The Philadelphia band the Roots has always made socially aware, stylistically varied music that’s kept it on the leading edge of left-of-center hip-hop.
But the collective led by drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson and rapper Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter has never been as politically pointed - or as provocative - as on its new album, “Rising Down.”
“The perception of us being political has been by default,” says Thompson, kicking back in camouflage pants and a hoodie decorated with boom boxes at the Zellerbach Theatre in West Philadelphia, shortly before the band was to perform on “The Colbert Report” this month.
“It’s like, `They don’t curse that much, and they’re not misogynistic, and they don’t do gunplay and drugs, so ... they’re political.’ But really, that just makes us considerate.”
The Roots, formed in 1987 and originally called the Square Roots, have long been known as one of the few live bands - and easily the best - in hip-hop. And the band’s hard-hitting 10th CD, which takes its name from William T. Vollmann’s seven-volume, 3,000-page treatise on violence, “Rising Up and Rising Down,” addresses weighty subjects head-on.
“Rising Down” (Def Jam, 3 stars), which builds on the tense, almost claustrophobic feel of the Roots’ previous, more introspective “Game Theory” (2006), deals with the war in Iraq, the murder rate in Philadelphia and “black teenage nihilism,” says Thompson, not to mention “drugs as an escape, and indifference, as opposed to dialogue.”
It uses multiple perspectives - and guest appearances from well-respected rappers, including Common, Mos Def and Talib Kweli - to pose a question. It’s the same one that Trotter, his Yankees cap cocked to one side, asks backstage at “The Colbert Report”: “Is there any justification for all the violence going on in the world today? And if so, what is it?”
On “Rising Down,” the provocation starts with the CD cover. It’s an 1896 Southern propaganda poster called “Negro Rule” that shows what Thompson calls a “black demon” flying above a group of white people, who are running for their lives.
The image resonated with Thompson.
“The drawing leads you to the impression that this savage will destroy all that’s around it,” says Thompson, 37, who is the son of Philadelphia doo-wop singer Arthur Lee Andrew Thompson, of Lee Andrews & The Hearts, and has a busy sideline as a DJ and record producer. (He helmed Al Green’s soul platter “Lay It Down,” due out next month.)
“But there’s something about his face that made me sad. I almost saw the face of a child that’s stuck with these claws, and doesn’t know what to do with them. That spoke to me about the ongoing perception of (African Americans) being seen as danger figures, and not as human beings. And you can make that parallel to hip-hop when it first came out, to the way jazz was once considered to be the devil’s music.”
The drawing struck Thompson as particularly germane during an election year when there is a debate about whether “the feeling of `no experience’ is really just the fear of a black person running the top office in the United States of America.”
The drummer campaigned door-to-door for Barack Obama in California this year, and told the candidate’s wife, Michelle, at “Colbert” that he hoped to be “the first hip-hop DJ in the White House.” On the show, a power trio version of the band performed a blistering take on Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that was conceived as a protest against the Iraq war - ending with guitarist Kirk Douglas smashing his instrument to pieces.
“Rising Down” is a response to what Thompson calls “a real tsunami environment for left-of-center hip-hop artists now that the whole industry is being flooded by neo-minstrelsy. It’s our way of building an ark.”
That’s why the album augments Trotter’s dense, darkly gritty flow (“Your funeral, they have your 12th grade portrait/Pretty corpse and casket, pale shade orchids”) with more guests than ever, including Washington’s Wale, Brooklyn’s Saigon, and North Philadelphia’s Peedi Peedi.
On “Rising Down” - whose possible, rejected titles included “Banana Republic,” “Let Them Eat Cake” and “This Too Shall Pass” - “each verse is a different character,” says Trotter, 35. “It gives different perspectives to try to understand what triggers people off, whether it’s social conditions, the economic situation, (stuff) within the household. We try to address it all, and not play any favorites.”
He calls “Rising” the “most refined and focused” Roots album, and also the most “worldly and universal.” Its most ambitious story is “Singing Man,” in which West Philadelphia rapper P.O.R.N. inhabits the mind of a school shooter (“I’m armed and dangerous/Willing to spill my blood to be famous”) while North Philly’s Truck North raps as a suicide bomber and Trotter plays a child soldier in Sierra Leone.
Asked about neo-minstrelsy, Thompson is reluctant to name names. “C’mon, I’m a hip-hopper,” he jokes. “I want to make it to 50.” When pressed, he makes reference to Soulja Boy, whose massive 2007 hit “Crank That” cleverly disguised sexual imagery in street slang, and the dreadlocked gangsta Lil Wayne, who’s frequently celebrated - by himself, and critics - as “the best rapper alive.”
“I feel like the image of black people in the media is never at a normal level,” says Thompson. “We either have super powers, like Michael Jordan, (who) can fly, or Michael Jackson, who’s not regular, or in hip-hop, where survival is based on an animated, cartoonish image.”
The Roots are out to redress the balance. “It’s seen as weak if you show a three-dimensional character. It’s like there’s no Bruce Springsteen, who’s seen as Everyman.”
“Rising Down” isn’t all serious-minded intensity. The album lightens up on “The Show.” Trotter, who has an acting role in director Mark Webber’s indie drama “Explicit Ills,” boasts that he is “the Ernest Hemingway of b-boy poems/They can never take the pen away, I’m LeRoi Jones.” The first single, “Rising Up,” is the Roots’ syncopated hip-hop ode to the D.C. funk genre known as go-go, featuring a fetching vocal by Chrisette Michelle. It could be their biggest hit since 1999’s “You Got Me.”
There’s also “@15,” a Trotter rap in which he promises to “leave MCs blind with amnesia/chop `em into salad, and my name ain’t Caesar.” The song was recorded in 1987 by Thompson on a tiny Casio sampler when the duo were students at the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts in South Philadelphia. Back then, Trotter couldn’t decide whether to call himself Black Thought or MC Apex or T-Metaphor, and was pushing for the group to be called Black ... 2 the Future. He was 15.
(Not on the album, thankfully, is “Birthday Girl,” the band’s new collaboration with Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump. The strummy pop song would sound jarringly out of place on “Rising Down,” and will be available as an iTunes bonus track.)
Sometimes it seems that the band has been playing three-hour shows ever since forming at CAPA. But the group led by Thompson and Trotter - whose current lineup includes keyboardist Kamal Gray, percussionist Frank Knuckles, and bassist Owen Biddle - has really been living on the road only since its jazzy 1993 debut, “Organix.”
“First and foremost, we’re a touring band,” Trotter says. In an interview that continues by phone from the band’s bus as it crosses Indiana, Thompson says the collapsing music industry is leading plenty of other rappers to follow their lead.
“We took advantage of an empty marketplace,” Thompson says. “But now with the industry about to fall, there’s only one option for people, and that’s the road. We had the football field to ourselves for 15 years. It was like, `Get the Nerf ball.’ But now, all of a sudden, there’s all these people who want to play on our field.”