Philly hip-hop band the Roots have made their name not only as recording artists but also as a live band. Instead of just a rapper and DJ, they add live guitar, bass, horns, vocalists. Their drummer ?uestlove (pronounced “Questlove”) is one of the world’s most famous drummers. And the simmering, intelligent poetry of lead lyricist/rapper Black Thought is always provocative and surprising. They play in the tradition of jazz improvisation. Riffing off of each other live, and encouraging freeform experiments.
They’ve just released their 13th album “How I Got Over”. It’s their first since becoming the house band on the show Late Night Jimmy Fallon. They’ve come a long way from their humble start in Philadelphia. Black Thought started playing music with ?uestlove at the Philly High School for the Creative and Performing Arts over 2 decades ago. And in 1993 they started a group called “The Square Roots”, later they dropped the “Square” and became just “The Roots”
After moving the group to London for a year, the band released their very first record, Organix. To everyone’s (including the band’s) astonishment, it sold over 150,000 copies. The label DCG wooed them and brought them back to Philly where their first label release, Do You Want More, went against rap tradition by using only live instruments and no loops or samples. This quality banned them from the world of commercial rap and their audience started to build (again, shocking everyone) when alternative rock audiences took them to heart, getting them a spot at the 1995 Lollapalooza as a major act.
On their next album, the landmark record Illadelph Halflife, The Roots did start to insert samples into their work again. But they were samples of themselves playing live. This record had (and still has) a cult following, but wasn’t a commercial success. The next records, Things Fall Apart and Phrenology, did better. They were the last with the DCG label. And “Phrenology” has on it what several KEXP DJs consider one of the best dance songs of all time “The Seed”. This song features Cody Chestnutt. And usually I would not want to play a song with lyrics this dirty, with a story where the lead character is a player who lacks any shred of integrity, but the groove is so good I really don’t mind a bit.
The new record, How I Got Over, is one of their best in years. Check out the title track featuring Dice Raw.
The Roots are famous for cameos from today’s top alternative artists and this album sports a re-mix/re-do of a song by Monsters of Folk. A completely non-rap project collaboration between Jim James from My Morning Jacket, M. Ward and Conor Oberst AKA Bright Eyes.
In an NPR story on the band, ?uestlove said the title of the new release, How I Got Over, comes from a Mahalia Jackson song. But that the title also has multiple meanings to the band: “We always feel as though all of our album titles have to sort of reflect a triple meaning…the state of the world, the state of hip-hop and maybe the state of The Roots.” He also mentions that the release is inspired by Obama being elected. And the fact that most of the members of the group are about to turn 40. “It’s no secret that most of us will be turning 40 in the next few years and your life and your outlook is a little bit different back when we were 23… when we first got our record deal.”
Michele Myers spins every Saturday on KEXP from 3-6pm. Every week she plays 3-in-a-row from a favorite artist and this week you’ll hear the new Roots album. She also produces KEXP Documentaries and hosts on WNYE 91.5FM in New York City.