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Members include ?uestlove (also known as B.R.O. the R., Khalid, and Ahmir-Kalib Thompson), drums; Black Thought(also known as Tariq Luqmaan Trotter),vocals, lyrics;Hub (also known as Leonard Nelson Hubbard),bass; Malik B.(also known as Malik-Abdul Basit), vocals, lyrics; Rahzel also known as Raazel), human beat box. Addresses: Record company--Geffen Records, 2220 Colorado Ave. Santa Monica, CA 90404, website: http://www.interscope.com. Website--The Roots Official Website: http://www.theroots.com.
Since the release of their 1995 major-label debut Do You Want More?!!!??!--considered one of the most groundbreaking works to emerge from the jazz/hip-hop subgenre--the Roots have become one of the few rap acts to cross over into college and alternative radio while maintaining a solid following among hip-hop enthusiasts. The Roots and their unique musical style led Billboard magazine in 1999 to contend, "The Roots are arguably the best hip-hop outfit out there: a live band with jazz chops, an inhuman beat box, and a lead MC, Black Thought, with plenty to say and a quicksilver flow." Relying on innovative rhyming, jazz-inspired instrumentals, and an actual human beat machine rather than on a deejay or samples, the Roots developed a truly organic sound. They approached their craft much like jazz ensembles do, allowing the music to change and breath amid the interplay between musicians.
The Roots originally formed in 1987 at a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, performing arts high school and called themselves the Square Roots. Education in music and specialized talent have helped the group mesh both popular and traditional sounds. "We're all classically trained musicians," Malik B. told Billboard's Brett Atwood in 1994. "Each member has a solid history with music. It's all second nature to us. For example, I've been rapping since I was 11 years old. Each of us plays the styles that we grew up with, and collectively, it all fits." Initially a duo, the Square Roots built a reputation playing in local talent shows and on street corners in Philadelphia's South Street shopping district. Before long, the outfit, whose members include drummer [uestlove (also known as B.R.O. the R. ], Khalid, and Ahmir-Kalib Thompson), vocalist and lyricist Black Thought (also known as Tariq Luqmaan Trotter), bassist Hub (also known as Leonard Nelson Hubbard), vocalist and lyricist Malik B. (also known as Malik-Abdul Basit), and human beat box Rahzel (also known as Raazel), had proven it possible to unite elements of jazz and rap without turning hip-hop into a variety show or trivializing an essential art form. In 1993, the Roots received an invitation to play at a festival in Germany. After recording a limited-edition album entitled Organix (issued in Germany on the Remedy label and in the United States on Cargo) to sell while touring, the group headed to Europe. During the group's travels abroad, the Roots mesmerized European audiences with their live performances.
Upon the Roots' return to Philadelphia, word spread around the United States about the groundbreaking rap act. Soon after, the Roots signed a record deal with DGC/Geffen Records and released their first major-label album, Do You Want More?!!!??!, in early 1995. Listeners were amazed to find that the supposed samples throughout the record were in fact played live by band members. "All the sample credits in the liner notes are a joke. They are 100% false," [uestlove said. "It's sort of an inside joke, because we do all the samples live. I will play the drums as if I were playing a sample. I drum the barest, most minimal kind of beat I can find."
The Roots departed from mainstream rap artists in other areas as well. For example, whereas many rappers use offensive lyrics when referring to women, the Roots opted to turn the tables by featuring a female rap by Ursula Rucker ("The Unlocking") intended to shock hip-hop traditionalists. "We were hoping to spark some conversation about misogyny with that song," ]uestlove said to Atwood. "Right now, there seems to be an atmosphere that it is cool to say whatever you want on a record. Everyone is getting numb. We thought about reversing things. What would happen if a female came on with these strong words? We just wanted to hold the mirror up without being judgmental."Although Do You Want More?!!!??! was largely ignored by rap fans, the album caught on with alternative rock listeners. The Roots also toured in the summer of 1995 with the Lollapalooza concert tour, which drew a mainly modern rock and college radio crowd.
