Fifteen Years on, UK Hip-Hop Has Never Bettered Roots Manuva's 'Brand New Second Hand'

There are some albums you know word for word, and there are some you know tune-by-tune. This is an album I know phonetically.

25 March 2014, 8:15pm

UK hip-hop occupies a strange, unloved place in music. Forever redolent of bad knitwear, cheap yet potent skunk, and the astrologically-minded ramblings of public school boys, this perennially unhip genre has struggled to find an original voice, even if it has featured plenty of regional accents. Rock ‘n’ roll was an American invention, but bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones co-opted it so successfully that the idea of a middle-class imp from Kent singing as if he’d been born and raised in the Mississippi Delta ended up not seeming weird. Punk’s origins can be endlessly disputed, but British punk bands had a recognizably British sound and it was around the same time that the music of the Caribbean islands was beginning to be reinterpreted everywhere from Brixton to Birmingham.

British hip-hop, though, always smelt too much of American wannabes, break dancing philosophy students, and hippies who think mumbling into the mic about giving peace a chance will actually give peace a chance. The British artists that could have made hip-hop albums mostly gravitated towards garage, grime, or trip-hop. Perhaps that’s because those scenes were closer to the reggae and dub scenes that preceded them. Either way, there’s one significant exception to the “UK hip-hop sucks enormous balls” rule. That exception comes in the form of an album made fifteen years ago, by a guy from south-west London called Rodney. The album is Roots Manuva’s Brand New Second Hand and it’s so much better than any other UK hip-hop album, it’s almost a joke.

While it’s unequivocably a hip-hop album, Brand New Second Hand is shot through with ragga and dub. It’s sparse and bass heavy and Rodney’s Stockwell flow, inflected with Jamaican patois, gives the whole record a dancehall feel that separates it from the UK heads ripping off Dre (if they wanted to be gangsta), or DJ Premier (if they wanted to be conscious). From the moment the first track, “Movements," comes flickering to life, the production places you in a mysterious, unsettled realm. There’s an almost Cold War feeling to the washed out urban landscapes Roots evokes on “Movements," an idea that you’re being watched, that behind every corner there’s hidden danger, and that at any moment the rapper himself will spring out and “slap the bacon out your mouth, dance upon your sarnie.” Put it on your headphones and you’ll feel like you could quickly and efficiently knife someone just for looking at you funny.

There are some albums you know word for word, and there are some you know tune-by-tune. Brand New Second Hand is an album I know phonetically. While Roots Manuva uses his voice as an instrument, letting the melody lines flow over the top of the beats, he also tells deep, involving stories. “Inna” is a story about being out-of-place in a hip neighbourhood and it begins like this:

"There were trendy wannabes staring in my face

As I stepped to the place I could taste their glare

Tall hair, small hair, nuff shapes of hair

Swinging out blabber with the coin to spare

Me myself, I only got five quid to spend

And once I've broken this note my pockets on a bend"

It’s often forgotten now, but in the late 90s, when “Shoreditch Twat” fanzine was skewering the east London neighborhood’s transformation, haircuts—particularly the Shoreditch Fin—were the most prominent tribal markers. Rodney heads to a bar, on his own, but unlike everyone around him, he’s not got much money, so he tells the bar girl she’s got nice hair and blags a drink off her. Back “in the midst of them sweaty boogie folk,” Rodney takes a blast on some hash and ends up taking his top off before being accosted by the bar girl and a couple of bouncers, who knock him to the floor. The track chronicles the changing landscape of London and it also captures what it must have been like to be a black guy from Stockwell who was beloved by middle-class white guys, yet still knew that “the company of us cats, they didn’t want to keep.”

“Soul Decay” is a picture of Britain at the century’s end that could have been written yesterday:

"Will you live to work or will you work to live?

Will you step to the future or dwell on the past?

For what be your fight, be it colour or class?"

It’s about continued inequality and the triumph of money over morality, about how a “love of the pound” can eternally tempt compromise. It’s like a story from the Bible, full of references to temptation and evil, one that gets to the heart of ancient human concerns rather than getting stuck somewhere in the club.

Throughout the album there’s references to British politics, to the rat race, to third world debt keeping people in their place. Roots Manuva is a very idiosyncratic rapper, there’s no bragging and bluster, but there’s also nothing overbearingly “positive vibes” about him. He’s got a hard-edged, realistic, and immersive approach to story-telling which, on Brand New Second Hand, keeps him far away from the beardy, isn’t America mean, isn’t peace great territory of so many rappers that style themselves as anti-gangsta.

There’s a preacher-like tone which perhaps comes from his Pentecostal upbringing, a commanding sense of the pulpit that allows him to address serious moral and political issues without sounding like a lightweight. He’s always heartfelt, always sincere but often witty. He’s not a religious nut though. You can tell he’s been through the whole routine and lived to escape. On “Clockwork,” he calls bullshit on Jehovah’s Witnesses while also talking about the sense of purpose he has in his life:

"Cos it's all about strength while we walk through the valley of the snipe, heathens

Get thee from my sight, you cats is ever eager

To preach up in my face when you just about scrape to know all that is

How the hell you try to tell me coca-cola got fizz?

I read your pamphlet four times, It don't make sense

You front like you be scholar, Smith smells pretence

Youse best get off your horse, drink your milk, get the frig out"

It’s a statement of individuality and that individuality is strongly felt throughout the record. On “Strange Behaviour” Rodney trashes his piggy bank and takes the coppers round to P.J. Patel’s to get himself a 4-pack. Mr Patel is pretty pissed off with Rodders but what can he do? Kissing his teeth, our man heads back home. On the way, he runs into Charmaine, an old friend, (“We weren't on no bone tip, just real good friends”) and they go back to his place to have a drink and a chat. A few hours in, Charmaine flips out and tells her story: she hooked up with a dealer and now there’s a £10,000 price on his life. She lived the high life for a while but now she’s terrified. In fact, she’s “trapped in the trade of the oldest trade” and she wants to know if Mr. Manuva is interested in her services. He’s got “no business with no drugs man’s queen,” so he says no. It’s another declaration of individuality:

"It seemed like the planet gone mad

What you staring in my face for?

I told you dudes I can't save ya

What the frig is with this strange behavior?"

It’s hard to believe it’s been 15 years since this album was made. It’s easier to believe that nothing as good as it has ever come out of the UK hip-hop scene. Grime took over and that’s no bad thing, but Brand New Second Hand needs to be heard again. It’s an album that draws you into its world. There’s brooding, almost mythical feeling that runs through Roots Manuva’s meditations on poverty, urban life, racism, and crime. It’s very English: Indian corner shops, piggy banks, kissed teeth, travel cards, cries of “great scot” and “I say,” two-bit gangsters and Rodney’s “jet black flow from the south-west of L-O-N-D-O-N” means it never gets close to sounding like a D-list Tupac knock-off. He may not have got near it since, and the scene it came out of may be dead in the water, but for making Brand New Second Hand, Roots Manuva needs to be honored for his services to British music.

To celebrate the 15th anniversary of Brand New Second Hand, Big Dada are giving away a free download of "Movements" from the record. Here you go:

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