LEGENDARY ILLADELPH ROOTS CREW (PT II)

By B Getz


The Roots
It's been a whirlwind year for Philadelphia's legendary crew The Roots. The band has reached a crossroads in their career, which spans over fifteen years, six albums, several changes amongst auxiliary members, and countless collaborations, movie soundtrack contributions, remixes, etc. Yet in the last fifteen months, the band has nearly splintered, switched major record labels, played two high-profile, star-studded shows at Radio City Music Hall, and recorded a new album. Not to mention the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the reemergence of a seminal member, and the death of two close friends and collaborators. The new record, Game Theory, is their first for Def Jam Records.

Def Jam is a company that has experienced quite a transitional year itself, diversifying their roster, and most notably, installing Jay-Z as President. Leaving longtime home MCA/Geffen records was a precarious situation for The Roots, mostly due to the fact that the group has never experienced the mega-Soundscan success many of their peers have enjoyed. The Roots audience is not the radio hip-hop fan; he or she falls somewhere between true-school hip-hop heads, college radio listeners, and other (read: White) demographics. In a bold move, new Def Jam chief Jay-Z offered the band a deal to record for the flagship label. Def Jam is certainly the royal rap record company, originally founded by Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, and is responsible for classic records from Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, and Run DMC, as well as many others. For The Roots to now be associated with this company, and the "Mike Jordan of this rap game" H.O.V.A., has validated the band and put them in the best position to further imprint their unique brand of hip-hop on the masses.


Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson
Gone with the major label was most of the group's budget, much of which was used to secure time and staff in top-flight recording studios and to bring in some of the freshest virtuoso session players, collaborators, and producers. Drummer/band spokesperson Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson recently remarked that he had truly realized their dire situation when he went from having run of the grand Electric Lady Studios and being on a first-name basis with staffers and engineers to being unable to secure time and staff due to financial burdens. ?uest found himself jamming, writing, and laying tracks in makeshift basement studios. These grimy sessions, wrought with rodents and dank odors, were light years from the grandeur in which he was accustomed to recording. Thompson sometimes manned up, opened his wallet, and paid for quality studio time himself to stay at the forefront of his craft and employed the services of esteemed musicians and producers.

One such producer that would have been a key ingredient to this new project was Jon Brion. The multi-instrumentalist has been involved in popular music for some time and has collaborated with many of today's most revered artists, most notable being his contributions to Fiona Apple's catalogue. ?uest and Brion first hooked up at a Grammy's after-party jam in LA, around 2000. A friendship and mutual interests were born. Thompson had planned to work exclusively with Brion on Game Theory, with ?uest as musical director and Brion in a Svengali-producer role like that of Rick Rubin. The budget constraints associated with the lack of major label support would prevent this collaboration from ever coming to fruition. Brion would later hook up with Kanye West in a similar role on his multi-platinum sophomore LP Late Registration.


Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter
In late August and throughout September, The Roots themselves dealt with Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath. The band's MC, Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter, has children who live in New Orleans. The plan for creating Game Theory was for 'Riq, ?uest, bassist Leonard "Hub" Hubbard, guitarist Capt. Kirk Douglas, keyboardist Kamal, and percussionist F.Knuckles (the core band members) to set up shop in the hallowed Big Easy to write and record. The Roots hoped the city's rich musical history and traditions would inform their art in a progressive fashion. NOLA is steeped in an ethos of Black music, an area and style far removed from their hometown Philadelphia sound. Keeping in line with the unraveling plans surrounding Game Theory, the chaos and tragedy surrounding Katrina and the displacement of Black Thought's family precluded any such plans of bringing the NOLA crunk n'bounce to the Legendary's seventh full-length.

