Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Roots

Though popular success has largely eluded the Roots, the Philadelphia group showed the way for live rap, building on Stetsasonic's "hip-hop band" philosophy of the mid-'80s by focusing on live instrumentation at their concerts and in the studio. Though their album works have been inconsistent affairs, more intent on building grooves than pushing songs, the Roots' live shows are among the best in the business.The Roots' focus on live music began back in 1987 when rapper Black Thought (Tariq Trotter) and drummer ?uestlove (Ahmir Khalib Thompson) became friends at the Philadelphia High School for Creative Performing Arts. Playing around school, on the sidewalk, and later at talent shows (with ?uestlove's drum kit backing Black Thought's rhymes), the pair began to earn money and hooked up with bassist Hub (Leon Hubbard) and rapper Malik B. Moving from the street to local clubs, the Roots became a highly tipped underground act around Philadelphia and New York. When they were invited to represent stateside hip-hop at a concert in Germany, the Roots recorded an album to sell at shows; the result, Organix, was released in 1993 on Remedy Records. With a music industry buzz surrounding their activities, the Roots entertained offers from several labels before signing with DGC that same year.The Roots' first major-label album, Do You Want More?!!!??!, was released in January 1995; forsaking usual hip-hop protocol, the album was produced without any samples or previously recorded material. It peaked just outside the Top 100, but was mostly ignored by fans of hip-hop. Instead, Do You Want More?!!!??! made more tracks in alternative circles, partly due to the Roots playing the second stage at Lollapalooza that summer. The band also journeyed to the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Two of the guests on the album who had toured around with the band, human beatbox Rahzel the Godfather of Noyze — previously a performer with Grandmaster Flash and LL Cool J — and Scott Storch (later Kamal), became permanent members of the group.Early in 1996, the Roots released Clones, the trailer single for their second album. It hit the rap Top Five, and created a good buzz for the album. The following September, Illadelph Halflife appeared and made number 21 on the album charts. Much like its predecessor, though, the Roots' second LP was a difficult listen. It made several very small concessions to mainstream rap — the bandmembers sampled material that they had recorded earlier at jam sessions — but failed to make a hit of their unique sound. The Roots' third album, 1999's Things Fall Apart, was easily their biggest critical and commercial success; The Roots Come Alive followed later that year. The long-awaited Phrenology was released in late November 2002 amid rumors of the Roots losing interest in their label arrangements with MCA. In 2004, the band remedied the situation by creating the Okayplayer company. Named after their website, Okayplayer included a record label and a production/promotion company. The same year, the band held a series of jam sessions to give their next album a looser feel. The results were edited down to ten tracks and released as The Tipping Point in July of 2004. A 2004 concert from Manhattan's Webster Hall with special guests like Mobb Deep, Young Gunz, and Jean Grae was released in early 2005 as The Roots Present in both CD and DVD formats. Two volumes of the rarities-collecting Home Grown! The Beginner's Guide to Understanding the Roots appeared at the end of the year. Game Theory, the group's first album for Def Jam, followed in 2006.

The Roots - Organix (May 19, 1993: Remedy)
The Roots' low-profile debut set out many of the themes they would employ over the course of their successful career. An intro, "The Roots Is Comin'," is barely over a minute long, yet long enough to exemplify the band's funky bassline (here played by Leonard Hubbard), their dreamy and emotional organ chords (thanks to Scott Storch), and their ferociously swift yet clear rhymes from the group's focal MC Black Thought. The song that follows, "Pass the Popcorn" would have been called a "posse cut" in 1993. Everyone could've used a little more practice before stepping up to the mic on this song, but the spirit of the song are not lost in the amateurishness. The creative venture "Writers Block" is an example of just the opposite, as Black Thought flows with spoken word, comically and creatively expressing the experience of a day in the life of a Philadelphian using mass transit. The instrumentation is appropriately frantic and punctuated by [cymbal] crashes (like any mass transit system). Fans of Do You Want More, the Roots album released immediately following Organix, will recognize the music of "I'm Out Deah," "Leonard I-V," and "Essawhamah?" Another track to note is "The Session (Longest Posse Cut in History)," — no false claim at 12 minutes and 43 seconds. This album should be a part of any Roots fan's collection — not so much because it is an example of their artistry at its best, but because it allows you to see where they came from and how fruitful of a journey it's been.

The Roots - Do You Want More?!!!??! (Jan 17, 1995: Universal/MCA)
Because the Roots were pioneering a new style during the early '90s, the band was forced to draw its own blueprints for its major-label debut album. It's not surprising then, that Do You Want More?!!!??! sounds more like a document of old-school hip-hop than contemporary rap. The album is based on loose grooves and laid-back improvisation, and where most hip-hoppers use samples to draw songs together and provide a chorus, the Roots just keep on jamming. The problem is that the Roots' jams begin to take the place of true songs, leaving most tracks with only that groove to speak for them. The notable exceptions — "Mellow My Man" and "Datskat," among others — use different strategies to command attention: the sounds of a human beatbox , the great keyboard work of Scott Storch, and contributions from several jazz players (trombonist Joshua Roseman, saxophonist Steve Coleman and vocalist Cassandra Wilson). By the close of the album, those tracks are what the listener remembers, not the lightweight grooves.

The Roots - Illadelph Halflife (Sep 24, 1996: DGC)
For the Roots' second major-label album, the band apparently recognized the weaknesses of the debut, since there are several songs which provide more structure than previous jam-session efforts — two even became R&B radio hits. But for all its successes, Illadelph Halflife mostly repeats the long-winded jams and loose improvisatory feel that characterized Do You Want More?!!!??!. And while these songs may sound great live (a field where the Roots excel over any other rap act), in a living-room setting listeners need hooks on which to focus.






The Roots - Things Fall Apart (Feb 23, 1999: MCA)
One of the cornerstone albums of alternative rap's second wave, Things Fall Apart was the point where the Roots' tremendous potential finally coalesced into a structured album that maintained its focus from top to bottom. If the group sacrifices a little of the unpredictability of its jam sessions, the resulting consistency more than makes up for it, since the record flows from track to track so effortlessly. Taking its title from the Chinua Achebe novel credited with revitalizing African fiction, Things Fall Apart announces its ambition right upfront, and reinforces it in the opening sound collage. Dialogue sampled from Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues implies a comparison to abstract modern jazz that lost its audience, and there's another quote about hip-hop records being treated as disposable, that they aren't maximized as product or as art. That's the framework in which the album operates, and while there's a definite unity counteracting the second observation, the artistic ambition actually helped gain the Roots a whole new audience ("coffeehouse chicks and white dudes," as Common puts it in the liner notes). The backing tracks are jazzy and reflective, filled with subtly unpredictable instrumental lines, and the band also shows a strong affinity for the neo-soul movement, which they actually had a hand in kick-starting via their supporting work on Erykah Badu's Baduizm. Badu returns the favor by guesting on the album's breakthrough single, "You Got Me," an involved love story that also features a rap from Eve, co-writing from Jill Scott, and an unexpected drum'n'bass breakbeat in the outro. Other notables include Mos Def on the playful old-school rhymefest "Double Trouble," Slum Village superproducer Jay Dee on "Dynamite!," and Philly native DJ Jazzy Jeff on "The Next Movement." But the real stars are Black Thought and Malik B, who drop such consistently nimble rhymes throughout the record that picking highlights is extremely difficult. Along with works by Lauryn Hill, Common, and Black Star, Things Fall Apart is essential listening for anyone interested in the new breed of mainstream conscious rap.

