More than a decade ago, the Roots set out to be the world's best live hip-hop band -- a modest goal, really, considering that hip-hop's always been about the beats: beats that are sampled, programmed and meticulously tweaked by the almighty producer in the all-important studio. Living, breathing musicians are the exception, not the rule, and, as anyone who's ever seen the garden-variety rap concert can attest, few things in life are more tedious to behold than a bunch of gesticulating, bellowing MCs, a DAT machine and a stationary DJ.
The Roots fulfilled their ambition -- and then some. In addition to being the world's best live hip-hop band, the Philadelphia collective is right up there with the world's best bands, period. Yeah, the Roots qualify as a hip-hop band in the sense that Sun Ra is a jazz artist or Radiohead is a rock band or Prince is an R&B performer. Like those legendary iconoclasts, the Roots stretch their nominal category in so many different directions that the whole concept of genre becomes meaningless.
With last year's Phrenology, the Roots' long-awaited fifth CD, the group shattered stereotypes, deconstructed definitions, reinvented the goddamned form. Hardcore thrash, grimy blues, elastic funk, frenetic techno, dissonant free jazz, balls-out rock & roll -- all these styles (and more) blend and converge in unique, epiphanic combinations. The Roots aren't just indulging in mix-and-match fusion, they're making something new -- and they know it. Take, for instance, "The Seed (2.0)," a collaboration with eclectic underground rocker Cody Chesnutt. Disguised as a Stonesy sex romp about getting it on with a bling-bling queen, the song gradually reveals itself as a metaphor for the creative process: "I push my seed in her bush for life/It's gonna work because I'm pushin' it right/If Mary drops my baby girl tonight/I would name her rock & roll." Name her whatever you want, but keep it coming, please.