The Roots are the Michael Jordan of hip-hop, the best and most elegant, forever. We can argue the merits of individual albums or concerts—because, after all, Jordan might have had an off-night now and again. But the overarching truth is: The Roots are hip-hop royalty, the best of their kind, untouchable, sublime.
Why? Threading the needles between home grown street cred and sophisticated musical creation, The Roots play rough and they play smooth—they entertain and edify, know their shit and teach you yours. In a musical genre that often enough rewards beat-heavy boasting or crass appropriation of a Sting hook or a Joni Mitchell chorus, The Roots are original and complex. It’s not just that they expertly play their instruments, making them the (the only) go-to backing band in all of hip-hop, but it’s how they conceive of the music as a moving, organic whole.
I’ll leave it to deep fanatics and die-hard acolytes of Philadelphia’s critically acclaimed and much beloved hip-hop dynasty to give you the blow-by-blow run-down on this new collection, Home Grown! The Beginners Guide to Understanding The Roots. Those folks can differentiate between the remixes, the live tracks, the sound checks and radio feeds and studio jams and rehearsals takes. They can give you detailed track listings and personnel run-downs. (Actually, they can but don’t have to as the lusciously detailed notes for each and every track of this two-disc compilation do it for you—each note being a discursive essay by Roots drummer Ahmir “?uestLove” Thompson printed in five-point type that can only be read by people under the age of 14.) My concerns are less technical and more spiritual, more physical, more groovicular.
First things first. The two hours-plus of music on Home Grown! are a master tutorial in pocket. Mr. Thompson is one of the premiere drummers in pop music. ?uestlove is a genius of The One. He sets up the groove with a dastardly attention to pure time—a snapping kick drum sound and a perfect snare attack that manages to be both mechanically perfect and sharply syncopated at the same time. Have you seen that cell phone ad where Madonna, Iggy and a bunch of others crowd into a single phone booth? That’s Thompson thwacking out a groove on the phone booth wall with an afro pick. And there’s truth there—?uestlove can set up a devastating sense of rhythmic drive in any situation. On this collection, ?uest is a monster: dead-on funky without any overplaying or flashy embellishment. He locks in with the bass on nearly every track, pushing the music forward with primacy—the undisputed leader of The Roots from his throne behind the kit.
Out front, of course, is rapper Black Thought, an underrated MC if ever there was one. The Roots are so often celebrated as a “real live band” that the singular attack of Black Thought is often taken from granted. He composes rhymes that easily mix story and imagery, politics and competition. Less foofy than the Daisy Age rappers of De La and Jungle Brothers, but way more substantive than the pretty-boy rappers of the thug rappers, Black Thought captures the balance that is The Roots. He’s a natural balance to ?uestlove—a drummer of the vocal chords who just happens to work in front of a powder keg of a live band.
The rest of the band funks with unusual economy. When they get the chance to show off, soloing some like a jazz group, they are more than capable, spinning Rhodes solos and mimicking what would otherwise be sampled chunks of classic records. It won’t give them extra street cred to be hailed for their ability to play anything as if they were Paul Shaffer and the Letter Late Show band, but there it is—they are a crack bunch of studio wizards whose particular skill is in sounding uncalculated and loose amidst it all.
The collection opens with a good example—The Roots supplemented by jazz vibes-cat, Roy Ayers, laying down a classic groove (and scatty vocal hook). The band can nail a ‘70s jazz-funk purr as well as any smoove-jazzer, yet they give it extra snap and Philly bottom. Ayers ripples an improvisation atop it all after Black Thought’s statement, merging two eras in African-American music. Nice.
The other special guests on disc one are notable: D’Angelo, Jill Scott, Common, Mos Def. They provide fluid choruses, contrasting rhymes, and new sounds in a mix that is already layered and complex. But mostly it’s the band itself, inventing fresh stuff on most every track and never failing to provide a trampoline of elastic support of every move the guests could want to make.
What more do you want to know? The band plays live, and they sound great. The band fools around a little, and they still manage to be profound. The band pushes some, pulls some, but it always keeps you on your feet, bobbing your head and twisting your hip. When there’s a musical choice to be made, The Roots push straight ahead into the groove.
Am I just gushing? If you’re a Roots fan, this is obviously a must-have, with rare and intimate tape that gets you behind the scenes with the band and into the mind of ?uestlove and the others regarding what really makes the group special. But if you’re a newcomer, it’s also a great place to start. I’m (obviously) a Roots fan, but I haven’t memorized their oeuvre and don’t own all their albums. But this collection is a treasure for me too because it is—as the title suggests—an unparalleled guide to the heart of The Roots.
But maybe the best endorsement is this: if you’re one of those people—maybe a classic rock fan of pleasantly middle age—who has never understood hip-hop, then this is the place to give it a shot. The Roots are hip-hop’s best “band” but also the center of a brilliant local and regional scene, a magnet for the genre’s most talented individual guests, and an amalgam of smart, creative, pungent music regardless of genre. Are you a hip-hop beginner? Then The Beginners Guide To Understanding The Roots may just make a believer out of you. Forget Eminem, Dre, Kanye, Nelly or even OutKast. The Roots go deeper, and they’re still growing.