The Roots return after three years of hibernation. Philly's funkiest hip-hop collective are ready to rise and shine

By Evan Serpick
Updated December 13, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST
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The Roots Photograph by Michael Llewellyn

Phrenology

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  • Music
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Something strange is afoot at the house of Blues. It’s Halloween on Sunset Boulevard and a parade of debonair devils, chic cheetahs, and posh pimps are filing into the L.A. hot spot. A thumping bass snaps them to attention as a gang of baggy-pantsed thugs toting 40-ounce malt-liquor bottles launches into the N.W.A classic ”Gangsta Gangsta.” The mob erupts in delight.

These would-be Comptonites are, in fact, Philly phenoms the Roots, and their wry trick is the knowing crowd’s treat. Ten years into a career built on soulful, jazzy flow, the world’s hippest hip-hop crew is not going gangsta. Minutes after their set-opening N.W.A medley, the Roots shed their L.A. Kings jackets, drop the Jheri-curl wigs, and hurtle into the rump-shaking rhythm of ”Rock You,” which opens the just-released ”Phrenology,” the band’s sixth and most accomplished disc yet.

Still, something’s not right. As the seven-piece troupe tears into a two-hour installment of its legendary live show, drummer and bandleader Ahmir ”?uestlove” Thompson looks out of place. This afternoon, he spent hours at an L.A. hair salon, angling for a ‘do to match the curly coif of N.W.A founding member the Arabian Prince. The procedure, unfortunately, has left him looking less than menacing. ”Introducing our drummer, Barry White!” jokes MC Tariq ”Black Thought” Trotter.

The moment makes for an apt analogy: The Roots have long tried to fill the wide gulf between White’s soulful resonance and N.W.A’s gangsta gravitas. Like sheep in wolf’s clothing, they cloak their musical chops in a rap crew’s skin. To a rarefied clique of fans, the Roots are the saviors of hip-hop. To hip-hop’s core audience, they’re rap-lite for suburban backpackers. To critics, they’re a sonically compelling diversion to be admired, pigeonholed, and, ultimately, dismissed as a novelty. To everyone, they are The Hip-Hop Band — the only legitimate one in the genre. But they want more.

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Phrenology

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