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.
A subsequent deal with Def Jam fostered a series of riveting, often grim sets, beginning with Game Theory (August 2006) and Rising Down (April 2008). In 2009, the group expanded its reach as the exceptionally versatile house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The new gig didn't slow their recording schedule; in 2010 alone, they released the sharp How I Got Over (June), as well as Wake Up! (September), where they backed John Legend on covers of socially relevant soul classics like Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' 'Wake Up Everybody' and Donny Hathaway's 'Little Ghetto Boy'. The next year, as they remained with Fallon, the Roots worked with Miami soul legend Betty Wright on November's Betty Wright: The Movie, and followed it weeks later with their 13th studio album, Undun.
Work on the group's next studio album was postponed as an unexpected duet album with Elvis Costello took priority for the group in 2013. Originally planned as a re-interpretation of Costello's songbook, the album Wise Up Ghost turned into a full-fledged collaboration and was greeted by positive reviews upon its September 2013 release on Blue Note.
Words: John Bush & Andy Kellman
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.
Words: Steve Huey
The not-very-Hip Hop Dirty Projectors, Monsters of Folk, Patty Crash, and Joanna Newsom contribute one way or another to How I Got Over. Rest assured, the ninth studio album from the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon house band is very much its own, and skeptics should be reminded that Hip Hop history is filled with figures as unlikely as Billy Squier (who probably did not bump into Run-D.M.C. backstage at The Alan Thicke Show). Very much in line with recent albums like Game Theory and Rising Down, neither of which was tailored for a good time, How I Got Over is the most subdued of the three. The blood doesn’t really get pumping until the fifth track. Up to that point, however, the band creates some of its most downcast and alluring material, covering solitude, self-destruction, and just about every planetary ill. It’s all vividly conveyed through pensive arrangements, sobering rhymes, spooky choruses, and even spookier backing vocals. Truck North, P.O.R.N., Dice Raw, and Blu make gripping contributions, but no one cuts to the chase quite like Black Thought, who can condense modern reality into one deftly delivered and commanding line, like “Got immunized for both flus, I’m still sick.” From there, the spirit lifts a little, though the songs are still deeply planted in realism. The title track is modern soul-blues that cooks, assisted by some serious singing from Black Thought and an inspiring chorus from Dice Raw. On “Now or Never,” Phonte’s dejection (“My role was cast before I even auditioned for it”) is tempered with Dice Raw's glints of determination. For good measure, or perhaps for the sake of a little balance, the back half also features a hardcore boast session between Thought, Peedi Peedi, and Truck North that cannot be disregarded. This is yet another Roots album that lends itself to repeated, beginning-to-end listening. It is gracefully and cleverly sequenced, from the way the tracks melt into each other to the way “Doin’ It Again” utilizes John Legend's anguished “Again” prior to transitioning into the subtly anthemic “The Fire,” which features a fresh collaboration with…John Legend.
Words: Andy Kellman
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. "Rhymes and Ammo," the Talib Kweli collaboration that appeared on Soundbombing, Vol. 3, and "Something to See," another techno-inflected jam.]
Words: Steve Huey
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.
Words: Andy Kellman
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.
Words: John Bush
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).
Words: John Bush
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."
Words: David Jeffries
It would've been easy for the Roots to sell out. Already one of the few groups whose fans extend beyond the typical alternative rap base, tacking on the acoustic-guitary pop-rap song "Birthday Girl" -- which leaked the month before Rising Down's release and features Patrick Stump crooning "What is it we want to do, now that I'm allowed to be alone with you?" -- could've been a natural, and maybe even excusable move. Excusable as a way to show that the Roots can be lighthearted, fun, and tongue-in-cheek (though anyone who's heard any of their interviews or has frequented ?uestlove's blog already knows this to be true); not excusable, however, as the crossover track the label wanted it to be (and in fact, in Japan and Europe, as well as on iTunes, it remains as such). Fortunately, the Roots were smart and thoughtful enough -- the very qualities of whose criticism led to the creation of "Birthday Girl" -- to realize that its inclusion, even as an afterthought, a bonus track, was detrimental to the effect of the entire album, dumbing down their thoughts on poverty and race and politics with poppy melodies and creepy (albeit ironic) jokes about statutory rape and predatory old men.
