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.
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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