Philadelphia's greatest contributors to hip-hop, the Roots, like to begin their CDs with a snatch of dialogue. It's their way of introducing a new set of themes, of offering a kind of preamble to the state of the union message that's on the way.
But the exchange that launches the Roots' newly released fourth CD, Things Fall Apart (the group's first on MCA Records), seems a bit curious on first listen. It's a sample from Spike Lee's 1990 film Mo' Better Blues, in which a bandleader played by Denzel Washington complains that blacks don't support jazz the way they should. That earns an angry response from saxman Wesley Snipes, who argues that the blame rests with "grandiose motherfuckers" who are not playing what people want to hear.
For the Roots, this same discussion can be applied to the current state of hip-hop. The curious part is that hip-hop is supposedly flourishing now like never before. Last year saw even second-tier hip-hop acts routinely outsell much-hyped rock icons like Marilyn Manson and Hole. Lost in the media avalanche to proclaim '98 "The Year of Hip-Hop," however, was the fact that there is an ever-widening gulf between hip-hop's commercial and underground factions.
The Roots tend to work this chasm with intense ambivalence. On the one hand, Roots rapper Black Thought pointed the finger at careerists who pose as artists in the group's caustic 1996 single "What They Do": "The principles of true hip-hop have been forsaken/It's all contractual and about moneymaking."
On the other hand, the crew's supremely gifted drummer and unofficial spokesman, Ahmir Thompson (better known as ?uestlove), was recently quoted in The Source as saying, "Contrary to popular belief, yo, I love Puff Daddy. . . . What I'm against is all the grafted, imitating people that are gonna come after Puff and do the same shit."
It's to the credit of the Roots that they air both sides of the Mo' Better Blues debate, shirking the heroic but simple-minded role of underground saviors. Although they're arch defenders of the underground movement, they're at least willing to consider the possibility that the reason none of their albums has sold more than 340,000 copies is that maybe they've been a bit esoteric for the MTV punters.
It's that kind of complexity of thought that makes the Roots intriguing. It helps to explain why, even though the group is just one cog in an artsy, underground uprising that in recent years has included A Tribe Called Quest, the Pharcyde, Gang Starr, OutKast and others, many true believers contend that the Roots tower above all competition.
It's almost like the hip-hop equivalent of the days when the Clash was dubbed "The Only Band That Matters" by its own record label, and all the acolytes nodded in agreement. Just consider that beneath the Roots' name on the cover of the March issue of The Source, the following question is seriously posed: "Hip-hop's Messiahs?"
For all the group's collective ego (and this crew is nothing if not sure of its own abilities), such expectations must be uncomfortable. So with Things Fall Apart, the Roots make the subtle transition from hip-hop's combative guerrilla warriors to confident artists willing to co-exist with their foes. They simultaneously rise to the challenge of high expectations, and back away from the full implications. If you wanted to push the Clash connection a bit further, you could say that this is the Roots' London Calling.
As with that punk masterwork, Things Fall Apart finds a smart, ambitious group putting all its influences together in one sprawling setting, before boredom and self-indulgence have had a chance to rear their ugly heads. The Roots have moved beyond the complete live band sound of their first two releases, Organix and Do You Want More?!!!??!, and they now incorporate touches of sampling much more smoothly than on the occasionally awkward 1996 opus illadelph halflife.
As always, what separates the Roots from the parade of hip-hop pretenders is the group's commitment to pure expressionism, a delight in the abstract power of trippy sounds or creatively rhythmic vocal deliveries. The album starts slowly, tentatively, but kicks in with the relaxed soul groove of "The Next Movement," and hardly lets up after that. "The Next Movement" employs the deft scratching of DJ Jazzy Jeff, which not only marks the first time that the Roots have used a DJ, but links them to the musical legacy of their hometown.
That sense of identification with the City of Brotherly Love comes through repeatedly on Things Fall Apart. The group reworks Philly hero Schooly D's 1987 track "Saturday Night" for the minimalist, cowbell-crazy "Without a Doubt." Even more impressive is their respect for the early '70s Philly International sound of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, whose old string players are used to enrich the street-corner soul of "Act Too (Love of My Life)."
The vintage string sound ably complements the reminiscences of Black Thought, who takes a page from Stevie Wonder's nostalgic "I Wish" by recalling when he "was a little snot-nosed rockin' gazelle," enraptured by the hip-hop he heard on the streets of Philadelphia. This is a love song with a difference, as Black Thought repeatedly comes back to the same conclusion: "Hip-hop, you're the love of my life."
That brand of abiding love is one of the elements that distinguishes the Roots from their peers. For many rappers, hip-hop is the only game they know, not so much an artistic choice as a career imperative. But the Roots come from backgrounds in jazz, painting and literature. Thompson honed his drumming skills by backing his father, '50s doo-wop singer Lee Andrews, at oldies shows in Atlantic City. He has an estimated 9,000 records in his collection, covering every imaginable genre of music.
For Thompson, turning to hip-hop actually meant giving up a promising career as a jazz drummer. But, like his bandmates, he was overcome with a near-evangelical zeal to expand the boundaries of hip-hop. When you love anything that much, you're liable to get a bit overprotective. That explains "Ain't Sayin' Nothing New," the latest installment in Black Thought's continuing rant against the obviousness of most commercial hip-hop. It's an infectious groove, if the lyrical sentiment is a bit timeworn by this point.
But, as usual, the Roots' greatest heights on Things Fall Apart come from more surreal, artsy moments. The album's best track, "Dynamite!," layers a smooth, Barney Kesselish jazz-guitar riff over Thompson's metronomic beats (so solid you'd swear it was a drum program). Black Thought unleashes an unbroken flow of words like the bebop soloist he is at heart, and every verse is punctuated by a unison chant of "Touch this illa5th dynamite." It's silly, joyous and impossible to resist.
Everything about Things Fall Apart carries with it the sense that this could be the Roots' big moment. After suffering through two years as guinea pigs on Geffen's urban-music department, they've found a much more supporting environment at MCA. Their profile has increased since illadelph halflife because of their acclaimed work on Erykah Badu's debut album, Baduizm (she returns the favor with a sultry vocal on the flamenco-flavored track "You Got Me"). And early reviews for the album have been outrageously glowing.
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The group itself seemed to sense these rising stakes while they worked on Things Fall Apart. The self-proclaimed perfectionists completed 145 tracks for the album, then painstakingly whittled them down to 18. During the recording of the album, Thompson confidently told XXL, "We're building the perfect beast."
Unlike many of their peers, the Roots can also take that perfect beast and enhance it onstage. Without any glitz or pyrotechnics, they can deliver three hours of live-band music that quietly explodes the boundaries of what hip-hop can be in a concert setting. As Thompson recently told The Source, "[We're] just here to feed hip-hop the proper vitamins and minerals. And, you know, we're hip-hop's colon cleansers."
The Roots are scheduled to perform on Wednesday, March 10, at Club Rio in Tempe, with Common. Showtime is 7 p.m.