Don’t Forget Your Roots: Success vs. Legacy in Hip Hop and Late Night

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The concept of success is one that can never really be objective. Sure we say that “having a job that pays well” or “a loving family” or “owning a house” or being “well-respected in your field” are signs of success, and they certainly can be. The problem is that when you list those things as benchmarks of what it means to be “successful,” it implies that the inverse is true: not achieving those things is a sign of failure, or at least “not-success.” It would be more accurate to call these things “accomplishments.”

What constitutes who or what is successful depends on the context. Someone who has accomplished the above may be a success in THOSE regards, but they could also be a drug-abusing, wife-beating, little-boy-pee-pee-touching piece of shit. Plenty of athletes on every level are exceptional at what they do while also using women and carrying on like poor excuses for human beings. On the flip side, someone who may not have achieved the typical benchmarks of success may have become one of the most well-adjusted people to exist which I would call a resounding success. It all depends on what you are talking about and you need to be specific.

So what can be said about the Roots? That they have had great successes is not debatable, but the real question is whether or not their greatest accomplishment has detracted from their others.

Formed in 1987 by MC Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter and Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, The Roots have become synonymous with professionalism and for being a “band,” something usually relegated to the background in the world of hip hop. As far as I can tell, only a single hippie who saw them play with Trey Anastasio has had anything negative to say about them- and that was their live show which has always gotten pretty stellar reviews. They have won Grammys, most recently for their collaborative album of socially conscious songs with R&B singer John Legend and each year have hosted a Grammy-weekend jam session featuring some of the industry’s biggest names, while backing everyone from Jay-Z on both his Unplugged taping and his farewell shows, the above mentioned Trey Anastasio of Phish, Erykah Badu, Big Daddy Kane, and Dave Matthews (Yes, That Dave Matthews). Thanks to their role as Jimmy Fallon’s house band on his Late Night show and now The Tonight Show, that list has swelled even more. I would say that is successful by music industry standards, and other than that one Phish fan I doubt anyone would say different.

Still, I am concerned.

Much of the band’s success has been away from the limelight. While they have always gotten positive press in industry magazines like SPIN, Rolling Stone and The Source, The Roots spent years toiling away in the fertile hip hop underground and free to grow in any direction and with no expectations. Granted, they were signed to a major label as early as their second album, but they were one of those hip groups whose popularity had flourished with very non-hip hop audiences thanks in part to appearances on the Lollapalooza tour and jazz festivals. Their political consciousness (which would only mature as they did) and the fact that they did play all their own instruments made them a group that “non-urban” audiences gushed over, similar to the popularity that Jurassic 5 would enjoy as well.

There were hits of course, “The Seed (2.0)” and “You Got Me” being obvious standouts, but when discussing The Roots, the magic quality that made them standout from their contemporaries could be found in the albums themselves. Each new release showcasing the writing and production that increasingly became more and more wholly shaped by the band themselves. Though they wrote 100% of their material from the get-go, the band would fully take control of the sound as they stepped up their production game. This would carry over into and be shaped by the Soulquarian music collective founded in part by  ?uestlove and including a who’s who of late 90s/early 2000s soul, R&B, and hip-hop…the ones that mattered at least.

One can make the argument that selling units is all that really matters when it comes to the music industry (or any other industry in which artistic works are commodified- or any industry at all), but many would concede that the value of the art is the quality and that the quality isn’t really affected by quantitative measuring sticks like album sales or download numbers. In this mindset one could easily say that the Soulquarians, which included Q-Tip, J Dilla, Common, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, and D’angelo and whose releases could be easily be called seminal when discussing the neo-soul movement influenced by the artists such as Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, and Bob Marley are resounding given the astounding quality of their music and the influence it has had and will continue to have in a culture that is prone to unearthing nearly every artistic movement over and over again.

?uestlove himself -the most vocal spokesman of the group and arguably the most easily recognized as well- tells a story in this interview with Pitchfork (it goes without saying that hipster sites like the popular tastemaker have been infatuated with The Roots like the hacky sack crowd before them, which is weird because popularity among the latter typically leads to disdain from the former) that reminds you of the longevity of The Roots and how weird the rap game is in terms of who rises to stardom and who takes on the anointed status. Sometimes they are one in the same, and sometimes not. Jay Z and Nas may have been able to navigate through time and leave a stylistic imprint of influence while also cranking out great numbers, but the hip hop landscape is always dominated by “successful” names du jour like Chingy, Fabolous , or Soulja Boy who contribute very little besides a couple tracks destined to become footnotes.

Aside from the obvious big names, success in hip hop doesn’t always mean actual success. It tell nothing of the influence you will have on the genre, whether your popularity will just a footnote, a “remember when we ‘Backed Dat Ass Up’?” Most importantly it says nothing about the quality of the music that the person is making or what they are saying. It simply says that people liked your song at a certain point and some even paid money to own it or see you perform it live. Popularity does not equal quality, something which has been illustrated throughout the history of pop culture.

