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| July 17-23, 2008 firstname.lastname@example.orgBeating the system
The Roots come to the Mile High Music Festival with their most political album yet
by Alan SculleySince arriving on the national scene in 1993, The Roots have widely been seen as hip-hop’s best live act. But Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, drummer and a key songwriter for the group, realizes that The Roots haven’t had much competition over the years in the live arena.
One reason is many of hip-hop’s best acts don’t tour. And The Roots also have the advantage of using live instrumentation on stage, which gives the group a vibrancy in concert that is often lacking with rappers who rely on backing tracks to recreate their songs live.
“Yeah, we kind of win technically and by default at the same time,” Thompson said in a recent phone interview when asked about the band’s reputation as hip-hop’s premier live act.
But Thompson said he feels other hip-hop/R&B artists are starting to put more effort into their live shows. He noted that Kanye West’s current tour (which includes Lupe Fiasco, Rihanna and N.E.R.D. as opening acts) is setting a new standard in the genre for flashy production and dynamic performance.
“For now I hear that’s the tour to beat,” Thompson said. “Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco all stepped their game up. And it’s not just enough to get a band. Anybody can get a band. You have to be good. Those guys have like charisma, they have hits, they have stage prowess that just absolutely elevates them to the next level.”
The Roots won’t be able to compete with West when it comes to the high-budget visual production of his live show.
“If I had a bigger budget, I have so many ideas that would take our live show to the next level,” Thompson said.
But it’s safe to say that even the hugely popular West will have his work cut out to match The Roots on a purely musical level as a live act.
The Roots now have 10 CDs from which to pull material, and the band is known to play shows that last in the three-hour range and feature inventive re-interpretations of some of its songs. Even with a set that generous, Thompson said the band can’t cover all of the material it would like to perform.
“I’m a pack rat by nature, which basically means I don’t know what songs to drop to make room for the four or five Rising Down songs that I have to add to the show,” Thompson said. “So essentially it’s going to be a challenge trying to find a place in which we can really fit all these songs in because with 10 records, a song a record is almost like an hour of music. Two songs, that’s two hours. And I never, ever liked the idea of doing a medley. I’ve always dreaded, dreaded, über-dreaded doing a medley of songs, but I guess we’re going to have to get to that point one of these days.”
The Roots began building this deep catalog of music with the 1993 self-released Organix. The group then signed with DGC Records and immediately made a big impression with the press with the 1995 CD, Do You Want More?!!!??!
In the years since, the group — whose current lineup includes Thompson, singer and fellow founding member Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, keyboardist Kamal Gray, percussionist Frank Knuckles, guitarist Kirk “Captain Kirk” Douglas and bassist Owen Biddle — has continued to solidify a reputation as one of the most thoughtful and literate hip-hop acts on the scene.
The group has also been one of the most musically eclectic and adventurous acts in the genre — a situation that has probably limited airplay for The Roots’ music and kept the group from enjoying the major success that many predicted for the band.
Thompson also noted that the group’s albums have generally had pretty distinct identities, which basically means the group has risked losing fans of previous albums with each new release.
“Basically this particular sound (of Rising Down) competes with like the melancholy Roots of the Game Theory (2006) period, which competes with the free jazz of Phrenology (2002), which is competing with the neo-soul of Things Fall Apart (1999), which competes against the organic hip-hop jazzy roots of Do You Want More?!!!??!” Thompson said. “Every album we have to reinvent ourselves.”
The Game Theory project coincided with a particularly tumultuous time in The Roots’ history.
The group was still signed to Geffen Records at the time it started recording Game Theory and trying to get off of that label, even though it wasn’t clear if another label deal would be available. (The group eventually signed with Def Jam Records.)
In addition, the CD was written and recorded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, an event that hit home for The Roots because Trotter’s children lived in the city and the band had friends who also called New Orleans home.
“Game Theory was coming from, it was a very sad place,” Thompson said. “Game Theory is more or less like a look in the mirror, which is kind of hard for people to do, to observe themselves. It’s like looking at yourself bleeding. You know, I think it’s cool for us to be in pain, sort of mourn and talk about it. It dealt a lot with death. It dealt a lot with confusion. But really, like I just feel like this (Rising Down) is the sound of anger, which is different than the sound of sadness.”
Much of that anger comes out in the form of social commentary and makes for a CD Thompson and his bandmates consider the most political album of The Roots’ career.
Some examples include the song “Rising Down,” which touches on a litany of problems that has today’s world “spinning out of control,” “Criminal,” which rails against unjust persecution, “I Can’t Help It,” which centers on the pull of addictions and the damage addictions cause, and “I Will Not Apologize,” a tribute to Fela Kuti and the need to maintain integrity in the music business.
In an overall sense, Thompson voiced his frustration with the administration of George Bush and how many people feel beaten down by the events, policies and troubles that have spanned the past eight years.
“I think what the Bush administration has done to some people has just rendered them numb,” he said.
As Rising Down shows, Thompson and Trotter, haven’t fallen into any trap of indifference as songwriters, as the sharp lyrics go nicely with a musically assertive album that blends ear-grabbing synthesizer-laced melodic hooks and funky beats.
Thompson said he realizes the outspoken nature of Rising Down won’t do The Roots many favors on a commercial level. He noted that radio hasn’t exactly encouraged musicians to make provocative music.
“Hip hop has had such an, I guess you could say, apolitical nature in the last year and a half or two years,” Thompson said.
“I always say that Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks pretty much lost her career for speaking her mind out against the Bush administration,” he added. “And even though people have somewhat had a change of heart and turned around and said ‘You know what, Natalie’s right,’ essentially, I think people are just scared to do so (to speak out) because it’s too much to risk. It’s like why speak out against somebody who’s more powerful than me? It could end my career... We had to speak out on a lot of it.”
On the Bill
The Roots will perform on Sunday, July 20, at the Mile High Music Festival (July 19-July 20). For directions and a complete schedule of events, go to milehighmusicfestival.com.
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