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The Roots makes rap come alive live

In the Spike Lee movie Mo' Better Blues, an after-party conversation between rival jazzmen Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington) and Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes) turns into a heated debate on the appeal of jazz in black culture:

Bleek: "You know, if we had to ... if we had to depend upon black people to eat, we would starve to death. I mean, you've been out there, you're on the bandstand. You look out into the audience. What do you see? You see Japanese. You see, you see West Germans. You see, you know, Slavovic, anything but ... except our people, man. It makes no sense. It incenses me that our own people don't realize our own heritage, our own culture. This is our music."

Shadow: "That's bullshit."
Bleek: "Why?"
Shadow: "That's all bullshit. Everything ... everything you just said is bullshit. You complain about..."

Bleek: "I'm talking about the audience."
Shadow: "That's right. The people don't come because you grandiose muthafuckas don't play shit that they like. If you played the shit that they like, then the people will come. Simple as that."

Although those choice words were directed toward jazz, the Philadelphia rap band The Roots saw them as an argument for all black music forms, most specifically hip-hop. That particular exchange begins the band's fourth album, Things Fall Apart (MCA).

With its synergy of peerless, wit-infused vocals and boho musical stylings, Things Fall Apart is the first (and, we hope, not last) great rap album of the year. Although true enthusiasts of the band have been well aware of the members' abilities as eclectic, electrifying performers through their last three albums, Organix, Do You Want More ?!!!??! and illadelph halflife, neophyte rap audiences are also taking to this new outing (titled after the Chinua Achebe novel). And the critics are noticing it big-time as well -- maybe too much. Critics either have overpraised the album to the point of alienating people from buying it (the Rolling Stone rave by hip-hop ogler Toure is the kind of stuff that makes music label publicists moist) or strangely have given it kudos for its refusal to be commercially upbeat (Spin magazine called the album "downered" and "fragmented" and labeled it "a melancholy masterpiece"). But Things Fall Apart is actually a rejuvenation and reconstruction of the raw, nonsynthetic pleasures of hip-hop. Freewheeling dead seriously, the band has crafted an album that strips rap clean of its empty ghetto mythology and permeates it with actual pulsating substance. The result is so artful, so effective, so friggin' competent, that it's almost anathema.

"I guess it personifies where hip-hop music is and where it's going in the next millennium," says Leonard "Hub" Hubbard, the band's perennially hooded bassist.

The roots of The Roots go back 12 years ago, to Philadelphia's High School for Creative and Performing Arts when a young emcee named Tariq Trotter (now known in the rap community as Black Thought) formed a friendship with budding drummer Ahmir Thompson (who now answers to ?uestlove). As they moved their hip-hop union into the '90s, other members began joining the fold, including fellow Philly residents Hubbard, co-MC Malik B, keyboardist Kamal and New Yorker and "inhuman beat box" Rahzel The Godfather of Noyze. After hitting the scene in 1993 with Organix, they found a spot in the "urban music department" at Geffen with the release of Do You Want More?!!!??! in 1995. After the disappointing lack of buzz they got with 1996's illadelph halflife, they jumped ship and immediately (and happily) moved over to MCA, where they began working on Things Fall Apart. According to Hub, the band couldn't be more ecstatic with the label's decision to hype and package the album with five separate, gritty, black-and-white covers. "With the album," Hub says, "we're able to reach a broader audience by way of business arrangement -- being on a different record label that has a history of selling this form of music to the world.

"We've always been the premier live hip-hop group in the world, period," Hub proclaims. "But it's never been presented to the world as that."

Although its Geffen albums failed to give the band its due, The Roots did get enough industry word of mouth to help bring a new performer into the spotlight. The Roots crew co-produced many of the songs on Erykah Badu's breakthrough debut album, Baduizm. And Badu repays the favor on Things Fall Apart by appearing on the most-talked-about track, the beautifully tender "You Got Me." Badu is just one of the many other performers (D'Angelo, Common, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Black Star's Mos Def) that give respect to the group by appearing on tracks, though Badu's cameo is worth the most notice.

"Because of the connection we have with Erykah Badu on the record," says Hub, "now people are, you know, giving the group a particular ado -- not knowing that we're the producers that laid probably their music or their favorite cuts on her premiere album. You know what I'm sayin'?" Hub chuckles. "They don't even know that," he continues. "They didn't bother to read the fine print on their CD at home. They're like, 'Oh, The Roots. Okay.'

"People ask me, 'How did y'all get hooked up with Erykah?' People ask me that question. Professional people."

Last fall, Rolling Stone had a big-ass rap music spread which knighted The Roots as "the best live band in hip-hop." Once you assess how subversively unorthodox that statement is -- praising an actual musical ensemble in a genre that's usually populated with overwrought samples and familiar beats -- then you realize how much chutzpah these cats have. These guys choose not to have their music, as one would say, "Puffified," not because they aesthetically dislike it, but because they think it doesn't make good business sense.

"The thing is, the Puffy thing works because it's just one person, you know," says Hub. "And that one person dealing with royalties paid out for samples. The new kids on the block, as a figure of speech, don't have the money to pay for their favorite sample that they're hearing or whatever. They find out that the people who want the clearance are gonna take their money anyway. So, the prospect of the new age of being your own original composer of something that's sly and phat and, you know, put together and tweaked and do whatever that's original, it leaves more money in the pocket for that individual. The more kids learn the business, [they'll know that] being organic is healthy, you know."

The Roots is continuing to be a healthy rap band even within the mainstream confines of a mighty corporate label. The band has already launched a record label called Motive where it plans to feature new artists (such as the Jazzyfatnastees, who also appear on the album) as well as possible solo projects. From the looks and sounds of The Roots, it is going to form a solid foundation that has everyone, not just fans of rap and hip-hop, relishing its music right into the new millennium. Here's hoping that it never falls apart.

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