My global contempt for the hip-hop music community has always been deeply ingrained within my taste in music. It’s always been a driving element in my rip-tide repulsion to popular culture. Even during the foundations of the genre, groups like Run D.M.C. and N.W.A set an expectation deep within me that shouting poetry to the beat of music probably wasn’t going to be my thing.
I’ve long condensed hip-hop as simply a sub-culture that represented little more than the glorification the performer, not the performance; acts that were focused on image and dominance in lieu of creativity or musicianship. It felt like every song I heard was banality of synthesized looping beats as the foundation for poorly executed shouting about the thug lifestyle, the virtues of the vagina, and how all it took was confidence, fame, and money to rule the world. I would strive to extract themes I could relate with, or at least identify, but sadly, was lost in the sea of stupidity.
Perhaps it was a racial thing, and I’m man enough to admit it. Hip-hop was still in the process of self-identification when I was growing up as a white kid from a Catholic elementary school in the rolling mountains of Western Maryland. I would be hard-pressed to find a way that my ‘roots’ were not the antithesis of the hip-hop culture. The ‘projects’ were just a mythical land to me.
So I kept growing up, and kept listening to the cultural pulse, and kept diving deeper in to a pretentious fog of valuing music from Julliard more than from the streets. I wanted to be stimulated musically. I wanted to feel like music was valuable because it was a recording of people doing things I couldn’t do. Far from virtuosity in any instrument, music was the sum of it’s parts for me; a deeply-seeded exposition of human talent – the human brain in tangible motion. This isn’t to say that I was enamored with Mozart or Tchaikovsky, I was far too enthralled by drums and guitar, but when asked if I liked classical music, I always had a quick answer.
Yes. But yes is simply the simplified answer to dismiss the question. The truth is that I’m not obsessed with the bulk of music I heard from the 17th century. The fact was, I had immense, immeasurable respect for any man that could arrange a score for a room full of instruments and make something with structure, melody, texture, and harmony. And this is probably the source of all my music pretentiousness and my aversion to hip-hop. But I just didn’t find myself listening to it for pleasure.
There was music I respected, and then there was music that I enjoyed. But, I could only find myself ‘liking’ tracks in the middle of the Venn Diagram.
Hip-hop was always hard to respect. It wasn’t the vulgarity, or the objectification of women, or any of the other tropes that are so commonly associated with the genre. For me, it was the violation of the rules.
It was how ‘uh’ is used as a syllable. It was how ‘erbody’ could stand in for ‘everybody’ without reproach. It was how every lyric of every live show that I’ve ever seen was shouted at the top of the lungs with complete disregard to balance and control. But mainly, it was how it was received. I didn’t want to live in a world where shouting of improper English about hedonism and violence, all on top of a synthesized repeating beat, was met with adoration.
But then the Roots were born. And it all started with drums.
I probably need to thank ?uestlove for my acceptance of hip-hop more than any other soul in human history. My first experience with the Roots was a few tracks of their album, The Tipping Point that I heard on a car trip to Boston with my friend Chris, another archetypical white boy like
myself. I liked them, but they had yet to break through my steel curtain of aversion for ‘rap’.
But by this time in my career of listening to music, I was starting to explore black music before “black music”. I was already beginning to explore the domains of funk and soul – and during this individual renaissance, I felt intrepid – like I was the first white guy to ever hear the Isley Brothers. My audacious attitude, combined with the acoustic, gritty drums on the Root’s disc, made me give them another listen.
Then I heard the Roots. I mean, heard them.
A few days later, I was listening to the lyrics and heard Black Thought talk about things like South African Apartheid and people like Langston Hughes. I found myself listening at my computer, pausing the track, and Googling terms I heard. And then there was this singular moment – I realized that I’m learning from the Roots. I’m learning history and culture, I’m shattering racial barriers in my brain, and in an instant, I respected the Roots. I get them. I nod my head and believe in the music. I understood the message; I felt the pulse.
The eclectic brand of funky guitars, gritty drums, and non-sampled music is the perfect entry point for someone in a pretentious indie-music shadow. Powerful lyrics, thoughtful messages, expert musicianship, and true soul in every note, make the Roots the first hip-hop band that I didn’t just tolerate, but loved. They opened a door, via the Soulquarians, to new frontiers of music for me.
The Roots have made a career on this funk-a-fied brand of neo-soul hip-hop, and their entire catalog is damn good. Obviously, if you read MT, you know that I’m enthralled with their newest work, a collaboration with John Legend, but every one of their albums is an arrangement of eclectic instruments, groovy beats, and a signature approach to hip-hop lyricism that defies boundaries and converts non-believers.
So, Roots, I just wanted to say thanks for shattering stereotypes. Thank you for keeping your sound acoustic and live. Thank you for writing compelling, flowing lyrics. Thank you for keeping your sound the way it should be, even during this pop-hop transience that we are going through. And mostly, thank you for ‘keeping it real’. I never knew what that meant until I had you in my life.
Nick, A Newly Reformed Hip-Hop Man