It’s crazy to think that Roots’ debut album Brand New Second Hand has aged to the point where, if it had been attending his gig at Leeds’ O2 Academy this October, it could have gone to the bar and got a round in.
Eighteen years have passed since Roots’ singular voice first announced itself on the UK music scene. Possessing a wit and charisma that immediately distinguished himself from his peers in the British hip-hop scene, he has also been unafraid to publicly wrestle with his demons through the medium of his music.
Although he hasn’t released any new albums since his sixth studio effort, Bleeds, came out in 2015, Roots is back on the touring circuit. Seeing Roots live can be an uncertain proposition: a number of his gigs last year had been cancelled for medical reasons and there have been reports from shows he had turned up to that he has at times been barely in a fit state to perform.
(Roots was back to full fitness for his show at O2 Academy Leeds, getting the crowd moving and thinking in equal measure)
Warming up for Roots in Leeds was the double act of Krafty Kutz and Chali 2na of Jurassic 5, a huge artist in his own right. Their live show was impressively well polished, with Kutz spinning and scratching his way through a catalogue of classic hip-hop sounds and Chali displaying a magnetic stage presence to complement his gorgeous baritone voice. The duo did their best to get the crowd moving, before finishing with an obligatory rendition of ‘Concrete Schoolyard’.
Cutting a commanding figure at 6”2, Roots’ performance was notably more subdued than his supporting act. Despite his discography having its fair share of party tunes - I mean, we’re talking about the guy who wrote ‘Witness’ here - his live set contained a number of his more introspective moments. Early works ‘Movements’ and ‘Dreamy Days’ both appeared early in his set, as well as the brooding ‘Hard B*stards’ that opens Bleeds.
(Krafty Kutz laid down the beats as Chali 2na spat the rhymes in an energetic warm up set)
Although it was subdued, this did not make it any less interesting. Roots has been such a compelling artist for so many years because of his stark and honest presentation of his own flaws, and the mercurial nature of his performances fits comfortably alongside this. There was something amusingly reminiscent of watching how members of The Fall interact with Mark E Smith when Roots went on a lengthy interlude between songs, bandmates watching on with increasing trepidation about where and when his tangent was going to end up.
Some of Roots’ many interactions with the crowd were also pretty hilarious. People at the front were requesting their favourite tracks for him to chuckle in response and tell them “no, no, no, we don’t play that one no more”. His encore - unsurprisingly - saw a full-blooded rendition of ‘Witness’ that almost everyone in the crowd was consciously or subconsciously waiting for. While he was by no means perfect, even after all these years Roots Manuva illustrated that he is still a captivating artist to watch perform live.
(Hats off to a hip-hop legend, still at the top of his game)
Photos courtesy of Anthony Longstaff