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Between grooves

The Roots may be more a vibe than a band, constantly reinventing themselves yet staying true to hip-hop.

January 12, 2003|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

Not so far back in the day, the Roots, the famously funky neo-soul/conscious hip-hop crew, kicked off their 1999 CD, "Things Fall Apart," with a provocative intro stitched through with double meanings. "Act Won," a cleverly clipped 54-second snatch of conversation from Spike Lee's film "Mo' Better Blues," debates the state of black music (jazz in particular) and its relationship with -- or lack of a relationship with -- its black audience.

The gist: When people don't come to hear the music, it's because the players -- preoccupied with high-minded or "grandiose" themes and approaches -- aren't giving listeners what they want to hear. "If you play [what] they like, the people would come."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 12, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 130 words Type of Material: Correction
Band Members -- The photo caption for the band The Roots on today's Calendar Part II cover incorrectly identifies the member on the far right as Ahmir Thompson. He is Tariq Trotter.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 19, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Photo caption -- The photo of the band the Roots on last Sunday Calendar's Part II cover incorrectly identified the band member on the far right as Ahmir Thompson. He is Tariq Trotter.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 19, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 5 inches; 190 words Type of Material: Correction
Photo caption -- The photo of the band the Roots on last Sunday Calendar's Part II cover incorrectly identified the member on the far right as Ahmir Thompson. He is Tariq Trotter.

Whether the Roots tossed off this fragment as a cheeky self-reference, commentary or a throwaway one-liner isn't clear. But these being the Roots, it could very well be none or all of the above.

They've long thrived on being enigmatic, blending jazz and soul with hip-hop, girding the mix with beats from all over the world, and always giving a nod to all their forebears and antecedents. "Grandiose"? Maybe to some ears. But to the Roots, the idea has always been to press against convention.

After four tight studio albums and one incandescent live album -- hip-hop edged with strings, deep funk retro-soul grooves, hard-edged, bristly rap -- their long-awaited CD "Phrenology" won't do much to clarify who or what they are or, for that matter, where they're going. Complex, chambered and clever, "Phrenology's" cuts are as atypical of the Roots as they are typical. With the perceptible absence of a longtime member, MC Malik B., and the conspicuous presence of a new guitarist, Ben Kenney, who grew up steeped in punk and R&B, the album is full of joyful noise, thrash guitars, jazz riffs and probing rhymes.

But it is a cut called "The Seed (2.0)" that sums up what's new in the latest offering by this post-soul hip-hop crew: It's got a rock 'n' roll heart -- with vocals crooned, not rapped, by Cody Chestnutt -- who celebrates the birth of this "rock 'n' roll child."

Bracing splashes of the unexpected have, album to album, helped the Roots stretch the definition of "black music," making them riveting to watch. And now, with "Phrenology," they have shown that they know not just how to rhyme, but to rock.

Warily eyeing praise for 'Phrenology'

Critics and fans alike are spreading the word about "Phrenology," using effusive descriptives like "breakthrough" and "landmark." Those pronouncements make the Roots a bit cautious. "Every album we reinvent ourselves," says Ahmir Thompson, better known among Roots disciples as drummer and producer ?uestlove. He paces about his low-lit suite at the W Hotel in Westwood in a bright red sweatshirt emblazoned with white block letters spelling out "Lucky," methodically dragging his Afro pick skyward, bringing his impressive retro bush to its full half-foot.

"I know we're all things to all people -- rappers, jazz hip-hop heads, the neo-soul folk. It only gets frustrating when people make a religion out of it. And that's when I start getting rebellious."

Of late, interviews about the Roots' projected trajectory have turned into introspective sessions. Laying back on the loveseat, tape recorder in hand, ?uest speaks into the mike. "Somehow I feel like I'm in therapy," he deadpans.

Nowadays, conversation often wends around to why the Roots, for all of their critical acclaim and enthusiastic fans, haven't taken off like some of the neo-soul or conscious hip-hop acts they've helped nurture -- a list that includes names like Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, D'Angelo and, most recently, Common. The group has laid the sturdy foundation for a new category of music, but it hasn't, in the parlance of the people, blown up.

That may be because they've remained true to their own roots. And ultimately, says Talib Kweli of Black Star, who has worked on and off with the Roots since the early days, that will give them longevity: "They've always been a powerful live band, have always added all of these different creative elements. They've been compared to the Dave Matthews Band, but they never veer from what hip-hop is. They are good at accepting all that people say about them but remaining rooted in hip-hop music."

The Grammy-winning ensemble is headed by Thompson and the voice of the Roots, MC Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter, and rounds out with keyboardist James "Kamal" Gray, bassist Leonard "Hub" Hubbard, turntablist Kyle "Scratch" Jones and human beat box Rahzel. (MC Malik B., who's drifted from the group, is also listed.)

They honed their craft on the street -- literally. Playing busy corners in South Philly in the early '90s, says ?uest, "enabled us to be prepared for any situation": hecklers, other free-stylers, cold weather, cops, hurled bottles. But ultimately, "that's how we got all of our gigs. It served as sort of a notice to all the club owners and taste-makers in the tri-state area."

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