Being routinely called the Best Live Act In Hip-Hop is a little like being the Best Post-WWII Cubs Playoff Team: not only is the talent pool something that could charitably be called shallow, it's pro
Being routinely called the Best Live Act In Hip-Hop is a little like being the Best Post-WWII Cubs Playoff Team: not only is the talent pool something that could charitably be called shallow, it's probably not even one you want to admit being a part of all the time. Notable exceptions aside -- Jurassic 5, Tribe, Lady Sovereign sometimes -- live hip-hop has secured a reputation as less a cohesive musical experience and more a drill in making the left side say "hey" and the right side say "ho," and identifying who, if anyone, runs this motherf*cker.
But in the case of the appropriately self-christened legendary Roots crew from Philadelphia, the metaphor is faulty for a different reason altogether. The Roots aren't the best band in hip-hop because their peers tend to do 20-minute sets that are half hype man; they're the best band in hip-hop because they use it as a launching pad into all manner of different musical worlds.
Closing down the initial leg of the tour behind their August debut on Def Jam, "Game Theory," the ever-evolving group -- now a tight six-piece -- rocked this snug club stage in various guises. They played the sick-grooving bar band, decorating tracks from "Game Theory" with snippets of "Jungle Boogie," "Black Betty" and "Good Times." They were the Funkadelic acolytes that churned up an insanely groovy reworking of "The Seed 2.0." They were heavy psychedelic rockers throughout a 10-minute channeling of Hendrix by guitarist Kirk Douglas (no, really). They were the old-school devotees that sewed together a live golden-age mix tape that comprised over a dozen required listening assignments from a Hip-Hop 101 class.
But most of all, they remained pure hip-hop heads who, like tireless activists, are invested in returning the music back to its core values. Despite the blingy connotations of the label it came out on, "Game Theory" is easily the Roots' darkest and maybe most cohesive record to date; where its predecessors enjoyed slow-rolling organic grooves, the new set's tracks are invested with a palpable gloom, partly due to its grimier production and its political over- and undertones.
That said, live, the Roots ironed out a lot of the record's subtleties, so the hulking, near-creepy chorus of "In The Music" became less an isolated-feeling crazy-man rant and more a club-ready singalong. "Don't Feel Right" and "Long Time" similarly meandered over from the realm of the sneakily moody into one where their choruses get several hundred clubgoers bouncing in unison.
The Roots spent most of their two-hour gig on that recent material; older tracks like "Mellow My Man" and "The Next Movement" made requisite appearances, but for the most part the band zeroed in on the recent record before giving the show over to several (mostly) successful, if indulgent, detours.
By way of showing off their chops, they weaved tracks together, dove from one song to the next, added sonic headers and footers, and in a few cases stapled Kool and the Gang tracks onto their funked-up originals. They do this with what appears to be the amount of effort it takes the rest of us to pour a bowl of oatmeal. Drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson is one of the most automatic musicians working today. He runs things with such capable authority that he's able to regularly order more bottles of water from his seat without coming anywhere close to losing the beat. Bassist Leonard "Hub" Hubbell is as perfect a counterpoint as one could ask for; Kamal on the keys and additional percussionist Knuckles are right where they should be.
For his part, lead MC Black Thought takes occasional shots for lyrical inconsistency, but there were none to be found on his rat-a-tat vocals throughout "Web" (the show's opener, performed by just he and ?uest like they were Audio Two), "Don't Say Nuthin'" and "Double Trouble." Thought's one of those MCs whose presence lends weight to even his party jams, and when the band veered into good-natured jam-band theatrics (30 jokey seconds of "Don't Fear The Reaper" and "Smooth Criminal"), it helped humanize a role and a genre that, from a radio standpoint, favors as much inhumanization as possible.
The Roots close their shows with that good-natured cowbell-y looseness and that massive Hip-Hop 101 medley, which careens from "Push It" to "Method Man" to "Shimmy Shimmy Ya" to Talib Kweli's "Get By" to "Gold Digger" (and also to "Shake Rattle and Roll") by way of showing off the band's skills, sure. But after 11 years and only a few missteps, they also seem to do it to argue for the genuine roots of rap, music that a pre-show hype man half-jokingly argued was hip-hop for anyone over the age of 25 ("Snoop was not the first rapper!" he admonished). As such, when the medley stooped to include newer, forgettable clunkers by Yung Joc and Lil Jon, you saw they they're being politely inclusive. But it's hard to improve on the music's roots, and at this point in their "Game," there's no need for anything but what they do.
Here is the Roots' set list:
"Don't Say Nuthin'"
"In the Music > Jungle Boogie"
"Don't Feel Right"
"Mellow My Man"
Bass solo > "Good Times"
"Act Too ... The Love Of My Life"
"You Got Me"
Guitar solo > "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" / "My Favorite Things"
"The Next Movement"
"Black Betty" > "The Seed 2.0"