Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Roots: A Primer

I seem to be on an all-music, no politics kick lately...while I'm sure that will trend back toward politics when Congress convenes next month, I figure for now I might as well go with it...more music!

Today's challenge: tell you everything you need to know about The Roots in 10 songs.

1. "Pass the Popcorn," Organix (1993). This song and “Essaywhuman?!!!??!” best reflect the song and vibe that The Roots were going for on their debut album.

2. "Proceed," Do You Want More?!!!??! (1995). It's fun watching the progression of time through these 11 years' worth of songs. Back in the early- to mid-'90s, The Roots were still unique with the live act, but they had quite the Digable-Planets-meets-a-less-gimmicky-Das-Efx vibe going on on Do You Want More?!!!??! (they sure loved the demonstrative punctuation, eh?) and Organix. As a whole, Do You was a better all-around effort. Things really took off, however, with their next album.

3. "Concerto of the Desperado," Illadelph Halflife (1996). Looking at my iTunes ratings for this album, not a single song got 5 stars...but damn near every song on the album got 4. Just a consistently good effort...making it pretty difficult to choose just one. “Concerto” is probably my favorite, though you can’t go wrong with “Respond-React,” “Push Up Ya Lighter,” “Clones,” or “What They Do” either.

4. "The Next Movement," Things Fall Apart (1999). Here’s where picking one song from each album gets tricky. There are nothing but solid songs on this album, which was the closest thing they’ve had to a “breakthrough” album with the Grammy success of “You Got Me,” but there are three pantheon-level songs. “You Got Me” deserves the success it found, “Double Trouble” features a fantastic tag team effort between Black Thought and the unknown-at-the-time-but-fantastic-as-always Mos Def, and “Step Into the Realm” is one of the most creative rap songs ever, but it just doesn’t get any better than “The Next Movement” for the combination of beats, lyrics, and just the overall groove. Almost any album that kicks off with this song is going to be successful.

5. "You Got Me," The Roots Come Alive (1999). The other reason I found it okay to pass on “You Got Me” as my Things Fall Apart selection is because the truest nature of the song can be found on the live version. A buddy of mine “borrowed” The Roots Come Alive from me a few years ago, and he kept it so long that I damn near bought another copy of it because I thought I lost it. He gave it back to me, and it looked like it hadn’t left his cd player in two years. It hadn’t. Even without the visual effect, The Roots’ live act is like nothing else...and The Roots Come Alive is one of the better live albums you'll hear. It does a great job of displaying all of the band's influences to that point, from jazz to hip hop to soul and R&B.

Back in 2002, when they were a part of the Smokin’ Grooves Tour with Outkast, Jurassic 5, and Lauryn Hill (one of the best lineups I could have ever imagined), I went to a tourstop with a couple of of whom turned to me halfway through The Roots’ set and said, “I...I had no idea.” There’s just no way to prepare you for The Roots' live experience until you’ve been through the experience.

Also notable about this version of “You Got Me,” of course, is that it features Jill “Jilly from Philly” Scott, the original performer of the song. The record company decided that the female part should be occupied by a bigger name for the Things Fall Apart version, so they brought in Erykah Badu for the singing and Eve for the rap. It worked great, and they have the Grammys to prove it, but let’s just say that Jill Scott, for better or worse, goes places with this song that nobody else would imagine. It takes a really strange turn with her, but it’s exciting even when it’s uncomfortable. The version from the Chappelle’s Block Party soundtrack is just as interesting with both Badu and Scott.

6. “Big Pimpin’”, Jay-Z Unplugged (2001). When it came out that Jay-Z was going to do an MTV Unplugged special with The Roots as his backing band, I must say I was as confused as intrigued. “How in the hell is he going to do ‘Big Pimpin’’ with a live band?” Well, I wish I could have “holy crap!” moments like that on a daily basis. They were treading water through the first four songs (including competent renditions of “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and “The Takeover,” but when ?uestlove started the beat and they kicked in with the snakecharmer-like whistle/recorder part, it was quite the revelation. This was pretty much the moment when I realized that The Roots could do pretty much anything they wanted (as did everybody else...they were even asked to perform with Eminem at the Grammys). The rest of the show was cranked up to fifth gear, capped by the phenomenal “I Just Wanna Love You (Give it 2 Me)” finale.

