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Between grooves

Times Staff Writer

Not so far back in the day, the Roots, the famously funky neo-soul/conscious hip-hop crew, kicked off their 1999 CD, “Things Fall Apart,” with a provocative intro stitched through with double meanings. “Act Won,” a cleverly clipped 54-second snatch of conversation from Spike Lee’s film “Mo’ Better Blues,” debates the state of black music (jazz in particular) and its relationship with -- or lack of a relationship with -- its black audience.

The gist: When people don’t come to hear the music, it’s because the players -- preoccupied with high-minded or “grandiose” themes and approaches -- aren’t giving listeners what they want to hear. “If you play [what] they like, the people would come.”

Whether the Roots tossed off this fragment as a cheeky self-reference, commentary or a throwaway one-liner isn’t clear. But these being the Roots, it could very well be none or all of the above.

They’ve long thrived on being enigmatic, blending jazz and soul with hip-hop, girding the mix with beats from all over the world, and always giving a nod to all their forebears and antecedents. “Grandiose”? Maybe to some ears. But to the Roots, the idea has always been to press against convention.

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After four tight studio albums and one incandescent live album -- hip-hop edged with strings, deep funk retro-soul grooves, hard-edged, bristly rap -- their long-awaited CD “Phrenology” won’t do much to clarify who or what they are or, for that matter, where they’re going. Complex, chambered and clever, “Phrenology’s” cuts are as atypical of the Roots as they are typical. With the perceptible absence of a longtime member, MC Malik B., and the conspicuous presence of a new guitarist, Ben Kenney, who grew up steeped in punk and R&B;, the album is full of joyful noise, thrash guitars, jazz riffs and probing rhymes.

But it is a cut called “The Seed (2.0)” that sums up what’s new in the latest offering by this post-soul hip-hop crew: It’s got a rock ‘n’ roll heart -- with vocals crooned, not rapped, by Cody Chestnutt -- who celebrates the birth of this “rock ‘n’ roll child.”

Bracing splashes of the unexpected have, album to album, helped the Roots stretch the definition of “black music,” making them riveting to watch. And now, with “Phrenology,” they have shown that they know not just how to rhyme, but to rock.

Warily eyeing praise for ‘Phrenology’

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Critics and fans alike are spreading the word about “Phrenology,” using effusive descriptives like “breakthrough” and “landmark.” Those pronouncements make the Roots a bit cautious. “Every album we reinvent ourselves,” says Ahmir Thompson, better known among Roots disciples as drummer and producer ?uestlove. He paces about his low-lit suite at the W Hotel in Westwood in a bright red sweatshirt emblazoned with white block letters spelling out “Lucky,” methodically dragging his Afro pick skyward, bringing his impressive retro bush to its full half-foot.

“I know we’re all things to all people -- rappers, jazz hip-hop heads, the neo-soul folk. It only gets frustrating when people make a religion out of it. And that’s when I start getting rebellious.”

Of late, interviews about the Roots’ projected trajectory have turned into introspective sessions. Laying back on the loveseat, tape recorder in hand, ?uest speaks into the mike. “Somehow I feel like I’m in therapy,” he deadpans.

Nowadays, conversation often wends around to why the Roots, for all of their critical acclaim and enthusiastic fans, haven’t taken off like some of the neo-soul or conscious hip-hop acts they’ve helped nurture -- a list that includes names like Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, D’Angelo and, most recently, Common. The group has laid the sturdy foundation for a new category of music, but it hasn’t, in the parlance of the people, blown up.

That may be because they’ve remained true to their own roots. And ultimately, says Talib Kweli of Black Star, who has worked on and off with the Roots since the early days, that will give them longevity: “They’ve always been a powerful live band, have always added all of these different creative elements. They’ve been compared to the Dave Matthews Band, but they never veer from what hip-hop is. They are good at accepting all that people say about them but remaining rooted in hip-hop music.”

