Back in the mid ’90s when The Roots were unknowns on the national music scene but already buzzing in the underground, they were criticized in the pages of my magazine. Even though we had recently published a glowing multi-page feature on the band in 1994, another writer later ridiculed them for playing covers of classic hip-hop tracks in their live show. A Roots member by the name of Brother Question—soon to be known as ?uestlove, the de facto band leader and icon—took umbrage to say the least and wrote an angry letter to the editor which we published. 15 years later and The Roots are one of music’s most enduring hip-hop bands, precisely because of their chameleon-like musical artistry perfected over a decade and a half.
Saturday night, at the Sunset Strip’s Key Club, ?uestlove and co. proved once again why they are one of a kind in modern music, hip-hop or otherwise. The 6th Annual Roots Jam Session was absolutely on fire from midnight on. It hit me while watching from the crowd that, without any shade of gimmickry or second fiddling, The Roots are simply the best jam band around. And I don’t mean that in the Phish or even Grateful Dead sense, but in terms of amazing live collaborative improvisation and all around on-stage teamwork that stretches beyond into an industry family that runs the musical gamut. Last night’s line-up of wall-to-wall Grammy winners and nominees—from John Legend to Mos Def to Foreign Exchange—cut loose for three hours.
Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, the Twitterati luminary with over a million followers barely put his drum sticks down the whole night, seemingly only to tweet a few updates. Meanwhile lyricist Black Thought paired with Mos Def and other MCs throughout the night, but this was far more than a hip-hop show. D. Woods from Diddy’s Danity Kane, after asking the crowd if she do some alternative rock, unleashed a stellar Linda Perry a la Four Non Blonde’s “What’s Up”. Big spending platinum producer and former Roots keyboardist Scott Storch joined his former mates on stage with notes so perfect you forgot what a mess his life was a year ago. And even though previous Jam participants Erykah Badu and Jill Scott weren’t there, mainstays like neo soul vocalist Bilal and Grammy nominee Estelle more than apply stole the night. Roots guitarist the virtuosic Captain Kirk Douglas absolutely channeled Hendrix while playing a solo through the legs of the Estelle at the close of her set. Or maybe he was just impressing audience member Slash Hudson, who ?uestlove tweeted the next morning after seeing his Facebook post, saying, “Dude, next time come onstage.”
The Roots are, in the simplest terms, glue to what is ordinarily a fragmented industry of competing artists, bands, MCs and musicians. As a backup group or even with just ?uestlove on drums, they give a continuity of sound and jam band camaraderie that hasn’t been heard in decades–all while never becoming background noise. When I tweeted last night asking what bands from the 60s and 70s were the equivalent to the Roots ambidextrous sound and spirit of outreach, the answers ranged from Parliament to the Allman Brothers. There’s no doubt this once hip-hop cover band sits in legendary company today.
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