Fast Humans

The Roots get experimental

Ignore for a moment Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson's feelings about hip-hop radio in 2000. Glance back with him as he recounts the first-ever spin of a track by his group the Roots, cofounded by the drummer and producer, on New York City radio in early 1993.

"It was anticlimactic for two reasons," he says by phone during a break from the group's current tour. "First, the DJ got the name wrong [he mimics the radio announcer]: “And that was Roots.' I hate it when they don't call us the Roots. On top of that, it was a hip-hop show, and Smif-N-Wessun, who were this group from Brooklyn, were on the show as well. They were doing an interview, and they were using our song as background music, talking over the music. It was cool. They played our song, and then they played the instrumental while the DJ was saying, “Okay, now we have Smif-N-Wessun....' So they wanted this group to freestyle, and one of them was, like, “Okay, but I ain't freestyling to this. This is like Fat Albert and the gang.' It was an unorthodox song, and all the music was done by humans. So it was like driving in mid-Manhattan traffic hearing one of your favorite rap groups say, “Your song sounds like Fat Albert. I ain't rhyming over this.'"

No doubt that Smif or Wessun was reacting to the nature of the Roots, which in 1993 must have sounded as if they had fallen from another planet. Seven years and five albums later, they still sound alien: The Roots are a hip-hop group that plays all its own instruments; they're not a posse that creates music inside a silicon chip using breakbeat samples and stolen riffs. Strange as it may seem (in the world of hip-hop at least), they play music on bass, drum, keyboards, guitar, and other such organic instruments. The result is jazzy and funky, with a solid warm groove that ebbs and flows with emotion rather than looping mechanically. There are real handclaps and finger-snaps, real rhythm, real groove. Real -- or as Smif or Wessun put it -- "like Fat Albert."

Fat Albert grows up
T. Hopkins
Fat Albert grows up

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Thompson and Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter founded the Roots in Philadelphia in the late Eighties as the Square Roots after meeting at a performing-arts high school. Lacking the funds to buy the requisite samplers and beat boxes to create sample-based hip-hop, the two decided to try going old-school. Thompson, a drummer, could provide a steady, sparse beat, and Trotter didn't need much other than his brains to create powerful rhymes. The result was an epiphany: No other group of substance was doing it the Roots way and few in any hip-hop school had their intellect. After their initial indie effort, Organix, produced an underground buzz, they filled out their lineup and signed to David Geffen's DGC imprint in 1994. Even as relative freshmen in the game, though, the Roots understood how it was played, and, says ?uestlove, acted accordingly: "Our stance was, “We have to be so Teflon that [DCG] would be embarrassed to drop us.' While making [our label debut] Do You Want More?, we knew that had to be an album so critically acclaimed that the label would be embarrassed to drop us. And then that wasn't enough. We had to make our live presentation so bulletproof that it would actually be a travesty. We had to make them look bad. And that's precisely what happened. They were, like, “Damn, we were going to drop you, but apparently the whole world loves you, and we just don't know how to market you. We're sorry. Here's another check.'"

On their transcendent fourth release, Things Fall Apart, the Roots went from being a rap group that plays its own instruments to simply a group, one that combined the best of American black music -- from jazz to funk to R&B to hip-hop -- to create something unique; no longer were they replicating the sound of the beatbox with "real" instruments. They were making great American music. Although earlier efforts were impressive, especially 1996's Illadelph Halflife, often these early records were rigid. Things Fall Apart was a living, breathing organism, the result, no doubt, of endless touring, endless jamming, endless inspiration. "The Next Movement" is one of the best singles of the Nineties: Handclaps mingle with a Fender Rhodes riff; legendary DJ Jazzy Jeff provides tense, melodic scratching; and a female chorus, the Jazzyfatnastees, rings melodic bells. Things Fall Apart is a hip-hop masterpiece, tense and thoughtful, textured and dynamic. Unlike most flavor-of-the-month hip-hop releases that might as well have an expiration date printed on the label, the record opens up on examination.

"I want to do art records," ?uestlove says, "you know what I mean? Anything I do I endorse, but it's always been my dream to do art records, and I want to do something more in the spirit of something closer to Fear of a Black Planetor Paul's Boutique or the last two Bomb Squad classics, the Young Black Teenagers' first record, or the Son of Bazerk record."

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