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Rocking with The Roots

Nick Anderson | Thursday, April 8, 2010

When I first heard that hip hop had won the student poll for the Student Union Board (SUB) concert, I was concerned. Coming from a hip hop fanatic, this may come as a surprise. I love the music; my fears rested with the audience. Since I’ve been at Notre Dame, at least two excellent but under-appreciated MCs, Brother Ali and Devin the Dude, have played shows at Legends to a less than enthusiastic crowd. To see two of my favorite rappers practically beg the audience for some reaction was embarrassing. Even Lupe Fiasco, a relatively well-known name, was given a cold reception.

Granted, this could change if SUB could pull in a huge name. Artists such as Jay-Z, Lil Wayne or the Black Eyed Peas would surely sell out regardless of quality. I resigned myself to another lackluster show. This all changed when The Roots were announced as the headliner. Why? Quite simply, there is no group better at putting on a show.

The Roots occupy a level of fame just outside of household names. Everyone is aware of someone with whom they are associated, but may struggle to name the group itself. As the house band for “The Late Show” with Jimmy Fallon, they’ve proven consistently to be the best piece of the show. Beyond their current comedy gig, The Roots appeared in Dave Chappelle’s “Block Party” and Jay-Z’s “Fade to Black,” with ?uestlove, the group’s drummer and founding member, serving as musical director for both. Their music has shown up in “Superbad,” “Entourage” and “Men in Black.” Even toddlers may recognize them following an appearance on Nickelodeon’s trippy “Yo Gabba Gabba.”

The Roots are one of the few unique acts in hip hop. Their most obvious departure from traditional form is the presence of a full band. Beyond an MC, drummer, guitarist, bassists and keyboardist, they also feature another percussionist as well as a sousaphone. The band leader, ?uestlove, manages the group from his drum set in the back. Their swagger is undeniable and derived from skill instead of exaggerated street cred or youthful bravado.

More importantly, their music is unique. Besides using samples sparingly, a full band produces an energetic, organic sound reminiscent of garage rock. They avoid falling into hip-hop’s common criticisms of materialism, violence or misogyny. They can discuss politics without sounding preachy, inner city life without being exploitive and music without sounding insincere. Blackthought, the group’s MC, has the classic flow of a battle rapper but is perfectly at ease singing hooks. As a whole, The Roots embody the social and musical potential commercial hip-hop near-universally lacks.

As for Saturday night, The Roots will put on a hell of a show. They easily live up to their title as one of Rolling Stone’s top live acts. Their shows quickly transform into a showcase of not only the group’s impressive discography, but also of individual talents and creativity. Guitar riffs and strong baselines push the show towards rock; animated percussion pulls it towards jazz; all while hip-hop provides the central focus. The show may prove to be extra compelling for already established fans who hope to hear cuts from the upcoming album “How I Got Over.”

Veterans of touring, The Roots will work Saturday’s crowd like the masterful musicians they are. Whether you’ve listened to their albums or not, the show will absolutely floor you. There is literally no other group capable of putting on a show like them. Saturday night there will be no rock, hip-hop, pop or country fans. Instead, Stepan will be packed with music fans seeing some of the true greats.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Nick can be reached at [email protected]