For Christmas 1998, my eldest sister purchased for me the Barenaked Ladies Stunt. It wasn’t my first album – that honor somehow belongs to Aqua’s Aquarium – but it sticks in my mind for one reason: though my sister bought me the whole album, rather than a single, I sat in my room for what seemed like weeks and listened to one song, “One Week, on repeat. By that, I don’t mean that I listened to it a few times before moving on to the rest of the album, popped out the CD in favor of another band’s album, went outside like a normal child, or even went to the bathroom. I stayed in that room and listened to “One Week” ad nauseam. It didn’t matter that I had to go to the bathroom – there were dresser drawers for that. It didn’t matter that I got hungry – I pulled up floorboards and chewed up those bad boys without hesitation. It didn’t matter that my other sister politely mentioned (with a raised voice and thinly veiled threats, most likely) that, hey, Pete, since the Barenaked Ladies put forth the effort to produce a full album, and my sister was nice enough to purchase it for me, maybe I should listen to the whole fucking thing before I die a mysterious death.
Alas, it seems evident that I am a member of the one of the first generations to largely eschew listening to albums in their entirety, choosing instead to export only my favorite songs to blank CDs or—now that I’m no longer twelve years old—iTunes playlists. I’m torn on this fact; on one hand, if an album doesn’t grab me from start to finish, why bother listening to the whole thing when I can get all I want out of it with four tracks? Conversely, many albums need the audience to consume them as a singular product in order for listeners to realize fully the project’s value. The album’s point becomes clearer when the listener commits to the album from onset to terminus. One’s understanding and appreciation for an album grows with numerous, full run-throughs.
To the surprise of absolutely nobody who has listened to The Roots, their newest effort, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, is one of those albums. There is no “One Week” or “Barbie Girl” (thank the gods), but at a succinct runtime of 33:22, one has no trouble getting from the opening notes (courtesy of the legendary Nina Simone) to the album’s concluding track, “Tomorrow,” which operates as, well, a “soul solo of sorts” for Newark’s own Raheem DeVaughn.
Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove By: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Ben Greenman Grand Central Publishing, 2013
The Roots saved me.
Years ago, when I was but an impressionable young man, my first tastes of hip-hop led me down the path of artists like Lil’ Jon and his merry band of Eastside Boyz, Da Backwudz (remember this song?), Trillville (a squeaking bed? How subtle.), and the like. In one’s formative years, one’s musical milieu is of the utmost importance, and at first I had only hip-hop’s dredges pumping on my portable CD player. But then an angel appeared in my life, taking the musical form of “Seed 2.0.” That classic Roots song served as the catalyst in my effort to get my hands on everything The Roots ever made or would make in the future. Through The Roots came a love for artists like Kanye West, who in turn led me to Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Common, Dilla, Slum Village and basically every other worthwhile hip-hop act I’ve ever enjoyed. When it comes to me personally – and I’m sure it’s the same or similar for many others – The Roots couldn’t have thought up a better name.
Needless to say, I’m a fan, and I approached the book as such. Hell, I even named my intermittently-updated blog after one of my favorite Roots joints. (This is my one plug, promise.)
When it came to my attention that the drummer of the Roots, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, had co-written a memoir of sorts, I had to buy a copy immediately. Hell, even if Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove ended up as the worst book in recent memory, I can’t think of many people whose coffers I’d rather fill (assuming his coffers can only handle $20, that is).
Fortunately, Mo’ Meta Blues did not end up as the worst book I’ve ever read. Quite the contrary in fact; ?uestlove’s debut effort, co-written by Ben Greenman, serves as a comprehensive look at hip-hop from its origin to the present, as well as an in depth look at how The Roots – hip hop’s resident “gay cousin at a Bible Belt family reunion”—managed to remain relevant in the music industry for two decades when rappers typically come and go quicker than a premature ejaculator who hears his girlfriend’s father thundering up the stairs, wondering why a grown man is in his 16-year-old daughter’s room. Or, you know, something along those lines.
If you think about it, ?uesto grew up at the perfect time to write this book. He recalls exactly where and when he heard hip-hop for the first time:
“I was there when they premiered The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” on WDAS 105.3 on your FM dial. I was at home with my sister, and the two of us stared at the radio the whole time it was happening; it was our equivalent of the old radio drama War of the Worlds.”
