Words By Jesse Fairfax
Long before joining the legion of America’s late night talk show bands, The Roots raised the bar for Hip-Hop music, though overlooked as a tortoise in the race for mass acceptance. Led by drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson (a bandleader since his early teens) and art student turned microphone fiend Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, the road to fame and fortune had no shortage of struggle for the group. Hailing from a land just two hours away from Rap’s mecca New York, Philadelphia is the Northeast region’s other big city of note, yet it’s a world apart. Mostly known in the early ‘90s thanks to Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, (with respect owed to the smaller legacies of acts including Schoolly D, 3x Dope, Steady B and Cool C), Philly is notoriously apathetic towards embracing its own, and The Roots were no exception to this rule.
Getting their humble start playing on busy local streets for tips, The Roots were eventually forced to think outside of the box for press, a trait they have employed for years now. Taking their talents to Europe playing in jazz festivals, their demo Organix sold well overseas which increased their buzz domestically, with record labels eventually showing interest. Geffen had the winning offer but Do You Want More?!!!??! (scheduled for a summer 1994 release) would be pushed back for months after the tragic death of the label’s golden ticket Kurt Cobain. Heading back to London, they capitalized on this down time becoming even more known thanks to strong relationships including tastemaker Gilles Peterson who heavily sung the group’s praises.
The definition of an underdog persona, ?uestlove had a point to prove not only to his peers but to his musician father who he kept his Rap aspirations from. Do You Want More arrived to minimal commercial fanfare, as terms that come to mind with its release are innocence and naïveté. Dropping at the tail end of jazz-rap’s movement, the album went on to garner great critical acclaim but it was ill-fitting with the ever changing times. Luckily The Roots would go onto prove they were no one trick pony or a gimmick, but by 1995 A Tribe Called Quest had perfected the sound DYWM attempted to improve on, with Digable Planets also making worthy successors. At a time where the East coast was defined by the rugged likes of Nas, Redman, Wu-Tang Clan and The Notorious B.I.G., it was a rather uphill battle for anyone showing up with an avant-garde approach.
With Do You Want More and each subsequent LP The Roots set themselves apart with not only top notch emceeing, but actual musicianship that allowed them far more freedom than a sampler and old records could. A key figure in their operation was Scott Storch, a piano man who got one of his first big breaks working magic as a part of their crew before going on to produce big hits such as Dr. Dre’s “Still D.R.E.” and Terror Squad’s “Lean Back.” Taking the concept of live sound even further, Rahzel was a human beatbox who took the crafts of Darren “Buffy” Robinson from The Fat Boys and Doug E. Fresh to a new levels with skills not limited to recreating James Brown routines on interludes.
Despite having all of the tools necessary to make a great impression, it stands to reason that The Roots’ debut single “Distortion To Static” strayed from the beaten path, leaving mainstream outlets confused. Stringing random phrases together without saying much here, this freeform style of rap found all over the album was potentially off-putting to untrained ears. “Proceed” went over a bit better thanks to its catchy hook, which was unlike anything attempted by the Native Tongues, along with drums, bass and keys coming together in perfect harmony. Paying tribute to Special Ed’s classic “I Got It Made,” Black Thought’s pondering “Just think…what if you could just…blink yourself away” explained one of his core reasons for making music. Using his gift to describe his true to life troubled past on Do You Want More’s follow up Illadelph Halflife, it became clear that verbiage and a chance meeting with ?uestlove in high school was what helped him escape the trappings of hood life.