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The Roots Return

The Roots

Organic hip-hop stars rip it up at San Jose's Usual

By Todd S. Inoue

Sway Station, the new hip-hop dance night at downtown San Jose's Usual, opened with a flourish Tuesday, Oct. 22. No better group--emphasis on group--to christen the scene than Philadelphia's coveted Roots crew.

The show was confirmed at the last minute, so advertising was confined to a few hastily printed posters and word of mouth. By 10:30pm, hip-hop heads from all over were all up in the place, eagerly anticipating Philly's finest.

10Bass T performed a short turntable-and-microphones set to open the show. Solrac, frustrated by the empty dance floor, fished for fans by offering tapes of the group's latest single, "10Bass Hit." After watching 10Bass T perform with a band for the past summer, the return to DJ style was a welcome sight.

The Roots, meanwhile, eschew turntablistic trappings for a four-man outfit: bassist Leonard "Hub" Hubbard, keyboardist Kamal, drummer Ahmir Khalib-Thompson and beat-boxer Rahzel, the Godfather of Noyze. Rahzel, back from a lengthy hiatus, functions on another wavelength completely, but we'll get to that later.

Rhymes Without Pauses

The grand centerpiece of the Roots is vocalist Black Thought. He enters a zone whenever he touches a mic, relentlessly gutting himself of rhymes. He could go on three song rolls during which he neither sips from the bottle of water he clutches or takes a lengthy breath.

After two lackluster recent shows in this area, the Usual gig was a return to form for the group that blew away an unassuming crowd at San Jose's Ajax Lounge in 1994. Rahzel's mind-blowing beat-box skills push the Roots into the can't-miss category real quick.

The Usual show opened with the visionary "Proceed" ("I shall proceed and continue to rock the mic"). "Distortion to Static" and "I Remain Calm" followed, exuding all the loose, organic hip-hop jazz the Roots do so well.

The crowd was intensely knowledgeable. It's amazing what a lack of promotion does. The dummies, playa hatas and the spectators were nowhere to be found. Real hip-hop heads were getting off like O.J.

The heads lost theirs on "Mellow My Man," when Hubbard's svelte Darryl Jones-inspired bass work shone through. Covered in his trademark black sleeveless hoodie, Hubbard is a throwback to funk bassmen, cognizant of his importance within the group yet subtle in his use of stage presence.

"Mellow" was followed by some tracks off of Illadelph Halflife: "Respond React," "Push Up Ya Lighter," "Section" and "Concerto of the Desperado." The lull in the crowd's mood reflected the unfamiliarity with the material as much as Black Thought's unrelenting rap attack. He packs verbs and adjectives into mind spaces that are already trying to play catch up.

Riding on Hip-Hop 101

Not to worry, the Roots reached the traditional "Hip-Hop 101" portion of the program, where the group performs a medley of hits, a "Name That Tune" routine set to hip-hop beats.

As joyful and hyped the vibe becomes, it is also a very long part of the show. The group flowed through Eric B. and Rakim, Doug E. Fresh, Schoolly D, Run-D.M.C., Boogie Down Productions, MC Lyte, Marley Marl, Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest, L.L. Cool J, Wu-Tang Clan, Sugarhill Gang, Ohio Players, Parliament, O'Jays, Gang Starr, Whodini and Grandmaster Flash. There were a few snatches of others that I didn't catch, but you get the idea.

Interspersed between the jams were a weak drum solo and an impressive bass solo (with a fuzz bass exploration that was tasty). Black Thought's ability to emulate his colleagues--most notably Q-Tip on "Bonita Applebum," ODB and Kool G. Rap--set heads tripping.

After that display came another show-stopper: Rahzel's beat-box solo. With only a microphone and spotlight, the Robocop of Beat Box formed a Virtual Reality arena and ran through beats collected from all areas of the hip-hop globe. He performed amazing cut-up versions of "Illusions," L.L.'s "Rock the Bells," Terror Fabulous and Nadine Sutherland's "Action." Rahzel then completed the VR tour, dedicating Blackstreet's "No Diggity" and Art of Noise's ethereal theme to the ladies.

By now, the sound system had thrown in the towel. Black Thought returned to the microphone, and a fuzzy hiss poured through the speakers. Two more new songs off Illadelph, and the Roots called it a night.

It's a miracle the Roots didn't perform their traditional last bit: "Do you want more?!!!??!" The audience would have waved a surrender flag. Not that the audience wasn't down; in 90 minutes, the Philly crew had slammed home the belief that hip-hop shall proceed, and continue, in a post-2Pac era.

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