Fitting that an individual whose group will one day be immortalized in hip-hop would have such a reaction to the experience, and Thompson recounts where he was and how he felt at some of hip-hop’s most crucial, trans-formative moments. Furthermore, as The Roots established themselves in the realm of hip-hop, ?uestlove and Co. had the opportunity to both meet and associate with countless musical artists, including some of the greats: Alicia Keys, Erykah Badu, Prince, Pharrell, Stevie Wonder. As an insider, he has gathered stories that only someone in such a position could. Jamming in the studio with Pharrell, being “friend zoned” by Alicia Keys – and hey, if you read this book for one storyline, ?uest’s multiple Prince encounters are must-reads. All I’ll say here is that, when reading ?uestlove talk about the one time he went roller skating with the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince (aka “Prince”), it’s not hard to imagine him putting his feet on Charlie Murphy’s couch. Or slapping Charlie Murphy. Or really doing any of the things he’s alleged to have done to Charlie Murphy. Or doing cocaine. You get the point.
Ahmir Thompson is a nerd, and he approaches Mo’ Meta Blues only as a music nerd would. “Nerd” is too weak, too dismissive, actually. Thompson has Rainman-level skills when it comes to his passion. His ability to retain as many artists, songs, albums and real-life situations with so many of the specifics—not to mention the many drum beats he’s got stored up in his iconic afro—is remarkable, and such a display enriches his story telling throughout the book. ?uestlove’s words evoke his readily apparent passion for all things music—for hip-hop, of course, but also for the music he experienced growing up in a strong Christian household in 1970’s and as a member of his family’s traveling band. And he’s dedicated his life to music and, more specifically, hip-hop. As ?uestlove goes through meeting Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter (MC of The Roots), in the principal’s office (another great scene of MMB), the forming of the band, touring, album drops, critical and commercial successes and disappointments (“selling-CDs-from-a-duffel-bag broke”), and working with Jimmy Fallon, the reader is struck with a strong sense of Thompson’s love for true hip-hop and a desire to keep it in its purest form. Arguably my favorite quotation from MMB speaks to that notion, and though it doesn’t actually come from ?uestlove himself (guest “speakers,” such as Roots manager Rich Nichols in this particular case, drop by the book from time to time to lend their thoughts and opinions to the project, which helps to give MMB a unique feel), I’m sure he wouldn’t argue:
“I figure it this way: when Sam Cooke sang ‘a change is gonna come,’ I didn’t foresee that change being one that would allow for niggas to be rapping about ‘busting bitches out wit dey super sperm.’”
When writing reviews, I try to find at least one negative. I won’t nitpick to an absurd degree, but there’s almost always something in art that’s imperfect. And because I’m the authority on these matters—I do have a Bachelor’s degree in English, after all—I strive to find it and point it out for the world to see, because apparently I’m incredibly insecure about myself in every conceivable way and to do so makes me feel better about myself. Anyway, the one place where the author loses me from time to time is in his “Quest Loves Records” segments, in which he outlines his favorite records from years past, predominantly from his childhood. While it’s certainly interesting to get a glimpse into Thompson’s past music life, I found the many lists of many artists (some of whom I’m entirely unfamiliar with) both a bit daunting and distracting. If I one day go back and acquaint myself to these albums, I’ll be happy he included them, but this first time around I just wished that he’d stick to the storytelling.
Still, if that’s my main criticism, chances are the book is pretty damn good.
I imagine the main question any reader wants a reviewer to answer also stands as the most obvious question: Should I read it? Well reader, yes, yes you should. One should not take for granted the chance to read the words of a musical genius and one of the most widely celebrated individuals in the industry today as he speaks on all of the aforementioned topics, as well as race, ingenious ways to hide things from your parents, hip-hop names (including how he decided on “?uestlove”), DJing, the Roots’ beef with Notorious B.I.G. (who knew?), the creative subtleties of celebrity “walk-in” music on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, etc. All-in-all, this borders on a must-read for hip-hop fans. If you’re a Roots fan, it’s an absolute must-read. Of course it is. You already knew that.
Without The Roots, who knows where I’d be in regards to my musical taste. Fellow Roots revelers, where would you be? Rocking snapbacks, popping molly and listening to Drake? Or perhaps Chief Keef, or whoever the hell current serves as leader of misogynistic, ignorant, misguided, drugged out, rudimentary bullshit rap.
So I say it again: The Roots saved us. ?uestlove, always stuck in the back and yet fully front and center, saved us, and Mo’ Meta Blues tells us how it all came to be.
 Not to mention five bowls back in high school.
Ever since the Roots Crew became the house band for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in 2007, they have been everywhere. Since 2007 they have released four studio albums: How I Got Over, Wake Up! (With John Legend), Betty Wright: The Movie (With Betty Wright) and Undun. Furthermore, Questlove gigs as a DJ every chance he gets, writes biographies and made Twitter cool. Black Thought backs up hip-hop royalty on Fallon, slays bars on tracks such as “Bird’s Eye View” and is very involved with his community Foundation called GrassROOTS.
