You could probably count the number of live hip-hop albums on the fingers of
both your hands and now you can count the number that are actually
good on one finger. The Philadelphia-based Roots, long known for putting
on a scorching live show, have released The Roots Come Alive
not a single live show, but a collection of tracks from the last several
years' worth of tours. If you're looking for the ultimate Roots live album,
you're not going to get it even the liner notes admit that, when
picking selections, "the best songs were actually the ones with flaws,"
as when substitute keyboardist Scott Storch missed a cue or an unexpected
freestyle from rapper Black Thought.
So, warts and all, The Roots Come Alive is blissfully uneven,
capturing one of hip-hop's strongest acts live or in the studio
at both their tightest and sloppiest. If it's not the slice of
perfection you've always wanted, it's a very real kind of document, with
no frills except the Roots' already exacting sound quality. Opening up
with a twenty-year-old recording of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious
Five ("It ain't no party unless each and every one of you try to make it
a party"), the band slams into the "hot hot music" of "The Next Movement"
and doesn't let up for another seventy-odd minutes.
Their entire career is represented, from Organix's "Essaywhuman?!!"
a redundant choice, since it was a live track on that album and
repeated in a different version on the follow-up, Do You Want More
to the post-Things Fall Apart track "The Ultimate" (RealAudio
excerpt). Tracks from earlier albums, such as "Proceed" (RealAudio
excerpt), from More, sound relatively unaltered, save the
absence of non-touring vocalist Malik B, while the more studio-savvy later
work, such as "100% Dundee" is streamlined a bit for the live treatment. "You Got Me" (RealAudio
excerpt) gets a real work-over it's the most altered song
in the set, with excellent vocals from Jill Scott and one of the album's
few real jams (in the Grateful Dead sense, that is).
"Human Turntable" Scratch whose specialty is replicating the sound
of turntable scratching with his voice is all over this record,
adding a little extra dimension here and there, along with long-standing
Root Rahzel the Godfather of Noyze. At first Scratch's stylings are hard
to tell apart from what he's imitating, but eventually his bag of tricks
seems a little on the light side, though not exactly empty. Rahzel fans
should make sure to pick up the double-disc limited edition version of
Come Alive as it includes along with two video tracks
a live version of "All I Know," originally from his Make the Music
2000. In addition, the limited edition moves the studio version of
"What You Want" from the soundtrack to "The Best Man" to
disc two in order to make room for an extended freestyle/studio freak-out
on disc one.
The real weak spot of Come Alive, sad to say, is MC Black Thought.
Part of his strength in the studio is his unbeatable precision his
lines crackle with a pinpoint attack that isn't duplicated anywhere else
in hip-hop. Live, his enthusiasm which is huge, showing a real
love for performing can obscure his delivery, and his voice can't
maintain the same flavor. Truth be told, he just doesn't quite sound like
himself. But even despite this weakness, the only thing the record is
really missing is the Roots' fabled "Hip-Hop 101," an often ten-minute
medley of hip-hop history. Copyright's a killer, I guess, but there won't
be a definitive Roots live album without it.
That said, Come Alive arrives just in time for holiday shopping,
and it won't disappoint even the Scroogiest of Roots fans (maybe it'll
even win over a few new recruits). It is the liner notes promise
only the first of many future editions, so put in your requests