If there is one hip-hop group that sorely needs a catch-all beginner’s guide, it is Philadelphia natives The Roots. For fifteen years they have been putting out challenging, often cerebral albums in a wide variety of styles to great critical but limited commercial success. But, sort of like the catalogs of other challenging artists, say Bob Dylan or Frank Zappa, it helps to have a roadmap before you dive in. Is John Wesley Harding or Blood on The Tracks right for me? Hot Rats or The Yellow Shark? If you start in the wrong place, you might end up turned off to the whole enterprise and your life will be just a shade poorer for the lack of it.
To this end, the band has just released Home Grown! The Beginners Guide To
Understanding The Roots, Vol. 1 & 2. The two volumes of Home Grown! don’t manage to do the one thing that any introduction to the Roots needs to do: sum up the group’s main accomplishments in a way that is easily accessible and at least somewhat logical. Instead, the group has given us a brilliant mess of mostly rarities, b-sides, live tracks and alternate takes that takes repeated listens to warm up to.
There is a lot to admire about The Roots. Their single-minded devotion to doing things their own way means that they don’t have a single Ma$e moment in their catalog – no point at which their scene tips over from vitality into clumsy and cartoonish self-parody. Coming from Philadelphia, long considered a hip-hop hick town, they have had to create and nurture their own scene and keep their own career alive. If for no other reason than still being around making records after fifteen years, the group deserves a nod. But if integrity is all it takes then Jimmy Carter would have been our greatest President. Luckily, they have far more than that to recommend them (though if one of them had a brother to name a beer after, that’d be cool too).
In fact, the Roots are a top-shelf assembly of talent. Never forget- this is the band that insists on playing everything live. They have in the past taken this to extremes – the liner notes to Home Grown! tell how for one early track a member repeated the phrase “RockinonthemicrophoneIdothiswell” more than a hundred times into a microphone rather than sample it once. And although this might seem absurd on the face of it, those years spent trying to sound like a machine have resulted in a crew who are tighter than tight. Listen to those old Herb Alpert recordings and try to count the horns. You can’t! They sound like one horn. Then listen to The Roots and try to catch them slipping the groove.
Drummer Amir “?uestlove” Thompson has a mile-deep groove and a metronomic sense of time, and the rhythms he lays down with bassist Leonard “Hub” Hubbard are chewy and satisfying. (For my money, they too frequently undermine their funk by keeping their albums bone dry – if they’d see fit to turn Hub up a little and lay some room sound on ?uestlove’s kit, it would all be for the better.) Special mention should go also to keyboardist Scott Storch (AKA Kamal) and human beatbox Rhazel, underrated contributors to the group’s sound who get their own on the live tracks included on Home Grown!. Finally, front men Black Thought and Malik B have grown from fairly limited MCs into masters, riding or pushing the beat with tangled and forceful bunches of thoughtful rhymes.
Generations of critics have already done the live-hip-hop-band angle to death, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how The Roots’ live show is reputed to be among the best around. Indeed, the few live tracks scattered across Homegrown! hit hard, with rhymes and beats locked together under a groove like they were the lords of Funkadelphia.
However, the focus on live playing and jamming means that as their sound evolves, each Roots LP ends up very different from the last. Their debut, 1993’s Organix, was a loose assembly of tracks that captured the band before they figured out quite who they wanted to be. 1995’s Do You Want More?!!!??! tightened up their sound, managing to sound at once acid-jazz and old-school as the band unfurled long jams, and Illadelphia Half-Life refined that sound further. 1999’s Things Fall Apart is a carefully constructed, conceptually tight and angry record full of close spaces, loopy tracks, and confrontational and hard-hitting rhymes. That same year the band also released The Roots Come Alive, which finally captured on disc some of their legendary live show. On Phrenology the group experimented with genre and structure, delving into rock, hardcore and sound collage while also adding hooks to their songs. Last year’s The Tipping Point honed those advances into a new version of their original jamming, just thicker, deeper, and more organic.
So far, the results have been generally good to great, with Things Fall Apart and Phrenology standing as two legitimate classics of hip hop and all the other albums having moments of excellence.
If Home Grown! is the band’s attempt to provide a single graceful point into this wildly diverse and often daunting catalog, it’s a dud. So much so that the first two drafts of this review were arguments that the Roots are wildly overrated. It’s a good thing I changed my mind, but that it took a music geek like me who has been a fan of the band for twelve years nearly a dozen runs through the collection to figure out what was really going on suggests that some opportunities to reach out have been missed.
What’s wrong with it? Let’s begin with the packaging. The two volumes of Homegrown! contain between them thirty tracks that count down from 29 to zero over the course of the two discs, which are only available for purchase separately. This is puzzling; either the two discs are intended to stand together as a unit or they are not. If they are, fine. But why charge buyers $28 to complete a two-disc set, when Volume 1 complements Volume 2? Musically the two volumes are not meaningfully distinct, which further blurs the reason for separating them.
