Roots Manuva
Brand New Second Hand
Big Dada/Ninja Tune

British, like Canadian hip hop, has historically been influenced by Caribbean music, and Rodney Smith, aka: Roots Manuva, comes across his Jamaican influences honestly, as his parents were members of the Windrush Generation.  He grew up poor in the council estates of Stockwell, South London, under the thumb of the strict Pentecostal teachings of his father, a preacher.  Music was his saviour.

In 1994, he made his début on Blak Twang’s single, ‘Queen’s Head.’  For the next few years, he popped up as a guest MC on a variety of artists’ material.  In 1998, he was signed to the new hip hop-focused imprint of Ninja Tune, Big Dada, and he dropped Brand New Second Hand the following year.  Characterized by slippery beats, a heavy Jamaican influence and Manuva’s signature deep-voiced rapping, it was an instant classic.

I picked this album up at The Record Runner (RIP) on Rideau Street, the only decent record store in Ottawa for most of the 80s and 90s.  The Record Runner was where I got most my music from in my two tours of duty in the Canadian capital.  Ottawa, in those days, was somewhat of a backwater, more Tulsa than DC, and touring artists rarely, if ever came to visit.  Finding good music in those pre-internet days was hard.  Very hard. If not for The Record Runner, Ottawa would’ve been a desert, not just a backwater.  I don’t know what led me to this album, whether I had heard a track beforehand, or even where I would’ve heard Manuva before then.  But it was the summer of 1999, the impending fear of Y2K was atop of us (remember how quaint that was?), and it was hot and sticky in Ottawa.

Either way, I had my hands on this album, and I slithered home in the heat and humidity.  We lived on the top floor of a 3-story walkup, essentially under the eaves.  It was a nice flat, with a big deck out front and a commanding view of all the flat land to the east of Ottawa. It was night-time the first time I played it.  I was blown away. This was like nothing I had ever heard before, Manuva was like Chali2Na of Jurassic Five, but a more consistent MC, with a better flow.  The beats were a brand new bag.  And so the title made immediate sense.  Roots Manuva was giving us something brand new, but he stood on the shoulders of giants, of the reggae/ska/rock-steady music of his parents’ homeland, of both British and American hip hop.  Nothing ever sounded like this again.

The album is driven by big, hazy basslines, akin to Cypress Hill, but where the Hill ramps up the paranoia from too much blunt, Manuva continues the party.  The basslines are supplemented by a range of beats, including cheap Casio-made ones, and it all works brilliantly.

Brand New Second Hand begins with ‘Movements,’ which comes in with this looming bass, one that in the hands of Cypress Hill or Tricky would have you under the couch, peering out suspiciously at the world around you.  But with Manuva, the beat and the synth widen the bassline.  We remain in kicked-back mode, and you can smell the ganja in the air.  And then the man himself steps up to the mic:

I bring you tents and girth to this homegrown range
Bona fide what you hear, tis the sound of pain
But pain leads to gain so we dare not stagnate
We elevate to that next state, motion divine
Glisten like crystal ball and stand tall
With this knowledge and overstanding
Enterprise landing, bringing dem new brands of buff
Yes, we come proper with potency
Ain’t no blood in my body, it’s liquid soul in my vein
I dance on a thin line of sane and deranged
And it’s all criss once I get neatly in the cipher
Chat like pickney to the piper that pied
As this natural mystic blows through the air
These lessons of life become crystal clear
Precision of my vision is ital
Separating sharks from the blessed is vital
Now I can smell a rat coming from a mile round the corner
One time I bored ya, twice you can’t couf
No, we won’t stop rebuke thee
You satanics, you fools can’t recruit me.

The word-play of his lyrics was, of course, part and parcel of what hip hop used to be, but it was a whole new thing, delivered with a slight Jamaican accent into his South London one.  All these years later, ‘Movements’ remains one of my favourite tracks of all-time.  And that’s the other thing about Manuva, whereas the word-play and story-telling of hip hop has largely fallen by the wayside in the past decade or two, he continues to weave a brilliant bit of story-telling and deft word-play into his lyrics.

 

‘Juggle Tings Proper’ sees the man attempting to balance all that he’s got going on in his life. Rapping over a bouncy beat with a distorted, funky bassline (one that, now, seems to be almost the typical Ninja Tune bassline), Manuva spits out his rhymes:

It’s that jet-black flow from the southwest of L-O-N-D-O-N
The second nature of the vent dem rebel routine
I scheme and plot, ain’t no use in stepping if we don’t step hot
Let the movements be made, there’s goals to be getting
No second for no love or no fettin’
Why there’s all these ugly mans on my TV screen?
I wrap my head with foil so I don’t catch them beams
The sound of half a downer don’t pray fi step solo
We far flung frontier, Captain Kirk, the sun trekker
Full time I climb, my chip deeper taught as I sow seeds of thought
The fruits of the roots, a vision of splendid splendidness
Now be proud to be spittin’ in the face of the beast
With each and every move I make, every shite I break
You might watch me but I watch you too
Ain’t a thing you can do to stop me!

