20 Years Later, The Roots Continue to Do What They Do Best: Shine For Hip-Hop (Video)
With content ranging from the ethereal “The Hypnotic” to the aggressive “Clones,” September 1996’s Illadelph Halflife was a bold look from the Roots. The Philadelphia, Pennsylvania group’s third album, it took the musical concepts established on Jazz and improv-heavy formulas found on 1993’s Organix and 1995’s Do You Want More?!!!??! and added a bit more grit to The Legendary Roots Crew’s sonic structure. Just a few months after its release, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (who was still going by ?uestlove) told DJ Times Illadelph Halflife “is a result of the build up of the first two we did,” adding that “we’re still in the buzz stages. We’re still not at a level where me and the other group members are satisfied with the proper exposure for the group. So it’s gonna be a slow-as-molasses type of build up, not an overnight one.”
20 years later, Questlove, Black Thought, and Kamal have traveled from the cover of Illadelph Halflife to the “Tonight Show” stage, a career trajectory mirroring Thompson’s 1997 prophecy. Although no longer sporting Rahzel, Malik, or Hub as full-time members, the 2016 version of The Roots is not very different from its 1996 counterpart and, although it may not be celebrated as frequently as its 1999 follow up Things Fall Apart, Illadelph is a robust album. Sporting full-throttle Hip-Hop appearances from fellow Philly native Bahamadia (“Push Up Ya Lighter”); Common (“UNIverse At War”); Q-Tip (“Ital [the Universal Side]”); and Dice Raw (“Episodes”), the LP had was also enveloped in contemporary Jazz, poetry, and Soul.
“One Shine” featured saxophonist Joshua Redman and Grammy-winning vocalist Cassandra Wilson, with whom the Roots worked on 1995’s “Swept Away.” Another repeat guest appearance came in the form of poet Ursula Rucker, first heard on “The Unlocking” a year prior. For Illadelph, she again provided some spoken-word stylings in the form of “The Adventures in Wonderland.”Rucker would also appear on Things Fall Apart and Phrenology (2002). With “The Hypnotic,” The Roots created a bona fide Neo-Soul joint with D’Angelo in tow, six years before the group’s biggest song of its kind (the Musiq Soulchild-assisted Phrenology single,“Break You Off”). But the song (co-produced by the Pharcyde’s Slimkid3) was not Illadelph‘s only offering for contemporary Soul fans equally invested in Rap lyricism at its finest.
“What They Do” featured Raphael Saadiq, who was already a Grammy nominee, thanks to his work as a member of Tony! Toni! Toné! The song was a lamentation on the state of Hip-Hop at the time, which Black Thought described as “all contractual and about money makin’,” and his rhyming, which was about “givin’ crowds what they wantin’, official Hip-Hop consumption.” In it, they urge any true Hip-Hop head to refrain from doing “what they do,” referring to any “bitin’ ass crew” or “exact replication and false representation” of the culture. In the same 1997 interview with DJ Times, ?uesto commented on that element of purism in their music, saying “We are Rap to the bone. Some groups don’t even understand what the cornerstones of Hip-Hop are. It’s just like a money thing. Some don’t even know what a B-boy is. Don’t get me wrong. We’re business and we definitely wanna make money, but we’re not gonna shit on the culture on top of that.”
In the video, the group pokes fun at the flashy, over-the-top approach to Rap music and its visuals. With the help of on-screen text, The Roots provide viewers with a “Rap Video Manual,” which outlines how struggle rappers can present themselves as big money spenders, albeit fraudulently. Steps include renting a mansion for just one day, renting a car that comes with 100 free miles, hiring women to dance suggestively in bikinis in an effort to drive up sales, swapping ginger ale for expensive champagne, and pointless scenes in the club, on the block, and elsewhere. It’s a not so tongue-in-cheek response to the “Big Willie Style” videos of the time, the bombastic and wasteful trend that they argued dominated much of mainstream Rap of the time. The group also released a version without subtitles, no doubt forcing fans to really listen closely to understand the video’s message.
That sense of humor through music can still be found in The Roots today, even though Black Thought et al have gone “late night now like ‘Here’s Johnny.'” Just this month, the band made waves for playing Erykah Badu’s “20 Feet Tall” as walk-on music for Donald Trump, specifically the part where she sings “you built a wall, a 20 foot wall, so I couldn’t see.” It was the same kind of subdued yet direct jab they took at Michelle Bachmann in 2011 when they played Fishbone’s “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” as she took the stage.
As Illadelph Halflife gets ready to turn 20 on September 24, it’s worth recognizing that Questlove wasn’t the only one who prophesized that The Roots would continue to do things in their own, authentic Hip-Hop fashion. As he raps in “What They Do,” “I’m Black Thought, used to rap for sport/now the rhymes sayin’ rent payin’ life support.”
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