The more the Roots face the bright stage lights, whether on tour or Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, the more their music recedes into big city high-rises and a bleak worldview. Founding members Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter and Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson still remember when they pitched freestyle raps over pot-and-pan beats on Philadelphia’s South Street, and when Thompson got accepted to Julliard but couldn’t afford to attend. In the 25 years since, the hip-hop band has found hundreds of reasons to study, master, then defy conventions – in rap, rock and everything in between. Their albums contain one-minute sound collages, three-minute pop hits and 11-minute dives into the underworld; their latest is a 38-minute street tale told in reverse, inspired by a Sufjan Stevens song. In each, the Roots continue to question the origins of poverty, racism and depression both personal and global. Each album is a sharp dart aimed at the heart of the one-percent, and at the complacent masses they’ve hypnotized, inspiring them to wake up and seize control.
1993-96: Organic, Hip-Hop, or Jazz?
Organix offered the first glimpse of how the Roots' blend of limber rhythms and deft rhymes could seduce coffee shop and dive bar patrons alike, launching a bidding war among six record labels. Black Thought and emcee Malik B often passed the mic back and forth over nothing more than ?uestlove's crackling snares and a tiptoeing bass line, urging listeners to sink into their seats as the band refuses to take itself too seriously. Interlude "There's a Riot Goin' On" is actually 13 seconds of rude snoring. Black Thought slurs his catchiest call-and-response chorus ("Essawhamah?"), and drummer ?uestlove and keyboardist Scott Storch match his nonsensical spitting note for note. The Roots only crank up the volume on a seemingly aimless spoken word, as a bassline and cymbals jitter in anticipation before Black Thought eases up with the punchline: "Damn! I missed my spot — Writer's Block."
In November 1995, Malik B stepped off a bus in DÃ¼sseldorf, Germany, abandoning the rest of the Roots in the middle of a European tour. Geffen had just signed them to a seven-figure contract, which prompted the Philadelphia band to crank out Do You Want More?!!!??!, a headliner-length setlist from a budding opener. Among persistent chatter, a nonchalant soundcheck evolves into a full-blown jam in five minutes — a polished skit The Roots had perfected since Organix. The group goes in on infectious choruses like pre-game hurdles. They also introduced another new member: beatboxer Rahzel the Godfather of Noyze, whose agile spitting style crashes like ?uestlove's cymbals and crackles like Rice Krispies in milk. All of this made More precisely that — spit-shined proof that the Roots were ready to take on the world, even if Malik B wasn't.
Sustained Morse code notes fade in and out before Black Thought buzzes in, rattling off a minute-long eyewitness account of a neighborhood shooting. The Roots may have signed to Geffen, but instead of celebrating its newfound success, illadelph halflife has the Roots filing a sobering, 20-song report of its hometown, drug-fueled warfare, and reveling in its own narrow escape. Parts of illadelph is the Roots reaching a compromise between what '90s-rap listeners wanted to hear and what the band wanted to deliver; most notably, in hopes of mimicking the increasingly-popular MPC, ?uestlove's sanded down his snare beats to mind-numbing monotony. In comparison, other parts of illadelph quiver. A piano shivers uncontrollably as Black Thought challenges competition in "Respond/React," before operatic moans heighten the strings-driven tension in "Concerto of the Desperado." The emotionally removed beats, the fearful rest — it all collides to devastating effect on Black Thought, who's capable of counting his cousins among other losses to Philadelphia gunfire without losing a beat. He's a detached reporter, even when he touts his own lyrical annihilation. "Used to rap for sport/ Now the rhymes sayin' rent, paying life support," he says, as matter-of-fact as he could muster.
1999-2004: Before and After its Tipping Point
In February 2000, the Roots won their first and only Grammy for "You Got Me," the lead single from fourth studio effort Things Fall Apart. In its chorus, Erykah Badu sings as if she's already lost hope in her tour-diary romance; remorse breaks her words into two. But Things' Grammy-winning single barely indicates just how much the Roots had learned to illustrate the hip-hop stories they'd grown so adept in telling — tales of a pained, conscious existence rather than a drugged-up one, orchestrated by mellowed-out arrangements far more nuanced than even Badu's masterful aching. In "Table of Contents (Parts 1 & 2)," ?uestlove's cymbals whirr as if being sucked into a vacuum cleaner as Black Thought ricochets across his retelling of the band's origins in South Philadelphia. A playful tit-for-tat with Mos Def ("Double Trouble") simmers and pops around gently pulsing chimes. Scott Storch's fingers listlessly drag their way through a keyboard melody over which a fraught Black Thought cries: "Building his fifth foundation in the wilderness/ thoughtless, trespassing into the Thought's fortress." "You Got Me" helped the Roots sell more than 900,000 copies of Things Fall Apart — more commercial attention than the Philadelphia band's ever received before. But as soon as the Grammy-winning single thrust the Roots into mainstream airwaves, the band decided to stray as far from Top 40 territory as possible. The result? The genre-bending Phrenology.