I particularly love that line about wrapping his head with tinfoil, given the times we live in today, where idiocy and conspiracy theories appear to be left, right, and centre around us…

‘Strange Behaviour’ is, along with ‘Movements,’ a major stand out for me, as we follow Manuva from his flat to get beer on a boring, flat day.  He had to literally break the piggy bank to scrounge up the cash to get said beer.  PJ Patel, the owner of the cornershop is

…far from happy with my method of pay
I shrug my shoulders, I’m like what can you say?

It’s money, ain’t it? I ain’t begging you jack
And mood I’m in, I might just give you a slap
I grip my Dragons and I leave in peace
As I stepped through the door he heard the kiss of my teeth.

And then, outside, he ran into his old friend, Charmaine.  They used to be tight, though ‘not on a bone tip/just real good friends.’  And so he invites her back to his yard to ‘crack this four-pack’ and kick back and catch up.  All is going good .  All is cool, until around a quarter to midnight, she flips out.  Turns out she’s got a heroin addiction, and she’s starting to jones for another hit, but it gets worse.  Her two-bit thug boyfriend has a price on his life, and she’s turned to prostitution to feed her habit.

Brand New Second Hand is amongst my Top 5 albums of all-time, and, for that reason, I have hesitated including it in our Classics section.  Despite how much I love this album, it is really difficult to write about.  The tracks are all standouts to me, and I am not going to subject you, Gentle Reader, to a blow-by-blow take on Brand New Second Hand.  And, unlike a lot of albums, this is one that is a whole, it is not a collection of songs.  Manuva created a flow and a ride with his rhymes and beats here, and to take a track, other than ‘Movements,’ from its natural environment feels sacrilege to me.

There are parts throughout that still kill me, over two decades since I first heard them.  Like the thick bassline of ‘Inna,’ which causes my entire car to vibrate, which is causing my desk to vibrate now from the Bose speakers on them spitting out the song.  Or the ‘Lord Have Mercy’ that Manuva drops as he introduced his guest MC, Wildflower.  They then trade verses for the rest of the track.  Or the ‘Roots-Fi Discotheque’ skit.  And so on.

Everytime i play this album, I am transported out of my life.  When I bought this album, I was not a happy man.  My fiancée and I had run our last race, though we hadn’t yet realized it. I felt trapped in Ottawa.  I was looking at the bottom of far too many pint glasses.  But that’s not what this album takes me back to.  And that’s the thing, it doesn’t take me back to anything, it takes me away.  The bassline is thick enough for the trip, and the mellow beats and the manner in which Manuva delivers his rhymes just add to the larger canvas.  This is music for chillin’.

It is criminal that Brand New Second Hand was overlooked for the Mercury Prize shortlist in 1999. In fact, rumour has it that HRH Elizabeth II has expressed her dismay at this oversight.  But this was nonetheless Manuva’s manifesto, and it went Silver in the UK.  His follow-up album, Run Come Save Me, which is in my Top 10 of all-time, both went gold and brought Manuva some financial windfall, and it was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize.  That remains his only Mercury Prize shortlist in a long career (it is also fun to see all the nobodies who won the Prize; the winners include such immortals as M People, Gomez, Klaxons, and Wolf Alice).

For such an influential artist, Roots Manuva has never had an even Top 10 album in the UK, Slime & Reason (2007) coming closest, peaking at #22.   But it his influence that matters.  Big Dada and Ninja Tune spent most of the 00s trying to recreate his sound with other artists, largely failing, and his beats became a pre-cursor of Grime, the form of UK rap that dominated much of the latter half of the 00s.

He released albums consistently from 1999 to 2015, a total of nine albums, which includes two dub remakes of albums, as well as a joint release with Wrongtom, Duppy Writer, a wickedly subversive dub album.  But then, nothing.  Bleeds was his last album, and it was perhaps his best one since 2005’s Awfully Deep.  On Brand New Second Hand, his politics are obvious, though not blunt.  By Bleeds, the Conservatives under David Cameron had been in power for five years, insisting on austerity, to hell with the collateral damage to the vulnerable in British society.  Racism was on the rise, as was a cynical politics of reductionism.  Thus Bleeds was uncompromising in its delivery, Manuva was pissed.  But since then, nothing.  His website hasn’t been updated since Big Dada released the expanded edition of Bleeds in 2016.

Come back, Manuva! We miss you!