The Grammy-winning ensemble is headed by Thompson and the voice of the Roots, MC Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, and rounds out with keyboardist James “Kamal” Gray, bassist Leonard “Hub” Hubbard, turntablist Kyle “Scratch” Jones and human beat box Rahzel. (MC Malik B., who’s drifted from the group, is also listed.)

They honed their craft on the street -- literally. Playing busy corners in South Philly in the early ‘90s, says ?uest, “enabled us to be prepared for any situation”: hecklers, other free-stylers, cold weather, cops, hurled bottles. But ultimately, “that’s how we got all of our gigs. It served as sort of a notice to all the club owners and taste-makers in the tri-state area.”

Soon they were the taste-makers. “We had a situation that was sort of being Moses in Philadelphia, trying to lead people to the promised land.... All of a sudden the floodgates are opening and everybody that you’re associated with in Philadelphia is now platinum potential and people would ask: ‘You are the architects of a particular sound. Are you guys going to capitalize on it?’ And how do we react? We turn our back on it.

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“I think there’s a little something psychosomatic going on with the Roots,” says ?uest, who has a bit of a teasing, professorial quality about him as he peers through thick black frames of his rectangle-shaped specs. “I mean, I’m being very honest with you, and part of it was a subconscious thing, was not knowing it but still doing it. I think maybe part of it could be about being afraid of success.”

“Phrenology” comes three years after “Things Fall Apart,” and ?uest was worried about pop music’s notorious attention span. “Hip-hop has a five-years driver’s license. So unless you’re banging out product every three seconds, you’re pretty much at the mercy of the amnesia-bound hip-hop elite. So I kind of looked at this as a way of renewing our license.”

The rap world had indeed changed dramatically in that short break, says ?uest, chuckling at the soundless television tuned to BET and an interview with a giggling Whitney Houston. Between segments, commercials create an impromptu montage of the black music marketplace: the new Common album, which ?uest produced, a P. Diddy video, an interview with director Charles Stone III, who worked on a couple of Roots videos.

“Before, we were like the only men standing. But 1999 saw this resurgence of Mos Def, [Talib] Kweli, Common -- especially Common. And they kinda raised the bar. When you see Common you know exactly what you’re getting. He wears his emotions and politics on his sleeve. So you basically can’t get away with the whole virtuoso rhyming dexterity thing. You kinda gotta offer more because now those three have made an emotional connection that we have failed to make.”

So he looked to his MC to make contact. “Tariq is a painfully private person almost to a fault,” says ?uest. “And as a result, I believe that whereas he is able to flex his muscles as an MC, it was time for him to peel off a layer or two and show people.” It was time, ?uest believed, for Thought to reveal more of his point of view on disc.

Don’t be mistaken: “Phrenology” -- whose title refers to the “science” of reading character traits in the shape of the skull -- is head music. But, with its squealing guitars and eye-opening arrangements, that distinction doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time.

The mix created a new sense of forward motion, ?uest says. “What was cool or important was that we had to establish a record that shows people that we are not just one particular element of music.”

Time for a reinvention

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The Roots indeed occupy some unique in-between place in the music world. Some people describe them more as a vibe than as a band. Their elliptical lyrics are sometimes mis- or over-read. “There was this guy at a concert who had a whole dissertation ready for me ... on the deeper meaning of the ‘Concerto of the Desperado.’ ” The fan thought the song was about black cowboy pioneers, ?uest recalls, “And I could have sworn it was just about Tariq being a dope MC.”

They’ve given nods to their eclectic range of boosters -- “coffeehouse chicks and white dudes” -- in their lyrics, and ?uest himself is somewhat amused by their appearance in “Big Book of Racism!” by the black provocateurs Ego Trip, under the heading: “Top 10 Blacks According to Whites.”

