Acing the Live Test

The special limited edition set includes a live version of Rahzel's "All I Know" from his album Make the Music 2000.

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

now.