The Roots' third LP, Things Fall Apart (MCA), opens with a sample of a spirited barroom squabble between Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes from Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues. Denzel plays Bleek, a trumpet player and bandleader, whose intensity borders on megalomania, while Snipes plays Shadow, Bleek's crowd-pleasing sax man.
"You look out on the audience, and what do you see?" Denzel asks, sipping from a bell jar full of booze. "You see Japanese, you see West Germans, you see, you know, Slabovics...anything--except our people. Man, it makes no sense. It incenses me that our own people don't--"
"That's BUUHSHIT!" Snipes shouts back. "The people don't come because you grandiose motherfuckers don't play the shit that they like."
Denzel and Wesley are fighting about jazz, but here the conversation plays out like an argument raging inside the Roots' collective consciousness. Like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and the Jungle Brothers before them, the Roots receive a seemingly disproportionate amount of love from the (mostly white) press while selling records to a (mostly white) suburban-collegiate audience. And as drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson grumbles in his liner notes, they're sick of it. Describing the demographics of live Roots shows, he writes: "[There's] 6 Blacks in attendance and Gary Coleman as security."
By taking Snipes as last word in the above conversation, the Roots seem to be conceding that their attempts to maximize hip hop as art rather than product have cost them the street cred and platinum sales they feel entitled to. Which makes the unwieldy complexity of Things Fall Apart (named after novelist Chinua Achebe's West African classic) seem all the more bold and defiant. The Roots are hip hop's leading Luddites: One of the first hip-hop acts to record and perform entirely with live instruments, they disdain DJs and samples, leaving most of the scratching on their records to come from their strained vocal chords. This approach has often been written off as a mere gimmick. But save for the occasional Look Ma! No DJ! antics, the group's first two LPs, Do You Want More?!!!??! (1994) and Illadelph Halflife (1996), are funky, hypnotic, and nearly flawless.
?uestlove acts as the Roots' musical director and mouthpiece. His long-winded liner notes to Things Fall Apart are a joy to read, littered with gossip and apocrypha. And his obsessive tinkering with mic placement, equalization, and other studio trickery pays off in Things Fall Apart's beautifully recorded beats, which range from the exhilarating cymbal-roar on "Table of Contents" to the bouncing funk of the taut, precise "Dynamite!"
What is most striking, and initially challenging, about the group's albums is their focus on rhythmic and melodic density. The beats are transfixing, like good jungle, and they always are evolving, like good jazz. The melodic accompaniment is often sparse and otherworldly: Keyboardist Kamal's glimmering, heavenly runs sound like voices and vice versa, forcing listeners to wonder continually if they're being tricked by the Roots' savvy production. Try to make out the "sung" keyboard part on "The Spark," and then check the deep, bass-heavy huffing of human beatbox Rahzel "The Godfather of Noyze" Brown on "100% Dundee."
By the same token, the MCs' rhymes are subtle and playfully rambunctious. Black Thought, by far the best of the crew, serves up a kind of refined bravado, often employing culinary metaphors. ("The mic cord is an extension of my intestine/Delicate MCs sliced in my delicatessen"; "I chop rappers up like chicken Szechuan.") Malik B., the group's other main lyricist, sometimes sounds uncannily like the Wu-Tang Clan's Ghostface Killa, but his delirious tangents ("I took the wrong exit...I'm trapped in five worlds") are difficult and rewarding, especially on elliptical yet gripping performances like "The Spark" and "Step Into the Realm."
These elements blend brilliantly on Things Fall Apart's centerpiece, the Roots' first sure-fire single, "You Got Me." Black Thought spins a tale about an affair with an "Ethiopian Queen," played by Philly-based MC Eve of Destruction. R&B diva Erykah Badu delivers the gorgeous hook as BT declares the depth of his love and fidelity: "Now she in my world, like hip hop."
Thirty seconds from the end, when you expect the song to loop its hook and fade, ?uestlove brings the song to an unexpected emotional climax with a palpitating drum 'n' bass beat. It's an all-too-brief moment that provides a powerful, sexy vision of how soul can help hip hop and jungle get together--fulfilling the dreams of jungle innovators, from 4Hero to Roni Size, while providing a sonic hint of this record's greatness.
Let's go back to Black Thought's lyric: "now she in my world, like hip hop." You can purchase Things with one of five different "Collectors' Edition" album covers. Each features a brutally intense black-and-white photograph: A baby screams from the wreckage of a decimated building; a mutilated hand clutches the ace of spades; a terrified woman runs from cops.
But the least bombastic of these is actually the most powerful: A young African boy stares at the camera through thick tears, meeting the photographer's gaze with a look of dignity rather than defeat. This image best sums up Things Fall Apart's noble vision of hip hop as a unifying, even redemptive force--it's the message encoded in ?uestlove's beat, but it's expressed most poignantly on the sublime "Act Too (Love of My Life)," in which the music comes to life as Black Thought's lover and savior. "I wouldn't have made it if it wasn't for you," he says. "Hip hop, you're the love of my life."
This is more than just the standard lip service to the endangered tradition we hear so often these days, and the Roots' realist optimism couldn't come at a better time. The approaching millennium has predictably evinced all sorts of apocalyptic ranting and raving, but while Busta and Meth blather about cyborgs and plagues, the Roots concentrate on less fantastic, more immediate horrors: poverty, hatred, depression. Their premillennial fears are intensely personal, and their stance--like Lauryn Hill's--is unapologetically self-righteous. Black Thought even boasts that they've found a "cure to this hip-hop cancer."
The cancer in question is the disease that infects rap with a sense that commitment and optimism have to equal stupidity and weakness. So, aided by the realism that made Illadelph so irresistibly raw, the Roots turn Things' seemingly fatalistic title on its head, bringing their community politics together under the tent of the music they love. Unlike their Native Tongues forefathers, the Roots' optimism doesn't feel naive. It's radical.
Hip hoppers sell the cold, hard heaviness of their (imagined or real) lifestyles as part and parcel of their musical aesthetics, and the Roots' collectivism offers a working-class alternative to the glitzy materialism of Puffy and Jay-Z. "I'm keepin' up hope...in the quarters living modest," Malik raps, while Black Thought puts it more succinctly: "Fuck stardom."
Unlike the Wu-Tang, the Roots' collective mentality doesn't allow for solo ventures. They're a nation, not an empire (and they're protective of their borders: "North Phil, where I'm residin', never let an outside nigga slide in," raps Dice Raw). And despite their petty grumbling about elusive fame and fortune, the Roots seem comfortable in their working-class clothes, grounding their music with hometown pride (and homegrown guest shots), not escapist fantasies. As guest rapper Common puts it on "Act Too," hip hop should be about more than siphoning money from "coffee-shop chicks and white dudes"--even if they are the first ones in line to buy your records.
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