Manga Saint Hilare is grime's realest storyteller - Features - Mixmag

Manga Saint Hilare is grime's realest storyteller

Manga Saint Hilare speaks to Manu Ekanayake about his days in Roll Deep, keeping it real, and approaching different genres from a grime perspective

  • Words: Manu Ekanayake | Photos: Aiyush Pachnanda
  • 16 February 2024

“I feel like kids today have the space to find their community. But when I was growing up as a boy in the ’90s, if you wasn’t good at fighting or you weren’t the light-skinned pretty one with the curly hair, or good at football, then you didn’t exist. Because rapping wasn’t a ting then. I mean, it was later, obviously, and that’s when I became involved.” Manga Saint Hilare, ex member of the seminal grime crew Roll Deep and longstanding album artist in his own right, is giving Mixmag a bit of context about growing up Black British (specifically of Saint Lucian and Saint Vincentian extraction) in London just before grime hit in the early 2000s. Which is to say that he’s telling a story. That’s what he does: Manga is nothing if not a storyteller. And as you’d expect from a live wire lyrics man who’s known for his ability to shine a light on subjects that other MCs might not want to touch, like self-doubt, depression and fears about the future, he’s an open book in the way that only someone who’s done a lot of work on themselves can be. He’s a guy who’s been through it and come out the other side.

When Mixmag links up with Manga to chat about his new album, the excellent ‘Everything Is Under Control’ with More Night, out now on MNRK UK, we find ourselves effortlessly embroiled in his world of comics (“X-Men, the way they have these powers but are really struggling to deal with the world is so sick”), prestige TV (“The Sopranos is shit, I’m sorry, nothing happens and everyone is horrible”) and of course his beloved grime (“People compare grime to drill now, because from the outside it seems the same: same BPM, similar subject matter. But our thing is not just about that: it’s a style, a kind of slang, a heritage. Grime is an attitude – that’s why I have different genres on this album but the approach is always from a grime perspective”).

Read this next: Grime: the complete history in 10 perfect tracks

He’s on top form, a doting new father at 38, though he admits he’s happy to be away from the nappy changes and housework for an afternoon when we meet up in a North London hotel bar in late January. We soon realise Manga isn’t someone whom you ‘interview’ – he’s someone you have a chat with. Plus he’s not one to only tell stories where he comes out on top, as we find out when we ask him about what it was like in the first part of his career. Back when he was 18 and hooked up with grime’s biggest crew, the mighty Roll Deep, after a chance meeting with Wiley and unexpectedly winning an MC competition in Ealing led to the genre’s infamously erratic godfather calling him up and asking “Are you in a crew? No? Cool, come to Bermondsey and come studio.” As Manga tells it: “Wiley didn’t even turn up for three days. He kept telling me to go back the next day. But luckily I saw that they were making [Roll Deep’s 2005 debut album] ‘In At The Deep End’ and that’s when I was on ‘When I’m ‘Ere’. To this day a lot of people think I’m from East as I’m on that track and they think Wiley discovered me from there. I get love from there, it’s cool. But I even get people who think they knew me from school there – and I went to school in Edgware!”

Age brings context to the past, which is something that Manga feels when it comes to this early stage of his career. “I’m a big man now so I realise certain things that I didn’t see then. Like Dizzee had just left and Wiley was recruiting. I mean it was me, Roachee, Brazen, Trim, there was a few of us. And then it was JME, Skepta, Maximum. So I see that they were making an album so they wanted to get in some new vibes.” But while this was the biggest crew in grime, Manga spent most of his early years in the game “either in North West London or in Luton, where I’ve got family. I wasn’t round them lot much, not until I moved back to South London in 2008. Until then it was just at shows, like I’d get calls to perform. But no promoter ever asked for Manga in them times. Remember there’s like 65 members of Roll Deep and I’m the 65th!” he laughs, head in hands for effect.

