A “beginner’s guide” to the Roots is not the mere pretentious sales grab it may originally seem, but a necessarily broad perspective for a long career characterized by contradiction.
Specifically, their sound and style are claimed by at least two different groups of music fans.
Some believe that Black Thought, ?uestlove and their gang represent “real” hip-hop that stretches back to, well, their roots. This camp points to the old-school, I’m-the-best-on-the-mic lyrics of Black Thought, and the influence of jazz, deep soul, and even blues on their live-instrument grooves, which they use instead of studio-crafted beats.
Others see them as pushing into the future with their progressive, genre-bending work. Who is right? Maybe they just want to kick out some good jams.
But in light of their unconventional greatest-hits package “Home Grown! The Beginner’s Guide To Understanding The Roots, Vols. 1 & 2,” their status deserves to be reexamined.
A whopping two hours and 41 minutes, the compilation, somewhat amazingly, contains no filler; they have released seven albums and have performed, ?uestlove estimates, upwards of 2,500 times.
In lieu of some of their biggest commercial hits, such as “You Got Me,” “The Seed 2.0,” or “Break You Off” they have included alternate versions, thrilling live performances, and rarely heard songs, in an enjoyable marathon of dark, funky, percussive hip-hop.
The best thing about “Home Grown” is clearly the inclusion of their best early tracks. “Essaywhuman?” (Say What Man?) is a spare, delightfully strange jam session from “Do You Want More?!!!??!,” their 1995 major-label debut. “Good Music” is from their true debut recording, “Organix,” released by Remedy in 1993.
In the liner notes, ?uestlove says that they had been performing the track since 1991, smack dab in the middle of the first generation of “alternative” rap, even though most people consider the Roots as messengers of the second generation.
Anyway, “Good Music” is a great listen; the backing and chorus reek of Digable Planets, the first verse is all Brand Nubian, and the second verse is pure Tribe Called Quest. The fact that the Roots started out imitating these great jazz-rap groups points to their later evolution into the torch-bearers of that positive message.
As the compilation tracks the highlights of their career, it becomes more and more apparent to me that I should love them. They have an MC (formerly two, until Malik B got kicked out for drug-related reasons) with a tight flow, a perfect drummer, a love for jazz, and endless jam-session grooves. Yet I don’t love them. I like them a lot, but there is something that keeps them from reaching the heights of their predecessors.
The group’s main problem is that while they have pioneered an innovative sound, their songs rarely go anywhere. For all of their progressive ambitions, they stop short at making a coherent statement other than: “We are the Roots, we are here, and we rock.”
Not that this is a bad thing. Most golden-age hip-hop, from LL Cool J to Gang Starr, has been based around that b-boy aesthetic. Rakim perfected it, the other greats of the era all brought their own individual twists to the formula. Big Daddy Kane was the smooth-talking pimp, Kool G Rap had the street edge, KRS-ONE had the social awareness, and the Ultramagnetic MC’s had, in Kool Keith, um, a crazy-ass frontman.
While Black Thought is an accomplished rapper, but he has little personality, edge, or sense of humor, and his lyrics often stall at old-school clichés. He is simply good at rapping, that’s all.
This failing is most apparent on the song “The Next Movement,” from their most unified and arguably best album “Things Fall Apart,” released in 1999 by MCA. In Black Thought’s first verse, he starts by saying, “This directed to whoever in listening range/Yo the whole state of things in the world bout to change.”
This change never comes though; he simply rehashes the abstract rhyme-isms of Q-Tip or C.L. Smooth without the wit or the novelty. “I’m like a faucet, monopoly’s the object/There ain’t no way to cut this tap, you gotta get wet/Your head is throbbin’ and I ain’t said shit yet.” In fact, he never really does say anything. The chorus is a funky yet meaningless refrain: “We got the Hot-Hot Music, the Hot Music (4x).”
The original question that I set out to answer following the release of this package was: why are the Roots’ fans so different from those of other rap groups? To be specific, a large portion of their fans inexplicably consist mostly of white college students who otherwise listen mainly to jammed-out college rock stalwarts like Dave Matthews Band, U2, and Phish.
Such an observation is related to the more intricate question of how people of all different races and backgrounds have come to accept and love hip-hop, but this specific aspect can be addressed here.
Most of these fans are looking for the same jam session values, genre-switching songs, and great music that can be easily enjoyed for its own sake that they can find in a Dave Matthews concert. Also, the title “Home Grown!” might fool them into thinking there’s a bonus gift inside.
The Roots also put on a great live show, and rarely do they fail to be at least good, if not often fantastic, in their albums. This compilation offers a worthwhile summary of a hip-hop band with a great sound, an interesting set of values, and a decent, if inconsistent, set of albums.