The Lineup

The Roots

Philadelphia, Pa.

The Roots have been cast in a lot of roles over their two-decade-plus existence. They have been hip-hop’s go-to session band, one of the most enduring alt-rap groups in history, and quite possibly the most reliably on-point and hardworking live act performing today.

But beneath all of the rep they've earned over the years, there is a foundational principle that made them the group they are: They are preservers and champions of a historical American musical continuum. For The Roots, growing up musically aware in Philadelphia during the ’70s and ’80s meant taking civic pride in the hit-making Philly Soul machine of Gamble & Huff, then in the emergence of Schoolly D as he helped define the classic blueprint for hardcore hip-hop. So when performing-arts-high-school classmates Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson and Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter started collaborating in 1987, it was the beginning of a nucleus that spent the next quarter-century digging through all those influences to find its own language—and finding out just how fluently it could be spoken.

Those two members are the long-standing core that continues to define The Roots. ?uestlove's bandleader status comes from a driven, studious and knowledgeable dedication to working every angle of musical history for inspiration, all while making it a point to geek out over all his eagerly acknowledged influences. He’s the music-world’s equivalent of Martin Scorsese’s creator-driven advocacy. While that's most obvious in the pop-song-encyclopedic breadth of knowledge that gives music fiends some savvy in-jokes to chuckle at during Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, it also gives The Roots a target audience of approximately everybody. They gigged at both Lollapalooza and the Montreux Jazz Festival early in their careers, backed Jay-Z for his legendary 2001 MTV Unplugged appearance, incorporated indie favorites like Joanna Newsom and Sufjan Stevens into recent records, and had the honor of collaborating with veteran R&B legends like Al Green and Betty Wright. If you still needed concrete proof of just how universal hip-hop can be, may we present The Roots.

Where ?uestlove and the band embody hip-hop’s transformative, all-encompassing potential, Black Thought is the man that keeps the group firmly grounded in rap bona fides. As an emcee, he's an acolyte of the school of Rakim, projecting calculated, scholarly invincibility that allows an experienced charisma to glow through the seams. As The Roots grew as a band, Black Thought progressed from the solid battle-rap stylist who showed inspired sparks on “Proceed” and “What They Do” to a versatile conceptualist. While he still has a way with smack-talk punchlines and poised coolness, he’s built a body of work that keeps adding new dimensions—humanizing social frustrations in the commercial and critical breakthrough Things Fall Apart, running through a litany of internal conflicts and external expectations on the deconstruction-heavy Phrenology, creating populism out of political consciousness on The Tipping Point, swinging the pendulum back towards the confrontational on Game Theory, then distilling every hard-earned insight through the frustration of Rising Down and the resilience of How I Got Over. Last year's Undun went so far as to turn him into the composite voice of a doomed, introspective gangster undergoing a fatalist existential crisis—a far cry from your typical late-career complacency.

And that's why The Roots have endured for so long, even with the preponderance of label jumps, side projects and an ever-shifting lineup. It's worth pointing out that the current touring band—encompassing standouts like keyboardist Kamal Gray, horn player Dame "Tuba Gooding Jr." Bryson, and guitarist "Captain" Kirk Douglas—is the closest thing the hip-hop generation has to its own J.B.'s. There are few things more invigorating than a live Roots show. You go in expecting a tight, versatile band, and you head out reeling from seeing the group that, more than just about any other, is completely engrossed in the possibilities of music. —Nate Patrin