Roots Manuva: Shepherd's Bush Empire Saturday, October 18
It's been 21 years since Rodney Hylton Smith first set foot in a music studio.
It was a hopeful day at Angel Town Estate in Brixton, which ended with a warning from Dora, his community project mentor. "You do understand British hip-hop is one of the hardest forms of music to sell?"
Fortunately, the fired-up 15-year-old we've come to know as Roots Manuva didn't take any notice.
Born to a Pentecostal preacher from the Jamaican village of Banana Hole, Rodney was raised in Stockwell, south London, where music was part of the social fabric.
"I did it because I couldn't help doing it," he says.
"Drum machines, samplers, playing with technology. Everyone made music."
The years of tinkering led to a sound which has helped define British hip-hop. Comparing himself to ska legends The Specials (A Message to you Rudy, Ghost Town), Rodney says: "They landed on a weird type of reggae, I landed on a weird type of hip-hop."
Last month's Slime and Reason was his fourth official release from a back catalogue of six. In the company of the Mercury Prize-nominated Run Come Save Me and the platinum-selling Awfully Deep, it has been heralded as the best yet. The success, however, has brought Rodney to a crossroads.
"I'm an old dog," he says. "I came with an idea for a sound and I've done it. The platform is there and it's definitely an ambition fulfilled."
An ambition, as well as a contract. Slime and Reason is the last album signed with his record label, Big Dada. Currently on tour - next stop Shepherd's Bush Empire - the atmosphere in his Gateshead hotel room is much like his music, an uneasy mixture of blow-out partying and deep introspection.
Rodney has had "two wives", and four kids aged between two and five years old. It's public knowledge, since he proclaimed it in the introduction to the video for Let The Spirit, an uplifting gem from his latest album.
"I got so much stick for that," he says. "Neither of my exes liked me saying that. I've been a bad boy."
Yet women weren't always the worst of his worries. Growing up "poor as s***", Rodney says: "Before Run Come Save Me (2001) I went three or four years without a girl. I couldn't even afford trainers."
As fame came, however, the money followed. "Free this, free that. Walking out the club with £1,500 in your pocket is a difficult thing."
And trying to control the excesses is still at the heart of what divides optimism and self-doubt in his music.
"My dad told me 'Don't worship money, don't start thinking you're holier than thou', but of course it went to my head," Rodney says.
The dust has settled since spells in rehab, but drink still "has to be around on a daily basis".
Hard drugs are in the past and spirituality and his children are the future. "I'm not religious," he says. "But I yearn for spirituality in every step of my life." From not leaving the lights on at night to "not killing a fly that's flopping around in my room", Rodney wants to be a better person.
Thinking about the future he says things have to change. He talks about taking his kids on tour, but then reconsiders, thinking that the money would be better spent on schooling. His paternal nature has also fostered a side project, Banana Klan, set up as a springboard for young talent, which might develop into record label of its own.
An autobiography is also playing on his mind, to "pass on the journey I've had to people that want to get into music".
Talking in football terms, he compares himself to a top player at Doncaster, with a mixture of pride and resentment at not having "taken the bait".
"I could have been that Chelsea player, but there are longer ways to fall," he says. "They [big labels] give you huge sums of money at the start, but if you don't get it right, you're gone."
Independent labels have spared him from compromise and the result has been compared to the social commentary of Burning Spear and Tom Waits. He is also avowedly egalitarian in his politics.
Ashamed that he once tried to buy his council flat, he now resents the individualism of Right to Buy policies. Critics have complained that the realism and self-deprecation in Slime and Reason will hold Roots Manuva back from big-time commercial success.
"It's part of the mass media's obsession with middle-of-the-road style," Rodney says. "Great albums travel through different feelings - he who dares wins."
When Dora warned Rodney not to take the mic too seriously, she said it was because the US dominated hip-hop. "Rest her soul, it was the best thing she ever told me," Rodney says. "I remember saying 'What!? We can do this too.'"
Aided by contemporaries such as Ty, Black Twang, Dizzee Rascal, Jehst and Mike Skinner of The Streets, Roots Manuva has since shifted the shadow cast by the US.
The only worry is that after all he;s achieved, Rodney might walk away. "It's been mind-blowing. The platform is here for a big black guy to get up on stage and not have people walk away. But I've been stuck up my own arse doing music for too long," he says. "The only thing I want now is to be there for my kids, so they actually remember me."
l Roots Manuva plays the Shepherd's Bush Empire on Saturday, October 18. £16. 7-11pm. Call 020 8354 3300. See www.shepherds-bush-empire.co.uk or www.rootsmanuva.co.uk . To collaborate with Banana Klan call 020 7928 7440. See www.bananaklan.com
We have five copies of Roots ManuvaÕs latest album, Slime and Reason to give away. For your chance to win, tell us what the next word is in the following Roots Manuva lyric:
Witness the _________?
Email your answer in the subject heading, along with your name, telephone number and address in the body of the email to email@example.com by Saturday, October 18.