Roots That Matter

Philadelphia's greatest contribution to hip-hop, the Roots, like to open their CDs with a snatch of dialogue. It's their way of introducing a new set of themes, of offering a kind of preamble to the state of the union message that's on the way.

But the exchange that launches the Roots' newly released fourth CD, Things Fall Apart (the group's first on MCA Records), seems a bit curious on first listen. It's a sample from Spike Lee's 1990 film Mo' Better Blues, in which a band leader played by Denzel Washington complains that blacks don't support jazz the way they should. That prompts an angry response from saxman Wesley Snipes, who argues that the blame rests with "grandiose motherfuckers" who are not playing what people want to hear.

This same discussion can be applied to the current state of hip-hop. The genre is supposedly flourishing like never before; last year saw even second-tier hip-hop acts routinely outselling much-hyped rock icons like Marilyn Manson and Hole. Lost in the media avalanche to proclaim 1998 "The Year of Hip-Hop," however, was the fact that there is an ever-widening gulf between hip-hop's commercial and underground factions.

The Roots tend to work this chasm with intense ambivalence. On the one hand, Roots rapper Black Thought pointed the finger at careerists who pose as artists in the group's caustic 1996 single "What They Do": "The principles of true hip-hop have been forsaken/It's all contractual and about moneymaking."

On the other hand, the crew's supremely gifted drummer and unofficial spokesman, Ahmir Thompson (better known as ?uestlove), was recently quoted in the Source as saying, "Contrary to popular belief, yo, I love Puff Daddy.... What I'm against is all the grafted, imitating people that are gonna come after Puff and do the same shit."

It's to the credit of the Roots that they air both sides of the Mo' Better Blues debate, shirking the heroic, but simple-minded role of underground saviors. Although they are arch defenders of the underground movement, they're at least willing to consider the possibility that the reason none of their albums has sold more than 340,000 copies is that they've been a bit too esoteric for the MTV punters.

"We used both sides of the argument, 'cause we sway on both sides of the fence," Black Thought says during a break in the band's tour schedule. "There are eight of us, so we all have different views on how things relate to the audience."

It's that kind of complexity of thought that makes the Roots intriguing. Even though the group is just one cog in an artsy, underground uprising that in recent years has included A Tribe Called Quest, the Pharcyde, Gang Starr, OutKast, and others, many true believers contend that the Roots tower above all competition. Yet that claim sounds a little like the hip-hop equivalent of the days when the Clash was dubbed "The Only Band That Matters" by its own record label, and all the acolytes nodded in agreement. Just consider that beneath the Roots' name on the cover of the March issue of the Source the following question is seriously posed: "Hip-hop's Messiahs?"

For all the group's collective ego (and this crew is nothing if not sure of its own abilities), such expectations must be uncomfortable. So with Things Fall Apart the Roots make the subtle transition from hip-hop's combative guerrilla warriors to confident artists willing to coexist with their foes. They simultaneously rise to the challenge of high expectations, and back away from the full implications. If you wanted to push the Clash connection further, you could say this is the Roots' London Calling.

As with that punk masterwork, Things Fall Apart shows a smart, ambitious group putting all its influences together in one sprawling setting, before boredom and self-indulgence have had a chance to rear their ugly heads. The Roots have moved beyond the complete live-band sound of their first two releases, Organix and Do You Want More?!!!??!, and they now incorporate touches of sampling much more smoothly than on the occasionally awkward 1996 opus illadelph halflife.

The group members like to talk about their wildly different personalities, about how hard it is to keep such an eclectic collection of talents under one roof. It's easy to see the title of Things Fall Apart as a prophecy, but Black Thought refutes that notion.

"We won't be together forever, but there's no need for us to disassemble," he says. "What the Roots represent is the coming together of these different personalities. We can do other things, but we don't have any problems working together. We've been together so many years now, we've got it down to a science. So this is the official shit.

"That's why we record so many tracks, so everyone can have their own personalities come through," he continues. "We work it so everyone has a track that showcases what they do."

As always what separates the Roots from the parade of hip-hop pretenders is the group's commitment to pure expressionism, a delight in the abstract power of trippy sounds or creatively rhythmic vocal deliveries. The album starts slowly and tentatively, but kicks in with the relaxed soul groove of "The Next Movement," and hardly lets up after that. "The Next Movement" employs the deft scratching of DJ Jazzy Jeff, which not only marks the first time the Roots have used a DJ, but links them to the musical legacy of their hometown.

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