Because as it stands, Rising Down acts as a powerful statement on contemporary society, a society in which even though the specific issues may have changed (global warming, BET, new technologies), the problems remain the same. For this reason the album begins and ends with a discussion from 1994, where Black Thought and ?uestlove are arguing about then-label Geffen with their managers, and other bits of the past are also spread throughout -- the 1987 freestyle "@15," which complements "75 Bars (Black's Reconstruction)," the reflection found in "Unwritten" and especially in the cover itself, which nods to the crude caricatures from early America, the black devil wreaking havoc on the white pilgrims below. But it is these very reminders that make the Roots and their message in 2008 so much more relevant: they give context. So when Black Thought says "It is what it is, because of what it was/I did what I did 'cause it does what it does" in "Criminal," he's not just looking as his character's current situation, he's drawing from history, and his conclusions are based upon lifetimes of "it being it" and "doing what it does," of struggling and fighting and trying to get by, to make it however he can.
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.
Words: John Bush
Musicians separated by age, style, and demographic, Elvis Costello and the Roots are nevertheless natural collaborators bound by wide taste, insatiable appetite, and fathomless record collections. This is particularly true of Roots drummer/de facto bandleader ?uestlove, the musical omnivore who is the band's most recognizable member and perhaps the only popular musician outside of Costello who values the music press. This is not incidental to Wise Up Ghost, the unexpected 2013 collaboration between Costello and the Roots. As recognizable as both parties are -- the Roots are Jimmy Fallon's house band, soon to inherit the throne from Doc Severinsen on The Tonight Show; Elvis Costello seizes any opportunity to ham it up on camera -- neither are exactly popular popular artists. Between the two of them, they have a grand total of four Billboard Top 40 hits -- two apiece -- which suggests that their instincts run against the grain, something ?uestlove admits in his 2013 memoir, Mo Meta Blues, when he confesses he always preferred deep cuts to hit singles. This sensibility thrives on Wise Up Ghost, which quickly dismisses its two potential crossover singles -- the ominous "Walk Us Uptown," which is the greatest indication of the album's vibe, then the slyly funky slow groove "Sugar Won't Work" -- before getting down to the hard work of recontextualizing forgotten music from Costello's Warner years while offering barbed social commentary in the vein of What's Going On or There's a Riot Goin' On. Here, the project's origin as a wildly imaginative reinterpretation of Costello's back catalog is evident, but it also speaks to how Elvis rose to the challenge of working with a live Hip Hop band. Lacking the context of heavy samples, he nevertheless embraced Hip Hop's postmodernism by jamming together the lyrics of "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)" and "Pills and Soap" for "Stick Out Your Tongue," while "Refuse to Be Saved" evokes the ghost of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band's appearance on "Chewing Gum" and "Tripwire" suggests "Satellite." These two songs were on Spike -- which would've been the Costello album on the charts while ?uestlove was in high school, also not entirely a coincidence -- and much of the sensibility of Wise Up Ghost derives from those sometimes underappreciated early Warner albums Spike and Mighty Like a Rose, two albums overly dense in sonic and lyrical detail. So too is Wise Up Ghost, a record that flaunts its cerebellum as it progresses, but the Roots' emphasis on smart, textured grooves grounds the album even if it hardly widens the album's potential audience. This is an exquisitely detailed, imaginative record that pays back dividends according to how much knowledge, either of Costello or the Roots or their idols, a listener brings to the album. It's not exactly alienating but Wise Up Ghost does require work from its audience, and the more you know -- and the more you listen -- the better it seems.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine