3 reasons why The Roots remain one of hip-hop’s all-time greatest

Updated February 22, 2019 - 4:51 pm

The microphone cord is an extension of his intestines.

At least that’s how Black Thought characterizes it.

For the booming-voiced MC of The Roots, hip-hop comes from the gut, lives inside him.

As such, he’s one of the best rappers for one of rap’s best groups.

What else makes The Roots so special? Let’s dig in:

They detonate the stage like no other act of their ilk — ever

It began with a plastic bucket and a pair of lungs every bit as durable.

When they were in high school, future Roots timekeeper Questlove and Black Thought would busk on street corners in their native Philadelphia, the former keeping the beat on a pail in place of a drum kit.

Winning the attention of passersby demands a sort of dogged intensity, and decades later, The Roots’ origins as sidewalk performers remain palpable in their command of the stage.

To call them one of hip-hop’s greatest live acts is to be on point and missing said point at once: The Roots certainly live up to that designation — and certainly don’t need any qualifiers by genre.

They’re one of the best live bands period, from rap to rock to deep discofox (Yes, such a genre exists. No, we don’t know why).

Performing as an eight- to 10-piece, depending on the setting, The Roots generate a sound as organic as the blood rushing to so many temples upon exposure to Black Thought’s borderline-dizzying wordplay (dude once rhymed “amethyst” with “panelist,” and it made perfect sense somehow). The Roots mete out full-contact funk with horns blaring, rhythms concussing and sweat glands earning overtime pay.

Also, there will be tuba solos.

Their point of view remains particularly pointed

The self-professed Dalai Lama of the mic has plenty to say.

Only he doesn’t say it.

Instead, he practically radiates his words the way steam emanates from a boiling kettle.

“Listen close to my poetry,” Black Thought commands on “The Next Movement” from Roots classic “Things Fall Apart. “I examine this / Like an analyst / To see if you can handle this.”

Using his microphone as a scalpel to dissect the issues of the day as well as slice and dice sucka MCs, which he does with the relish of a dude who’s been lost in the desert partaking of his first gulp of water, Black Thought is all about establishing a point of view that’s pointed enough to pierce flesh.

While plenty of his contemporaries rhapsodize about excessive codeine consumption and the joys of having adult relations with your girl, he’s been busy addressing climate change, income inequality, gentrification, racial stereotyping and serving as an avatar for hip-hop’s activist ethos and core values.

“Takin’ hip-hop back to / The beginnin’ ” he explains on “Without a Doubt,” also from “Things Fall Apart.” “ ’Cause MCs are pretendin’ / I slap your sound / Out the sky / Like I’m goaltendin’ / Bring your career / To an endin’ / Enter the next era / Trascendin’.”

Speaking of which …

They’re built to last — and so they have

Hip-hop evolves at brick-on-the-gas-pedal speeds, the music in a near-constant state of change, a kind of creative impermanence akin to the perpetually morphing goop in a lava lamp.

Some of this is attributable to how the music is created and consumed nowadays: With the relative ease and low costs of posting tracks on Soundcloud or releasing mixtapes, artists can generate enormous amounts of content and then put it out immediately with little to no gatekeepers, generating a massive flow of fresh material like an open fire hydrant of creativity.

Longevity, then, is harder to maintain in hip-hop’s digital era.

Yet The Roots haven’t just kept up with the times, they continue to define them in terms of what it means to stay relevant in a genre that seldom stays put for much longer than it takes a gust of wind to extinguish a lit match.

In each of the past three decades, they’ve dropped at least one sign-of-the times album (1996’s “Illadelph Halflife,” 1999’s “Things Fall Apart,” 2002’s “Phrenology,” 2008’s “Rising Down,” 2011’s “Undun”) that continually reaffirmed their place high atop a hip-hop pecking order where even all-time greats can struggle to remain vital after more than a handful of albums.

They’ve done so by continually experimenting with their sound — adding indie rock flourishes here, a string section there — over a musical bedrock sampling everything from Nina Simone to Radiohead.

And they do it all while offering a running commentary on the world around them, which, like The Roots themselves, keeps spinning ahead.

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.

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