You may know them these days as the funktastic house band providing the fresh soundtrack that keeps The Tonight Show a cut above the rest but to the many fans of yesteryear they’re the groundbreaking hip-hop outfit from Philadelphia known for lighting up stages around the world with their alternative take on a genre that had become flooded with bi-coastal fury and macho materialism. Yes, I’m talking about none other than The Roots, hip-hop’s answer to the age old question “What if we used live instruments instead?”
From the moment Black Thought and Questlove first teamed up some decades ago, that has been the band’s defining characteristic. Instead of using beats that were clumsily constructed out of samples by a so-called producer (that couldn’t tell a G-chord from a G-string), all the music was written and played by actual musicians with Black Thought providing a signature flow that made the group’s sound distinctly hip-hop.
From phenomenal collaborations with some of the world’s most respected singers to flat out redefining an entire genre, it’s easy to see how their influence has spread across the globe and inspired generations of young artists to pursue the art form that makes them happy. Their lineup may have changed extensively over the years but with the two founding members still firmly at the wheel, the sound of The Roots has remained consistent throughout, so here’s a look back at the journey they’ve taken through entertainment. This is Hip-Hop of The 90s.
Tariq Trotter (a.k.a. Black Thought) met Ahmir Thompson (a.k.a. Questlove) while attending high school in their hometown. Together, they came up with the idea of forming a simple, yet effective, duo with Ahmir playing the drums while Tariq laid down some dope rhymes, busking on Philadelphia street corners to perfect their craft. Soon it was time for the band to hit the stage for real and that opportunity came in the form of their very own high school talent show.
From ‘Radio Activity’ to ‘Black To The Future, the name changes seemed endless but they managed to settle on ‘The Square Roots’ before graduation. With the addition of rapper, Malik B., bass player, Josh Abrams and keyboard/producer extraordinaire, Scott Storch, the first official lineup of the band was finally complete but that pesky name had to be changed once again after they discovered that a local folk group was already using it for themselves. So they just dropped the word ‘square’ and officially became known as The Roots.
After the first member swap (Leonard Hubbard replacing Josh Abrams) the group found themselves in Germany, independently recording their debut album while touring in Germany. Without any record label to back them up, recording and producing was done by the band themselves and in 1993 Organix became the debut album released by The Roots.
Organix received favourable reviews from critics and put The Roots on the map as hip-hop’s first legitimate “band”. Although it would never lead to supernatural success, it shined a spotlight on the group so big that major record labels could not help but stand up and take notice, resulting in numerous offers being made. Ultimately, The Roots would find their place at DCG/ Geffen Records and, as 1995 rolled in, they released their second studio album conveniently titled, Do You Want More?!!!??!
Hip-hop jazz was now a force to be reckoned with as even alternative music fans began gravitating towards soulful sounds of The Roots. Refusing to let fans wait another two years for their next artistic effort, Illadelph Halflife was released in 1996 to universal praise from several major music publications, including Rolling Stone and world-famous hip-hop authority, The Source (who kept them half a point shy of the coveted 5-mic rating). Without any gangsta influence in sight, they managed to deliver their first chart-topping record.
It would take almost three years for the band to put their next album together but it was surely well worth the wait. They displayed an elevated amount of perfectionism by crafting an estimated 140 songs, then slowly filtering out the best tracks to make the final list. Without a doubt, it was their collaboration with Erykah Badu on the track You Got Me that solidified their place in the mainstream by getting extensive play on radio and MTV and gifting them with a Grammy Award to go along with all that new found recognition.
It was also around this time that many of the original members decided to part ways with the band, including the two other emcees, Malik B, and Dice Raw, who both left for personal reasons and pursued solo careers of their own. Black Thought remained as the band’s frontman as they toured with the likes of Jay-Z and, together with Questlove at his side, he l the d charge into the studio for their fifth studio album called Phrenology (named after the pseudoscience).
It failed to reach the chart heights of its predecessor but didn’t let anybody down when it came to delivering that classic sound that The Roots had become known for. Hailed as one of their most creatively ambitious projects, it pushed the envelope without alienating any of the fans they’d gathered along the way and only seemed to gather acclaim from every critic on the block.
Where Are They Now?
The Roots would never reach the commercial heights of artists like Tupac or The Notorious B.I.G. but they showed just how intelligent and sophisticated a genre hip-hop could be when all the thugnificent stereotypes were removed and true virtuosity was shown off. Over the next few years, they would release five more albums that kept a consistent tone throughout and forged a new era in hip-hop creation.
They still tour like crazy so be sure to check them out whenever you can, it is an experience not to be missed.
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Ryan C. Voller
Listen To The Roots On iTunes!