The legendary Roots crew brought a healthy dose of their Philly flare to a cold and wet winter's night in North London on Friday as they jammed with unfailing enthusiasm for about 2 hours. They brought with them a full live band and though I searched high and wide, no sign of any turntables. For these hip hop heavyweights it's no longer the platters that matter as ?uestlove engineers the beats from his lofty drum-kit mounted high on a plinth at the back. With his afro rising like a sun from behind his drum prison the man never stopped as both his unrelenting rhythmical structure and his physical presence formed the backbone of this incredible sound. And the reason it was incredible is that it redefined what a hip hop gig could be for me.
The show was by no means perfect and there were often times when my attention wandered but never once did it conform to a typical hip hop gig. Entering the stage first was a musician clad in a glorious tuba (later referred to as Tuba Gooding Junior) his deep, booming sound filling the venue. This introduction was mesmerizing and I was transfixed from the start as all the musicians took up their positions, keyboards, rhythm guitar, bass guitar, saxophone, percussion and drums all were in place and in struts Black Thought, baseball cap, sunglasses and phat gold chain. Taking his cue from ?uestlove who belts out the Apache rhythm that forms Phrenology's greatest cut Thought @ Work, the show commences in style. They frantically blend into Get Busy from the new album and it's not until this mayhem draws to a close that we are given time to breath.
With this live formation the band provide themselves with a lot of freedom, they're not constrained by programmed or sampled drum beats and so they are able to go where they please. They are able to tail off from one track into an impromptu rendition of Jungle Boogie led by the saxophonist, or let a song amble into a mammoth duel between ?uestlove's drum-kit and the percussionist's bongo dexterity. The other effect the live band has is the removal of the MC as the central focal point. Black Thought is way more central and way more impressive on record than he is on stage. This isn't really a critism of him, he's electrifying when on a flow, but is more of an observation about a front man that is quite willing to fade into the background and let his band take center stage. Sometimes he'd even fade off his rap mid-verse so that only he could hear his own words, like he was unaware of an audience.
They clearly love playing and seemed to never stop, flowing from one song to the next. The torrent of words flooding out over such a complex mixture of sounds does ask a lot of the audience and there definitely was a lull during the middle period, as this energy is hard to maintain. Black Thought's words were often enveloped by the music making it hard to hear him and with each song undergoing major changes it was hard to recognise some of them and many favorites passed me by unnoticed. Strangely enough, it was the musical interludes like the drum battle and the awesome bass guitar solo that thrilled me the most. They displayed the band's potential to turn on a knife edge and change up the genres altogether. And that was the principle success of the night. Black Thought's gold chain was the only conventional hip hop representative present that night. I didn't feel like I was at a hip hop gig and I was glad of it. People were moving to the back where there was more space to dance. As the whole show culminated in a rapturous and frenzied rendition of one of their biggest singles The Seed and every hand was thrust into the air I felt like I was in the presence of a truly legendary crew who were really writing their own rules and breaking them as well. The skill and creativity on that stage was palpable and a wonder to behold.