7. "Water," Phrenology (2002). Hardcore Roots fans are like fans of any other band, really...especially fans who get to interact with the band and feel a heavy-duty sense of ownership. The long-time fans reminisce about the good old days and sigh that the band “sold out” or just isn’t as good as it used to be. The “Nothing Will Top the Good Old Days” syndrome. Happens with every band with any semblance of longevity (except maybe Pearl Jam, whose hardcore fans go out of their way to prove that the new music is just as good as the old). Get on at any time, and you’ll see longing for the good old days of Do You Want More?!!!??!. When Phrenology came out, it freaked quite a few Okayplayers out as the band dabbled in rock and other influences and slowly started to stray from the jazz sound.

For me, it gets no better than Phrenology. Just like Dave Matthews Band’s Busted Stuff is, to me, far superior to Under the Table and Dreaming, I like it when a band matures, takes in new influences, and pushes itself to create new sounds. There are nothing but new sounds on Phrenology, and for me The Roots peaked as a band with “Water.”

For most of The Roots’ existence up to this point, the microphone was manned by two guys, Black Thought and Malik B. As Malik B (allegedly) started to struggle more and more with drug addiction, his role in The Roots basically went on hiatus. Starting with Phrenology, Black Thought did almost all of the vocals. He wrote a quite autobiographical tribute to Malik B., “Water.” I can’t just take a small sample of the lyrics...they’re too good.

You need to walk straight, master your high
Son, you’re missin’ out on what’s passin’ you by
I done seen the streets suck a lotta cats dry
But not you and I, my n---a, we got to get
Over...the water...over...the water


We done been through many meals, a couple of deals
Shared clothes and wheels, killed mics and reels
We done rocked shows abroad and slept on floors
Trying to figure what the f—k we gettin’ slept on for
Or what we’re walkin’ with the weapon for
Weighted by the gravity law, you know it if you came up poor
Picture the bus up north
You know we’re made of everything outlaws are made of
I’m far from a hater
And I don’t say I love you ‘cause the way I feel is greater
You’re a poet, son, you’re a born creator
And this’ll probably dawn on you later
It’s in your nature
Lyrics all up on your walls like they’re made of paper
You gotta follow where the talent take ya
You might f—k around and finally make it


I want you all to understand I come from South Philly
And when I walk the streets it’s like a pharmacy
They got all type of sh-t anybody can get
From H to X to Lucy cigarettes
For my ghetto legend, known for little shyst runnin’
Cop codine by the quarters and keep comin’ and dumbin’
Just embracing the dope like it’s a woman
You’re burning both sides of the rope and just pullin’ and tuggin’
In between Islam and straight thuggin’
Layin’ everyday around the way and doin’ nothin’
See ‘em all shakin’ their heads and start shruggin’
If they don’t got a man like mine, they gotta cousin
And yo, you better be a true friend to him
Before the sh-t put an end to him
Or give a pen to him
Or lock him in the studio with a mic
‘Cause on the real it might save his life
Not only does “Water” have some of the most poignant lyrics in the Roots catalog, it also has one of the best, most Roots-esque grooves. I could listen to this song all day...even the 7 minutes of strange, experimental instrumentation at the end.

8. "Star," The Tipping Point (2004). I was really tempted to use “Stay Cool” as the Tipping Point representative, but while that’s another 5-star song, they almost make it sound too easy. The Roots are too good at establishing this kind of “stay cool” funk groove at this point, so even though that song is fantastic, it’s like it doesn’t even count. Instead, I’ll go with the album opener, “Star.” It heavily samples a classic Sly Stone (“Everybody is a Star”) and proves once and for all that I’m a sucker for a ‘70s soul sample (see my
Best of 2006 list, where J5’s “Gotta Understand” made my #2 slot with their phenonemal sampling).

Lyrically, this kicks off an album that’s almost one long stream-of-consciousness from Black Thought. The theme of most of the lyrics is just life in general, and there aren’t that many topical songs. It works for me (I’m easy to please, I guess), but I guess it got a bit monotonous for some. The Tipping Point has fewer classic songs, but there are still a couple other great ones in addition to the two mentioned above—“BOOM!”, “Why (What’s Goin’ On?)” (which was the most topical song on the album), “Duck Down!”, and, of course, the classic hidden track jam session, “Din Da Da.”