The Roots - The Roots Come Alive (Nov 2, 1999: MCA)
Releasing an album recorded live in concert makes more sense for the Roots than any other hip-hop artist, considering they've always concentrated on live prowess over their skills on the mic or in the production booth. The standard guitar/drums/bass/keyboards lineup of most rock bands is a reality for this group, and after years of requests from rabid fans, the Roots acquiesced with a document of their live experience, titled The Roots Come Alive. Recorded at two venues in New York and one in Paris, the album distills exactly what the Roots bring to the hip-hop world — a live experience built on call-and-response vocals that bring the show to the audience like few other artists. The sound is fantastic, especially on early keyboard-driven tracks like "Proceed," "Essaywhuman?!???!!!," and "Mellow My Man." Though the raps themselves often suffer from the live setting, the rhythms are crisper than in the studio, and the bass-driven grooves are much beefier. The Roots' resident turntablist, Scratch, takes a large role as well, as does human beatbox Rahzel the Godfather of Noyze (though the latter only appears on about half of the album). This is a live album that not only satisfies fans, but offers neophytes more entertainment than any of the Roots' studio efforts. It's difficult to make any live album a first pick, but Come Alive displays the group doing exactly what it does best.

The Roots - Phrenology (Nov 26, 2002: MCA)
The easy-flowing Things Fall Apart made the Roots one of the most popular artists of alternative rap's second wave. Anticipated nearly as much as it was delayed, the proper studio follow-up, Phrenology, finally appeared in late 2002, after much perfectionist tinkering by the band — so much that the liner notes include recording dates (covering a span of two years) and, sometimes, histories for the individual tracks. Coffeehouse music programmers beware: Phrenology is not Things Fall Apart redux; it's a challenging, hugely ambitious opus that's by turns brilliant and bewildering, as it strains to push the very sound of hip-hop into the future. Despite a few gentler tracks (like the Nelly Furtado and Jill Scott guest spots), Phrenology is the hardest-hitting Roots album to date, partly because it's their most successful attempt to re-create their concert punch in the studio. ?uestlove's drums positively boom out of the speakers on the Talib Kweli duet "Rolling With Heat"; the fantastic, lean guitar groover "The Seed (2.0)" (with neo-soul auteur Cody ChesnuTT); and the opening section of "Water." The ten-minute "Water" is the album's centerpiece, a powerful look at former Roots MC Malik B.'s drug problems that morphs into a downright avant-garde sound collage. Similarly, lead single "Break You Off," a neo-soul duet with Musiq, winds up in a melange of drum'n'bass programming and live strings. If moves like those, or the speed-blur Bad Brains punk of "!!!!!!!," or the drum'n'bass backdrop of poet Amiri Baraka's "Something in the Way of Things (In Town)" can seem self-consciously eclectic, it's also true that Phrenology is one of those albums where the indulgences and far-out experiments make it that much more fascinating, whether they work or not. Plus, slamming grooves like "Rock You," "Thought @ Work," and the aforementioned "The Seed (2.0)" keep things exciting and vital. If this really is the future of hip-hop, then the sky is the limit. [The two hidden bonus tracks are "Rhymes and Ammo," the Talib Kweli collaboration that appeared on Soundbombing, Vol. 3, and "Something to See," another techno-inflected jam.]

The Roots - The Tipping Point (Jul 13, 2004: Geffen)
The delivery of any new Roots album is rarely talked or written about without the words "highly" and "anticipated," and The Tipping Point is no exception. Besides the usual expectation for the band's superior lyrical skills and attention to detail, there's the previously announced concept that The Tipping Point would be recorded through free-spirited jams that would later be edited down. Sounds like a don't-care-about-the-final-package, music-for-music's-sake release, but the album is a well-constructed ride from start to finish that's perfect for a headphones-on, lights-out evening and a gift to fans who found 2002's Phrenology a bit mannered and forced. To paraphrase the album's "Pointro," the tracks here are mostly warm and organic "life music" that "thrusts its branches from the muck of wackness" without any overly calculated "hypnotic donkey rhythms." The ghost of Sly & the Family Stone is summoned for the opening "Star," an exuberant soul rocker that creeps along with a Timbaland-style beat, only it's live. On the other hand, there's the perfect for popping, locking, and robot-dancing "Don't Say Nuthin'" with its solid electro and Black Thought's quirky mumbled verse. The shifting from the sticky, stately reggae of "Guns Are Drawn" to the Cohiba-puffing swagger of "Stay Cool" is just one example of how the album overcomes its noncommitment to any particular groove by giving the listener nothing but fully formed, inspired tracks. The band's renewed love of head-bobbing jams also helps keep it together although the album's long stretches of rap-less jamming might alienate those just here for the message. For them there's the lyric-filled "Boom!," which may not be enough. Take off your academic backpack for a change and bask in an album that's comfortably loose and ends with an over-the-top, celebratory cover of George Kranz's "Din Daa Daa" that's unnecessary but extra fun. The Tipping Point is too modest to be the "idea that spreads like a virus" that's explored in the Malcolm Gladwell book the collection cops it title from. What the album lacks in ambition and social commentary, it makes up for with deep soul. That should be enough to make whatever this group does next "highly anticipated."

