The legendary Roots
crew have been able to amass a cult following for almost 30 years. Forming in 1989, together band leaders Tariq Trotter (Black Thought) and Questlove have disrupted the Hip-Hop genre through redefining street rap by placing a stress on impeccable beat making. Yet, oftentimes the Roots lay under the radar to the public eye. To understand their importance to the image and progression of modern hip-hop we must break down their 2000 album Things Fall Apart
. This defining album cemented the Roots sound that pushed rap to higher potential.
PART 1: STYLE
The Roots use the human voice as a carrier for unbottled, raw emotion. Vocals take center stage and an undeniable confidence in each lyric is spat out with fearless intention. In the song "Without a Doubt" an effect of echoing lyrics by feeding in a layer of off-balanced vocals causes a rap phrase to only sound through the right speaker. This creates a layered duality that captures attention by breaking from the solo flow of rap, emphasizing the section of lyrics. This is just one aspect of how the Roots are able to capture such vivid sounds in each of their songs. They utilize a variety of audible techniques and execute them with a precision that can only be done in their band form.
PART 2: BEAT MAKERS
Their collective combines eight talented musicians, each mastering their instrument to a mesh that never leaves a beat empty. "Aint Sayin' Nothin' New" captures the Roots' versatile sound spectrum by their ability to transition from a casual light swing to a rigid street beat led by bass. The back and forth motion between these styles throughout the four minutes should be a difficult switch of two voices, yet they manage to flow smoothly between one another. As the album plays on each song carries over similar colors and moods—of the overcast, brick-lined city streets in Philadelphia.
PART 3: EXPERIMENTALISM
Along with stellar beats, the Roots experiment with human vocals and instrumentals in non-traditional ways. They twist, distort, and scratch a vocal in "3rd Acts: ? Vs. Scratch 2 … Electric Bungaloo" past coherence and it is an odd, unpredictable sound that is representative of its title. Experimentation was a conscious decision for this album as lead vocalist Tariq Trotter explained in interview with Complex Magazine,
"Doing some musical shit because we had the power to do so… We wanted to do something slightly fresher than your average bear," and it shows. With this mentality, the Roots produced textures that are not average in hip-hop. Each song is richly layered, containing a concoction of instrumentals that seems to be thrown together in improvisation—a jam-session of sort that is reminiscent of jazz. The instrumentals manifest in their own melodies, producing a polyphonic texture that is kept in control by rigid tempos. "100% Dundee" starts with a cluster of beatbox, keyboard, and a jingle that ascends and descends, trickling along the way. The vocals stream their way through with dexterity, yet never overreach to disrupt the flow of instrumentals that provide platform for such dense lyrics.
PART 4: MAD RAP
Trotter busts his way through each song with an aggression fueled by a bad aftertaste of oppression and discrimination. His ability to unleash a full verse lasting over a full minute in "Table of Contents (Part 1 & 2)" puts the beat under his full control. The anger and an attitude resembles the culture of battle rapping in Trotter's hometown of Philadelphia. And actually in "Dynamite" the back and forth aspect of battle rap comes through. Trotter goes verse for verse with rapper ELO the Cosmic Eye. The form in this song breaks away from the traditional verse-chorus as Trotter and ELO each switch off after laying out a short burst of lyrics.