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Why The Roots are the Most Important Figures in Hip-Hop

For people who normally read my blog I’m going to go a bit off-script today with a post about hip-hop. Don’t worry I relate it to millennials too, but I’ve been getting an itch to branch out to a more diverse mix of topics recently, while also trying to maintain the specific niche I’m in (millennial angst). So bear with me, comment, agree, disagree, but most of all enjoy!

Two days ago Miley Cyrus (yes I am bringing her up, sorry) appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Jimmy has made a name for himself in late night by using imaginative sketches and music instead of simply relying on monologues. He’s also the only late night host that shares a platform with one of the greatest bands in contemporary music, The Roots. Jimmy has never taken the good fortune of working with The Roots for granted as he has frequently featured them in sketches and videos since the beginning of the show.

Recently The Roots and Jimmy sang a wonderfully altered version of the famous Sesame Street theme song with Black Thought doing his thing near the end of the song. Of course it went viral, because it was awesome and impossible not to love.

And now, about two weeks after that they’ve done it again with an a capella version of Miley Cyrus’s summer hit We Can’t Stop. After hearing this version I actually now like the song; and after so many years it shouldn’t surprise me that The Roots seem to have the Midas touch when it comes to music. The Roots have never made a bad album, ever. Their collaborations always work to bring out the best in every artist involved, they work with all types of artists, and they helped make Jimmy Fallon a success in late night.

What’s also true is that while The Roots have evolved, as every great artist/band naturally evolves, they have remained remarkably consistent through the years. There was never any threat of “selling out” yet they were able to achieve crossover success into the hearts and minds of people who never gave hip-hop a chance to begin with. If anything, their incredible ascent the past decade has made them even better artists.

Now most hardcore Roots fans will point to one of the groups’ 90s efforts as their single best album. Either their sophomore release Do You Want More?!!!??! (1995), Illadelph Halflife (1996), or Things Fall Apart (1999) – while Organix (1993) was their major label debut most don’t consider that their strongest work. To this day, in discussions about the best Roots album one of those three will be the most popular pick. Ask three knowledgeable Roots fans and you’ll get three separate answers for the top album of that list.

And while The Roots have never released a bad album you could say they found themselves in a bit of a lull (by their standards) in the mid 2000s with the release of The Tipping Point (2004), followed by Game Theory (2006), and Rising Down (2008). These were all great albums in their own right, but those albums didn’t feel quite as adventurous, exciting, or all that unique.

And then came How I Got Over (2010) and the excitement returned, the energy was back, and the Roots went next level. That excellent release, one of the strongest in their entire catalog was followed up by an even better album in Undun (2011) which was their first concept album. Those types of albums can be hit or miss, but they delivered one of the most memorable concept albums in recent memory.

So Why The Renaissance and Why Should You Care?

I remember when The Roots first signed on to be Fallon’s house band in 2008; while a good reason to tune into the show, it was sort of a headscratcher at the time. I also remember Black Thought and Questlove explaining why they took the gig. They were tired of the constant travel and touring, and wanted time to settle down and get back to their craft by not having such a hectic, unpredictable, schedule.

That decision may prove to be one of the most important developments in the bands history, and one of the most important developments in hip-hop history. Not only did The Roots rekindle their artistic spirit and desire to take risks, the move also quietly represented the establishment of hip-hop into a mainstream culture – not as novelty, but as intrinsic to Americana as late night talk shows. Let me phrase it another way, hip-hop had been in the mainstream consciousness for 20 years before The Roots move, but it existed as an “exotic other” that was prideful in being counter-culture. The essence of hip-hop had always been counter-culture in its’ own way; but with the move to late night, it’s now become a true cultural norm, not a novelty. And lest we forget, hip-hop was fighting the good fight well into 2008 – who remembers the mass controversy surrounding Nas’s untitled album because it was originally supposed to be called ‘Nigger’? A title I think should have stuck because what Nas was trying to do on the album was truly brilliant.

2008 doesn’t feel that long ago but in terms of our society’s relationship to hip-hop there has been a massive shift right underneath our feet and no one has really stopped to notice it.

Hip-Hop Roots and Millennial Tastes

So what other factors, other than The Roots doing late night have helped drive hip-hop into an integral part of mainstream culture? I think it has to do with millennial insistence on authenticity in their own lives, and in the products they consume.

Hip-hop went through a dark period in the aughts. Culturally and artistically it was dying – Nas was right to say Hip Hop is Dead in 2006. The culture was dying despite the huge commercial success because authenticity was being lost in favor of image alone. Hip-hop is many things; but at its’ core, it’s about authenticity – being yourself regardless of what others think. That was radical, and counter-culture, for many decades; but it is now something that is truly valued. And millennials are savvy enough to tell when someone isn’t being honest with themselves (or others), and shy away from those that aren’t.

I do believe that that controversial Nas album jolted people awake, and got some artists to reexamine their craft. And it certainly opened up space for new artists that rejected formula to emerge. Since 2008 we’ve seen the reemergence of The Roots, Nas, Raekwon, Eminem, and other legends as artistic forces. We’ve seen the emergence of new artists like Kendrick Lamar, Kid Cudi, J.Cole, Big Krit, Ab-Soul, ASAP Rocky, Joey Badass (which stands for B4da$$ for the uninitiated) and many more.

All of these artists are unique, have wildly different styles, and very different personalities that show up in their music. There is no traceable formula between all of these artists; they each do their own thing. And ultimately these new artists success is being driven by millennials.

What The Roots have proven is that hip-hop artists can be mainstream in their appeal without being mainstream in their music. Their most recent albums are anything but mainstream, but their appeal is anything but niche. They are the most important figures in hip-hop because they are making the artistic choices they want to make and have found popularity because of it, not in spite of it. So enjoy the short, but sweet, collaboration with Miley Cyrus. And then go and listen to their top albums to see all sides of the band – you won’t be disappointed.

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