Robert Kimmerle
executive branch in a nation of one

Saturday, July 26, 2003
Three first impressions of the Roots:

I: I'm not a huge hip-hop fan. In high school, I was briefly into Public Enemy, back when "Fight the Power" was the most potent thing a boombox could ever conceivably emit, but it's a form of music I admire spottily and generally from afar. Songs about what brand of champagne you buy with drug money do not impress me. But I dug on the Roots, partly because the formula seemed appealing (all-instrumental hip-hop? skippy) and a couple of tunes heard out of context sounded neat. On several of my record-store wanderings I considered buying a copy of the first album, but always found something more urgent.

I did, at some point, eventually buy "Do You Want More?!" for my brother, who gets into Built to Spill but who also genuflects at the filthy temple of Jay-Z; I considered it missionary work. He liked it, unevenly, carted it around, thundered Nas or DMX out of his jeep instead. I borrowed the disc, liked it plenty, got heavily into two tracks ("Mellow My Man" and "Essaywhuman"), which I'd loop in my obsessive way.

II: I finally own a Roots album. "The Roots Come Alive", the live one, because it has my two favorite tracks plus another ("You Got Me") I'd heard and liked on some-or-other compilation. So an ad-hoc greatest-hits widget, plus maybe a shot at seeing what the Roots are like live.

Which is sometimes a dangerous proposition. Certain bands are live bands, at their essence, even beyond the interminable-pot-haze genre. Sublime were an anemic loser-ska group on their albums; on stage (and on the live disc they put out) they acquired speed, ferocity, uncanny control. Most, on the other hand, are not. The Roots are not like this, in either sense: they metamorphose entirely. Their studio albums reflect the properties of a small jazz ensemble: wit, snap, warmth, surprise. On the live album, their music is submitted to the experience and scrutiny of a greater number of ears, and it is transformed: expansive, haunted, at once garrulous ("You sound drunk", cackles the vocalist interstitially at his colleagues) and inspired.

III: I used up my annual allotment of MTV two nights ago, channel-surfing between baseball games: a half-hour live concert show, this installment featuring the Roots. Only room enough for a handful of tracks, all from the most recent album. My brother assures me that the Roots' last couple of singles have been in semi-heavy rotation. The crowd shots of the concert (polyglot, but largely white; everyone mouthing the lyrics) confirm this.

I am, ultimately, impressed by the Roots as a rock band, which was probably the intent all along but I've been faffing about with categorizations. ?uestlove, the drummer, has one of the truly great rock hairdos, a tremendous afro that moves in time with the music, like the rest of him. In a live setting, or at least in this one, the band goes for the big rock moves (rousing blues finish, searing electric-guitar solo-with-tongue, &c.) with demonstrable panache. It's like the future of rock in a parallel universe, as though gangsta stayed cramped in beyond-fire-code clubs and these were the lineal descendants of Jimi and P-Funk. That universe looks cooler, where I sit.

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