (2001)
Whilst his debut seemed quite a lonely record in more ways than one, Manuva’s sophomore album Run Come Save Me featured a handful of guest appearances. Jurassic 5’s Charli 2na might have been the name to grab headlines, but arguably British MC Riddla steals the show. ‘Hol’ It Up’ is one of the hardest tracks across Manuva’s discography, a three-minute ringtone dancehall anthem with a fearsome low end.
‘Wheel & Turn’ – Blacknificent 7 (2006)
As mentioned earlier, Manuva and grime have something of a complex relationship. The feeling is that he has always skirted around the genre’s edges, both influencing and being influenced, rather than ever making explicit reference to it in his music. ‘Wheel & Turn’ is one exception, probably the closest he has ever come to a grime track and produced as part of The Blacknificent Seven, a side project well worth exploring for fans of 2001’s ‘Swords In The Dirt’.
‘Tears’ – Roots Manuva (2002)
Given the influence of sound system culture on Roots Manuva’s career, it might come as little surprise that he has released a few dub remix albums over the years. The humorously titled Dub Come Save Me offered reworked versions of his 2001 Mercury Prize-nominated Run Come... . ‘Tears’ stands out not only as one of the record’s few original tracks but as one of the strongest as well.
‘Proper Tings Juggled’ – Roots Manuva v Wrongtom (2010)
On the subject of dub albums, it would be a shame not to mention some of the collaborative records between Manuva and UK dub producer Wrongtom. It may be hard to believe that there could be a remix worthy of BNSH’s ‘Juggle Tings Proper’ but this does the original justice.
‘Let The Spirit’ – Roots Manuva (2008)
The transformation of Roots Manuva’s sound can be demonstrated by the fact that he went from pretty much single handedly producing his first two records to working with the likes of Metronomy’s synth wizard Joseph Mount later in his career. ‘C.R.U.F.F.’ and ‘Let The Spirit’ were the fruits of this partnership, the latter being among the London rapper’s poppiest efforts.
‘Facety 2:11’ – Roots Manuva (2015)
Produced by Four Tet, this must be one of the quickest beats Roots has ever rapped on, which contrasts with his smooth and deliberate verses. 2015’s Bleeds felt like a change of direction for him in more ways that one – not only was the record lyrically more abstract than anything that preceded it, but it also saw him experimenting further with rhyme schemes, particularly internal rhyming.
‘All Things to All Men’ – The Cinematic Orchestra feat. Roots Manuva (2002)
“I’m all things to all men
All of the women, all the children
Just say when and I’ll take you to my TARDIS
Who’s the hardest? Who’s the hardest?”
A completely different side to Roots Manuva, operating as spoken word street poet rather than dub rapper. He has made a couple of appearances with Ninja Tune stablemates Cinematic Orchestra over the years, including on their long awaited comeback album in 2019, but ‘All Things to All Men’ remains their masterpiece.
‘Witness (1 Hope)’ – Roots Manuva (2001)
The studio result of trying to replicate Dr Who’s theme music and “having four hours to bung the quickest thing I could together”. What can be written about this song that hasn’t already been said? A cornerstone of British hip-hop and twenty years on, in my humble opinion, no one has matched it.
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