The next time someone grumbles that hip-hop artists have no business messing with jazz, send them to the Roots. The Philadelphia outfit (initially formed as a performing arts high-school duo called Square Roots in the late ’80s), which built a reputation busking in the city’s South Street shopping district, proves it is possible to integrate elements of jazz without turning rap into a variety show — or trivializing one of America’s most essential art forms. In the process, they have emerged as one of the leading lights of hip-hop’s broadening power and appeal.
The Roots — lyricists/vocalists Black Thought (Tariq Trotter) and Malik Abdul-Basit, drummer ?uestlove (aka B.R.O. the R. ?, born Ahmir-Khalib Thompson) and bassist Hub (Leonard Nelson Hubbard) — manage this by approaching their craft the way jazzers do, allowing the music to change and breathe and move, relying on interplay between musicians for much of the spark. (Notably, the group rarely employs sampling in its work.) Built around a cushiony and ever-present Fender Rhodes electric piano, “Mellow My Man” and other selections on Do You Want More?!!!??! link the airy openness of exploratory jazz with the fat bottom of the streets. Hub establishes a wickedly firm foundation with his bass, and the other musicians slowly turn up the heat, until a simple vamp begins to boil. But things never get real wild: keeping the music at a constant simmer, Black Thought and Malik B. create an uncluttered, silky-smooth foreplay zone in which their carefully syncopated wordology is supported (but never overshadowed) by calm, complementary solos. On this medium-tempo-heavy album, the Roots aim high-dropping in bagpipe solos and Steve Coleman’s saxophone, pitting their skills against those of agile jazz-pop singer Cassandra Wilson. The Roots may not always wind up with a masterpiece, but they do get sparks to fly — something that has eluded many of their fusion-minded peers.