At age 7, Rodney Smith, thought he was too cool for the violin, and, being the son of poor parents from Jamaica living in South London, he sought out music more to his taste. “I was walking past Stockwell Skate Park and there was this sound system being set up. They were probably just trying out their speakers, and these dodgy-looking blokes standing beside it just admiring the sound of their bass,” the man who is Roots Manuva describes the first time he saw a sound system. His voice over the phone is exactly the same as it is on his albums, and his inflection and tone is wonderfully lyrical. “The sound system has been a massive part of the social actuality of the Afro-Caribbean people. Part of me culture and me heritage. That was what brought me to music, the sound through a big sound system, not the learning of music. I was learning the violin when I was 7, but it wasn’t cool enough for me, you know, so I kinda stumbled into reggae and then in my early teens was attracted to hiphop.”
Smith has just finished a “Back To Mine” mix, and just completed a tour of Australia, (sadly missing Adelaide), but I got the opportunity to see him not only at Park Life in Sydney, but a few years ago in Melbourne too at Vibes on a Summers Day 2001. In 2001 he just had a DJ and extra MC, but this time around he had a whole band. I asked the enigmatic performer why he came down with the band this time. “Using a band just seemed natural, just a natural evolution from sampling and using the machines. It adds a whole new dimension and flexibility to the live entity. It’s more of a challenge, it’s more scary, and there’s a higher place to fall from when you’re using a band.”
Smith enjoyed his tour, but finds travelling tedious. “It’s such a pleasure to be performing to such large numbers in Australia. It was a good ego boost, or ‘a ripper’ as you say over there,” he laughs. “Travelling is a real pain in the arse,” he adds. “Just as you’re getting into a place, you’re flying away again. And with Australia being so far away and so big, going through all those time zones it was such a physical engagement. There was many a tetchy moment between the band. There’s just so much to think about – everyone’s emotional state is fragile and up in the air, and it took a force from another world to come down and assist us to keep it together,” he says, with his voice rising like a preacher.
His last artist album, ‘Awfully Deep’ released at the beginning of this year, was also quite a challenge. “It was more intense, more of a laboured process, with more attention to finicky detail. Our past records have been more punk rock,” his laugh booms again. “A demo recorded in my front room, and other times we’d take five skeletons of tracks down to the studio and try and get five tracks done in two days. Have a couple of spliffs and a half a bottle of champagne and it was like, ‘right that’s it!’ But no more, we don’t have the time or money to be messing around,” he says sternly. “This time I would start off with the stripped down laptop ditty and take that to a bunch of musicians and get them to musically embellish what I do to step it further to a different sonic harmonic spectrum.”
Our chat takes us to his latest project, Back To Mine. “This compilation wasn’t about influences for me, it was more about putting together a bunch of music under the context of people coming back to my house after a night out,” he says, when I ask about the tracks he’s chosen. I mention how I think this Back To Mine is one of the most enjoyable, most listenable and accessible, especially compared to Adam Freeland’s Back To Mine. “Is it?” he asks, thanking me. “Well I’m always making mix tapes, so I kind of tried to hit it with the mix tape stroke radio show vibe. Definitely thinking about my audience, and not sitting there scratching my own balls and showing everyone how I have a deep, deep knowledge of all there is in music,” he laughs.