Roots to bring unique hip-hop style to Leede on Sunday
Over the past two decades, the Roots have produced a unique brand of jazz and rock-influenced hip-hop that has earned them critical success, a diverse fan base, and a reputation for great live performances.
The band is also wildly prolific, with an ever-changing set of artists and an ever-evolving sound. Its most recent album, "Game Theory," was released in August and the band is already in the middle of a world tour and thinking about its next album.
The Roots are an influential entity in the world of live rap, a concept pioneered in the early '80s by East Coast "hip-hop bands" like Stetsasonic and, later, De La Soul. All of these bands blur genres with their use of live instruments instead of solely sampled or electronic beats. Obviously, this approach also makes for a great live show, and the Roots are thought of by some, like Rolling Stone Magazine, to be among the best in the business.
If that endorsement killed rather than enhanced the hype for you, know that the Roots don't generate the kind of mainstream success that the music magazine usually needs to legitimize its own opinions. With their eclecticism and cerebral, politically-conscious lyrics, alternative or jazz-rap groups like the Roots usually find the bulk of their audience in alternative rock fans -- many on college campuses or in Brooklyn.
The two mainstays in the Roots' lineup are Black Thought (n Tariq Trotter) and ?uestlove (n Ahmir Thompson), the group's co-founders. According to their own mythology, the two met in the principal's office at the Philadelphia High School for the Performing and Creative Arts when Thompson was receiving a lunch pass and Trotter was there for "engaging in extracurricular activities with a ballerina in the ladies' bathroom ... Luckily, Thompson has designs larger than lunch, and Trotter's game is wider than women."
With no money for turntables, Trotter rapped over Thompson's drum kit, and the Square Root was born. With a live-based sound already in place, all it took was a few more collaborators joining in the early '90s and the Roots took hold. Their first album, "Organix," was released in 1993. Buzz ensued.
In 1999, the Roots released what is widely considered their breakthrough album, "Things Fall Apart." The album eventually reached #4 on the Billboard 200, and its hit single, "You Got Me," a duet featuring Erykah Badu and Eve, and co-written by Jill Scott, won the band its first Grammy award for best rap performance by a duo or group.
In addition to Black Thought and ?uestlove, the current Roots set features original bassist Leonard "Hub" Hubbard, Kamal Gray on keyboard, Frank Walker (alias F. Knuckles) on percussion, and "Captain" Kirk Douglas on guitar. This core is frequently enhanced by guest appearances on albums and in concert, most recently Malik B. and fellow Philly native Peedi Peedi.
As the group has evolved, critics have reproved the Roots for failing to capture their live performances in albums, even live albums. As they sign onto major labels -- most recently Def Jam -- and embrace other styles besides pure jazz-rap, some diehard fans cry "Sellout!" But in the aftermath of September 11, Iraq, Katrina and who knows what else that has them pissed off, the Roots have swung back from the generic to the political, beginning with 2004's "The Tipping Point." Even that album was faulted for its radio-ready singles, with some such criticism coming from ?uestlove himself.
Their latest album, "Game Theory," eschews trendy musicality and happy-go-lucky "look how far we've come" lyrics on which many successful artists rest their laurels. Critics across the board, from Vibe to Pitchfork to Entertainment Weekly, have breathed a sigh of relief that the Roots are back to voice the anger, disillusionment and sadness that the past few years may have wreacked on the nation and the world.
For a group that might be called hip-hop's equivalent of a jam band, where the mentality is that length equals quality, "Game Theory" has surprised and delighted critics and fans by being taut and focused. The A.V. Club's Nathan Rabin wrote, "The album resonates with casual ambition as it reconciles ?uestlove's effortless bohemian cool and sonic perfectionism with Black Thought's dark swagger, street-level sociology and silver-tongued virtuosity." All Music Guide calls it "the Roots' sharpest work ... destined to become one of Def Jam's proudest, if not most popular, moments;" Mojo, "a focused tour de force." And even Rolling Stone, in a shining moment of critical insight, offers up this gem: "For every head-nodding beat, 'Game Theory' has a head-turning treat."
The consensus is in: The Roots are at the top of their game. And if their latest album is being hailed as a masterpiece -- a medium with which some have deemed the Roots inconsistent and falling short of expectations -- their corresponding show is probably even better. This newfound musical brevity should ward off any of the sonic weirdness that some less-than-enthusiastic listeners have bemoaned, and there are enough familiar singles that even those with the biggest pearls or the starchiest popped collars can find the beat (maybe).
Tickets to see the Roots are still on sale -- $12 for students, $20 for the general public -- at the Collis Information Desk. The concert begins at 8 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 5, in Leede Arena. Doors open at 7 p.m.