9. "The Seed / Melting Pot / Web" (live), Home Grown! The Beginner's Guide to Understanding The Roots (2005). Man oh man. This 16-minute live jam (yes, a 16-minute live hip hop jam...there’s a reason these guys are so amazing live) was featured toward the end of the really interesting and entertaining 2-disc Home Grown! album, which was basically drummer ?uestlove’s version of The Roots’ greatest hits. It was a combination of hits and the band’s favorite songs, with enough new material and remixes to make the album worth purchasing. But I’ll be honest, this song alone made it worth purchasing. This is a jam that cycles through three great Roots songs, never loses intensity, and actually disappoints you when it fades out after 16 minutes and two seconds. I said I could listen to “Water” all day...well alternate between these two songs, and I’ll damn near be in heaven. The perfect example of absolutely everything The Roots have to offer. And having R&B singer/guitarist/crazy dude Cody ChesnuTT in the mix sure doesn’t hurt.

Home Grown is also worth buying because of the lengthy liner notes in which ?uestlove goes track by track, talking about each song and telling stories, including a great one about “You Got Me” in which he talks about still feeling bad that he forgot to mention Eve in his Grammy acceptance speech.

I’m not sure any band (or in the case of ?uestlove, any one band member) does more to communicate with their fans, but I’ll get more into that later. I can tell you’re excited.

10. "Here I Come," Game Theory (2006). In a recent
Myspace blog entry from Europe, ?uestlove laments the fact that they didn’t show up in a respected magazine’s “Top 50 Albums of the Year” list for basically the first time ever (granted, they did end up in the top 20 of Rolling Stone’s list). This is one of the things that has been interesting about The Roots’ career. Their sales have had peaks and valleys (“You Got Me” got them a lot of notoriety, and their albums sold pretty well until the power of no greatly successful single bumped them back a level or two (though apparently, as you’ll watch below, “The Seed” from Phrenology was hugely successful in Europe, only they didn’t find out about this from the label...they found out when they toured Europe and were experiencing damn-near Beatlemania wherever they went), but the critical success has always been there, especially with the British music magazines like Mojo and Uncut. Well at this point it almost seems like the critics are bored with talking about how great they are. They still like the albums, but they forget to mention them from time to time. A relatively interesting phenomenon. Luckily they always have their live act to fall back on, so they don’t really have to worry as much about sales and critics. Plus, Jay-Z’s in their corner now at Def Jam, so they’re in good hands.

Anyway, Game Theory is their latest release, and predictably it’s quite good. It’s not Phrenology, but it leans on a larger variety of influences than The Tipping Point did (including a Radiohead sample in one song). It’s most notable, though, for the exciting return of Malik B. to the microphone (four years after “Water”). “Here I Come” has a pretty nondescript chorus, and it’s not about anything in particular, but the beat is fantastic, and it shows the teamwork of Black Thought and Malik B. (and frequent Roots vocal contributer Dice Raw) at its very best. Songs like this are why The Roots can always afford to experiment with different sounds and influences—no matter where they go with their music, they always put out a couple of badass, pure hip hop songs on every album to tie everything together.

Game Theory is also notable for its finale, “Can’t Stop This,” an 8-minute tribute to legendary DJ
J-Dilla, who died of lupus early last year.

By the way, no relatively mainstream band has done more to adopt Myspace than this band, by the the moment, it is their official band homepage, and ?uestlove made a video blog entry almost every day of their recent European tour...including
this fantastic one about how fanbases ebb and flow.

So that’s it. As usual, this ended up longer than I intended it to, but I figure this “Primer” format is a pretty good way to discuss a lot of bands I like and think you should like too (at least the bands who have been around long enough to put out 10 songs’ worth of varied material). Now you don’t have to go buy every single Roots album—you can just start with these 10 songs...and THEN buy every single Roots album. Honestly, while I almost always frown on Greatest Hits compilations, the best place to start for a Roots virgin really probably is the 2-disc Home Grown set. It has most of the songs mentioned above (though some of them are the remix versions), and as I said above, it contains the best 16-minute hip hop jam session you’ll ever hear.