There are no official ambassadors of rap, but if there ever were one The Roots would have to be strong candidates. For over two decades they’ve conducted themselves with the type of professionalism and class that – once their number is called – would make them an automatic lock for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Because of those reasons it came as no surprise when Jimmy Fallon extended their tenure as the official band of The Tonight Show.
The Roots, whether they’re willing to acknowledge its importance or not, are now in a position to bring hip-hop culture into the homes of nearly every American in the United States on a near nightly basis. It speaks to the progress of the culture as a whole as well as their ability to adapt with the times. By the end of the decade hip-hop has the potential to eclipse all genres as the most influential in popular culture, and The Roots are a big reason why.
What exactly makes them great is actually quite easy to identify: superb musicianship and knowledge, charisma and longevity. Consider this, how many hip-hop bands have made it beyond the small market? There’s a few out there – Liquid Soul, Ozomatli and Why? – but how many of those have held the title as long and as decisive as The Roots have? None. And you can trace the orgins of such success to the very beginning.
When Organix first dropped in ’93 there was nothing out there quite like it. Guru’s Jazzmatazz Vol. 1 maybe, but it wasn’t as in house as Organix. The influence of jazz in particular was ingrained deep into the DNA, bridging the gap between two generations. While most producers were digging tirelessly for samples and breaks, The Roots were fashioning their own.
Bassist Josh Abrams was a timely and influential fit and the one-two punch of Malik B. and Black Thought made for perfect companions to the ambitions being explored. They separated themselves from their contemporaries yet were still committed to the burgeoning culture, a sentiment so eloquently captured by Black Thought on “Leonard The I-V:” [LISTEN]
The albums that followed extended their reach even further. Both Do You Want More?!!!??! and Illedelph Halflife charted, essentially introducing them to a whole new fan base. The real beauty, however, was that they did it on their terms, often parodying some of rap’s most embarrassing cliches. It was a completely alternative take on the matter, and spoke to those who were committed to the more conscious elements of rap – “What They Do” being a standout: [LISTEN]
To contextualize The Roots’ history more pragmaticly, wanting something and making it happen are two different things. There have been dozens of hip-hop groups who were equally as hungry, but for whatever reason – whether it was greed, ego or just life in general – it just didn’t pan out. Jurassic 5, Pharcyde, Wu-Tang, Tribe, the list goes on.
Yet for the Roots it worked, partly because of luck, yes, but mostly because of their ability to grow within their music. Things Fall Apart and the The Tipping Point being perfect examples. Both contain mature subject matter, and both were inspired by highly influential books, which are ingredients that don’t always translate to a successful album. Sandwiched in between all that was Phrenology, another album steeped in socio-political commentary.
In other words the Roots were growing as men, and because they didn’t sell themselves short on previous albums fans weren’t thrown off by their decisions. On “Water” Black Thought reminisces on how he met Malik B. while condemning the drugs that contributed to his exile: [LISTEN]
There are many more great moments to add: Game Theory and How I Got Over with its scathing political critiques, the conceptual angle behind Undun, and of course the collaborations (Al Green, John Legend, Betty Wright and Elvis Costello to name a few). Then there’s the lighter moments like performing with Sesame Street and rocking Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. The list goes on.
Still, what might matter most in all this is understanding that after all these accomplishment The Roots are just getting started. As The Tonight Show band they’re about to embark on another leg of their careers, one that could very well last – if history is any indicator -at least another decade.
This means so much to a culture where the average career of a rapper is comparable to that of a NFL running back: three-five years. The Roots are paving the way for countless generations of hip-hop artists to aspire to. And despite all that what makes them great is that their still just a bunch of uber-cool, music lovers from South Philly with one helluva story to tell. Something Black Thought appropriately describes in “Respond/React:” [LISTEN]