The Roots: You Can’t Stop Us (Relix Revisited)
Movement in all its forms, whether physical, mental or spiritual, has been an overarching theme to many a Roots project. To that end, each member of the band is constantly making connections—to art, music, films, philosophical tracts, psychological treatises and sociological studies—that will often be folded into the overall aesthetic of an album. 1999’s Things Fall Apart, for example, took its title from a 1958 novel by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, and features a cover photo (one of five different covers when the disc was originally released) of two black teenagers being chased by riot police in New York’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, circa 1964.
The Roots are a restless, inquisitive bunch. It’s in their nature not only to question so-called reality, but to provoke discussion and insight, and Rising Down is no different. William T. Vollman’s seven-volume study of the history of violence inspired the new album’s title, while the cover image—a post-Reconstruction poster first printed in 1898—offers a chilling glimpse of racist propaganda that Thompson insists is still clinging to life in the U.S. today.
“It should really be called Fear of a Black Planet, ” he says. “Those posters were used down south to put fear in the hearts of former plantation owners and such—fear of what would happen if slaves were indeed free. And it really ties into what’s going on today as far as ‘not enough experience’ being the new fear-oriented sound bite to describe what’s supposedly wrong with [Barack] Obama running the White House.”
For all the mental stimulation and political discourse that drives a Roots album, the information is ultimately inseparable from the music, and this is where the group truly excels. As a live unit, no other hip-hop band can touch them (and in fact, it could be argued that as far as a fully tricked-out touring juggernaut goes, no other hip-hop band even exists). They’ve also routinely demonstrated that they can give any established rock band a serious run for their its—if not an outright run for the exits. For Thompson, who has been playing drums since he was a child, the key elements of the band’s live delivery are dedication, practice and an openness to trying new things.
“We’ve always heard, ‘Oh, you guys are the Grateful Dead of hip-hop,’” Thompson says. “I think a lot of that’s by default because we’re the only band of this caliber doing that type of show. But in the past year, like with every album, I’ve made it a point to say, ‘Okay, this has to be the album where we jump in the pool,’ and by that I mean this is where we start to take some real chances. And it’s scary. It’s one thing to have an agenda that you get comfortable with, but the fear of the unknown—like, what happens if we were to change a song like this, for example—that’s something different.”
The Roots are testing these improvisational waters on their opening slot for Erykah Badu’s current Vortex tour, where the nearly three-hour set they usually play on their own has been hammered down to a razor-sharp point. With just 45 minutes to pull out all the stops and get their music across, Thompson and Trotter both agree that the adjustment tends to bring out the best in the band.
“When we’re faced with time restraints,” Trotter says, “that’s when we just wreck shit from beginning to end. The clock ticks down to zero, and the stage is ablaze. We feel like when we’ve only got 40 or 50 minutes, some of those shows are the most memorable. You just come out with fortune in your eyes, like a bull seeing red, you know?”
LIVE AND DIRECT
Outside New York’s Radio City Music Hall, a steady spring rain is falling, but that hasn’t kept more than 6,000 fans from selling out this particular Friday night show in early May—the fourth date of a nationwide tour that The Roots have shared with Badu. And true to their word, Thompson and Trotter bring the band out swinging with an explosive version of “You Got Me”—the hit from Things Fall Apart that featured Badu on the original. The choice leaves everyone guessing as to whether she’ll come out and sing on it tonight (and even though she doesn’t, the crowd fills in for her). By the time Thompson fires up the beat for Phrenology’s “The Seed (2.0),” which segues into a hyper-funky rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s classic “Move on Up,” everyone in the band has taken a solo, with Captain Kirk providing some memorable highlights on wah wah guitar. When they’re through, the stage is indeed on fire. It’s also worth noting that, two years ago during the band’s two-night stand at the famed venue, Thompson told Time Out New York that, “Our dream has always been to be the black Phish, and this seems like it’s two seconds away from being that.”
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Ron Sexsmith visits the Relix office to perform a tune from his latest record Forever Endeavor.
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