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A music-hall star for the 21st century

The charismatic rapper born Rodney Smith is a Londonist par excellence. Dan Hancox enjoys Roots Manu

Roots Manuva

Koko, London NW1

Asked by the New Statesman last year "Do you love your country?" Roots Manuva replied: "I love London so much it should be a country. London, love you until you die." The charismatic British rapper, born Rodney Smith, is a Londonist par excellence, and has preached both this message and his eccentric take on hip-hop across the world. Tonight (19 February) he returned to the capital to headline at Koko, the Grade II-listed former music-hall venue that began life as the Camden Theatre. It is pleasing to report that, as if to prove the adaptability of London's popular culture, the venue accommodates 21st-century hip-hop just as well as I'm sure it did The Geisha: a Story of a Tea House - the opera it premiered in 1901.

With Roots Manuva performing on the night with a DJ, drummer, keyboardist, two saxophonists and three supporting vocalists, it was easy to lose him on the Koko stage, visually and musically. The mechanics of his show demand much more than the pared-down hip-hop purist's mantra of "two turntables and a mike". Even that unlikely hip-hop staple, the flute, made a surprise appearance at one point, though sadly it was lost in the shapeless bass-morass that occasionally submerged Smith's bold, variegated combination of sounds - a casualty of the transfer from studio album to rock-venue acoustics.

The band entered first, to a clamour of Public Enemy-style air-raid sirens, before finally Smith himself took to the stage in jeans, white cardigan and hat, launching into "Again and Again", an upbeat promise over reggae horn fanfares that "we're here to improve ya". "A lot of people don't know about Smith," he raps, "how I came to the scene and came to uplift."

The ghost of funk emerged as they moved into another song from 2008's Slime and Reason, the stuttering bleeps-and-bass of "Kick Up Ya Foot". There was no stuttering onstage, just a lot of exuberant buffoonery, Smith and two of his band members doing the cancan to the chorus, falling about laughing. These funkier, more saxophone-heavy tracks suited the venue well, the hollow woodblock percussion cutting through the air, and they suit Smith, too.

One of the MCs supporting him, the British reggae stalwart Ricky Ranking, performed a couple of numbers himself, the first delivered over "The Mission Riddim" - a piece of Jamaican pop culture embedded in the DNA of the hypothetical "nation" of London, in that it was impossible to walk down a street in Hackney or Lambeth last summer without hearing it blaring out of every window, as the instrumental base for the dancehall superstar Mavado's hit "I'm On the Rock".

During Ranking's second number, Smith wandered away from centre stage to join his keyboardist, seeming to enjoy himself even more away from the limelight. Yet when he has to step up and be the star, he is happy to do so: "Do you want to go back in time?" he boomed at the crowd, arms outstretched. He could probably make this happen, you feel. If rap in its early days was the "black CNN", as Chuck D once declared, Roots Manuva's off-kilter take on it sometimes feels like the Sci Fi channel. His wonderfully punch-drunk delivery mirrored the wooziness of the beats, no more so than when he led the audience in a deliriously knockabout singalong to his 2002 single "Dreamy Days".

This "greatest hits" encore led inevitably to "Witness (1 Hope)", such a big event that the band created an elaborate bit of comedy to presage it. "They don't want to let us play 'Witness'. . ." Ricky Ranking announced to pantomime boos. "No, I'm serious, it's just too big... [more boos]" going to have to ask the manager if we're allowed to play it. Do you want him to say yes?"

To no one's surprise, the "manager" of the piece eventually assented, and Koko erupted to Roots Manuva's biggest hit. It's still the perfect encapsulation of his appeal: a compulsive, driving bassline and chorus, paired with a profound sense of Smith's "breakaway slave bliss", Jamaican patois mingling with quaintly British references to cheese on toast and pints of bitter. Meet Rodney Smith, London's very own 21st-century music-hall star.

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This article first appeared in the 02 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Thatcher: 30 years on, the final verdict