Manga resumes his tale. “Now I remember being at a Sidewinder dance at some huge club in Swindon. Sidewinder is so important because it spread the music around the country through the CDs they were selling. The Dizzee and Wiley one is a good example. But anyway everyone is there, full crew. And I’m waiting to spit, I’m last. But I think when I say my ‘When I’m ‘Ere’ bars it’s gonna go mad. Then nothing. I got air, I’m telling you. People just looked at me like ‘What?’. That taught me that just because you can go on pirate radio and merk, it doesn’t mean you’re that guy. There are levels to this shit.”

Not many MCs are willing to tell a story where they don’t come out on top. But Manga’s never been bothered about how others do it, as his new album shows. Building on the pattern he’s set since he came out with ‘Outbursts From The Outskirts’ in 2017, which saw him return from a period in the wilderness when he came to terms with the end of Roll Deep and emerged a more confident, self-contained performer, his subsequent releases including ‘Outsiders Live Forever’ the following year, 2019’s album with the criminally underrated singer songwriter Murkage Dave ‘We Need To Look After Us’, 2022’s ‘Run For Your Life’ and 2023’s ‘Save Yourself’ with Blay Vision all show an artist who’s focused on growth and pushing boundaries. So it makes total sense that ‘Everything Is Under Control’ moves through a few different genres. There’s an amapiano moment on ‘U Be U’ with Eliza Legzdina on guest vocals which shows how easily he can adapt his flow. Plus there’s a couple of ace jungle moments on ‘They’ and ‘Work In Progress’ that we had to ask about. Though when we use the term d’n’b instead of jungle, Manga’s quick to correct us. “D’n’b is like what dubstep is to grime, let me put it like that. All the Americans doing dubstep, that’s not grime. Not dubstep where we just play the rhythms. Grime is culture, soul and all of that. So is jungle because it came first. I got into it when my dad, who was a DJ and ran youth clubs, would play it in the car. That’s how far I go back with it. And reggae music was always playing in my house so I took to jungle right away as it had that same structure. And it always had messages, the way reggae music did. That’s why I used it here and why I want to do a whole jungle project. I might do it next, actually.”

Read this next: The gentrification of jungle

However grime loyalists will be happy to hear ‘Alarm Bells’, newly released when we speak, which features Manga’s fellow grime OGs JME and P Money. “I’ve known P for a long time but I’d only say he was my bredrin from say ‘Outbursts…’ back in 2017,” Manga explains, “Same was JME actually. P gives me so much advice, despite being younger than me. So many people in this music game keep it tight, like I was in Roll Deep for years but there wasn’t no advice. We were all just there, innit. But P’s always like ‘Do you know about this funding scheme? And when you upload this you need to do that first?’. Whereas JME is more of an ideas guy: ‘I’ve got an idea for a video where I jump out of the sky!’. It’s great to have them both, what a combination man,” he says, clearly proud of the company he’s keeping as well as the track itself. “They’re the guys who people respect in this thing and the ones who are as pushing it forward. So I’ve got to move the way they move, if I want to keep pushing my thing forward.”

Read this next: The history of UK rap

But perhaps the album’s most telling combo comes on ‘It’s OK To Open Up’ with Murkage Dave. As Manga rhymes about feeling worried to share his truth about how he’s really feeling, Dave’s silky vocals add another layer of R&B flavour to this very personal tale of fronting and frustration. “That’s me for real, all the time,” Manga explains. “It’s scary to feel like you have to put on a strong front. But I’ve always felt lucky having this outlet. I say it in rhyme and then I can let it go. Even to the point where my mum or my sister will hear it and then ask ‘Are you ok?’ And I’ll be like ‘Yeah I’m good.’ I can almost forget I’ve said it out loud. But the people that work in Sainsbury’s or whatever, they don’t have that outlet and that’s where I think vices come in. Drink, drugs, whatever. I’m lucky, with this I’m able to let it go.” If there’s a message to this album it’s this: sharing how you really feel can bring relief. That’s why Manga’s always been one to watch: he won’t ever shy from saying just what’s on his mind. That’s the only way he knows.

‘Everything Is Under Control’ is out now via MNRK, get it here

Manu Ekanayake is a freelance writer, follow him on Twitter

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