People seem to think that hip-hop music falls into one of two categories: commercial or underground. There is no middle ground between the two; as soon as an underground artist starts selling records or increasing their fan base, they are immediately labeled sellouts and their music is deemed commercial.
This dichotomy is not as straightforward as people would like it to appear. Hip-hop was never meant to be compartmentalized into nice little packets by elitists who think that if a group makes money or has many listeners, they are commercial; or if they don’t make money they are underground. The hardest-working band in show business, The Roots, proved that such classifications mean nothing to them at their show in Denver on Sunday.
The Roots have always been pioneers in hip-hop. Instead of simply employing a DJ or a DAT to rhyme over, they assembled a full live band consisting of the drums, bass, keyboards, beat boxer and most recently, the guitar. They followed the neo-jazz hip-hop blueprint laid before them by A Tribe Called Quest and made it all their own.
As of their latest album, Phrenology, The Roots have added a tinge of rock to their already eclectic sound. Such experimentation has sometimes landed The Roots into being labeled “alternative hip-hop,” a label that isn’t always flattering in the hip-hop world. Despite the fact that musicians aren’t often rewarded for exploring new genres and sounds, The Roots still sell records to a wide audience of listeners.
And The Roots are not commercial by any means. You can knock them for backing up Jay-Z during his unplugged set, or for the fact that they are going to be backing up Eminem at the Grammy’s. Sure, call them sellouts for backing two of the most popular emcees in today’s hip-hop world; call them commercial when during their live set they play their own renditions of the most heavily played hip-hop songs of the day (“Gimme the Light,” “Hot in Herre,” et cetera).
But, listen carefully to the new album (all their albums, for that matter) and see them live, and you’ll see a band that is at its most creative and embodies the spirit of hip-hop. Any band that puts Amiri Baraka (the often brilliant, often offensive revolutionary spirited poet) on their album and also have fun putting their own spin on “Pass the Courvoisier” during their live set defy any sort of musical boundaries set up by critics and hip-hop heads alike.
This is what made their live set so electric at the Fillmore Sunday. They were able to get the crowd hyped right from the beginning by ripping through such greats as “Proceed” and “The Next Movement.” The Roots were not merely satisfied to recreate the sounds found on their albums, but instead were able to add a live touch that preserved the original versions and still added the creative accompaniments you come to expect from such skilled musicians.
Their ode to hip-hop “Act Too (Love of my Life)” assured their fans that their allegiances still lay with hip-hop, but even then they weren’t afraid to delve into new genres. When they played “Water,” (from Phrenology) they explored an instrumental land of unexpected sounds and noise to create a musical patchwork similar to that found on Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew.”
Being a live band in the vein of jazz music, the solos of the performers stood out prominently. At the end of “Break You Off,” (which marked the end of the first half of their set) Kamal feverishly slapped and plucked his bass through jazz and hip-hop standards while injecting just the right amount of noise to complement the music.
When The Roots returned after an inspired set by Skillz, the crowd was treated to an appearance by the soulful Cody Chestnutt with The Roots on the rock infused and soon to be classic “Seed (2.0).”
But The Roots’ experimentation was in full force during the song that gave them their first big hit, “You Got Me.” Starting with a reggae guitar and beat, Black Thought went to work. As he entered the second verse, Hub began to pump out a snippet of Outkast’s “So Fresh, So Clean,” on his keyboards. Just as the crowd thought they were done Ben broke in with the noisiest punk guitar of the night and they shredded through some instrumentals before finishing the last verse.
Appropriately, The Roots ended by showcasing the solo talents of the band members. ?uestlove looked as if he was going to demolish his drum set; Hub was able to combine classical style piano with blues riffs and invoke the spirits of such hip-hop greats as Afrika Bambatta. Finally, Scratch, the human beatbox, brought the house down with his own beatboxing renditions of hip-hop classics, recent songs and a tribute to Run D.M.C. The Roots proved on Sunday that they are incredible musicians, hip-hop royalty and that hip-hop is not as black and white as some would make it seem.