The Roots stand as an institution of high-minded hip-hop music. Since 1987, they’ve been the alternative for the discerning lover of rap music with a thick reliance on jazz and funk helping them carve out a specific niche that’s grown into a veritable canyon of classic singles. From “What They Do” (1996) to “Things Fall Apart” (1999) and “You Got Me” (1999) the collective brought the signature Philadelphia Soul sound back to the forefront of musical thought in a way that hadn’t been heard since Patti LaBelle and Teddy Pendergrass. Like their musical elders, a concert featuring The Roots is a journey through time and space, connecting such soulful elements as the call and response rhythms of African ancestors with contemporary rap lyricism creating something both old and new, classic yet contemporary, a festival of sights, sounds, and sequence for the musical palate.
Early on, during a time when gangster rap proliferated the airwaves, The Roots were barely heard on the radio. But the discerning listener knew the truth. Black Thought is the usual lead on rap vocals. While Questlove is responsible for the musical arrangements, beats and drums. Members Kamal Gray (electronic keyboard), Captain Kirk Douglas (electric guitar), Mark Kelley (electric bass), James Poyser (electronic keyboard for The Tonight Show and select performances), and Damon Bryson (sousaphone for The Tonight Show) are all worthy contributors as well. In the past, Malik B (rap vocals), Rahzel (beatbox), Dice Raw (rap vocals), Scott Storch (producer and rap vocals), and Martin Luther (vocals) have each contributed to a significant number of quality offerings as members of The Roots as well. Some have gone on to great success in their solo endeavors.
The Roots have been nominated for 12 Grammy Awards and won three since their breakthrough album Things Fall Apart (1999) including; Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for “You Got Me” with Erykah Badu in 1999, Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance for “Hang on in There” with John Legend (2010), and Best R&B Album for Wake Up with John Legend the same year. From Illadelph Halflife (1996) through Phrenology (2002) and How I Got Over (2011), The Roots remain true to their signature style that goes against the grain of what is considered “hot” more often than not.
In 2002, they became the first rap group to perform at Lincoln Center. And in 2003, The Roots were named one of the “Twenty Greatest Live Acts in the World” by Rolling Stone. In 2013, Questlove released his first book "Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove.” The visionary that he is, Quest also designed two shoes for Nike; the Questlove x Nike 1World Air Force 1 and Nike Questro.
But in March 2009, The Roots took it to a mainstream level by becoming the official house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. This move was met with some consternation from fans of underground hip-hop who believed this was tantamount to selling out. However, critics rarely take into consideration familial financial obligations when labeling an artist as “this” or “that”. When Fallon became the host of The Tonight Show in February 2014, The Roots became the house band for that show as well. Now in addition to fly live music, they play entertaining sidekicks, often interacting with Fallon and appearing with him in skits after playing the show’s theme song “Here I Come,” as well as bumper music in and out of commercials.
Tuesday marks the release of their 10th studio album, ….And Then You Shoot Your Cousin. Described by Black Thought as a satirical look at violence in hip-hop and American society overall he says, “It’s another concept album in the spirit of undun, but it’s not just about just one kind of character.” During an interview with XXL he continued, “We create quite a few different characters in this record. It’s satire, but in that satire it’s an analysis of some of the stereotypes perpetuated in not only the Hip Hop community, but in the community. I don’t know if that makes any sense.”
To the intellectual it does. The first single, “When the People Cheer”, premiered on New York’s Hot 97 on April 7. And the album is now one of the most anticipated rap sets of the year, receiving rave reviews from Rolling Stone, AllMusic and The Guardian for its intricately laid tracks and thought-provoking lyricism.
The Roots have long been named the best rap band in the land, but that is something of a misnomer. The Roots are easily one of the best bands to come along in the past 50 years.
Check out the new set below and see what we’re talking about.
….And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is in stores May 19.