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.
“What They Do”