With hip-hop entering its third decade it’s amazing how many artists continue to downplay live performance. While the studio wizardry of producers like A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip and GangStarr’s DJ Premier admittedly doesn’t translate very well, there are plenty of meat-and-potatoes hip-hop crews that could produce live but don’t. Considering how important freestyling–improvised rapping–is to the form, you’d think performance would serve as the genre’s proving grounds. Philadelphia’s Roots are an exception to the puzzling norm, so much so that it wouldn’t be a stretch to label them a live band first and foremost. The group’s terrific third album, Illadelph Halflife (DGC), which is studded with guests from the worlds of hip-hop (Common Sense, Q-Tip, Bahamadia), soul and funk (Raphael Saadiq of Tony! Toni! Tone!, D’Angelo, Amel of Groove Theory), and jazz (Cassandra Wilson, Steve Coleman, David Murray), actually strips down their studio approach as heard on 1995’s Do You Want More?!!!??!, bringing it closer to their hard-hitting live show. The Roots play their own instruments, operating as a well-oiled groove machine that swings between tight vamps and subtle embellishment, avoiding both wankery and stiff automation. Rappers Black Thought and Malik B are brilliant freestylers, delivering intelligent, forward-thinking missives, and the group is often joined by mind-boggling verbal specialists like Scratch (who can mimic turntable scratching with uncanny expertise) and Rahzel the Godfather (a worthy successor to the Fat Boys’ Human Beatbox). Unlike the Roots, Jeru the Damaja follows the traditional MC-DJ setup, but his new album, Wrath of the Math (Payday/ffrr), proves his verbal skills beyond reproach. Bolstered by fat, propulsive grooves fashioned by DJ Premier, Jeru preaches urban sermons, tales of city survival that eschew both simplistic gangsta postures and hermetic idealism. Thursday, November 7, 9 PM, Metro, 3730 N. Clark; 773-549-0203.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Michael Levine, Daniel Hastings.