For one thing, they have the charisma. For another, they've got a string quartet. Oh yes they have.
While young US hip-hop acts seem to be able to make the transition from the block to bling bling in a matter of minutes, for their British counterparts, it’s always seemed a much longer slog. So then, here’s Roots Manuva – white vest, incessant bobbing head, real name Rodney Smith – at the start of a UK tour, ready to build, fittingly enough, from the ground up.
Goodwill is evidently on his side. The Junction’s monthly Rawganics hip-hop night is packed floor to ceiling with slouching teenage Shadys and Shadettes, the full monty of dope school leavers. Young enough to not have any emotional recollections of previous Britrap triers like Gunshot and Credit To The Nation. Old enough to have immersed themselves fully in hiphop culture. They are the stately homeboys of England, and they’re here to represent.
And represent they most insanely do. If British rappers have in the past seemed to offer a pale facsimile of a superior US model, then Roots Manuva is aiming to dismantle that reputation. There’s his new LP ‘Run Come Save Me’, of course, in which he builds a realistic new vocabulary for the genre (without sounding like, as is a worry, a hiphop Billy Bragg). But what’s most important right here, where, realistically, he might as well be rapping in old Norse is that he and his crew carry themselves with complete conviction. For one thing, they have the necessary charisma. For another, they’ve got a string quartet.
Oh yes they have. Like rapping about beer or cheese on toast, it’s a kind of fitting subversion of the cliches, and on the recent single ‘Witness (One Hope)’ it sounds excellent, too. And to be honest, with the surrounding onstage chaos, it looks completely mad, and the Shadys ruck approvingly.
The path upwards for Roots Manuva may yet be a steep one, and such is his uncompromising vision, hits like Mark B and Blade’s may not immediately materialise. But though the battle with people’s expectations may take a while, on the ground, it’s already won.