The following year, which brought the release of Illadelph Halflife, saw the Roots giving in somewhat to commercial pressures levied by the act's record label. Some of the tracks contained actual samples, and the Roots allowed a censored version of the album to fill the shelves of chain stores. Nonetheless, group members stood by their decision, claiming that they didn't want to be pigeonholed or limited to playing only one style of music. Regardless of whether or not the Roots had "sold out" or merely explored new territory, the artistic compromise proved beneficial in terms of record sales and mainstream recognition. Winning over rap fans as well as holding on to alternative rockers, Illadelph Halflife outsold the Roots' previous album. The release also produced the group's first hit single, "Keep It Real." Another track, "What They Do," found the Roots expressing "displeasure over everything from the condition of urban America to the growing population of platinum-selling cartoonish rapper-thugs," stated Tom Moon in Rolling Stone. The corresponding video parodied such rap clichés, such as flaunting materialistic items and degrading women. "The R&B scene is flooded with this whole materialistic, living-in-wealth thing," video director Charles Stone III told Jill Hamilton of Rolling Stone. "Including women as just another car in the garage. I'm sick of it. That shit is tired."
In 1997, the Roots traveled with other popular "college rap" acts, including Pharcyde and Cypress Hill for the Smokin' Grooves package tour. After signing with a new label, MCA Records, the Roots released Things Fall Apart in early 1999. Again winning critical approval, Things Fall Apart "fulfills the Roots" vision of hip-hop as both art and culture" insisted Billboardmagazine. "Shifting acoustics and energies from track to track give the album an extraordinary sense of immediacy, bringing to life scenes from hip-hop's present and past.... Love song and lead single `You Got Me' featuring Erykah Badu, is the most obviously commercial track, but it's no sellout. Rather, it's a paradigm of hip-hop aural love and the inspiration for a heart-stopping tour de force of a video." Other notable songs included "100% Dundee," a tribute to hip-hop duo Double Trouble, and "Act Won,"a portrait of a world falling apart that also conveys a sense of change and hope.
In late 1999, the Roots released a live album entitled The Roots Come Alive, containing songs recorded during performances throughout the same year in Europe and New York City. One highlight included a ten-minute version of "You Got Me?" that captivated the audience throughout.
If the '90s were kind to the Roots, once 2000 hit, the bands profile became higher than ever before. They took two years to write and record their next album for MCA, Phrenology, amongst constant rumors that they were looking to get out of their record deal. Still, the album was strong with solid beats, and even more elevated instrumentation. Their collaboration with Cody ChesnuTT, "The Seed (2.0)" was a bonafide hit, as the album included other guest spots from Talib Kweli, Nelly Furtado, and Jill Scott. Popmatters.com said, "The Roots have made the smart move of continually pushing themselves in new directions without taking any miscalculated jumps off of cliffs. Phrenology is stunning, ranking right up there with the best hip-hop music of today."
After touring duties were completed for Phrenology, the Roots busied themselves doing different projects, most notably serving as Jay-Z's backup band for his MTV Unplugged performance. But, in 2004, the band returned with their sixth studio album, The Tipping Point. Released by Geffen, in conjunction with their own imprint called Okayplayer, The Tipping Point seemed a logical extension of the more pop-oriented tracks they produced on Phrenology. Prefixmag.com said, "The Tipping Point bears witness to a brave quartet prepared to enter the belly of the beast for the sake of this music and the people it reflects. As the Roots and friends collectively remark in the album's most extended moment of self-reflexivity, 'It's a f***ed-up job, but somebody's got to do it.'"
by Laura Hightower and Ryan Allen
The Roots's Career
Formed band in Philadelphia, PA, at a performing arts high school, 1987; released Organix and played at a European music festival in Germany, 1993; released major-label debut for DGC/Geffen, Do You Want More?!!!??!, toured with Lollapalooza concert series, 1995; released Illadelph Halflife, 1996. signed with MCA, c. 1998; released Things Fall Apart and The Roots Come Alive, 1999; released Phrenology on MCA, 2002; released The Tipping Point on Geffen, 2004.
- Selected discography
- Organix Cargo, 1993.
- Do You Want More?!!!??! DGC, 1995.
- Illadelph Halflife DGC, 1996.
- The Roots Come Alive MCA, 1999.
- Things Fall Apart MCA, 1999.
- Phrenology MCA, 2002.
- The Tipping Point Geffen, 2004.
- Present (live), Image, 2005.
- Robbins, Ira A., editor, Trouser Press Guide to `90s Rock, Fireside/Simon and Schuster, 1997.
- Billboard, September 3, 1994, pp. 38-39; February 13, 1999, p. 40.
- Rolling Stone, November 28, 1996, p. 44; February 6, 1997, p. 18.
- Source, March 1999, pp. 146-154.
- Vibe, December 1999.
- Rolling Stone.com, http://www.rollingstone.tunes.com (December 8, 1999).
- "The Roots," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (August 24, 2005).
- "Phrenology," Popmatters.com, http://www.popmatters.com/music/reviews/r/roots-phrenology.shtml (July 31, 2005).
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