Review: @TheRoots Live At Brix­ton Academy

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Push­ing the bound­ar­ies of live Hip-Hop music with influ­en­tial albums such as Do You Want More?!!!??!, Things Fall Apart and Phren­o­logy, The Roots’ recor­ded music has taken sub­dued and som­bre tone since the loud, polit­ical exper­i­ment­a­tion of Game The­ory and Rising Down. Emcee Black Thought, drummer/band lead­er Questlove and company’s ‘day job’ is now as house band for Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show where their audi­ence is reg­u­larly in the mul­ti-mil­lions. On July 10th, at Brix­ton Academy, we had a rare chance to see The Roots live on tour.

The Roots began in Things Fall Apart mode, tak­ing their pos­i­tions to the cere­mo­nial intro­duct­ory sounds of Act Won. They con­tin­ued from one of their most lauded albums with a spec­tac­u­lar rendi­tion of Table of Con­tents with back and forth sec­tions trad­ing Black Thought’s acapel­la rhymes with Mark Kelley’s furi­ous bass. Hear­ing this live, my part­ner remarked that it soun­ded like the bass line from Slum Village’s Con­ant Gar­dens sped up. Which is nice. The Roots transitioned into The Next Move­ment with a power­house ver­sion that embod­ied how big, music­al and beau­ti­ful live Hip-Hop could be.

And then things began to, well… fall apart.  Black Thought joked early on that he’s ‘not as young as (he) used to be’ and for much of the set, it was a struggle to hear him above the dynam­ics of the band, them­selves incon­sist­ent due to the Brix­ton Academy sound man­age­ment: often sat­is­fy­ingly crisp and heart pound­ing, yet inco­her­ent and messy at oth­er times. Black Thought’s struggle with breath con­trol often changed flows to the det­ri­ment of his verses (if it was a styl­istic choice, it didn’t work) and this can­did­ate for Hip-Hop’s GOAT emcee only truly found his groove and pro­jec­tion by the pen­ul­tim­ate song Boom!

The Roots band rev­elled in ambi­tious jam ses­sions that drew son­ic­ally spec­tac­u­lar moments but reg­u­larly out­stayed their wel­come. The order and rigour of work­ing Jimmy Fallon’s house band spot means that a Roots con­cert is a rare chance for them to stretch their exper­i­mental limbs but the way this even encroached on some of their best loved songs was dis­sat­is­fy­ing. Get Busy lacked the anthem­ic grav­itas and stomp factor of the record and You Got Me was fun with vocal and music­al inter­pol­a­tions of Fetty Wap’s Trap Queen but felt insin­cere (and it wasn’t just the expec­ted absence of Erykah Badu or Jill Scott). Break You Off was a goal of an exper­i­ment how­ever, with its floaty synths and calypso groove backed by Cap­tain Kirk’s syr­upy vocals on chor­us sup­ply­ing another one of the night’s high­lights.­ The Fire was one of the few occa­sions they played a song rel­at­ively ‘straight’ and it really worked.

The Roots’ vir­tu­os­ity shined bright­est when things were stripped back and indi­vidual mem­bers had time to show off. Questlove’s drum solos and spar­ring ses­sions with per­cus­sion­ist Frankie Knuckles were jaw drop­ping good. Tuba Good­ing Jr’s extend­ing sousa­phone solo move­ments of Parliament’s Mr Wiggles were absurdly dope and way fun­nier than they should have been. The night’s most rauc­ous crowd respon­se was for Maschine and MPC spe­cial­ist Jeremy Ellis. His ‘fin­gers-so-fast-you-just-see-a-blur’ live com­pos­i­tions of J Dilla breaks and 8bit Nin­tendo samples into hard Hip-Hop and bass music sound­scapes has to be seen to be believed. I would watch a solo show by this dude.

It’s worth men­tion­ing how unfa­mil­iar the audi­ence seemed to be with many songs. If I was earli­er bemused at how little crowd the crown were chant­ing “check this illafifth dynam­ite!” or “get busy yo!,” it was espe­cially sur­pris­ing not to hear a caco­phony of voices sing along the chor­us of You Got Me or The Seed 2.0. Per­haps the lat­ter could be excused for how much every­one was dan­cing for the Roots’ clos­ing song.

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The Act Won intro­duc­tion to the show fea­tures sampled dia­logue from Spike Lee’s Mo’ Bet­ter Blues where Shad­ow Hende­r­son remarks:

“That’s right, the people don’t come because you gran­di­ose mother­fuck­ers don’t play shit that they like. If you played the shit that they like, then people would come, sim­ple as that.”

Indeed, the people came. But at the end, whil­st Black Thought was thank­ing the audi­ence for reach­ing, a woman near me echoed my sen­ti­ments when she quer­ied “is that it?”. Questlove is an incred­ible drum­mer and has sav­ant like appre­ci­ation for music his­tory so the Jimmy Fal­lon gig is a per­fect envir­on­ment for his cur­ator like sens­ib­il­it­ies. How­ever, as band lead­er for the Roots live shows and dulling recent records, his mis­man­age­ment of the group’s col­lect­ive geni­us is frus­trat­ing. Whil­st the show was fun, it was ulti­mately not the life chan­ging check­ing of a buck­et list item I was expect­ing. Then again Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson’s book of mem­oirs is called Mo META Blues (my cap­it­al­isa­tion) so may­be it’s just me that doesn’t get it.

There are enough high­lights to ensure The Roots remain a com­pel­ling and excit­ing live band. When they are back in town, I will return to the front row to see how dif­fer­ent the set might be.

 

Check out our inter­view with Black Thought From The Roots here. 

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Wasif Sayyed

Wasif Sayyed

Wasif Sayyed’s many years as a writer, rap­per, pro­moter, ment­or and hip-hop pro­du­cer have shaped him into an enthu­si­ast­ic and insight­ful cul­tur­al cryp­to­grapher. He loves read­ing and cook­ing, and can hear the whis­per of an unsheathed liquid sword from 50 paces. Twit­ter @WasifScion

About Wasif Sayyed

Wasif Sayyed
Wasif Sayyed's many years as a writer, rapper, promoter, mentor and hip-hop producer have shaped him into an enthusiastic and insightful cultural cryptographer. He loves reading and cooking, and can hear the whisper of an unsheathed liquid sword from 50 paces. Twitter @WasifScion

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