On top of all of this, the Legendary Roots Crew has seen their annual two-day festival called “The Roots Picnic” grow, have given back to the Philadelphia community and hosted huge, nationally televised Fourth of July jam concerts. They are everywhere, splitting time between NYC, Philly, going on tour and putting out amazing music. In fact, this fall they are set to release another collaborative effort, this time with Elvis Costello, and have another full length album on the way.
This past April, their album Things Fall Apart officially reached platinum status. Released in 1999, Things Fall Apart is at times raw, yet polished. Considering how the Root’s career has changed over time, their classic record still has much to offer and sheds a great deal of light on how the group has managed to keep their creative integrity.
Recorded at the height of the Soulquarians era and featuring a slew of artists, Things Fall Apart has so much to offer by way of lyricism and musicality. There are tracks such as “You Got Me” with Erykah Badu and Eve that beautifully describe the love and the trust needed for a functional relationship. On “Step Into The Realm,” “Adrenaline” and “and “Without A Doubt” Malik B., Dice Raw and Black Thought drop unforgettable lines. Meanwhile, Common and Yasiin Bey (f.k.a. Mos Def) drop by to contribute two of the more memorable tracks, “Act Too…Love Of My Life” and “Double Trouble.” There is even space made for Ursula Rucker to read her hauntingly picturesque poetry on “The Return To Innocence Lost”, describing abuse and grief in the way only poetry can.
From a production standpoint Questlove’s drums are on point, always providing the perfect balance of kick and snare. The keyboards and guitar sounds are blended perfectly with the heavy hip-hop boom bap with help from James Poyser and D’angelo. There is assistance from the likes of Scott Storch and J Dilla on the production side. However, let’s not forget that we are talking about the Roots and live instrumentation was used.
In the end, Things Fall Apart is considered a hip-hop classic and arguably the best album by the Legendary Roots Crew. In my opinion, this is absolutely true but there is more to this record. Things Fall Apart serves as an example of the commitment to quality ingrained within the Roots psyche. They may be moving at a thousand miles an hour but they are still willing to take the time to ensure that what is associated with the Roots is worth a listen, watch or read. Things Fall Apart is a testament to this mind-set.
To me, The Roots have always been a distinct fire in hip-hop; a group that defied hip-hop’s boundaries while at the same time pushing their own expansive logic. You can point to their live instrumentation and raw approach to the game as their most redeeming quality, but to forgo their profound lyrics or collective base is a crime The Roots should never be punished for. In fact, it’s this very conglomerate of attributes that makes this crew from Philadelphia so memorable. As the swirling guitar swells and organic echoes jump under inspirational Thought and company, we as critics run out of words to say to further praise The Roots’ movement within the culture. Moreover, as we scan through the monstrous discography The Roots call a career, nothing is more evident than the fact that their eclectic collection of cuts spanning from 1987 to 2013 has pushed hip-hop music and logical reasoning in discussion to new heights. Their 1996 classic Illadelph Halflife is a prime example of this, as it shifts between sonic stages of sound and presents politically conscious content in a veritable format.
1996 was a year that witnessed Bill Clinton’s re-election, peace and elections in Bosnia, the advancement against AIDS and the election of Boris Yeltsin, among many other notable stories—in fact, the bombing of a U.S. base in Saudi Arabia and the centennial Olympic games often flow under the radar. In response, Illadelph Halflife acts as a social commentary on these stories while further slinging an invective slug at capitalism, death and love. Driven mainly by Black Thought and Malik B, the content on this album sprays like a unique arrangement of originality mixed with philosophy that shreds the confines of what is considered “traditional hip-hop.” Backed by featured artists such as extended Roots member Dice Raw, along with contributions from Common, Q-Tip and Ursula Rucker, Illadelph’s verbal presence is enticing to the tenth degree.
On one of the more cutting tracks off of the album, a song that squeaks and lounges like a silent car ride through America, “No Alibi” showcases Black Thought and Malik B admitting that they are reflections of their environment while touching on worldwide storylines. With Malik’s verse, he opens the curtains to the shelves encasing his own mind (“Look into my window, tell me what you see / The m-ilitant school of philosophy / When niggas get dealt with mental velocity / Connect my sentences and thoughts like apostrophes” … “My attitude is scarred by this inner-city urban / Iller dolo stress on my brain just like a turban”). With Black Thought’s bars, he uses real-world events as analogies to his delivery and stature (“On a lyrical Nat Turner mission reaction off of intuition / Continuously alert, no intermission” … “Step up into my crevice and taste the medicine of the champagne / King like Evelyn leaving you leveled and sabotaged / It’s all camouflage like the devil and guns / And coke peddling, Olympic medaling flashback / That of a war veteran blast at / The programmer bringing lashes ‘cross your back”)
While “No Alibi” tackles vocalization on social constructs, “The Hypnotic” revolves around inner-personal themes on love and death under the crushing fists of society. Lines like, “But as time float on we grew more mature / And further apart when I began to do tours / We lost contact and slowly parted / reminiscing of when it started,” and “I said ‘yo Palma when did you last see Alana?’ / He offer me a seat in attempts to make me calmer / When he began to break it down my mind start to wander / Response beyond somber incredible crushed” represent love, drifting and death, while “But she a victim of the wicked system that controlled her,” finally reveals the cyclical effect that haunts and crushes so many dreams.
