The Roots are one of those few rap groups who sound on record like they'd be good in concert. Their mainstream debut, Do You Want More, was an incredible synthesis of in-the-pocket grooves and expert MCing, the net result being a celebration of hip hop as both music and culture. "There's something going on," sing the group's members at strategic points throughout the record. And that something isn't worried about C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me), or being hard, or representing anything but a true love of hip-hop music.
On Illadelph Halflife, the sophomore effort, we find the Roots grappling with cynicism, the industry hustle, and street credibility. The jam aesthetic so important to Do You Want More takes a back seat to gritty reportage. They don't want us to walk away from Illadelph without understanding that the Roots, though hip-hop progressives, have seen and been through as much shit as everyone else in the rap game.
But by focusing on street credibility, the band almost compromises its organic brand of performance. Yet Illadelph Halflife still manages to excel, and the band still sounds like it has live potential. To the best of my knowledge, before Dec. 14, the Roots had only played a Bay Area venue once before: a triple bill at the Fillmore featuring Goodie Mob and show headliners the Fugees. The show was rumored to be one of the year's best -- we're talking hip-hop Nirvana.
Dec. 14's show at Maritime Hall was also a triple bill. Only this time around the headliner wasn't the Fugees, but the Roots. The show got rolling promptly at 9 o'clock with 75 Degrees, a local group who within minutes of starting had all but stalled. Few aspects of their set worked. The DJ skipped records, the rhythm section was low-energy, and lead rapper Rick Vaughn had negative charisma. After 40 minutes of uninspired performance, 75 Degrees quit the stage chased by the applause of an unimpressed audience.
Despite technical difficulties Alphabet Soup, minus tenor sax man Kenny Brooks, played a short, tight set of intoxicating originals that included favorites "Walking Roots" and "Ghettos of the Mind." As usual, rappers CB (Chris Burger) and Michael Blake played alternately off of each other and funky musical accompaniments provided by their colleagues -- Diego Voglino on drums, Sammy Biggers on bass, Dred Scott on keyboards, and Wilbur Krebs on six-string bass -- creating a vibe the crowd could get lost in. Just what the doctor ordered after the disorienting effect of the first act.
By the time the Roots were ready to take to the stage, a little after 11 p.m., Maritime Hall was packed beyond capacity. Never mind standing room -- people were looking for pockets of breathing room in the muggy auditorium. As the audience pushed, pulled, and pawed its way closer to the stage, the Roots slipped on like a band of cat burglars. Radiating a nonchalant confidence, lead rapper Black Thought introduced the rest of the group -- Rahzel the Godfather of Noyze on beat box, Brother ?uestlove on drums, Leonard Hubbard on bass, and Kamal on keyboards -- before leaping into a rousing rendition of "Proceed," a single off of the first record.
Suddenly the Hall seemed like a new life form -- part performance space, part flesh and blood, part hip hop. A being that fed on raw beats, hooks, and rhymes, assimilating individuals into a state of collective consciousness. And for close to two hours, resistance was futile as the six-man unit minus one (rapper Malik B was noticeably absent) piled on awe-inspiring performances of old and new material.
More a hip-hop "band" than a rap group, the Roots' strongest numbers reflect a deep commitment to improvisation and the art of soloing. This commitment served as a performance centerpiece. After the band ran through six or seven numbers off of Illadelph -- including "Section" and "The Concerto of the Desperado" -- the set focused on the individual musicians. Keyboard wizard Kamal powered through a set of hip-hop covers, a few of which were older than most of the audience. It would be the first of two successful attempts to ground the evening in the historical legacy of hip-hop performance. The second would follow solo work from ?uestlove and Hubbard. ?uestlove, a drummer so controlled that he's been accused of sounding like a drum machine, could not have sounded any looser during his solo time. And Hubbard took the crowd to places it hadn't counted on going. After performing a more traditional (and safer) collection of funk, soul, and R&B quotes and originals, the agile bassist kicked up the distortion and played his instrument in ways nature never intended. But the soloist who stole the show was Rahzel. With the help of a little microphone reverb, the Godfather of Noyze collected all of the audience's preconceived notions about beat boxing, packed them into a crate, and airmailed them to Siberia without a return address. He then proceeded to walk through the alphabets of hip hop, hitting off everyone from the Art of Noise to Wu-Tang Clan with elaborate adaptations of the originals.
In the liner notes of Illadelph Halflife, the Roots warn that "[h]ip-hop as we know it is dying." Although the stakes are high, I'm not sure that I agree. They aren't the first rap act to hypnotize a Bay Area crowd, and they won't be the last. But Saturday's show proved, once and for all, that there is something going on with the Roots.