It's almost impossible to imagine a time when I could still marginalize The Roots as another “conscious” rap group.
They've been around long enough for them to have been a large part of my learning to love rap and also been mostly abandoned by me like a favorite stuffed animal. So think back to '96 when THE ROOTS would close out their album with an outro that's just Blackthought, in the style of a newscaster saying, “For now the Roots remain a little bit of an enigma even to themselves. They have reached the level of their dreams a major label record deal and some international notoriety. But for all that their concept has not yet blown up, and it is possible it won't.” Juxtapose that against The Roots playing “I'm On A Boat” on children's toy instruments with Jimmy Fallon and Andy Samberg. It's easy to hear that as some sellout criticism, but I'm saying, they figured it out and made their own lane in a genre that has continually crapped on anything too different or undefinable.
Rap grew on, and obsessed me via The Roots and their ilk. Which is basically the same as saying I'm a white suburban kid who loves rap and was born in the 80's. But none of that takes away from the layers of talent here. Every time I listen to one of these songs and get caught up in it, I remember that Questlove is drumming the beat live, and I have to re-imagine the whole scene. Blackthought and Quest finding each other in school and growing up playing music on the street is a one in a billion match. And them going on to make music with everyone from Jay-Z to D'Angelo to The Clipse is something beyond hopes and dreams.
There are songs that sound like obvious street conscious rap. On “It Just Don't Stop” there's a gang chorus on repeat that goes, “Dig it, this world is filled with homicides and rape / All the crimes of hate just ain't the size and shape / You can walk don't the block and get slumped or knocked / It don't stop y'all and it just don't stop.” And honestly I couldn't write a more obvious chorus. BUUUUUUTTTTT, ya'll forgot that this is a decade before this kind of rap sounded super obvious. And, that's because this collective, and a few others literally created it, built it from nothing, and helped others get in on it. There's also an actual poetry slam on the record. BUUUUUUTTTTT again this is six years before Russell Simmons and Mos Def did Def Poetry Jam, so a long decade before it was a joke to those of us who were interested.
There are surprises for the 2016 on Illadelph too. “Clones” is a banger. Dice-Raw, Blackthought, and Malik exchanging verses over an uptempo beat with a simple piano loop, punctuated only by a brief sung non-hook. This rings out like thoughtful Wu-Tang. The kind of song that when it lands when you're phone's on shuffle as you're mowing the lawn you go scrambling to try to figure out what the hell that jam was before you lose it. And then you're shocked to find it came from the Roots album from 20 years ago that you hadn't been that excited to listen to again.
When The Roots signed on as Jimmy Fallon's house band I took it as a personal insult. And then a couple years later they performed “Grindin” live with The Clipse and I was so amped that they had brought rap to a new stage that I forgot all the bullshit angst. They aged, and aged better than all of their contemporaries. Literally Common is in terrible rom-com's, Mos Def is stuck somewhere because he doesn't know how to use a passport, Busta Rhymes can't scratch his own back, and The Roots are playing rap music in millions of living rooms five nights a week.
by Nathan Hankins (@nathanhmhankins)