One on One | The Rootsby Ts'eliso Monaheng / 03.02.2012
Driven by their street-corner beginnings and dreams to one day make it ‘big’, The Square Roots started off in earnest in 1993 as a five-piece formation. In the years which have elapsed since then, they have managed to inhabit a corner in hip hop that is distinctly theirs, while toying with music that is heavily-layered and rife with social commentary. Do you want more, their debut on the then rock-only label Geffen records, went by largely ignored, but they introduced the more adventurous listener to a brand new concept in hip hop: the live band.
Rapper Blackthought’s disarmingly sharp delivery on the mic, backed by drummer Questlove’s unquestionable production abilities, saw The Roots establish a cult following from the onset. While nothing was decidedly ‘conscious’ about their music, they – along with Common, Mos Def, and others – became the poster boys for the conscious movement which threatened, albeit not overtly, to further segregate a genre that was already disintegrating rapidly. One was either ‘underground’ or ‘commercial’; there was no middle-ground, it was ‘us-against-them’.
Before the beginning of the new millennium, The Roots had released two more LPs: 1996’s Illadelph Halflife and 1999s Things fall apart, an album that spawned the Grammy award-winning single ‘You got me’ which featured Erykah Badu, and was written by a then relatively-unknown Jill Scott. The latter album was a head-nod to Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s novel, while the former took lead from chemistry’s concept of the half-life of an atom. This trend was to continue on albums such as 2002’s Phrenology (a pseudoscience based on the research of 18th century Viennese physician Franz Joseph Gall who conceived that since the skull takes its shape from the brain, [then] the surface of the skull can be read as an accurate index of psychological aptitudes and tendencies), and 2004’s Tipping Point (inspired by Malcom Gladwell’s book of the same title).
Phrenology saw the band ushering in a new era by embarking on a decidedly-different, unexpected musical tangent. Blackthought not only let go of the turban, but also dropped his complex flow in favour of a more decisive, direct delivery. “I strive to be vulnerable in my work.” He said. “I’ve kinda learned that you can’t give people a one-sided perspective of yourself as an artist, that you need to have dimension”. This decision was double-edged in that it alienated the hardcore-heads whose primary concern was with the flow (and not so much the content), but also embraced the possibility of a new audience – one which, although not hardcore hip hop listeners, might appreciate The Roots’ new-found musicality.
“If you like Illadelph Halflife better than you like Phrenology, I’m cool with that. But, at least, acknowledge the fact that we put work into it,” said Questlove in an interview following Phrenology’s release. “The Roots have a whole audience to please. There are some people that are totally into classic hip hop like, ‘yo fuck the esoteric nature of the group and the musicianship’. There are people that totally ignore Tariq and are into the band aspect of The Roots, and care less about hip hop aesthetics, you know?”
The Roots’ music ‘works’ on a nostalgic level for me, because it carries with it memories of the first time I heard a song like ‘Next Movement’ on cassette tape, and smiling when Blackthought says “you need to buy the CD and stop rewinding this”. Their music leaves glimmers sharp enough to be replayed at appropriate moments, whether in the case of their song ‘What They Do’ and its accompanying video (a spoof of the consumerist culture which was already rife in mid-nineties hip-hop), or the unabashedly-honest ‘Silent Treatment’, a story of lost love and separation.
But the real reason why they are important to hip hop is because they regularly set and reset the bar, such that it’s anyone’s guess as to what type of record they will come up with next. From 2004, they embarked on a dizzying array of releases so musically-disparate that they may well have been recorded in alternate galaxies. Tipping Point was their most ‘commercial-sounding’ release, one that saw them roping in then big-name producer (and former Roots member) Scott Storch to assist with one or two radio-friendly beats. Game Theory in 2006 was a dark, melancholic chapter, a reflection of the times and an acknowledgement of the world’s changing dynamics.
“Ill, but that’ll be too real for TV / it’s crazy when you’re too real to be free / if you don’t got no paper then steal this CD,” Blackthought rhymed menacingly on ‘Don’t Feel Right’.
Rising Down (2008) began with a snippet from a 1994 phone conversation between Blackthought, Questlove, and their managers. It then spilled into a deluge of light-and-shade moments propelled forward by The Roots’ uncompromising rawness and sometimes-tongue-in-cheek moments (as in the Patrick Stump-featuring ‘Birthday Girl’). The album cover, a nod “to the crude caricatures from early America, the black devil wreaking havoc on the white pilgrims below” as one reviewer observed, further cemented their all-round appeal as geniuses and expert practitioners of music-as-art (and vice versa).
How I Got Over (2010) is kin to Undun, their latest offering, and their first concept album (centred on the demise of the character Redford Stephens). The albums are not so much a departure from earlier works, but additional tones to a multi-dimensional outfit that has stood time and all its unreasonable tests. As Questlove observed: “I realized that with the exception of Common, Snoop, and maybe Outkast (even though they were ’95), the same people that we signed deals with back in 1992 were non-existent”. Perhaps it is this acute awareness, this realisation of rap’s fickle, forgetful mind, which pushes the entire crew to constantly unfold in new sonic directions with every release.
As Chuck D stated in the audio documentary The Roots: Hip-hop 101 in 1994, “for now, The Roots remain a little bit of an enigma, even to themselves..[but] their concept has not yet blown up, and it is possible it won’t”.
Now here’s a run-down of some of The Root’s finest moments
• “What They Do” from Illadelph Halflife
Quotable: “Lost generation / fast-paced nation / world population confront their frustration / the principles of true hip-hop have been forsaken / it’s all contractual and about money-making”
• “Next movement” from Things Fall Apart
Quotable: “This is directed to whoever’s in listening range / yo, the whole state of things in the world’s bout to change / black rain falling from the sky, looks strange / the ghetto is red-hot, we stepping on flames”
• “Break You Off” from Phrenology
Quotable: “Is it because he’s superficial / or is he too submissive / or that I come along and hit you with the futuristic / or is it because you barely couldn’t see the future with him, all he bought is paper / never took the time with you to listen”
• “The Web” from The Tipping Point
Quotable: “I’m a decorated vet / I regulate and wreck, never hesitate and yet I’m getting heavy-weighted cheques / if you would dare ask if I’m dedicated, yes / I spit, live rounds that’ll penetrate a vest”
• “Clock With No Hands” from Game Theory
Quotable: “Living in turbulent times, the blind leading the blind / some call it evolution, some say intelligent design / you say you want a revolution, you’re out of your mizz-ind / your son’s destitute, and their pops’ all in the prison”
• “Dear God” from How I Got Over
Quotable: “They said ‘he’s busy, hold the line please’ / call me crazy, I thought maybe he could mind-read / who does the blind lead/ show me a sign please / if everything is made in China, are we Chinese”
• “The Other Side” from Undun
Quotable: “We obviously need to tone it down a bit / running round town spending time like it’s counterfeit / everybody catching hay-fever like it’s sinuses”
“We did this in rememberance of, faces from the past we no longer have an image of / carrying cold-blooded hearts, that’ve never been for love/ brothers keep more for theirs, but never get enough”
• “Lighthouse” from Undun
Quotable: “After the love is lost, friendship is off / and even blood is lost / where did it begin, the way we did each other wrong/ troubled water, neither one of us could swim across / I stopped holding my breath, now am I better off?”