Shortly after the New Year, The Roots were dealt an even more vicious blow in the death of J Dilla (James Yancey). A member of ?uest's wide-reaching production squad The Soulquarians (along with James Poyser, D'Angelo, and others), Dilla's patented other-worldly production informed the music of many hip-hop heavyweights, including A Tribe Called Quest (Beats, Rhymes and Life; The Love Movement), The Pharcyde (LaCabinCalifornia), De La Soul, Common, Busta Rhymes, his own group Slum Village, and of course The Roots. Dilla (formerly known as "Jay Dee"), along with Q-Tip, founded the seminal production squad The Ummah and was also one of ?uestlove's best friends. Dilla remained close with Thought as well. Dilla battled a severe lupus condition for the last few years of his life, but it did little to detract from his trail-blazing production and prodigious output. Nevertheless, the loss devastated The Roots' world and stunned fans and artists alike. Dilla's memory, and shadow, loom large throughout Game Theory.


?uestlove at Camp Bisco 2006 by Dave Vann
The Roots were also blind-sided by the recent untimely passing of old school Philly photojournalist Mpozi Tolbert, most recently of the Indianapolis Star. Long a fixture on The Roots scene, most of the photographic documentation of The Roots' crucial first years were shot by Tolbert. A giant of a man at 6'6" with dreadlocks past his waist, Tolbert's heart was even larger as he championed causes of the people throughout his 36 years. His influence on the Legendary and their Okayplayer web community was enormous, and in the penultimate twist of fate, this freedom fighter died on Independence Day.

The Roots welcomed long-lost MC Malik B. back for three tracks on Game Theory. Along with Mpozi, Malik was present in the earliest incarnations of the band, back in the South Street, Square Roots, Lay-Up days, and he was a full-fledged member of the group from independent debut Organix through Grammy-winning Things Fall Apart. Always a popular and oft-quoted lyricist, there were special circumstances surrounding Malik. His quirkiness and reluctance to tour, coupled with hard-line Islamic views and general unpredictability, limited his role in the band as they are renowned for their aggressive worldwide touring schedule. As he got older, Malik developed a problematic appetite for hard drugs like crack cocaine, and he soon found himself running on the mean, murderous streets of North Philly. This situation was approached with a unique perspective, through the complex and riveting song "Water" (Phrenology) (2002). The group basically put the "M-Illatant" on blast, and Malik was seldom heard from outside of police blotter and street gossip until this longed-for reconciliation. Excepting a few subtle hints from the always-cryptic Thompson, very few outside of the band's inner-circle were anticipating or even discussing a resurgence. His presence on Game Theory immediately augments the sound and songs, and his yang to 'Riq's yin is unearthed once again in all of its former glory.


The Roots
The Roots didn't draw it up that way, at least as far as Malik was concerned. The seldom-seen MC never had a brotherly squashing of beef with the rest of the group, nor did they clear the air with any verbal dialogue, or even through management. Instead, Malik B. showed up at the recording studio in Philly where much of Game Theory was being engineered and mixed. The reclusive MC recorded several verses he had penned over the past few years and left them with the studio staff working on the record. Originally, the band decided not to include Malik's contributions due to the strained relations and his laundry list of behavioral mishaps. After the deaths of Dilla and Tolbert, Kamal, Hub, Thompson, and Trotter had a change of heart, warmed to the notion, and punched several of Malik's heated verses into songs like the title track, "Here I Come," and "Take it There," the latter being a song and sound that harkens back to classic Roots style and sonics. It has not translated into a full-fledged rejoining of the band, as Malik did not perform with The Roots at either Philadelphia show in August. One can hear the trials and tribulations in the tweaker-spittings of a base-head MC, and despite the rough edges, the realism and pain in Malik's voice finds itself at home on this brooding record. (Editor's Note: A review of these performances will be in Part III of our Roots series.)

 
Long-lost MC, Malik B. showed up at the recording studio in Philly where much of Game Theory was being engineered. He recorded several verses he had penned over the past few years and left them with the studio staff working on the record. Originally, the band decided not to include Malik's contributions due to the strained relations and his laundry list of behavioral mishaps. After the deaths of Dilla and Tolbert, the band had a change of heart and punched several of Malik's heated verses into songs like the title track, "Here I Come," and "Take it There," the latter being a song and sound that harkens back to classic Roots style and sonics.

