25th Anniv. Moment: The Roots – Jan, 1997 [Interview]

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Longtime Philly Crew Finally Gets Its Props on “Illadelph Halflife” Album

Originally Published: January, 1997

The Roots are here! Trust me, if you’ve been getting reports since 1993 about this group from Philadelpia like I have, then I’d say they must have some kind of skills. Four years is a long time to be hearing about an act.

But group member ?uestlove (aka Ahmir), see, he’s got other opinions on that. “We’re still in the buzz stages now,” he tells me as he downs some food during a lunch break from a video shoot. “It’s not like we’re a nationally known group.”

“Well, maybe,” I tell him. “But I’ve had folks from both genders telling me about y’all for a few years, and, I think the group is just about on its way up.”

“When we came out,” ?uestlove replies, “we came out kinda quiet, and had a steady following. But it wasn’t like sound the trumpets and alarms.”

Not like sound the trumpets and alarms? Well, what did sound trumpets and alarms was the current spate of live music played by black people. “They play instruments! They play instruments!” Thus was the cry of those modern day music watchers hearing such “weirdness.” Because let’s face it, besides from groups like The Fugees, Tony! Toni! Tone! and a few others, there ain’t been that much happening as far as playing the traditional instruments (i.e. — bass, guitar, drums) of so-called popular black music.

So, we have The Roots. And if you need true verification on whether these six talented individuals are hip hop through and through, their latest work Illadelph Halflife (DGC) will dispel any suspicions. Cuts like “Respond React” and “Section” will have heads bobbing from coast to coast.

“We are rap to the bone,” ?uestlove declares. “Some groups don’t even understand what the cornerstones of hip hop are. It’s just like a money thing. Some don’t even know what a B-boy is. Don’t get me wrong. We’re business and we definitely wanna make money, but we’re not gonna shit on the culture on top of that.”

Aside from playing the traditional instruments, The Roots still stay true to the old school rhythms and rhymes. For good measure, they can throw in some human beatboxing. Also of note is the group’s predilection for doing covers. See them perform in one of their renowned live shows and don’t be surprised if you hear them bust out with renditions of classic hip hop pieces like Audio Two’s “Top Billin’,” “Sucker MCs” by Run-DMC, and Doug E. Fresh’s “The Show.” The group calls this segment of their performance “Hip Hop 101.”

?uestlove plays drums while other group members (Hub on bass; Kamal, keyboards; Rahzel, human percussion, Malik B, lyrics) display what ?uestlove says is “115 years of experience among the band members.”

He adds, “I been playing drums since I was two-years old, so I sorta accidentally bumped into hip hop culture, simply because I knew how to play shit that they were scratching on turntables anyway. I used to practice when I was a kid, and basically I would choose all the records that had all the drum breaks in ’em. Then when rap music came of age, I started noticing the samples they were using. It was stuff I was playing since I was a kid, so immediately hip hop was an attraction to me.”

Even though The Roots have released two previous works (Organic in 1993 on Remedy Records, which they pressed and sold themselves while performing on the road, and Do You Want More?!!!??! in 1995 on DGC/Geffen), ?uestlove considers this latest work to be the most important. “This album is a result of the build up of the first two we did,” he says. “As I said, we’re still in the buzz stages. We’re still not at a level where me and the other group members are satisfied with the proper exposure for the group. So it’s gonna be a slow-as-molasses type of build up, not an overnight one.”

There is also a matter of the “alternative” label being bandied about when it comes to trying to classify The Roots. Says ?uestlove, “We were never part of any scene. I mean, we went to school with Boyz II Men and all that, but we were always on our own island. Because it’s gonna be hard enough just getting attention being a regular rap group, so it would be super extra hard getting attention if we called ourselves ‘alternative.’ To me, we got embraced by the alternative set, simply because a lot of people, like their hip hop watered down.”

Whatever you call them, The Roots — true to their moniker — have that organic feel to their music and this winter Illadelph Halflife should have the trumpets sounding and the alarms ringing.