After the Roots won their first Grammy in February 2000, the Philadelphia band dissected its formula for award-winning pop balladry — and nearly destroyed it — with Phrenology. As bait, the Roots cast plenty of hooks; "Thought @ Work" has the Roots revamping the Incredible Bongo Band's incredibly recognizable "Apache," and at the start of "Rolling with Heat," ?uestlove's introductory beats nods toward Orange Crush's "Action." Black Thought's flow and guest vocalist Cody ChestnuTT's crooning meld together perfectly in Phrenology's first single (the threadbare jam "The Seed 2.0") and the resulting combination's as complementary as chocolate and sea salt. But Phrenology's strongest cuts are its left turns, acts of defiance against both hip-hop and R&B conventions. "Rock You" has Black Thought rocking not to a crisp boom-bap beat, but what sounds like an endless locker slam, punctuated by whizzing, bouncing racquetballs. Interlude "!!!!!!!" throws a punked-out fit. And with three flicks of a lighter, the 10-minute "Water" slips into a murky wilderness anchored only by a throbbing heartbeat before taking a nosedive into shrieking chaos. Because of these cross-genre stabs, Phrenology was a commercial failure compared to Billboard 200 contender Things Fall Apart, which, in some ways, is what the Roots wanted. After all, as ChestnuTT sings in "The Seed 2.0": "If I drop my baby girl tonight/ I'ma name her Rock 'N' Roll."
Diehard Roots fans cried foul when Black Thought mumbled nonsensically in the hook of The Tipping Point's lead single, something ?uestlove didn't even expect. ("Roots diehards should be used to this zaniness," he wrote in its liner notes.) But as a front-to-back listen makes clear, their first and last effort for Interscope is a straightforward, lyrically-driven return to hip-hop as the Roots once knew it — aimed directly at the mainstream. Introduction "Star/Pointro" allows its samples of Sly and Family Stone hit "Everybody is a Star" to take shape in between Black Thought's observations on the current hip-hop climate ("'Young brothers on the grind/ holding something in they spine/ Bowling for Columbine"). "Boom!" is a pounding, merciless three-minute rumble that laces the lyrics from Kool G. Rap's "Poison" over ?uestlove's ammunition belt of garbage-can clanging. And, stripped to little more than a drum beat and lyrical zingers, "Web" is a nonchalant reminder of when the band was just a streetside duo catering to Philadelphia passers-by, studying the same influences ?uestlove lists in The Tipping Point's liners: the Pharcyde's "For Better or for Worse," Tuff Crew's "She Rides the Pony" and De La Soul.