 
Photo of ?uestlove by Mpozi

August 29th marked the release of their Def Jam debut. Game Theory, an undeniably dark album, for the aforementioned trials and tribulations of this band serve to color their art with foreboding tones. The record is certainly an artistic statement, profound and progressive, and it takes chances. If its predecessor, The Tipping Point, was a formulaic, beat-heavy album, and Phrenology before that was the weird art-rock record, then this album falls somewhere between the two, with the collective energy and spirit of Things Fall Apart and a strong nod toward the future. This is the most evolved and certainly the most complete Roots album since Things Fall Apart. Though not without its missteps, this album speaks to many; the group had a lot of balls dropping this left-of-center record as their first on Def Jam. ?uest and Co. have never been known to play it safe, on record or on stage. In their fans' eyes, certain alliances were indeed chances taken. (Read more on Game Theory in Part I of the series.)


Jay-Z
The idea of Jay-Z linking up with The Roots at this particular time in each of their respective careers is ironic in itself. The Roots were long considered a "conscious" hip-hop group, associating with like-minded artists and fans who shared bohemian leanings and social causes du Jour. They often performed with and toured alongside Native Tongue Clique stalwarts De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Dead Prez, and others. This genre of hip-hop is thought to eschew the ostentatious materialism, sexism, and violence celebrated in the modern rap lexicon. However, time and evolution are undeniable, and soon these factions would splinter. Jay-Z would claim to retire from the rap game, but this retirement really just means he refrains from making full albums, as he can be found spitting his trademark braggadocio on radio singles as well as global touring dates. The lines in the sand, in terms of conscience-versus-bling, and in essence, The Roots-versus-Jay-Z, have blurred in the past few years.


The Roots
The Roots are phenomenal at recreating hip-hop production organically, through a band setting, and often with the assistance of human DJs Rahzel or DJ Scratch. Their prowess in this category is unmatched, oft imitated, and ultimately lead the two largest hip-hop artists to employ the band to back them at high-profile events. Eminem, never a stranger to thinking out the box, rocked with The Roots band behind him for a thrilling rendition of "Lose Yourself" at the Grammy Award Show where the song won an award. Soon thereafter, the God MC, Jay-HOVA, hollered at ?uest and company to perform with him at an MTV Unplugged taping. Needless to say, the results were other-worldly. Ever the perfectionist, ?uest and The Roots, augmented by a Larry Gold-helmed string section, delivered stirring versions of classic hits in the Jigga catalogue, along with some subtle, sly shots at a couple of Hov's nemeses along the way. The consummate professionals, a HOV/?uest union is poised for big things. Some of these heights were realized this winter, during concerts at Radio City Music Hall. The Roots brought Hov out to close the show at their second RCMH throw-down, and S.Dot Carter brought ?uestlove and his Illadelphonic band to back his 10th anniversary concerts celebrating a decade since the release of his debut Reasonable Doubt. All accounts speak to the precision and dedication to the original recordings that ?uest's arrangements displayed. Let's hope this is only the beginning.


Nas
The Roots also deadened some negativity between themselves and another of Jigga's former enemies, an artist whose anthem "NY State of Mind" was dropped ever-so-slickly within Hov's "Takeover" during Unplugged. The rap war between Jay-Z and Nas is the stuff of legend. At last year's I Declare War concert series, Jay-Z publicly ended the battle with Nas by bringing Esco himself out to close the concert together in a showing of solidarity. The beef that circulated between The Roots and Nas, much less discussed, dates back to comments Nas made about The Roots after they linked up with Hov for the Unplugged gig. Nas claimed that after their "What They Do" video, a clip that mocked the Big Willie rap styles of artists like Jay-Z, The Roots were "hypocritical" in assisting him to make music, and in turn, to make money. It was an opinion Nas expressed in the heat of a fierce battle for New York City between Hov and himself; allegiances were certainly made along the way. But tempers cool, people mature, things change, and grudges wane. Nonetheless, at RCMH in NYC this past winter, on the evening prior to the HOV throw-down, The Roots brought Nas on stage for a run through a selection of his classic bangers. Eyewitness accounts say that when Nas arrived to sound-check the performance earlier in the day, he was left stuttering, speechless, and misty-eyed at the sheer precision in the recreation of early Esco joints, and not just album tracks, but remixes, B-sides, etc. Nas was flabbergasted by the incredible effort The Roots had put into recreating his work, his art. It was a touching moment for posturing rap stars and true-school heads alike.

