Hip-hop, yes, but with a tuba player. Not many acts working the genre use live instruments like the Roots do, but then again, I love bands that focus more on groove than form. The main pitfall of doing it the other way around is the hazard of becoming a museum of tunes.
The Roots identify strongly as a hip-hop act, one with a robust MC and a rocksteady beat, but their breakouts contain rock, jazz, soul, funk, laptop, electronica, NOLA second line, and instrumental virtuosity. That’s a rather huge inventory of sounds and, on paper, it doesn’t read as though it should work. But it does, and maybe one of the reasons this salad bowl of Roots ideas works is because the members seem not to worry too much about it one way or the other.
The band that is the Roots today began during the late ’80s in Philadelphia when high school pals Tariq Trotter and Ahmir Thompson stood on street corners and rhymed over background beats made on tubs they’d recycled into hand drums. The two gigged their high school talent show and never looked back; by the early ‘90s they were the Square Roots and then, just the Roots. Their 1993 debut recording got them a fat deal with a major American record label. By 1996, they were charting and in regular rotation on MTV.
This is a band that has never had a bad day — gold albums soon followed, as well as Grammy awards and nominations. But trad hip-hop’s all about putting the spotlight on that one main performer (almost always the MC), and in the Roots, no such condition exists. Everything on a Roots stage serves the groove. Because of these various breaks with the old school, some pop critics have accused the Roots of fouling the history of hip-hop music. Me? I say they are redrafting it.