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.