Let's go back to the late '90s, when radio rap wasn't a wasteland and underground hip-hop had yet to swallow itself. The Roots were just another group knocking out excellent albums and constantly touring, while avoiding industry, insider blabbing about sales, buzz and business. They were, instead, a modest rap band from Philly, a city that gave them cred but made them second-class citizens in the eyes of the forever-ballin' mainstream.
Fast forward to the mid-2000s: CD sales cratered, record labels grew scared and greedier, and the Internet ruptured the whole business model. Suddenly, The Roots—bemused major-label members who stayed on the road, made capital-A albums and rarely compromised—looked like prophets. All those big-time pop rappers from five or so years before vanished or languished on a label that was essentially holding them hostage until they teamed up with T-Pain to contrive a hit.
OK, rap now: Push aside talk about radio goons like 2 Chainz, Drizzy and Ricky Rozay ruining everything, because that stuff's crumbling. In fact, whoever's worried about that must not have an Internet connection.
Indeed, a varied and complex scene has established itself online; it's now infiltrating the real world, including at Hopscotch Music Festival. Cities Aviv, Danny Brown, G-Side and Jackie Chain—hell, even a veteran like Killer Mike—are currently rewriting rap's vision of success. By and large, they're doing it using the rules established by The Roots almost two decades ago.
- Put on an excellent live show. Most rap concerts feature too many dudes on the stage, terrible sound that results from rappers not caring and sound personnel raised on rock 'n' roll dynamics, and an emcee rhyming over his own pre-recorded vocals. These lowered expectations made The Roots' live performances—a mix of people-pleasing covers and improv, plus rugged and raw hip-hop—even more mind-blowing.
Lately, the focus on a quality hip-hop show has returned: The livewire rapper Danny Brown blasts a hole through every hip-hop binary thanks to an out-there sense of style (Skrillex-like hair, sartorial fashion choices, missing front teeth) and a contrarian comfort with hedonistic stories of pills and girls. His novelistic tales of poverty and urban plight come inspired by the Escape From New York-like atmosphere of his hometown of Detroit, and as with Kanye West or Nicki Minaj, he seems an out-there, boundary-breaking figure that you'll never entirely figure out. Brown's shows are full of bug-eyed, black-out moments and not to be missed.
- Make albums, not just chintzy collections of songs. For a number of reasons having to do with hip-hop's origins as a singles game, populist ideals that make rappers eager to please and a corporate clampdown on anything that can't chart, cohesive rap albums have always been a bit of an anomaly. But since Organix, their independent debut in 1993, The Roots have been an album-making crew. Last year's nonlinear concept rap record, undun, found a place for Phonte Coleman, free jazz, rappity raps and Sufjan Stevens. The Roots are just expected to deliver, and it's inarguably one of their best.
Dependability has been undervalued in hip-hop, but it is making a comeback. Despite the fact that so much music is now given away for free, the Internet's openness has resurrected the idea of the solid rap album. The stakes are low, so why not make something worthwhile? Huntsville, Ala.'s G-Side have released four excellent albums in four years, each to increasing acclaim and visibility. G-Side's sound is a spaced-out take on Southern rap that has grown more grandiose, even as their working-class values remain close to the ground. They're building their narrative one .zip file at a time.
- Use the record label, but don't let the record label use you. The Roots arrived in the early '90s, when rap groups were still getting snatched up by labels and given time to grow. It helped turn them into the kind of act that does whatever they want. They took full advantage of the major-label budget and exploited the relatively high visibility that it affords an underground hip-hop act. By keeping the compromises to a minimum, developing side hustles by backing up Jay-Z live and becoming the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and forever touring, they've powered through the ups and downs of the industry.
Killer Mike, once the guy who would Incredible Hulk his way through an OutKast Stankonia album cut, turned those highly visible guest spots into an independent take-no-prisoners radical rap discography, culminating in this year's R.A.P. Music. A collaboration with industrial-rap noisemaker El-P, it's a skronk-rap masterpiece that cogently expresses brick-through-a-window anger at the state of the nation and connects the dots between the New York noise of Public Enemy and the swarthy stomp of the Dirty South. Mike's past with big budgets culminates in this primal burst.
- Always keep your ears open. Consider the final, all-instrumental act of undun—chaotic drumming and noisy piano communicating the violent entry into this world by the album's main character, Redford Stephens. Witness the frenetic Bad Brains punk-funk of "!!!!!!!" off Phrenology. Remember the explosive drum 'n' bass breakdown of Things Fall Apart's "You Got Me." All these are moments when The Roots embrace the non-rap sounds from their record collections and iPods. Eclectic taste is now the norm, but it was an exception when The Roots began.
Danny Brown weaves over Hawkwind samples, while G-Side seem to channel post-rock histrionics. Digital Lows, the debut from Memphis' Cities Aviv, wanders from soul beats to Prurient-style noise to chilled-out indie, suggesting an organic iPod shuffle interpretation of hip-hop fusion. Meanwhile, Jackie Chain, a shouting, Asian-American pimp rapper, pretty much has one setting—CAPS LOCK COUPLETS ABOUT PARTYING. But he's willing to project his charmingly sleazy, bro-at-the-shake-club attitude onto a varied palette of sound. His club raps sample everything from '90s Eurocheese to Manfred Mann to Rick James to big, dumb dubstep.
These aggressively independent artists share a healthy self-awareness that prevents them from getting too caught up in the labels that at times restricted The Roots, including "underground." But tucked away in the back of their minds must be the knowledge that only a maniac like 2 Chainz would do all the bending necessary to maybe become a rap star for a few months. It is better to stick to one's guns, tour a whole lot and put out unrepentant rap music. That is what The Roots have done since the '90s.
Are The Roots the most influential rap group of the past 10 years? I think so. Remember, they laid out the rules for being an independent, sustainable rap group. Other rap acts have wisely and thankfully followed their lead.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Tip the scale."