Illadelph Halflife would be a memorable album on content alone, but like all other Roots albums, Halflife is an ever-revolving sphere that consists of both meaning and sound. Lead single “Clones” is backed by a shadowy piano progression that sounds like a RZA-lead sample, while M.A.R.S, Black Thought, Dice Raw and Malik B exchange verses on the fly; “Episodes” trail blazes a unique sound with backing female vocals, sparse horns, organ keys that plink and flutter and a vocoder style introduction; and “Concerto of Desparado” sways with stretched background vocals, a strong string selection and an overall sound that mirrors that of Jedi Mind Tricks and Army of the Pharaohs. “The implorer, the universe explorer,” Black Thought states. “Treat MCs like the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah / Leaving these niggas open like a box of Pandora / With styles that’s newer than the World Order.”
On the vast canvas of The Roots’ career, Illadelph Halflife is just one example of the collective’s empowering influence, but in 1996 it stood as a monumental record for many reasons. Not only does it sooth the soul and calm the mind, it implores listeners to analyze and assist. This combination, mixed with the lucid stream of musical output, makes Illadelph Halflife an artistic progression for hip-hop in all realms and cements The Legendary Roots Crew as a driving force in its ever-changing culture.
Released in 1996, Illadelph Halflife by The Roots begins with multiple sound bites from a radio special named Hip-Hop 101: On The Road With The Roots that aired in 1996. From there, the third studio album by the legendary hip-hop band from Philly is off and running with smooth grooves, reflective beats and jazzy piano and guitar riffs. On this particular album, the versatility of The Roots is very apparent as the group begins to develop into more than a group that plays and imitates samples. Don’t get me wrong: the imitation of samples by The Roots pioneered the live-band element that is now seen throughout hip-hop. However, at the time their first album Organix was released in 1993, there was nothing like them. Still, only three years later, the band’s 1993 sound is far, far different than their 1996 sound. Illadelph Halflife highlights the musical growth of the group in only three relatively short years.
The first full-length song, “Respond-React” opens with a four-on-the-floor pattern from Questlove’s kick drum. Right away, it is clear that the group is on point and MCs Black Thought and Malik B. have much to say and are ready to say it. Thought’s first couple of lines are, “It’s just—hip-hop hangin’ in my head heavy / Malik said: ‘Riq, you know the planet ain’t ready for the half’ when we comin’ with the action pack / On some Dundee shit representin’ the outback.” And then later, Malik B explains, “M-ILL-TANT, feel the 5th guerilla chant / Y’all talk about bodies but you would not kill a ant / My skill is amp, would peel a nigga like a stamp / Caliber is of Excalibur now you be damp.” Both MCs’ gift for words are on full display on this song, and it continues until the end of the album.
From the in your face, take no prisoners attitude of “Respond-React,” the group takes us to a more reflective place with songs such as “It Just Don’t Stop” and “What They Do.” Both of these songs are highly critical of the society that we live in. With the hook of “It Just Don’t Stop” Malik B. asserts, “This world is filled with homicide and rape / All the crimes of hate just ain’t the size and shape / You can walk down the block and get slumped or knocked / It don’t stop y’all and it just don’t stop.” And then on “What They Do,” the band is highly critical of the music industry. “Lost generation, fast paced nation / World population confront they frustration / The principles of true hip-hop have been forsaken / It’s all contractual and about money makin.” “What They Do” finishes with the band jamming together for last 1:30 of the song. This is important to note as this type of jam would give way to multiple songs the band would later make such as “I Can’t Help It” from Rising Down and “Make My” from Undun.
Backed by the rhythm section of Questlove, Hub and Kamal, Illadelph Halflife flows seamlessly from slower reflective joints, to bangers that showcase the lyricism of Black Thought, Malik B, Dice Raw, Common and even Q-Tip. Just when you thought you had enough, spoken-word artist Ursula Rucker is there on “Adventures In Wonderland” to read one of her poems, making you think even deeper about the message of this album. In many ways, Illadelph Halflife underscores the greatness of The Roots. They make great music that makes you nod your head in appreciation, all the while delivering lyrics soaked with consciousness and creativity. With this album, you can hear the band changing and becoming even more versatile. On Illadelph Halflife, the foundation for albums such as Things Fall Apart, The Tipping Point, Rising Down, and Undun is being laid.