Roots Re-nourish Hip-Hop Onstage

Rappers use live band to take music back to its beginnings.

CHICAGO -- When Roots frontman Black Thought called out to the "soldiers of hip-hop" in the audience at the House of Blues on Sunday, it was clear he wasn't modeling his vision on Uncle Sam's troops. He was out to recruit a Salvation Army for the music.

This evangelist was looking for his own type of spiritual converts -- regiments of hip-hop fans, proselytizers for the culture.

"Look at the mix of ages, races and cultures -- everybody from skateboarders to lawyers, politicians to doctors to hustlers," the 26-year-old rapper (born Tariq Trotter) said. "We all came together peacefully. And you got hip-hop music to thank for bringing y'all together."

While they were ostensibly there to promote their critically acclaimed Things Fall Apart (1999), the Roots' real mission was singing hallelujah for the musical form they love -- and, in turn, to do their part to rescue it from the dens of gangsta-ism and uninspired sampling with a live show grounded in instrumental dexterity and showmanship.

From the get-go, the Roots have turned heads by their sheer existence as a live band in a genre dominated by studio manipulation, and therein still lies the most fascinating aspect of their live show. Ironically, they're at the top of their game when they sound like DJs.

On "The Next Movement," for instance, Kamal broke off clipped keyboard figures from his electric piano, while Hub (born Leon Hubbard) rumbled repetitive lines on his bass as if he'd just pulled them off an old funk record. ?uestlove (Ahmir Khalib Thompson) played machine-perfect drum measures, punctuated by a snare tuned high to sound identical to today's beat machines. Meanwhile, band affiliate (and Schoolz of Thought member) Scratch threw down an amazing display of turntablist calisthenics -- entirely with his mouth.

The Roots' live show turns on its head Chuck D's 1987 declaration that "Run-D.M.C. first said a DJ could be a band" (from Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise"). They take a music that was revolutionary partly because a single player behind the decks could get the job done and infuse it with renewed vigor, using players once considered superfluous.

One can't help wondering why the Roots bother with the setup, particularly if the band is bent on making noise like a spinner behind the wheels of steel. It all goes back to salvation.

Just as that quintessentially American creation, rock 'n' roll, was saved in the early '60s by a bunch of Brits, and just as Muddy Waters led blues fans back to the acoustic Delta by electrifying the music in Chicago, the Roots are preserving hip-hop's innovative heritage by reimagining it in a way its founders brushed aside.

That's the big picture. On the street level, the Roots' ensemble sound makes for an engaging live show. On Sunday, "Table of Contents" was wrought in fits and starts, with Black Thought and his crew stopping on a dime, their hands thrown in the air. "Step Into the Relm" saw the band assume pouncing positions on their haunches, slowly rising up as the audience's hearts rose with them.

They got some noteworthy assists that underscored the show's focus on community.

Like-minded Chicago rapper Common took the mic for the title cut from his 1994 album Resurrection and several other songs.

Jill Scott, who shares a hometown, Philadelphia, with the Roots, stepped up to duet with Black Thought on "You Got Me"

(RealAudio excerpt). Scott penned the infectious chorus that Erykah Badu sings on the song's studio version. Onstage, she used the hook as a launching pad for a soulful exercise in scatting that found much of the crowd hanging on each syllable.

A 35-minute series of solos by drummer ?uestlove, keyboardist Kamal and bassist Hub unfortunately closed the two-hour show on a note of self-indulgence. But for the most part, the Roots' school-taught, sophisticated musicianship is, ironically, taking the hip-hop concert back to the simple, street-level show at the music's roots -- in an era when DJs are often relegated to scratching over albums with the vocals removed and rappers have assumed the role of karaoke singers.

"From the rhymes to the live music to the beats, that's the true hip-hop," 24-year-old fan Steve Henderson said after Sunday's show. "They're just showing love between all the elements."

Chalk up another convert.