The track selection itself doesn’t make very much sense either. LP tracks are interspersed with b-sides, unreleased tracks, live performances, and rarities in a way that sounds, well, okay enough, but that jumps confusingly from era to era without much of a discernable plot. Is Home Grown! an introduction, or a fans-only love letter? If the former, why all the emphasis on alternate versions, remixes, and unreleased jams? If the latter, why the title?
The Roots’ main fault is a tendency to navel-gaze. Case in point: the liner notes to Home Grown! run to twenty pages per volume, which for that length ought to include an exhaustive detailing of how each songs came to be. This is true to a point. The notes for “Essaywhuman?!!!!! (Organix version)” tell the story of how the Roots got started, and the notes to the Eve/Jill Scott version of “You Got Me” (the Things Fall Apartalbum cut featured Erykah Badu) are a hilarious story about how Eve now hates the band.
But the notes also include loads of in-jokes and shout-outs and “too much has already been said abouts,” enough to make newcomers (and some twelve-year fans) wonder what they aren’t getting. Moreover, at no point in the twenty pages does either set of notes get around to listing what track came from where. Anyone but hardcore fans will need to consult the internet to decide whether a given track is old, new, unreleased, or what, which is a drag. So much of the music is very fine, and so many of the rarities are worth having, that it’s a shame that the way they are presented doesn’t make any sense.
The music, which is and ought to be the centerpiece of this project, suffers from the same weaknesses. Though it’s strange to say considering the wealth of amazing tracks collected, Home Grown! Volume 1 stumbles right out of the gate. After the blurry pleasures of the opening track, the acid-jazzy “Proceed 2” from Do You Want More?!!!?! the disc ambles from track to track aimlessly. When the hook to “Star” (from The Tipping Point) came along the first time, I wondered tiredly if the Roots had run out of ideas and were recycling Sly Stone hooks like the Beasties did with “Shadrach” way back in 1989!
It is only at track -20 (as it is numbered, actually track 10), the aforementioned alternate version of “You Got Me,” that things come together. (Fascinatingly, Jill Scott’s vocal doesn’t sound all that much different from Erykah Badu’s on the original version, though her backing ‘oohs’ round things out nicely.) Right after the warmth of “You Got Me” comes the rough “Clones” with guest rhymes by Philadelphia MCs MARS and Dice Raw, and a slamming version of “What You Want” which, to my knowledge, has only appeared as a single and in a live version so far.
After this, Volume 1 seems to catch fire, and the wild excursions between eras and genres start to work in the group’s favor. They even include – get this – a live alternate version of “It’s Comin’,” a song that has only ever before appeared on their 1993 European EP, From The Ground Up. Not that I noticed, particularly, even though that EP was my first introduction to the group. Nonetheless, it’s a good version. For reasons like this, if not for that rough first ten, Volume I would be pure gold: just not for beginners.
Volume 2 fares better overall. In particular, it includes an incredible live medley of “The Seed/Melting Pot/Web” originally performed on Gilles Peterson’s show on BBC Radio One that takes the band beyond hip-hop into JBs/Parliament/Miles Davis-circa-Live/Evil territory. As a testament to the band’s abilities, you could not possibly do better than this medley. However again, if Home Grown! is an introduction to the group, the album version of “Seed 2.0” with Cody ChestnuTT would be nice to hear too.
Since less than half of the tracks on Volume 2 come in their present form from LPs it is in fact perfectly un-useful as a “Beginner’s Guide.” Considered as a rarities collection, on the other hand, Volume 2 is absolutely brilliant. ?uestlove turns in a furious mix of “Thought@Work” (originally on Phrenology) that bangs like Public Enemy, and alternate versions of some of their biggest hits are satisfying as well. Ferocious live versions of “Break You Off” (remixed into dub) and “Sacrifice” (both from Phrenology) could not be more different than the live “Essaywhuman?!!!!!” from Organix, which is a chronicle of a much groovier, jazzier Roots circa 1992.
In the end, for all the good music The Roots have put out over the past fifteen years, Home Grown! feels disappointingly like a wasted opportunity to put together a decent introduction to the band. Although most of the tracks selected for inclusion are brilliant, there is simply too much here for interested newcomers to get their head around. In the best case Home Grown! The Beginners Guide To Understanding The Roots, vol. 1 and 2 completely fails to live up to its title and goal. As a rarities collection though, it’s pretty tight and totally worth having.
Every hip-hop and funk fan ought to have a little Roots in their life. My advice to beginners is to skip these compilations and ask a Roots fan about the best place for you to start.
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