Heard on Progressive Underground

The Roots Are a Genre of Their Own

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Listen to five essential tracks from the collective of top-tier musicians known for their incredible live shows and prolific musical output.

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The story of The Roots story begins at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts where Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter were both students. The pair shared a musical kinship and got their start on street corners, rapping over bucket drums. Their first “official” gig was a 1989 talent show at their high school when they went by Radio Activity. By the time they drafted bass player Leonard “Hub” Hubbard and the late rapper Malik B into the group, they were known as the Square Roots. They later dropped the “Square” because it conflicted with another Philly group performing under the same name.  

The band relocated to London where they independently released the album “Organix,” a masterwork that, along with extensive touring, would help them develop their growing cult following.

The Roots received offers from music labels, and the band eventually signed with DGC/Geffen and released their second studio album “Do You Want More?!!!??!”

At a time when gangsterism in hip-hop was at an all-time high, The Roots championed a style that highlighted the classic elements of hip-hop including turntablism and scratching, but with a musical virtuosity built atop eclectic live jazz stylings that could be found anywhere from nationally esteemed venues like the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to intimate, low-key jazz clubs. That, combined with Black Thought’s exceptional storytelling and the group’s cypher-style performance appeal resulted in a powerhouse group that has shaped the modern sounds of hip-hop.


Listen: Five essential tracks from The Roots.


1. “Mellow My Man”

The album “Do You Want More?!!!??!” established a blueprint for The Roots’ sound with its live aesthetic. It also provided a glimpse into the group’s ambition and artistic vision. They took that vision to the next level on their subsequent release “Illadelph Halflife,” a somewhat darker album with a more focused and spiritually infused aural sensibility, adjusting their sound amid socially political and conscious lyrics.

2. “What They Do”

What They Do” is an intelligent yet biting critique of rap video cliches of the time and an anti-gangsta manifesto. After the release of “llladelph Halflife,” The Roots evolved their sound again on their next album, “Things Fall Apart,” named for the Chinua Achebe novel with the same title. The album was recorded at Electric Lady studios around the same time that other Soulquarians projects were created at the same facility such as D’Angelo’s “Voodoo,” Erykah Badu’s “Mama’s Gun,” and Common’s “Like Water for Chocolate,” serving as the lynchpin and connective tissue between that and the emerging neo soul/progressive soul genre. 

3. “Act Too (The Love of My Life)” 

The Grammy-nominated “Things Fall Apart” featured a more structured, fully realized sound by The Roots. Gone was the loose, jazzy, live and improvisational feel of “Organix” and “Do You Want More?!!!??!,” replaced with a more precise sound collage with a flawless consistency, unity and cohesive flow with the tracks.


Related: Questlove’s ‘Summer of Soul’ Brings Hidden History of the Harlem Cultural Festival to the Masses


4. “Complexity”

The Roots continued their ambitious forays into sound discovery on “Phrenology.” The album is a brilliant soul/funk, rock, drum-and-bass, techno and progressive soul groover that raised the bar again on hip-hop and was easily the group’s hardest-hitting album to date. 

5. “The Show”

The band would go on to evolve their sound on subsequent albums and tour over 200 days per year, cultivating their reputation as one of the hardest-working live bands in the industry. They showcased a revolving roster of artists as part of the band that over the years have included musicians who have gone on to become respected acts in music, but the current incarnation of the band features Kamal Gray, Stro Elliot, James Poyser, Captain Kirk Douglas, Damon “Tuba Gooding Jr” Bryson, Ray Angry, Mark Kelley, Jeremy Ellis, Ian Hendrickson-Smith and Dave Guy. 

In 2009, they became the official house band on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” seamlessly melding into the mainstream.

As a group, The Roots are musical pioneers and trendsetters, influencing generations of artists and producers through their work ethic, prolific output and their ability to connect hip-hop with its heritage, music and popular culture. 

Over the span of 11 album releases, they have brought an ambitious sense of experimentation to hip-hop, a collective of top-tier musicians well-versed in music traditions who have developed a respected legacies as an outfit that presents one of the dopest live shows in the music business. In short, The Roots are a genre of their own, in their own lane and forging their own path while shaping the future direction of music.


More 5 on 5’s from The Progressive Underground’s Chris Campbell:

Remembering Aaliyah, the Princess of R&B

Alice Coltrane Expands the Sonic Realm of Jazz

Exploring the Fusion of Danceable Techno and Funk Through the Group Deee-Lite

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Chris Campbell, Host, The Progressive Underground

Chris Campbell has a deep interest in curating Detroit’s rich music scene and presenting it to the world-at-large.

ccampbell@wdet.org Follow @cambeaux

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