As someone who does not listen to a lot of hip-hop, I am perhaps not the most qualified to put The Roots in their proper musical context. On the concert stage, however, any music fan could tell that they are in a class by themselves.
Making up a date from last month, The Roots left out current tour partner Erykah Badu for the stop in Burlington. A shame, as I’m assuming that at the other shows she reprises her memorably soulful hook on The Roots’ “You Got Me.” From the moment the band came onstage till they left almost three hours later, however, no one complained about one fewer performer. The band (yes, it’s a rap band) entered one at a time. Guitar virtuoso “Captain” Kirk Douglas led the way with a soulful riff and each member added his own instrument to build into some loud funk. Finally MC Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter entered and the song transformed into “I Can’t Help It” off of the week-old release, Rising Down.
The medley feel of the show became apparent from the beginning, as they quickly mashed this one up with a cover of War’s “The World Is a Ghetto” with snippets of “Rising Up” thrown in for good measure. The music rarely stopped, one song turning into the next as testament of the band’s comfort playing with each other. Drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson guided proceedings, even taking over vocals at the end of the show when Kirk's microphone broke. Band members looked to ?uest for transitions, but it mostly seemed second-nature. Songs like “Star” and “Step Into the Realm” came and went in an perfectly-coordinated barrage of music.
Unlike much hip-hop, The Roots are a live band with no turntable or samples, and that helped this attack of music keep from being monotonous. Guitar solos, bass solos, funky keyboard breaks, and non-stop antics by sousaphone player “Tuba Gooding Jr.” kept the sound diverse and the crowd jumping for hours. You won’t find many other hip-hop groups where the rapper is not the star of the show, but Black Thought’s rhymes were just another instrument in the mix to come and go as the music demanded.
With the medley feel of this show, a definitive setlist is hard to come by, but highlights can be extracted. They did a medley of covers known as “Hip Hop 101”, squeezing dozens of lyrics, hooks, riffs, and references into a fifteen-minute torrent, with everything from “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” to “SexyBack” to Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights” thrown in at some point. Every transition and mash-up was so smooth you could only catch a fraction of the wait-I-know-this references.
That however, paled with what came next: Douglas, Tuba, and ?uestlove performing one of the greatest Dylan covers I’ve ever heard, a version of “Masters of War” that may have broken the twenty minute mark. It’s hard to describe, invoking everything from the National Anthem to Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” to Taps without becoming a medley, so here is a recording. Long guitar solos, a longer drum solo, and Kirk and Tuba jumping into the crowd and running around while they played.
The Roots are a hip-hop band for the jam fan, rap music putting live music first in a way that spinning samples never can. The Roots have plenty of street cred in the hip-hop world, but appeal to a broader range of music lovers with their elements of funk and rock (“Masters of War” did not have one rapped line in its twenty-minute span) and musicians who are true virtuosos at their instruments, something you wouldn’t expect from a hip-hop crew. That’s because the non-rapping Roots aren’t a backing band, but the main show, a cohesive unit of artists that push everything from hard grungy beats to swinging pop hooks.
To give you an idea, here is a recording of a show a month earlier with a similar setlist. Not being familiar with all of their music, the only difference I can say for sure between it and mine was that “Criminal” was performed in the Burlington encore.
World is a Ghetto [War]/I Can't Help It
Step Into the Realm
RIP J Dilla
Mellow My Man/ Jusufckwths
Love of My Life
Hip Hop 101
Masters of War [Bob Dylan]
I Will Not Apologize
You Got Me (incl. My Favorite Things)/Con Safo [The Mars Volta]
Get Busy/Jungle Boogie [Kool and the Gang]
Don't Feel Right/The Next Movement
75 Bars (Black's Reconstruction)
Rock and Roll Part 2 [Gary Glitter]
The Seed (2.0)
Move On Up [Curtis Mayfield]
Men at Work [Kool G Rap & DJ Polo]