As duly noted on the EP’s press release from Big Dada Records, Roots Manuva is “one of the true pioneers of Black British Music, as well as one of its greatest, most maverick talents”. Believe it or not, the first time he was recorded in front of a microphone was 18 years ago, and since then Rodney Smith has gone on to release eight studio albums, all the while encompassing the voice of an underground British generation by fusing rap, ragga, dancehall and grime together in his own unique fashion.
Banana Skank is not only the first release from Smith since 4everevolution came out in October last year, it’s also the name of the last song on that album. (The track’s title is a tip-off to the Banana Klan that Smith is affiliated with, although I secretly hope that it also refers to Banana Hole, the village in Jamaica where his parents grew up. I know, who wouldn’t want to live there with a name like that?) The EP takes that very track and finds it re-imagined and reworked alongside two new pieces of material.
First and foremost, this EP’s priorities lie in the dance-floor, and it makes no bones about it. London producer WAFA’s remix of “Banana Skank” is a UK-funky roller that chops up the original and fine-tunes it for a smoke-filled dance-floor, while “Banana Skank Part 2”, Smith’s sequel to the original track, sees him spitting over a grimy house beat. The remaining tracks are collaborations with Kope – a fellow member of the Banana Klan crew – over two sparse and restrained Roots Manuva productions that buck any visible trend in UK hip-hop nowadays. What’s instantly noticeable is the chemistry between Smith and Kope, especially on the tongue-in-cheek track “Natural” where the pair trade lines throughout the third verse (“Do my damn thing until my thing thing hurts/ain’t it damn funny how this thing thing hurts”).
Although lyrically Banana Skank contains nothing quite as brilliant as lines such as “ ‘cos right now I see clearer than most/I sit here contented with this cheese on toast” (“Witness [1 Hope]”) or “When I swing I’m far fetched like hicks from Hicksville/high steps got me trippin’ from Peckham to Bucks Hill” (“Juggle Tings Proper”), there are certainly some typically insightful and witty rhymes that stand out despite the heavy instrumentals. “Banana Skank Part 2” is a uniquely obscure take on the feeling of alienation in a crowded nightclub, while on “Party Time” Smith swiftly sums up his trademark lyrical style in two lines: “This ain’t your cuddly, easy-access/this is the demented, where are your fractures?”
While there are a few great moments on Banana Skank, it feels extremely short as a whole—coming across as more of an extended single than an EP—and the tracks are too forgettable to warrant any kind of longevity (not forgetting that half of the tracks are dance-floor orientated). The EP was sold on limited edition yellow vinyl in early December in London as part of the Independent Label Market, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Big Dada rushed this release out for the occasion. Nevertheless, Rodney Smith remains doing what he’s always done: turning his back on conventional UK hip-hop and playing by his own rules.