It is a surprisingly cold Friday afternoon in September, and I am sitting in a high ceilinged, fairly small venue called Archspace in Haggerston. Bar staff make coffee whilst equipment is set up at the other end of the room. It feels a little bit awkward. I sit waiting, wondering how this evening will unfold. Then a few moments later the speakers crank into life, blasting the unmistakeable sound of that bassline… “Witness the Fitness” blares out into the space, loud and unforgiving and charming. The crew all grin, cheer and dance. I am here to interview Roots Manuva, one of the most important hip hop artists ever produced by the UK as he launches his brand new tour.
How are you feeling about the tour?
I’m feeling very nervous because I have to really, really show improve. Hopefully the nerves will drift away and I can keep to my diet and be a decent guy. Sometimes I mess up, you know, really badly.
Are you working on new material at the moment?
Yeah, I’m producing some R’n’B stuff. I’ve got a few singles that are coming out. Hopefully I’ve got an album that’s gonna come out, we’ve also got a classics album that’s coming out on Ninja Tune distribution and… yeah, there’s a lot of material but times have changed so it’s finding a format for which you can bring songs out. Its such a pain, you know, when my manager goes on to the network dialogue thing… one song is so much more popular than another song, so what does that mean to me? Do I continue to make songs like Witness? Or do I try new things? That’s it, it makes it harder to lock down the actualities of what you’re doing.
In an interview some years ago when “Witness The Fitness” was getting played everywhere, you were quoted as saying you were still miserable. More recently you’ve expressed you’re really happy. What’s changed since then?
A lot has changed. I’ve made a lot of money. I’ve done a lot of shows. I’ve got a wife… I had a sports car. Those things help to smoothe over the cracks and when you have love of your family that’s what makes everything kinda heal together.
Do you think that music saves lives?
Yeah music can save lives, definitely. There’s something about – there’s a book called “How Music Works.” Details on frequencies in music, they really help your muscles, your brainwaves, your beta, your gamma, your meta waves. They create routines. If you can do it – if you can do the V word- I don’t wanna say the V word. Ah, yeah, I’ll say it. Vegan. If you can do the vegan thing you notice a rebalance of your body and your chakras get re-laced. You know, music can help you do that.
So music and veganism together is a recipe for happiness?
Yeah, definitely. Music and veganism is all you need. But veganism is not easy.
What did you think about the grime scene throwing their weight behind Jeremy Corbyn in the lead up to the election?
Wow, that’s a bit weird, innit. I think that’s really weird and I should say no more about it. It’s a bit odd. Jeremy’s a good guy. Politics is not about the label. It’s about the substance of the individuals that have something to offer society.
Did you vote?
Yes I did, but I will not tell you my party for love nor money. Once I did a student election and I’m a little bit… I’m a little bit woo, little bit wah. And I got my friends to rig the vote and the head teacher, she found out. She changed the vote and… oh no, it was not a good look. So I was corrupt when I was, like, fourteen.
Have you got any passing anecdotes to share with our readers?
You gotta do it like nobody’s listening. You know like when you fart and nobody’s there and you don’t get embarrassed? And you really just have to do it, do it, do it. Do it til you’re satisfied.
And any advice for young aspiring artists and promoters in UK hip hop?
Yeah, definitely. Young promoters, you have to think out there. You really do. You gotta do your research. Get out there. Get to Dundee, get to Sunderland. Find that lady DJ that is just amazing and bring her to London. You have to think differently. Thinking outside of the box is the only way to survive because everything is getting so similar, it’s really bad. You even have to travel abroad- get to Eastern Bloc, they’re cheap flights and find someone who doesn’t really have English as their first language and put them onstage. It’s really a new time, it’s a new era. It’s a global village and that’s what it is, these times.
Our interview is cut a bit short because things are running short on time and Roots needs to get ready for his performance. It is always interesting seeing the difference between an artist on stage and off. In person he is more softly spoken than you might expect, slightly dry, a little distant but polite, humorous. He seems fairly serious despite the odd joke being cracked here and there, in the brief time I am talking with him he does not crack a smile.
Onstage however, he comes to life. His face opens in a huge smile as he asks the crowd “Can I call you Haggerston? I can’t call you all by your names, I’m sorry… Haggerston, haven’t you gotten rich? Talk about the regeneration crew…” Although he earlier proclaimed to me he didn’t want to get too political, here it is, his political undercurrent, ever present through his narrative lyrically and colloquially.
He performs ‘Dreamy Days’ with his partner and backing singer, Alex Watson, and it is not an old, token love song but a realised fantasy. The set is short but powerful, finishing on ‘Witness the Fitness’ (considered by many as the greatest UK hip hop song of all time) to an excitable crowd, who reluctantly file out the venue, eager for more.
Roots Manuva. Awfully deep and worth the hype.