The Roots - Game Theory (Aug 29, 2006: Def Jam)
Game Theory is the Roots' equivalent of a Funkadelic playlist containing "Wars of Armageddon," "Cosmic Slop," "Maggot Brain," "March to the Witch's Castle," and "America Eats Its Young." It's a vivid reflector of the times, not an escape hatch (of which there are several readily available options). Spinning turbulence, paranoia, anger, and pain into some of the most exhilarating and startling music released in 2006, the group is audibly galvanized by the world's neverending tailspin and a sympathetic alignment with Def Jam. Batting around stray ideas and squeezing them into shape was clearly not part of the plan, and neither was getting on the radio. The songs flow into and out of one another to optimal effect, with an impossibly stern sense of peak-of-powers focus, as if the group and its collaborators instantly locked into place and simply knocked the thing out. With the exception of the elbow-throwing "Here I Come," nothing here is suitable for any kind of carefree activity. The extent of the album's caustic nature is tipped off early on, after glancing at the hangman on the cover and hearing Wadud Ahmad's penetrating voice run through lines like "Pilgrims, slaves, Indians, Mexicans/It looks real f*cked up for your next of kin." The point at which the album kicks into full gear, just a couple minutes later, arrives when tumbling bass drums and a Sly & the Family Stone sample ("This is a game/I'm your specimen") are suddenly overtaken by pure panic — pulse-racing drums, anxious organ jabs, pent-up guitar snarls, and breathless rhyming from Black Thought and Malik B. "In the Music" exemplifies the deeply textured nature of the album's production work, with its rolling/roiling rhythm — throbbing bass, clanging percussion, tight spirals of guitar — made all the more claustrophobic by Porn's amorphous chorus and Black Thought's and Malik B.'s hunched-shoulder deliveries. Even "Baby," the closest thing to a breather in this patch of the album, arises from a sweltering jungle bog. After "Long Time," the ninth track, the levels of tension and volume decrease, yet the moods are no brighter, even if the surfaces leave a different impression. "Clock with No Hands" is introduced as a sweet slow jam with a light vocal hook from Mercedes Martinez, but it's as paranoid as anything else on the album. Jack Davey projects the chorus of the slower, Radiohead-sampling "Atonement" in a druggy haze while Black Thought speaks of "being faced with the weight of survival." The closer, an eight-minute suite titled "Can't Stop This," features a J Dilla production — previewed on his Donuts, released the week he left this planet — that opens and closes with testimonials to the musician's talent and humanity. Taken with or without this staggering finale, Game Theory is a heavy album, the Roots' sharpest work. It's destined to become one of Def Jam's proudest, if not most popular, moments.

