$10 Bill: Roots Live @ Highline Ballroom

AllHipHop Staff

Sometimes your expectations can be larger than reality. Sometimes when

people project larger than life, it fizzles when you see it up close. The Roots

have a reputation as the world’s greatest Hip-Hop band (with apologies to

Stetsasonic), and as such when you are going to see them for the first time, in

the rain, on a cooler than normal night, with the line is down the block, and

the 11:30 show doesn’t even begin until 1 A.M., you can’t help but think to yourself,

“these m*****s better be good.” I was in for the surprise of my Hip-Hop life.

After a spirited set by the Street Sweeper Social Club (feat. Boots

Riley and Tom Morello), ?uestlove and the band finally took the stage. The show

begins with the drum solo. Boom-Bap, Boom-Boom-Boom Bap. A couple Tss Tss from the cymbals. Then ?uest

is joined by a horn. It’s a musical

marriage for a few measures. Then Morello returns to the stage, guitar in tow for

a threesome of rhythm.

The trio jams in a symphony of anarchy; the beautiful bump joins the

force of the horn and merge with the rage of the guitar. It is at once kinetic,

dynamic and devoid of Hip-Hop loop. One

way rhythm, in unison, assaulting our ears; a Radio Raheemian clash of love for

noise and hate for convention. The trio became a quartet and the quartet grew

into a full out jam session as the keys chime in and more guitars join in the

orgy of melody. And we haven’t heard any words yet. This is not your father’s

music. It’s its bastard son’s. Beautifully ugly. And then, there was Thought.

It’s clear who the star of the show is. Mr. Trotter is both a dominant presence

and another blended instrument; Black Fonzy cool, silently holding court before

pouncing into action. The Roots do a tremendous job of creating tension and

anticipation musically and Black Thought took the stage at precisely the right


Standing at 5’ 7”, Black doesn’t take up much space physically, but

once he gets going he becomes the dominant instrument on stage. Smooth and assertive in voice, and clear in

projection and diction. It’s clear that he’s either performing or practicing

constantly, because he weaves in and out of familiar rhymes with music behind

him that is ever-changing and almost never the version we hear on the album. That in itself is impressive, but more so is

how in control of his pace and breath he is. 

There is no pausing for a hype man to catch breath nor any lazily

handing over of a song to the audience. 

Black Thought is in possession and control of his own music.

The Roots as a band, and Black Thought in particular are masters of music,

blending and beating the rhythm; ghetto romancing it, embracing and

retreating. It is raw passion. It is at

once Bleek Gilliam’s wet dream and Shadow’s love affair: playing what they want

and moving the crowd. Thought is as fluid as water flowing over stone, effortlessly

adapting familiar standards to new interpolation.

Amanda Diva popped in for a guest appearance, as is convention for jam

sessions. She went into a rhyme that was probably better than any flow I’ve

heard from her previously. A solid performance, but on this night, it was

little more than filler.

Then the real fun began. You would associate The Roots with groups of a

similar aesthetic, so when you prepare for guests, you imagine Q-Tip, or

Common or Kweli. Not this time, Jack.

Buckshot took the stage along with General Steele and Heltah Skeltah for that

classic Brooklyn grit over a full band. The crowd went bonkers, and it was just

the sort of surprise that takes a Hip-Hop show to that “yoooo son you missed it”


Following the Boot Camp beat down, Roots affiliate Dice Raw took to the

stage to continue his assault with back and forth gymnastics between himself

and Thought. They did a rendition of “The Lesson” from the classic Do You Want More? that totally abandoned

the beat-boxed bang of the original to the point where it was almost unrecognizable. But that was a good thing. It was a

reflection of improvisation that is rarely display in these days of prewritten


Let me say this. I have seen many Hip-Hop shows, in many venues, and I

have seen many performances, but I would have to say that this was the most

riveting Hip-Hop related show I have ever witnessed. It was the exact opposite

of any show you have ever seen. The DJ took a back seat to the instrumentation.

The MC knew all his words and you could hear them clearly, and he didn’t depend

on you to fill in the gaps. No hype man and not one person on stage that didn’t

have a purpose. It’s everything that

Hip-Hop should aspire to be musically.

Black Thought is MC of the highest order and he’s even better on stage

than on wax. ?uestlove leads a musical ensemble cast that is devoid of ego and

perfectly fused and determined to play as one. 

If you get the chance, you should go see The Roots live. It will be an

education in music, a great show, and you will certainly get your money’s