The Roots have long been a rebuttal to most of the criticism leveled at rap over the years: that it's not actually music; that it doesn't require hard work; that it ignores or rejects the great legacy of African-American art that preceded it; that it's underwhelming in a live setting; that it helped destroy certain ideals in popular music, like the masterful electric guitar solo.

Within hip-hop, the Roots' role is one of torch-carrying, perhaps even martyrdom; a critics' act and a symbol of the heyday in the age of "My Dougie."


The band's sold-out set at Rams Head Live had a kind of energy and totality that could have won over pretty much anyone, even -- or especially -- baby boomers whose musical values were shaped by classic rock and funk.

The seven-piece outfit took the stage just after midnight on Saturday and kept its momentum roiling until around quarter till two. The set list, which anyone who's seen the group this year would've recognized, was similarly comprehensive: While it avoided material off "Wake Up!" -- the band's recent collaboration with John Legend -- it covered highlights and hits stretching back to the mid-'90s.

(Midnight Sun's preview story and interview with Questlove is here.)

Front and center in this powerhouse exhibition was Black Thought, aka Tariq Trotter, whose name should be mentioned more often when we discuss hip-hop's best MCs. Trotter came out charging, with robust flow on "Web" and "Thought@Work;" even at his lyrical heaviest—he sometimes seemed to be contemplating a sort of existential angst at warp speed—he hardly let up.

Trotter also underscored the band's respect for hip-hop culture, cleverly quoting from or paying homage to his forebears: "Thought@Work" cited the Fantastic Freaks, of "Wild Style"- fame, and saw the band swallow the Sugarhill Gang's version of "Apache" whole; "Mellow My Man" cribbed some Slick Rick at the front; and even the hype referenced "The Warriors" ("Can you dig it?").

Even when the music treaded on self-seriousness, the references served as reminder that the band members are first and foremost students of the genre, mindful that hip-hop began as party music. Of course, Black Thought's relentlessness is only part of a greater whole.

By now, The Roots is a state-of-the-art unit that matured through elbow grease—first by constant touring and later by balancing live performances with a steady gig as the house band on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon."

Bolstered by Questlove's drumming, which seemed as dynamic as it was unshakable, this show was something of a stylistic revue: There was straight-ahead hip-hop boom bap; neo-soul, of course; jazz (or at least pseudo-jazz) inflections; funk of all sorts, from taut to thrashing; and, in the midst of "Proceed," even go-go. (The band's D.C. constituency sounded pleased.)

Remarkably, the band sometimes presented a rap-rock hybrid without evoking any of the very bad music associated with that style, and made the value it places on musicianship known by spotlighting individual players, among them sousaphonist Damon "Tuba Gooding Jr." Bryson, who personified the group's connection to the larger, storied realm of urban music.

The best solo spots belonged to guitarist and vocalist Captain Kirk Douglas, who might also be considered the Roots' secret weapon—a real utility player but also a potential show-stealer. He covered Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters and "My Favorite Things" and worked the stage, coaxing volume-swell effects from his guitar or flat-out wailing.

One of the main obstacles hip-hop artists face in recreating their recordings live has to do with guest artists; rap records are full of them, and you can't exactly bring John Legend on the road all the time. Douglas, who possesses a fine neo-soul falsetto, provided the solution, singing parts recorded by Erykah Badu ("You Got Me"), Legend ("The Fire") and Cody ChestnuTT ("The Seed (2.0)").

"The Seed" was part of what would have probably been, with more available time, part of a regular encore. Instead the band plowed right through, in addition to deft covers of Curtis Mayfield's "Move on Up" and Kool G Rap's "Men at Work."

Should the Roots need a name for a definitive compilation someday, the latter title should do the trick.

- Evan Haga


Evan Haga is a frequent Midnight Sun contributor, and the managing editor of JazzTimes