The Principals of It

Photo courtesy Universal Music Group The Roots are to hip-hop what the Clash was topunk rock—meaning like the Clash, the Roots took a rebel form of music and stretched it around influences that weren't supposed to fit, stretched it even to a point where it set a new line to cross, stretched it finally to the point where they changed how you could make hip-hop. Because when the Roots dropped samples and preprogrammed beats for their own live instruments, it was like how the Clash changed rock N roll.

They started in 1987, when drummer Ahmir Thompson (?uestlove) and rapper Tariq Trotter (Black Thought) found themselves in the principal's office at Philadelphia's High School for Creative Performing Arts—while waiting for a stern lecture, Thompson found out that Trotter was a gifted rapper, and Trotter found out Thompson was a trained jazz drummer. So of course they decided to start a band together, though frequent lineup change-ups kept the Roots from their final form until shortly before 1999's Things Fall Apart. It wasn't until the band toured Europe in 1993—mixing old-school hip-hop with their own live jazz sound—that they began to build a reputation. They put out their first self-produced album, Organix, then got signed to Geffen and recorded Do You Want More in 1995. And it feels like they've been on the road ever since, touring with everyone from Moby to Rage Against the Machine to the Dave Matthews Band.

So they're tighter than a mosquito's tweeter live: core members Thompson, Leonard Hubbard on bass and Kamal Gray on keyboards (previously with two now-famous producers Scott Storch and James Poyser on keyboards) are top-notch musicians, and Trotter's stories of love, backstabbing and decaying promise for urban youth make him shine as one of this generation's top MCs. But except for a 1999 radio hit (“You Got Me,” featuring Erykah Badu and Eve), critical success and respect from their peers is all they've gotten so far, with popularity lagging way behind what they deserve. In fact, the artists that ?uestlove alone has produced—D'Angelo, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake and Joss Stone—have left more of an imprint on popular music than the man himself.

But the Roots' latest album, The Tipping Point, finds them picking up where they left off on 2002's Phrenology, cracking parameters and renewing the grandeur of hip-hop, making them just as relevant if not more than anybody else in mainstream music. On their past three albums, they've delved into drum-and-bass, speed metal and more, with deftness no one else has tried to match. Their newest is a cover of the Sly and the Family Stone classic “Everybody Is a Star,” complete with MC-ing and live samples of the original song—and that's how hip-hop got started: play old records with good hooks and drop rhymes over them, almost completing a circular trip back to the, um, roots for the Roots.


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