Rooting Interest

The Roots make rap for both your hips and your head

"Touring sometimes can only be compared to Third World concentration camps," he allows, "and Malik wasn't loving it anymore. He felt like it was sucking his soul in, and it was becoming a job. So he said, 'I can't take it anymore.' But we didn't say, 'You're fired.' He's still on the payroll, and he's still in the group when we're doing records. We're not cruel people, you know."

The roots of the Roots can be traced to 1987, when ?uestlove, a student at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, first met Black Thought (Tariq Trotter). The following year, the pair began performing together under a revolving series of names, including Radioactivity, Black to the Future and the Square Roots. That last moniker was shortened around the same time ?uestlove and Black Thought expanded their duo into a genuine band -- a move that immediately differentiated the Roots from most other hip-hop conglomerations of the period. Instead of relying solely on samples and drum machines, the players built their sound upon the extremely real timekeeping of ?uestlove, the solid grooves laid down by Hub (whose background includes gigs with Graham Central Station and the Delfonics) and the keyboard stylings offered up by Kamal. Before long, the Roots were being called the best live band in hip-hop -- which was precisely what ?uestlove had in mind.

"That was our whole plan of attack," he says. "Because we weren't dominating radio and we weren't dominating video and we definitely weren't dominating any other area that I could think of, we realized that the only thing that we could control and grab people's attention with was our concerts. So we set out to put on, bar none, par excellence, the most satisfying show of the hip-hop era.

"When we were sitting down to construct it, we listened to a bunch of old-school tapes from, like, 1980. Like from Harlem World Crew, the Cold Crush Brothers, the Fantastic, Romantic Five, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and the Force M.D.s. When these tapes were made, most of these groups weren't bona fide stars. They weren't even celebrities; some of them hadn't made their first 12-inches yet. But they had these fans screaming like they were the Jacksons or Parliament because they entertained. They did much more than rhyming for the sake of riddlin'. They gave a well-rounded performance. And that's what we decided to do."

In the process, the Roots developed what would become a key segment of their presentation. Dubbed "Hip-Hop 101," it's a diary of the music in medley form, with Black Thought effectively mimicking everyone from Schoolly D to L.L. Cool J. Last year, a mini-controversy arose when the Fugees became known for including a similar hip-hop tribute in their sets without commending the Roots for coming up with the idea. But today, ?uestlove says he's more interested in the concept than the credit. "You've got emcees coming up saying that they were big fans of Big Daddy Kane and Rakim, and that was what they based their whole thing on," he says. "But if you want to know why Big Daddy Kane was so great, you need to listen to Melle Mel -- and then you need to listen to who Melle Mel was listening to. And if you keep going back and back and back, you can get the whole history of music that way."

The Roots began making history of their own with Organix. ?uestlove describes this difficult-to-find disc, which the band hopes to sell at its personal appearances through the rest of the year, as "raw -- really raw. But in its own way, it's a musical statement. When I listen to it now, I laugh, because I remember the circumstances in which we were doing it. Like, I remember that the snare drum stand was broken so someone had to hold the stand for me, and how we were all cramped up sharing french fries and fighting over Snapples and who was going to sleep on the couch. But it was radical at the time."

The CD proved promising enough to grab the attention of Geffen Records, which released Do You Want More?!!!??! in 1994. Musically, the album's flirtations with jazz and soul recall the work of A Tribe Called Quest, but thanks to the tight musical accompaniment and the distinctive voices of Black Thought and Malik B, the offering more than stands on its own. Typical is the exuberant title cut, a statement of purpose and hometown pride whose moniker was not chosen at random. "That was definitely meant to have a double meaning, especially in the context of the whole album," ?uestlove affirms. "It's a reference to the length of the record, which is way over an hour; we always do these sprawling, epic things. But it also meant, 'Do you want more than you're getting? Do you want something different?' And I think a lot of people do."

Illadelph Halflife is clearly intended to extend the Roots' legacy: The first number on it is listed as track 34 because, between them, its predecessors contain 33 songs. But while some of the tunes, including "Respond/React," exude the same boasting vibe that characterizes much of More?!!!??!, other compositions are more concerned with issues. The most prominent of these, the smoothly insinuating single "What They Do," takes on those rappers more dedicated to commerce than quality with lines such as, "The principles of true hip-hop have been forsaken / It's all contractual and about money-makin' / Pretend-to-be cats don't seem to know their limitations / Exact replication of forced representation ... I dedicate this to the one-dimensional / No imagination, excuse for perpetration."

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