Digging Deeper

Excavating hip hop's history with the Roots

Through its first quarter-century of existence, hip hop has spawned merely two self-contained live bands whose influence has had any longevity. The first was Stetsasonic, featuring DBC doubling on drums and keyboards and Prince Paul slicing and dicing the mix. When I slapped my vinyl version of On Fire, Stet's 1986 debut, on the turntable the other day, the anachronistic, nursery-rhyme flow mimicked Run-D.M.C.--albeit with buoyantly live beats, and, on "Rock De La Stet," some inspired guitar wankery. Although Stetsasonic would go on to release two more records over the next five years, they soon became an obscure footnote in hip-hop history: Members Prince Paul and Fruitkwan found more lucrative, higher-profile settings with De La Soul and Gravediggaz.

Then there is the second band: the Roots. A decade after dropping their first disc (the now out-of-print Organix), the Philly stalwarts sound better than ever--indeed, better than anybody. With Phrenology, the band's masterfully ambitious sixth CD, the Roots take a quantum leap forward, living up to their name by exposing and enlivening the essence of hip hop. Phrenology makes explicit the connective roots between rock and rap music--specifically the mutual debt both genres owe to blues and gospel--as the group delivers ferocious, electrified updates of hollers from the cotton fields, gin joints, and pulpits of (mostly Afro-) America. (Southern bass music and hip hop from the Cash Money and No Limit labels provide the cartoon version of this history, which isn't all bad.)

Friends since high school, founding members Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson and Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter had, before Phrenology, been somewhat covert about their affinity for rock. But even then, its resonance was unmistakable, especially onstage. ?uestlove's precise snare-drum accents resembled no one so much as the Rolling Stones' Charlie Watts (that's a compliment, young'uns), and rapper Black Thought customarily lost points among followers of Jay-Z, Nas, and the late Biggie because his conservative flow emphasized thrust over gymnastics and message over wordplay.

On Phrenology, the band wastes no time slamming rock and hip-hop grooves together. After a very brief spoken-word opening, the lead song, "Rock You," is a densely layered sonic maelstrom anchored by the promise of the refrain: "We will rock you." Then, goaded by new member Ben Kenney on guitar (the sextet also includes bassist Hub, keyboardist Kamal, and human beatbox Scratch), they follow it up with a sub-minute punk blitzkrieg in tribute to Bad Brains and Minor Threat, entitled "!!!!!!!" Bang, bang.

Check "Thought @ Work," in which Black Thought spits a barrage of jagged rhymes over a porridge of relentlessly syncopated percussion: Inspired by Kool G Rap's similarly quicksilver "Men at Work," the song fattens the Roots' killer bass-drums-guitar-turntable rhythm section with samples of the Sugar Hill Gang's classic house-party anthem "Apache," Ralph McDonald's conga-driven "Jam on the Groove," and the Fat Boys' "Human Beat Box," all hitting you upside the head with a ton of licks. Or compare "The Seed," Cody Chesnutt's laconic, hippie-cool tune, with Phrenology's "The Seed (2.0)" cover version, a power-pop joy ride with the throttle open: On the latter, ?uestlove tightens the groove as if his drum kit were a sub-automatic staple gun.

On the basis of those aforementioned four songs, Phrenology rocks with more authority than any hip-hop record in history, and it was my favorite disc of 2002. But the Roots' fans should know that the band's customary breadth of styles is also in play. There's a burbling, 10-minute, subterranean sonic collage entitled "Water"--reportedly about ex-member Malik B's drug addiction--that's reminiscent of the last half of the Clash's Sandinista. There's Talib Kweli commanding the mic on "Rolling with Heat" and poet/activist Amiri Baraka taking over Ursula Rucker's duty of delivering a thought-provoking, spoken-word closer on "Something in the Way of Things (in Town)." There's an on-point, anti-sexploitation polemic called "Pussy Galore," and a dreamy R&B ditty with Musiq Soulchild titled "Break You Off." And five other tracks. On most of them, it must be said, ?uestlove thrives as lead marshal of the rhythm, funk-rockin' the mix with a panache on the order of Watts or the Meters' Ziggy Modeliste.

Spectacular renditions of "Rock You," "Thought @ Work," and a few other Phrenology songs proved the Roots had the chops and the material to flourish in an arena-size venue during their stop at Target Center on the Smokin' Grooves tour last summer. One can only giddily imagine what the world's greatest hip-hop band will sound like in the cozy confines of First Avenue.

 
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