Game Theory is the first in a pair of phenomenal, paranoid records in which the Roots transformed their ire over their commercial misfortunes into acrid polemics against stasis in national culture and the still-looming spectre of racism. "America's lost somewhere inside of Littleton," goes the hook to the ominous "False Media," "11 million children all on Ritalin." It doesn't get much brighter from there. "It Don't Feel Right" may have a slithery R&B hook, but the lyrics to that hook are, "It don't feel right, it don't feel right." This is furrowed-brow music a firebrand corrective in a year when a chart-topping hip-hop single went, "Shake that Laffy Taffy. Shake that Laffy Taffy. Girl, shake that Laffy Taffy." This kind of thing could get tiresome quickly, but the Roots know how to construct the kind of nuanced arrangements such bludgeoning lyrics require. "Here I Come" sounds like it's set inside a Satanic rave, with zooming synthesizers slathered across a heart attack drum track and weird, spastic sitar; "Clock With No Hands" is lighter relaxed, coffeehouse R&B with twinkling piano and crackling rhythm as Black Thought, without blinking, announces, "I'm like Malcolm out the window with the weapon out." Ultimately, though, Roots songs aren't about hooks but atmosphere, composing densely layered instrumental tracks that either complement or offset Black Thought's dry, occasionally slack vocals. On Game Theory, they edge further away from the mainstream, crafting songs that quiver and shake and grind aggressively against the grain of popular culture. J. Edward Keyes
Rising Down opens with an argument between Black Thought, ?uestlove and the group's manager, and ends with a track that attacks commercial radio. Are we having fun yet? This is a sweaty, bloodshot, frantic record a 45-minute scowl that lunges just to watch you flinch. "Look: my squad half Mandrill, half Mandela/ My band 'bout 70 strong, just like Fela/ Part Melle Mel, part Van Halen," Black Thought declaims over a synth like that sizzles like flesh in a frying pan. Rarely has he sounded so pissed-off: Everything's broken in Thought's world, every shadow is a murderer waiting to strike. So, fittingly, he's brought backup: The terribly-named P.O.R.N. stammers his way through "I Will Not Apologize," a song so murky it sounds like it could have been lifted from Tricky's Maxinquaye. Malik B, back in the fold after a crippling battle with drug abuse, snarls and spits on the doomy, throbbing "I Can't Help It." The obvious points of comparison are There's a Riot Goin' On and Fear of a Black Planet, but Rising Down somehow feels meaner and more cynical than both. Because they are a hip-hop band, a disproportionate amount of attention is put on the skills and shortcomings of MC Black Thought and, consequently, the Roots often don't get credit for their true strength as visionary sonic architects. No other band, except maybe Radiohead, is as fascinated by the possibilities of sound, and each Roots record comes hard-wired with a breathtaking amount of detail and a dizzying array of novel sounds. Listen to the boiling funk number "Criminal," the dry thunk of ?uestlove's drumming, the way the guitar line just twitches, or the way weird, groaning atmospherics enter and leave like the rush of air in a David Lynch movie. On predecessor Game Theory, the sun occasionally peeked in from behind the clouds. Rising Down is endless night. J. Edward Keyes
2006-11: How The Roots Got Over
How I Got Over's title track begins with a determined drum-and-bongo shuffle, ideal for navigating grocery store aisles, city traffic or even a flooding inbox. But then the Roots plunge into what they're actually thinking: "We're so young and all alone/ We ain't even old enough to realize we're on our own." The Roots are still looking out cautiously from the high-rise — getting their hopes up, albeit cautiously, as they watched Barack Obama's popularity rise in the polls. In its Monsters of Folk revamp "Dear God 2.0," the Roots step back as Yim Yames's voice breaks and wavers, only for ?uestlove and Black Thought to forcefully repair his resigned prayer. Radio frequencies land scuff up keyboard notes that peek out from beneath Phonte's distressed proclamation, "I gotta get my shit together/ it's now or never," Even "The Fire" breaks the illuminating John Legend's belting into a series of staggered calls, sounding like protest chants hollered through a megaphone. In a heartbreaking turn, Black Thought confesses how much he's cried even on his best days. He's never sounded so openly resigned.
When Philly rap legends The Roots signed on as house band for Jimmy Fallon's late night show, certain fans shuffled the "sell-out" card, worried the crew's gritty street edge would soften in the face of corporate fluff. Instead, they delivered 2010's outstanding How I Got Over, silencing doubters with a tight, striking set of melancholy gems. Three years into their talk show tenure, The Roots sound even sharper with their 13th album, Undun. The band's dexterous live punch has never sounded mightier on album, and there's nary a second of filler here. Expanding upon How I Got Over's spaced-out sonics, Undun is dominated by vintage keys (soothing Wurlitzer, purring Hammond) which pulsate ominously over ?uestlove's hard-hitting beats. No Roots album is complete without eclectic guest stars: Sufjan Stevens pops up to re-hash his Michigan instrumental "Redford" and piano virtuoso D.D. Jackson lends a free-jazz freak-out to Undun's closing suite. Highlights overflow (Check the throbbing, organ-drenched soul of "The OtherSide" or the bass-driven atmospherics on "Lighthouse"), even if the album's vague concept which traverses (in reverse) an inner city thug's rise-and-fall doesn't hold water. As always, the guest rappers are overshadowed by Black Thought's poignant, mesmerizing flow: On "Make My," the band's most quietly beautiful single to date, he's a defeated street-poet staring Death straight in his beady eyes: "To whoever it concern, my letter of resignation / Fading back to black, my dark coronation." Ryan Reed