The Roots are the real deal, from their old-school flows to their intimidating instrumental prowess. Photo of previous Fillmore Auditorium show by Laurie Scavo.
It was billed as a night of hip-hop. And there was rapping. More than a few explosively repetitive chants of “Put-em-up!” and “Can I hear some noise!” But don’t be fooled. The Roots and Tuesday night’s Fillmore Auditorium opener Gym Class Heroes were kicking out pure-and-heavy rock. Even though the thumpy gravy on the entrée was hip-hopped, the main course was instrumentalized rock-n-roll.
At a time when hip-hop is stifled in a sea of uninspired hollering, the Roots are a revolutionary beacon — a we-never-left-this-ship return to the creative infancy of hip-hop, when instruments, rhythms, melodies and jams mattered more than bling, bravado, blunts and bitches.
It’s been more than 20 years since a pair of Philly boys — rapper Black Thought, a.k.a. Tariq Trotter and drummer ?uestlove, a.k.a. Ahmir Khalib Thompson — forged a then one-of-a-kind vision to anchor socially-thoughtful hip-hop in freeform, see-it-live musicianship. They’ve courted the Big Time and danced with Grammys, occasional radio play and the ever-fickle embrace of the masses. But theirs is an underground sound; a rare pathway to a soul-swelling, intricate groove, not a fleeting aural tickle. As Jedi Master guardians of the original hip-hop sound, they inspired a movement, spawning the likes of technically gifted Talib Kweli, Nas and L.A.’s Dilated Peoples.
A ceiling-to-floor curtain hanging in the middle of the Fillmore Tuesday night squeezed an eager crowd closer to the stage, creating a more intimate, warmer vibe on a cold, wet night.
Gym Class Heroes — an NYC band capable of veering between the season’s flavor of the month and emerging as a potential leader in rap’s music-first movement — warmed up the there-for-the-Roots crowd. UK’s golden-throated newcomer Estelle offered stunning and soulful harmonies with Gym Class’s gifted guitarist Disashi Lumumba-Kasongo, who incidentally delivered a tasty twist on Prince’s “When Doves Cry.”
Lumumba-Kasongo has a Michael Jackson falsetto, which he set on a loop, weaving a uniquely pitched background for MC Travis “Schleprok” McCoy. The Gym Class are obvious disciples of the ’80s, sprinkling their hits like the mind-numbing “Cookie Jar” with melodies and riffs that harken back to the days of Martha Quinn.
The blast of a sousaphone trumpeted the arrival of something different. Bassist Owen Biddle joined Damon “Tuba Gooding Jr.” Bryson to create a low-end vibration that shook innards. The Roots launched into “Get Busy,” off their eighth and latest studio album “Rising Down,” and stayed wildly busy for the next 80 minutes. They have to be the only hip-hop act to ever tour with a resident sousaphonist and, even more surprising, without a DJ. This was no prerecorded soiree.
The amply afro’d ?uestlove and stick-wielding percussionist F Knuckles quickly worked into a drum solo that ranked as one of the least self-indulgent skin pounding exhibitions ever. Typically, when a pair of drummers roll into a solo, one jams and the other fills the occasional hole. But ?uestlove and F Knuckle built an amazingly syncopated sound, casually and seemingly effortlessly utilizing each other’s beats to fill the room with a shared, spontaneous rhythm.
Out front, in a circa-88 Gap cable-knit sweater and straight brimmed Yankees cap, Black Thought cranked through complex and often insightful rhymes, establishing a flow that should be envied by most MCs these days. A calypso-reggae riff got things shaking before Estelle came out to fill soul-diva Erykah Badu’s part on the band’s latest hit single “You Got Me.”
Then things got heavy. “Captain Kirk” Douglas — an obvious influence in the Roots’ continuing voyage into instrumental-based, edgy, progressive rock — churned out a Frampton-esque wah-wah jam, accompanied by Estrelle’s delicate wailing. The result was mesmerizing.
Douglas then exploded into a metallicly manic rendition of “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” playing the role of both Slash and Axl to chilling perfection. That was just the warm up. In the next 15 minutes, Douglas haphazardly blasted through a dozen genres of rock, hitting Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love,” an unidentified Marley riff, a couple glimpses of Jimi (including an above-the-head teeth solo) and some more than heavy metal. There wasn’t a single hook in the lot, leaving Black Thought struggling to offer anything more than a guttural “yeah!” and the crowd searching for a danceable groove.
The crowd got their boogie on with the Roots biggest hit, “Phrentrow,” off the band’s seminal “Phrenology” album, a song that most in the house knew well. And if you didn’t know ‘em going in, the Roots were a top-ten lister on the way out.
Jason Blevins is a Denver Post reporter and regular Reverb contributor.