Tuesday, February 08, 2005

The Roots, live

[This review of The Roots' show at Brixton Academy originally appeared in Mojo in the Spring of 2003]

Hip-Hop was never just about 2 turntables and a microphone. Even when those were the only tools in the rap arsenal, the possibilities remained endless, styluses feeding off black vinyl antennae tapping into years of jazz, soul, funk and rock, spinning history off into new and freaky alternate futures. The possibilities are as endless as music itself, but some mistake the artform’s regeneration of dusty grooves as some anti-musical con, in the absence of any ‘genuine’ musicianship.

The Roots, astounding musicians playing live hip-hop, have often been misinterpreted as a sop to such bigoted ears; others misunderstand them as traitors to hip-hop’s cause, more in love with the artform’s supposedly ‘futuristic’ methods than the timeless music The Roots make. And The Roots are timeless, in a brilliant and totally anti-nostalgic way. Minutes into their two-hours’ plus set, this arkestra are peeling away any such pointless strictures as genre or period from the bounteous splurge of music that oozes forth.

When they play their hip-hop ‘straight’, they paint the sound of the post-Daisy Age – Old Skool shaded with a lusher understanding of jazz, over a stripped-bare breakbeat – in vibrant technicolour. But the Roots so rarely play anything straight. Led by drummer Ahmir ?uestlove, whose extra-curricular work includes cloaking Erykah Badu’s heartaches with 21st Century velvet-funk and scoring Jay-Z’s Unplugged excursion, the band could, at any moment, disappear into wormholes of funkadelia, or mainline the cold-sweat jazz of ‘Dark Magus’-period Miles Davis, or even follow the opening bars of ‘Stairway To Heaven’ with a righteous’n’sweaty rock’n’roll interlude (though nosebleed Bad Brains tribute ‘!!!!!!!’ sadly doesn’t surface).

Solos abound – even the bassist gets to play virtual-turntablist, mimicking Grandmaster Flash’s infamous Chic-Queen headclash – but individual ego never runs rampant; all is subservient to the music, solemn as a party like this gets anyway. When ?uestlove himself takes the spotlight, its no brash blurt of tub-thumping, morphing from merengue clatter, to switchblade breakbeat, to junglist bass-pulse. The flourishes and showboating – the band revelling in a live take of turntablist’s staple ‘Apache’, as rapper Black Thought rides the deathless and brutal Incredible Bongo Band break – are all for the thrill of the crowd and not the glory of the musos. And the crowd are thrilled throughout this marathon, the band switching tempo and mood (and genre… and era…) like under direction of some celestial hip-hop DJ.

?uestlove and Black Thought originally adopted their live setup because they couldn’t afford turntables or the acres of vinyl necessary to rock the 1s and 2s. The set closes with Thought and beatboxer Scratch’s moving Run DMC tribute, the musicians striking shell-toed poses behind, and it all fits perfectly. For The Roots, like all hip-hop true believers, are a permanent-flux bridge between the achievements of the past and the possibilities of the future, and we are but the helpless wax at their fingertips.

(c) Stevie Chick 2003

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