Tuesday, 8 December 2009

24: Roots Manuva - Witness (One Hope)

"I sit here contending with this cheese on toast"

I remember where I first heard 'Witness (One Hope)'. It was winter 2001, I was at University, and went to see some live hip-hop at Oxford's Cellar Bar. In between acts, the DJ dropped this one, and later the same evening, played it again after being inundated with requests from the student masses.

Rodney Smith's debut album, 'Brand New Second Hand' had passed me by in 1999, despite receiving critical acclaim and winning a MOBO award. I guess that pre-Eminem, I just wasn't on the lookout for up and coming hip-hop stars - it wasn't my scene. But all it took was one night to convince me to purchase the follow-up, 2001's 'Run Come Save Me'.

I loved everything about that album - the variety of the beats (contrast the aggressiveness of 'Witness' with the album's other big hit, the laid back 'Dreamy Days'), the cleverly-constructed lyrics, but most of all, it was Roots Manuva's delivery that won me over. 'Witness' begins with one of the most bizarre lines I'd ever heard. When he rapped "Taskmaster burst the bionic zit splitter, breakneck speed we drown ten pints of bitter", it made no sense, but I loved it instantly. The rhythm and flow of lines like "proof of the trophy and the champion belt, come sun, come rain, come hailstone pelt" is simply unmatched by any other rapper, British, American, whatever. The video's rather good too.

The Stockwell rapper has maintained that same high standard throughout this decade - 2008's 'Slime and Reason' is another personal favourite. But I keep coming back to that moment where it all started, with the bionic zit splitter.

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