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When Philadelphia's legendary Roots crew takes the stage at Tempe's Club Rio on Tuesday, it will be a homecoming of sorts. Sharing the bill with a phalanx of fellow hip-hoppers and rappers including Dilated Peoples, Pokafase and Foot Clan, the Roots are making a return to familiar territory. For the past three weeks, the group -- along with Atlanta fusionists Outkast -- has been representing hip-hop's elite as part of the largely electronic-oriented Area: One tour, a nationwide urban music package that ends this weekend.
There's a certain satisfaction Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson has taken from sharing the Area: One stage with a slew of artists and DJs that are drawn by and large from the global electronica scene. Granted, acts such as New Order, Moby, the Orb and Carl Cox are separated by several large degrees from the commercial success enjoyed by most of this country's reigning hip-hop artists. But ?uestlove, the founder, drummer and wild-Afroed beatmaker for the Roots, has a better memory than most stateside hip-hop fans, and this allows him to see things differently.
"Basically, I think dance music and the birth of electronica and all that stuff is the offspring of bass music and music that the Bomb Squad was doing. It's more dense and faster," he opines from the Roots' home base in Philadelphia. "Not to mention the subculture of dance music in Detroit. A lot of people fail to recognize the birthplace of dance music, electronic music, is actually Detroit. A few brothers are ruffled over there because they're not getting their props, but basically, I see them as one and the same. They're both black subcultures that started in and had underground beginnings. Hip-hop in New York, dance in the ghettos of Detroit and parts of Chicago."
Such was the point of the recently completed Area: One tour, an idea concocted by electronica guru Richard "Moby" Hall and his management company, MCT. Eschewing the narrow genre-casting of most summer tours, Area: One was able to cast a wide net through the music subcultures of dance music, hip-hop and alternative rock to stress the common bonds all of them share in the modern age.
"It's much like what Lollapalooza did when Perry Farrell first produced it," says Marci Weber, Moby's manager and co-producer of Area: One. "It really shook up formats in radio. It shook a lot of things up. It made a lot of people more open to different kinds of music. And I think we're at that point again. I think that it's kind of a reaction to the shows [Moby] had been putting on, especially the radio shows. It was Moby in the middle of all this pissed-off drone rock. And as much as he might like some of the bands, they're all talented artists, it's so genre-specific and almost exclusionary in how specific it is. It doesn't broaden anybody's awareness; it doesn't broaden anybody's musical knowledge or taste, whereas here, the whole point in doing this [is to expose someone to] somebody they may not have seen before."
While hip-hop and electronica are generally in separate-but-equal camps in America because of hip-hop's higher status and popularity, the two hip-hoppers from the Area: One tour have already done much in their careers to prove that we canall get along. Outkast crossed over to influence a wide variety of British dance artists with Aquemeni, and have in turn funneled a lot of electronica influences back into their sound with their latest release, Stankonia. And the Roots have been down with the sounds coming out of the clubs since British dance music impresario Gilles Peterson released their first album, "Organix," in the U.K. "Gilles definitely put me hip to a lot of the movement that was brewing underground in London," says ?uestlove. "But I was fortunate to be living in London at the time when Dego from 4Hero was, for lack of a better word, living the drum and bass [life]. Early '92, '93, we befriended him and he showed us a lot."
Since then, the Roots have kept their feet planted in both communities -- in Philadelphia and nationally. ?uestlove and occasional Roots keyboardist James Poyser also guest on King Britt's Sylk 130 project when they have the time, and last year the group threw down at Carl Craig's Detroit Electronic Music Festival alongside such momentarily unruffled brothers as Kevin Saunderson, Jay Denham and Derrick May. And ?uestlove even stepped out from behind the drum kit to DJ this year at the dance music community's annual Winter Music Convention in Miami Beach. "That was easily one of the best times I ever had DJing," says ?uestlove. "I think every record I put on prompted some sort of nostalgia or some frenzied [response]. First of all, it was more or less the shock of it. That's basically the whole story of the Roots. People just underestimate what we're all about and what we're able to do. So easily, nine times out of 10, people's reactions are like, 'Oh, man, I love the Roots, man, they dope!' I know that what we're doing is purely business as usual. I think a lot of hip-hop purists think [we're just] an acid jazz group or a bunch of musicians that don't have any hip-hop groundings. And when they find out that we do, that I understand what the word 'breakbeats' means and I understand why the quality of the music has to be a certain way -- that type of thing. As a result, I have a better grasp of the culture. Plus I'm a fan of it. I wouldn't be in this culture if I wasn't a fan of it. And I think a lot of the success of the Miami Conference had to do with the shock of people not knowing that I'm a DJ."