Alternatively, is “success” in the Business a good measure of quality or really a success? Sure we applaud the savvy of Sean “Whatever he fucking goes by now” Combs, or the fact that Jay Z has branched out into owning and selling stakes in sports teams and making a ton of money for ball players with a questionable work ethic, not to mention the mind-blowing amount of money that Dr. Dre stands to make from selling Beats Audio. But does this say anything about them other than that they are good at business? Puff Diddy’s production successes are far outweighed by what most fans of the genre would call “pieces of shit,” and while Jay Z has been prolific in terms of quality output, the business side of him is more of a testament to that drug dealer of lore whose rep he has been milking well past its shelf date. Beats was brilliant in that it was a weird synergy of a musical talent teaming with a mogul to make something to listen to music through, which is now being bought by a company that produces devices to listen to music, one who also happens to be one of the largest retailers of digital music. Brilliant, but a success that is completely separate from the legacy of Dr. Dre the producer who can rap AND control the maestro.

So is the undeniable accomplishment of The Roots rising (up) to such a prominent place in popular culture something that is separate from their legacy in rap and hip hop? Is it even possible to separate the two?

These and many more questions are raised concerning what a post Late Night Roots means in terms of everything that the Roots have come to represent. Will they continue to be a voice for social consciousness even after their tongue in cheek stab at Michele Bachmann brought heat upon NBC, Fallon, and themselves? While Jimmy Fallon and the network downplayed the incident (one I wholly endorse and encourage), one has to assume that some limits were placed on what they can and cannot do in terms of their song choices. I don’t think they would be so brazen to control what the group says in their own music, but it wouldn’t be all that preposterous to think that they might show a little bit of prudence before rocking the boat as much a they could have before Late Night and I don’t think it’s crazy to think an upgrade to The Tonight Show cements that even more.

My personal fear is that despite the amazing albums and collaborations, live performances and Grammy awards, as well as the “coolness” they have been able to cultivate, they have done their career a huge disservice even while giving it a major boost. ?uestlove and the rest of the group has been candid from the start about the reasons they took the gig, stating that it was simply a financial decision that would allow them to get off the road and still get paid a comparable amount, with other viable options being a Vegas or Atlantic City type of residency (Both equally uncool). Neither I nor anyone else can knock that sort of reasoning. Children grow up fast and life is a precious summation of minutes and hours and only a truly callous person could hold artists to such a high standard that their art takes precedence over their life, which is the thing that artistic vision spring from to begin with.

The run on Fallon has certainly been great for the band’s profile and has propelled them into mainstream acclaim that had eluded them for most of their career, making their name known beyond both the marquee and the shadows of hip hop’s underground. This is what one strives for: to make a mark on culture at large, but one would think they never imagined or wanted for that mark to be slow jamming the news or playing novelty versions of bubblegum pop songs using children’s toys (something made even more ironic by “Rising Up” a standout from their Rising Down album that specifically decries the radio’s habit of playing the same songs over and over- like “Blurred Lines” or “Call Me Maybe.”)

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This is a long ways from Things Fall Apart or Wake Up even if that was just a short six years ago. The question that I and many other fans are concerned with is how their role as successors to Max Weinberg, Jimmy Vivino and Kevin Eubanks will affect their art. While they have released music since embarking on this gig, this new album is the first since being catapulted into the hour directly following the Nightly News. Can their commentary on the music industry even be taken as seriously as it had been given all this?

There is some indication though, that this success in popular culture has liberated The Roots to take even greater chances with their music than they have taken before. Now that their name is known to even more people there is less pressure to maintain the record sales that they in the past, and while hardcore hip hop fans may turn their noses up at their undeniably major accomplishment in the entertainment industry it is quite possible that they might make up for the loss of those even more curmudgeonly than myself with new fans who might just be discovering how great The Roots are. Which is good, because despite my concerns, this attitude seems unfair.

Entrepreneurs like Dr Dre and Jay Z who (as previously mentioned) have branched out from concentrating on the music and built empires are lauded for their transcendence, most likely due to the emphasis within hip hop on “business.” Something like “Tonight Show Band” seems stuffy though, an establishment job that is antithesis to the rebellious spirit of hip hop and rock ‘n’ roll in general.

But is it really? The hip hop that is real doesn’t care about integrity because it is just another genre in the machine that is the entertainment industry. It doesn’t care about integrity or your rep. It cares about radio play and downloads. That isn’t The Roots and it never has been. The Roots have always stood apart from that so it doesn’t really matter if they have taken this leap into the mainstream in the lamest way possible. All that matters is that they continue to push the boundaries of the current state of hip hop, music in general, and the broader culture. They appear poised to do that and to reach even more people in the process.

Any way you pick it apart, I call that accomplishment a success.

Author: Josh Richer

Josh lives in NYC (OK OK! Staten Island) and would love it if you employed him. Send Josh an email