The whole “conscious hip-hop” brand chafes at times: “I really hate putting the Roots on the level that people think that they are supposed to be the ‘smart rap group,’ or the ‘pretentious rap group.’ ” And on top of it all: “I thought it was an embarrassment that the selling point of the group was that we were musicians. It’s sort of like that Chris Rock Colin Powell routine: ‘Oh, he’s so well-spoken....’ ” That’s kind of how I felt."It seemed like a good time for another serious reinvention. And Thought, who had been pressing ahead with probing personal material for a solo project, had exactly what the group needed, especially now that Malik B.'s place in the crew was uncertain. On one cut, called “The Water,” an epic, 10-minute tone poem, Thought reflects on the ravages of addiction and losing one’s way.

As the group re-collected itself after its three-year pause (Thought and ?uest had been working on film soundtracks and producing work by their Philly brood), so much of the content and the collective creative process felt brand-new that at one point, ?uest tossed around the notion of calling the result “Introducing the Roots.”

The Roots wanted to do more than just beef up their music’s social relevance. They were looking for a fresh stance. That came from Kenney. A Jersey kid who came to his idiosyncratic ear by a circuitous route -- smooth ‘80s R&B; and then the hard-core punk scene -- Kenney wandered into Philadelphia and fell in with the Roots. “Over time all roads lead to one destination in Philly,” Kenney says: the Roots camp. “Eventually, I was doing work and Ahmir asked me to play.” He filled in on bass when the Roots played on Moby’s Area:One tour in 2001, and the vibe felt so right that he was invited into the fold.

Kenney’s range and interests -- “Anthrax right next to Brian McKnight” -- his youth (he’s 25) and his borderless musical thinking muddied the mix. In a good way. His speed-metal guitar skronks and caffeinated energy ransack the group’s deep-funk groove. “If the Roots were a sentence,” says ?uest, “Ben would be the exclamation point. Where our previous sentence was ended by four dots, Ben sort of makes it a definitive statement.”

The element of ‘shift’

Less than 24 hours after ?uest gets up from the loveseat and tends to the business end of things, the Roots put the exclamation point on a conscious rap show that lasts nearly four hours at the Universal Amphitheatre. They share the stage with Cody Chestnutt and Common, jamming in front of old brick facades. Black Thought projects to the rafters. ?uest bangs out a crisp, steady beat that snaps and crashes. Kenney scribbles across all of it -- old and new -- with guitar riffs like wild graffiti, lifting his solos to the sky. The crowd, the rainbow that makes up Los Angeles, is on its feet rapping and rocking, bilingual.

“Shift is the most important element, I feel, to the Roots,” ?uest says. “And that’s what I want people to start understanding. I know we are all things to all people. I know that to hip-hop aficionados we’re quote-unquote keeping it real, and [the 1996 album] ‘Illadelph Halflife’ was the best moment of the Roots’ life. If there are still jazz hip-hop heads out there, ‘Do You Want More?!!!??!’ was such an incredible experience for them in high school. And the neo-soul mellow people are totally into the group for the musicianship. But at the end of the day, I didn’t want to get pigeonholed or boxed into one type of person or one type of band.”

Whether Phrenology will attract a passionate audience, change the course of the band or alter the course of hip-hop yet again won’t be decided until far down the road. For now, says ?uest, “all of it is just baby steps. This ain’t hardly ‘What’s Goin’ On’ the hip-hop album or ‘America’s Most Wanted’ type thing. But it is a major step for us.”

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Selected discography

Do You Want More?III??! (1994, Geffen) -- The Roots’ first big label release shows them off in their early “organic hip-hop/jazz” setting. Lush, live instrumentation blends with hip- hop extrapolations on bebop. The formula: Spontaneous interaction and lead vocals treated as instruments create a frenzied, funky energy.

Illadelph Halflife (1996, Geffen) The Roots take a page from the thudding, big bass sound of garden-variety hip-hop but still infuse their rhymes with clever wordplay and consider-the-world messages. Without compromising, the Roots show that they know how to do it all ways.

Things Fall Apart (1999, MCA) -- Most know this as the CD that contains Erykah Badu / Black Thought’s “You Got Me.” But this recording showcases commentary on not just the state of black music, but the state of black people.


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