These two Radio City shows featured a who's who of today's brightest stars in hip-hop and R&B. The roster included the aforementioned Jay-Z and Nas, Big Daddy Kane, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, Erykah Badu, J-Davey, Dead Prez, Jill Scott, and more. The Roots were now-infamously stood-up by the tandem of Ghostface and Raekwon; little did they know the gems that The Roots had cooked up for the pair. ?uest and Co. had prepped classics from the "Purple Tape" (released as Only Built For Cuban Linx), and Ironman, amongst other Wu-bangas, for the Wu-brethren.

One can only hope that Def Jam, Game Theory, and The Roots themselves can capitalize on all of this positivity that they have created. The tragedies, uphill struggles, roadblocks, uncertainties, and the cloud of death that had followed the band for well over a year have undoubtedly made them a stronger, tougher, more focused unit. Yet in today's music marketplace, and in the "music business," it's album and ticket sales that make up the bottom line. The Roots' insane touring itineraries somewhat guarantee them a healthy living, but record sales drive the hip-hop gravy train. If Game Theory does not translate into a profit, and most likely a hefty profit, for all his good graces and strong influence, Jay-Z may not provide such a golden opportunity again. But if the people get behind this record, buy it, play it, request songs on the radio, and propel the band to household name status, well in that case there is no telling what Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson, 'Riq Geez, and the rest of the fabulous Roots band will cook up and serve the people. The Legendary Roots Crew is in the building. Chuuch!

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Comments

All Loving Liberal White Guy Wed 9/13/2006 06:27PM
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All Loving Liberal White Guy

props to the writer for showin some philly love. nobody can do what the roots are doing these days. also, if you don't know who j dilla is i reccomend you check him out. even though he passed away thins year which was saddening, he was not just your run of the mill hip hop producer/beatmaker/. this guy felt the music and became one with with. RIP dilla. you will never be forgotten

RobbieK starstarstarstarstar Fri 9/15/2006 07:40AM
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100% DUN-DEE B Geez. Straight up. Excellent work my friend.

The 2-1-5th is proud today.

tweezerjam starstarstarstar Fri 9/15/2006 09:51AM
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tweezerjam

ditto. keepin' it live from the 2-1-5

Thurman Merman starstarstarstarstar Fri 9/15/2006 10:09AM
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Thurman Merman

Nasty article. The legendary Roots crew will most definitely go down as one of the most under-appreciated hip-hop acts of all time. Unless Jay-Z can get the mainstream to appreciate something different.

dvanscoten starstarstarstarstar Fri 9/15/2006 12:15PM
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dvanscoten

chuuuuuuuuuuuch!!

ghilliesblunt starstarstarstarstar Fri 9/15/2006 12:32PM
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ghilliesblunt

word to thurman merman, i had the pleasure of meeting these guys a couple yrs ago and they are unbelieveably humble...they truely exhibit the jam scene spirit and hospitality

JoeMack Tue 9/19/2006 09:19AM
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This is the most informative and in depth story I've ever seen on jambase. Makes me wanna listen to the hot music, the hot music!!!

Angelshymn starstarstarstar Sun 10/15/2006 11:05AM
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This was a wonderfuly written article. The Roots are undeniably...legendary. Their talent as true musicians-using LIVE instramentation (without even a DJ)-is mind blowing, and inspiring. If all hip hop could make you feel like this? Perhaps they will break the mold of what is Hip hop, and musical genres as a whole. ?uest is a genius ;) I am so happy they have come into this scene as they encompass all that makes and defines the very term JAMBAND!!!