The Roots: You Can’t Stop Us (Relix Revisited)
The next studio album from The Roots is set for release next Tuesday. Today we look back to 2008 and this piece written at the time of their Rising Down album.
Someone forgot to crank up the air conditioning in Studio A at Legacy Recording on West 48th Street. Ordinarily that wouldn’t be a bad thing, considering it’s still late March outside and there’s a cool crosstown breeze blowing through midtown Manhattan. But there are more than a hundred people packed into the studio’s main space for a listening party, with hundreds more in the hallway and out on the street waiting to get in, and the air is turning—well, thick. Bottled water is disappearing by the gallon from the makeshift bar that’s set up in the small vocal booth, and with each new arrival on the scene, everyone else seems to wither a little more under the stifling humidity.
The tableau looks quite different in the control room, however, where a smaller entourage is milling about in much cooler confines, temperature and vibe-wise. On a couch in front of the gigantic mixing console, drummer and producer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson is calmly holding court with a few friends, while in another corner of the room, his longtime comrade-in-arms Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter is nodding his head in conversation, his gaze characteristically steady and intent. I get to thinking that I probably should have stuck with executive producer Rich Nichols, who got me in here in the first place, but then it dawns on me: Sure, it’s hot as hell out here, but maybe that’s the best way to dig a listening session for the latest joint by The Roots.
“This is probably the most, for lack of a better term, meat-and-potatoes hip-hop album we’ve done,” Thompson says a few weeks later, ruminating over the sonic contours and subject matter of Rising Down, the Philadelphia-based outfit’s tenth outing. Thompson was integrally involved in the production (along with Nichols) of the album’s 14 tracks—all of which embody a vintage nod to hip-hop’s heyday, when noisy soundscapes, sparse instrumentation and fat-bottomed beats ruled the roost.
“I think it’s important this time out to have a back-to-basics sound,” he clarifies, “just to offset the political nature of the record. It’s a little different from the frills of 11-minute free jazz solos [“Water”] and those types of experiments that we did on Phrenology . Here, the music is the sugar that helps the lyrical content go down. I’m not saying that we we’re trying to make a 20-year comparison, or an updated version, of Public Enemy’s [It Takes a] Nation of Millions [to Hold Us Back] , but that is definitely an album where the music grabbed you first, and then it was like, ‘Wait—what the hell did he just say?’”
The Roots have made a 17-year career out of mixing music and message, and they’ve done it while carving out a niche all to themselves. In the tradition of such Philly icons as Gamble & Huff (founders of the legendary soul imprint Philadelphia International), The Delfonics, Stanley Clarke and Schoolly D, the band has always functioned with a keenly honed sense of songcraft and musicianship, absorbing influences from across the spectrum—jazz, funk, rock, dub, avant-garde and beyond—to create an edgy and alternative hip-hop amalgam that stands as a constant challenge to what a hip-hop group is “supposed” to sound like.
Rising Down raises the stakes once again. As the successor to 2006’s dark, introspective and sonically psychedelic Game Theory, the new album weaves an in-your-face narrative tapestry led by Black Thought, who tackles such issues as prison double standards (“Criminal”), addiction (“I Can’t Help It”) and staying true to your creative vision at all costs (“I Will Not Apologize,” dedicated to Fela Kuti and based on a classic Afrobeat sample).
Musically, the set is stark, raw and stripped-down, with ?uestlove’s uncannily steady grooves providing the heartbeat throughout, while gnarly, saw-toothed synthesizers and the juicy basslines of Owen Biddle (replacing longtime bassist Leonard “Hub” Hubbard) bring up the low end. Kamal Gray (keyboards), “Captain” Kirk Douglas (guitars) and Frank “Knuckles” Walker (percussion) are the veterans who round out the band’s core, with new member Damon Bryson (a.k.a. Tuba Gooding Jr.) stepping in on sousaphone, of all things, on Black Thought’s blistering rap “75 Bars,” which has been lighting up cyberspace since the song’s video was leaked back in February.
“I feel like on Game Theory, we brushed on it,” Trotter says, referring to the more urgent and cohesive political thread that The Roots have explored on their last several albums, going back to 2004’s The Tipping Point (though it’s always been present to various degrees). “But with this album, we figured out how to address all these issues and still make it cohesive. I feel like this album sounds like 2008, you know what I’m saying? And not the United States in 2008, but it sounds like the music of a world citizen at this particular point in time. The climate of the world is a lot less bright and musical now than it has been in the past. This record is reflective of that, in that we’re taking you on a journey from a darker stage to one that’s more hopeful at the end.”
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