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The Roots: the essentials

Kiah Welsh

There's no doubt that the Roots have an impressive musical resumé. Over the last few decades, the band has collaborated with various artists in different genres ranging from Common to Nelly Furtado to D'Angelo to the Dirty Projectors. But, above anything else, it's the Roots' use of live instrumentation and hard-hitting lyrics that stamp them as a rarity in hip-hop.

This year marks 30 years since the Roots have formed as a band. To celebrate, we look at some of the group's essential tracks, to commemorate its consistency, longevity and constant relevance.

Song: "Common Dust"
Album: Organix (1993)

"Common Dust" is a raw track that showed the Roots' lyrical potential. Though the group was still trying to find its sound in this stage, the energy and enthusiasm is undeniable. Lyrics like "Time I grips not, so it limps along/ dust you, collect if you digs my song/ paids and black braids what I aims to ease," speaks the group's truth. It's honest, and to the point. Fast-forward to the present, and that's what's most loved about the Roots: their ability to speak their minds and lyrically challenge those listening.

— Kiah Welsh (@simplykiah)

Song: "Proceed"
Do You Want More?!!!??! (1994)

Along with their first major label single "Distortion to Static," "Proceed" from Do You Want More?!!!??! was the single that put the Philadelphia hip-hop group firmly on the radar of hip-hop fans everywhere. Black Thought and Malik B were clearly street-wizened MCs and Questlove's schooled drumming was clearly well-versed in the foundations of hip-hop beats. Coming off the cusp of the '90s acid jazz sound that often mixed jazz and hip-hop to mixed results, the Roots immediately represented and registered as an authentic synthesis that was clearly not a label-hatched project, but a group who were genuine heirs to Stetsasonic as hip-hop's premier band.

— Del Cowie (@vibesandstuff)

Song: "Mellow My Man"
Album: Do You Want More?!!!??! (1994)

Do You Want More?!!!??! is a classic album in every sense of the word. Not only was it critically acclaimed, but it made the Roots a noteable group within and beyond hip-hop. It's how they took their sound from busking on the streets of Philadelphia to the international stage. The song "Melllow My Man" is one of many on the album that exemplifies the Roots' mix of jazz and hip-hop. — KW

Song: "What They Do"
Album: Illadelph Halflife (1996)

By the time I was introduced to the Roots, they were already on their third album which, every time I play it, transports me back to a time and place. Their sound would induce a reaction. You know? Your face gets serious, your brows furrow and your neck groove in rhythm to the rimshot is instant and autonomic.

It's hard to choose a favourite but "What They Do" will happen in this instance. The track is a spokesperson for the sake of stereotypical music. An ode to the real, the original. The video takes a look behind the curtain. As Black Thought spits so eloquently: “The principles of true Hip Hop have been forsaken/ It’s all contractual and about money makin’/ Pretend to be cats don't seem to know they limitation/ Exact replication and false representation/ You wanna be a man then stand your own/ To MC require skills, I demand some shown.”

— Angeline Tetteh-Wayoe (@MissAngelineTW)

Song: "You Got Me" feat. Erykah Badu
Album: Things Fall Apart (1999)

Everything about this song — from the lyrics to the bass, the keys, drums and flow — is timeless. Released in 1999, "You Got Me" delves into issues that are still relevant today. In the video, Black Thought walks the streets with human bodies on the ground, alternating with cutaways to Badu singing. Though peculiar at first, throughout the video we start to unravel the meaning. According to Billboard, "You Got Me" blur the line between inner and outer realities, then invert the two for the clip's final impact." The song garnered the Roots and Badu a Grammy Award for best rap performance by a duo or group in 2000. — KW

Song: "The Next Movement"
Things Fall Apart (1999)

Things Fall Apart is a staple album for the Roots, and it's one of their biggest successes. On this album, the band developed its eclectic mix of sounds. Critics describe Things Fall Apart as "an utter inventiveness and power of the music. Reaching back to musical forebears (primarily jazz and funk), the Roots craft a potent sound collage for their trenchant manifesto." Their song "The Next Movement" is an essential for those interested in conscious rap. Their lyrics "Hey you listeners, stop what you're doin'/ and set it in motion, it's the next movement" is anthem for social change. — KW

Song: "Break You Off" feat. Musiq
Phrenology (2002)

Though "Break You Off" is about infidelity, the song is the core definition of R&B at its finest — showcasing the group's beautiful and smooth melodic talent. The crossover number featuring Musiq's silky vocals and four cellists is not one to be ignored. — KW

Song: "Doing it Again" feat. John Legend
Album: How I Got Over (2010)

Black Thought's lyrical workout over John Legend's power ballad "Again" is mind-blowing. The song addresses the Roots' decision to be the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Black Thought raps, "If I said I mean it, I did it because I need it/ eat, sleep it or bleed it, write it down and then read it / asphalt to the cement, your trash talk, delete it/ I blast off then lay 'em out like a Tempur-Pedic." — KW

Song: "How I Got Over"
Album: How I Got Over (2010)

Organic. Experimental. Deliberate. "How I Got Over" embodies who the Roots are, from acoustic jazz grooves to elements of rock 'n' roll. Though the song's message is bleak, the tempo is everything but. In the song, Black Thought raps about the tales of young people trying to get over "difficult upbringings": "When you're on the corners, there's too much drama/ we live in a war zone like Rwanda/ before I go back to the heavenly Father/ pray for me if it is not too much bother." — KW

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