Rooting Interest

The Roots make rap for both your hips and your head

The video made to accompany this throw-down became an MTV staple in large part because it so effectively needled many of the other hip-hop clips regularly broadcast by the network. But Sean "Puffy" Combs didn't find the mini-movie amusing. As the head of Bad Boy Records, Combs felt that the video directly targeted both him and his most successful artist, the late Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G. As a result, ?uestlove was soon nose to nose with a man who, despite his frequent claims to the contrary, continues to be seen by some as a possible suspect in the murder of Tupac Shakur.

"I heard from a few of his friends that he didn't like the video too much," ?uestlove says. "And then I actually saw Puff about four days before Biggie died, and what upset him the most is that, unbeknownst to me, the director had snuck in a parody of a Biggie video. It was a bedroom scene with three girls in the background with champagne glasses, which was a verbatim quote from a Biggie video that I hadn't seen. And if I had seen it, I would have made the director take it out, because what I wanted to do was comment on the whole lifestyle, not just one person." As ?uestlove tells it, Combs accepted this explanation, "but he also made one point very clear -- which was, 'I never dissed you, and what I do is what I do. And what I'm doing is trying to feed my family.'

"I respect that -- and I definitely wasn't trying to disrespect Biggie," ?uestlove insists. "But I'm trying to provide for my family, too. I'm just trying to keep as much artistic merit as I can while I do it. And I think that song and that video say something that needs to be said about the marketplace. It's the whole Motown theory. Berry Gordy wanted to market his music to white kids because they had money and could afford to buy the product, whereas a lot of black kids didn't. And a lot of people think that scenario is playing itself out again, with Puff making these songs based on white kids buying them. Why else would he use 'Every Breath You Take' by the Police in his new song ['I'll Be Missing You']?"

As this comment implies, ?uestlove isn't shy about taking on large targets. He's in the midst of researching a Rap Pages column based on comments attributed to clothing designer Tommy Hilfiger that cast black youth in a stereotypical light (Hilfiger has publicly denied making such remarks), and insists that he has information that Rolling Stone magazine routinely lowers the ratings of hip-hop reviews by half a star because the powers that be at the publication "refuse to believe that hip-hop has any merit whatsoever." (Nathan Brackett, recordings editor for Rolling Stone for the past year, denies this accusation: "I got my start writing about rap," he says, "and we've been running more lead reviews of rap albums than ever before. There certainly isn't any vendetta against rap at Rolling Stone.") Moreover, ?uestlove reveals that the Roots' upcoming disc, whose working title is Things Fall Apart, will be a no-holds-barred look at society's ills on the cusp of the millennium.

According to ?uestlove: "We don't want to make a record that says, 'Hip-hop is fucked up and radio is fucked up,' because a 17-year-old kid won't be able to relate to that. That just sounds like a bunch of complaining -- and mindless complaining at that. So we're going to take a global view of what's going on. Basically, I think that America will be paying heavy repercussions for mistakes in the past that are still part of the big picture. You know, Reaganomics led to George Bush's policies which have led to Clinton's welfare reform bill, which will put people one paycheck away from being homeless."

To say the least, such subject matter has little in common with the raps now booming out of the nation's Jeeps, but ?uestlove has no intention of changing his tune to fit the fashion. Long ago, he promised to be true to himself no matter what, and he's not about to back down now.

"This guy in an English magazine, Vox, reviewed Illadelph Halflife, and he called it the best piece of work he'd heard in a long time," ?uestlove recalls. "I counted the word 'masterpiece' in there twice. And he went on and on about how smart it was. But then, in the last paragraph, he wrote something like, 'This record is too smart for its own good. The Roots are like bran flakes in a world of Frosted Flakes-lovers. Bran flakes are good for you, but kids like Frosted Flakes.' He ended up giving us a seven out of ten.

"You can't dwell on that stuff, though. And, you know, I think in the long run I'd rather our music be good for you."

The Roots perform along with George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars, Cypress Hill, Erykah Badu, Outkast and Foxy Brown as part of Smokin' Grooves '97 at 5:30 p.m. Friday, July 18, at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, The Woodlands. Tickets are $17.50. For info, call 629-3700.

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