Compilations:
The Roots - Home Grown! The Beginner's Guide to Understanding the Roots, Vol. 1 (Nov 15, 2005: Geffen)
With albums that vary greatly in style and purpose, and some of them taking more time than usual to warm up to, getting beginners hooked on the Roots isn't easy (unless you can drag that unsoulful someone to one of their amazing live shows, then it's way easy). With unattractive cover art, a track listing that counts down across two volumes that are only available separately, and liner notes that are languid and unwieldy for the newbie, Home Grown! The Beginner's Guide to Understanding the Roots, Vol. 1 is hardly for beginners. But if the quote "to truly understand the Roots as artists and as human beings you must exercise one character trait: Patience" was on the cover rather than buried deep in the credits, it would be easier to forgive this sprawling collection that is, at worst,, a sentimental stroll through the band's career. Of interest to the longtime fans are the unreleased cuts, remixes, and a live version of "It's Comin'," from way back in 1993, but the most rewarding bit of newness for Vol 1. are the liner notes from member ?uestlove. Who knew the death of Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose's unwillingness to hand over a new Guns N' Roses album to Geffen put the Roots' career in jeopardy? or that the dress J-Lo wore to the Grammys caused the boys to get tongue-tied while accepting an award? There are more personal and poignant stories to digest but even ?uestlove seems to be speaking to the faithful by leaving out the basics. Bumping the old, scrappy Roots tracks against the older, more learned and loose ones is interesting, and the flow of the whole collection is near-perfect, but fervent admirers are going to have most of this, either through their official purchases, or grabbing from the underbelly of the Internet where unreleased Roots is well represented. Home Grown! suffers from the misrepresentation in its title, but if you don't mind acquiring some of these tracks again or have plenty of that all important "patience," it's a rich and rewarding way to hang with this poignant groove crew.

The Roots - Home Grown! The Beginner's Guide to Understanding the Roots, Vol. 2 (Nov 15, 2005: Geffen)
Just like Vol 1., Home Grown! The Beginner's Guide to Understanding the Roots, Vol. 2 suffers from its title's misrepresentation of what's inside. You might understand the poignant groove crew a little better after taking in the two volumes' 160 minutes, but what could have been a tight collection that really benefits the beginner is blown up into two separate releases with languid and long liner notes more suited for the familiar fan. Taken that way, both of the sold-separately volumes add up to a great way to hang and remember, with unreleased cuts and remixes sweetening the deal. Vol. 2 is a shade better than Vol. 1 if only for the inclusion of the band's excellent appearance on Gilles Peterson's BBC radio show. The "Seed/Melting Pot/Web" medley pulled from the appearance is absolutely necessary for the believer, plus getting The Tipping Point's uplifting interpolation of George Kranz's classic "Din Da Da" on its own track — instead of having to fast forward past all the silence to find the "hidden track gem" — makes putting your own great Roots comp together all the easier. Buried amongst the credits is the album's excuse for being so unwieldy, claiming "to truly understand the Roots as artists and as human beings you must exercise one character trait: Patience." That's too true, since the band's discography still lacks a tight introduction as of Home Grown!'s release, but capturing the essence of the group on one CDR would be an easy task for any longtime fan. All their selections would most likely be found amongst Home Grown!'s two volumes, but conceptually this beginner's guide gets too bogged down with insider-focused liner notes, a track list that counts down instead of up across two volumes, and too much patience required. If you want a two-volume portable selection that flows well, contains some exciting, unheard numbers, and eventually gets around to all the big cuts, have at it. It's a great way for the converted to submerge themselves in sprawling world of the Roots, but putting "beginner" on the cover is like telling a Beatles neophyte to start with the White Album.

Stay tune...As Salaam Aleikum

And inshaAllah soon we move 2 new domain ;)

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Peace, this is a great blog. I know this is a stretch but do you also have the The Roots - Do This Well Rarities & Remixes 1994-1999? It's 3 disc of alot of remixes and unreleased jem.

Jaz said...

wow...if this isn't an incredibly well written and very and in depth look at Philly's The Roots then I don't know what it is.

awesome, awesome work...I loved Game Theory and I still think it is their best album.

travis said...

Man, my hats off to you for that write up. I started reading and couldn't stopo. I know that had to take a great deal of time to write up, but that was one of the best written blogs I've ever read. Great stuff.

Oh and if you do need that bootleg joint of "Do This Well", let me know, I have it.

Anonymous said...

Yo, Travis I would really appreciate a upload on that Do this well, thanx

travis said...

I'll have them up tomorrow....

travis said...

someone beat me to them...

http://mfboomer.blogspot.com/2007/02/roots.html

Anonymous said...

yo this blog is the joint...does anyone have the roots - From The Ground Up Ep from 94...thanks

Anonymous said...

Way to lift reviews from allmusic.com

hope you don't get sued.

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Johnny said...

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