HomeAfrica-News'Phrenology': a reintroduction to The Roots, 20 years later

‘Phrenology’: a reintroduction to The Roots, 20 years later


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“Let’s do everything we’re not supposed to do.” This is how Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson describes the American band The Roots’ approach to recording their fifth studio album. Phrenology. The album was released 20 years ago on November 26, 2002.

Questlove, DJ, producer, connoisseur of black music, and virtuoso drummer for the band, describes Phrenology as a “come out album”.

An exit album is a record in which an artist takes a drastic left turn after achieving massive commercial success. Artists or bands often disguise it as an “art record” or “experiment record.” You’ve probably experienced the phenomenon of the one-hit wonder album or when artists have to quickly record a follow-up album because their “experimental” album flopped.

There’s something about an artist achieving massive success that induces fear and self-sabotage. Kendrick Lamar is one of the few current hip-hop artists to have had back-to-back commercially successful albums.

The Legendary Roots Crew, as they are affectionately known, was co-founded by Questlove in 1987 with his friend, bandmate and MC Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter. The couple met while attending Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.

Later, other band members joined the group, with each member adding their own style and musical talent. The band’s lineup has changed several times over the years, with many members leaving to form their own groups and create new music, most notably Scott Storch.

Storch was the band’s keyboardist from 1993 until 1995, when he became a record producer, creating hits for Snoop Dogg, Pink, Lil Kim and more, before running into legal trouble and officially filing for bankruptcy in 2015.

Another much talked about ex-Roots member is Malik B, who was the group’s second MC, sharing the microphone with Black Thought. Over the years, the troubled Malik B stopped performing and recording with the band, leaving Black Thought as the solo MC. He died in July 2020.

When The Roots released their independent debut album Organix, (1993) lived in London and played small clubs to make ends meet. It was while touring Europe and playing jam sessions that the group mastered their unique jazz-neo-soul-hip-hop sound. They brought that sound to America, where they went on to capture masses of international fans.

The prolific rap group burst onto the scene in the 1990s, gaining popularity with the hip-hop classic. Do you want more?!!!??! in 1995. At the time, hip-hop was seen almost exclusively as music held up by a DJ creating tracks for the MC.

The group was the first known live hip-hop band, where each band member was a seasoned instrumentalist. The Roots have inspired many groups and MCs to use a live band for backup: OutKast, Mos Def and locally Tumi from the Volume and Hip-Hop Pantsula.

After releasing their debut album, and their first album in the US, Do you want more?!!!??! In 1995, the band released two projects: Illadelph half-life (1996) and things fall apart (1999). Both albums received critical acclaim and the band built a strong following by speaking out against the negative representation of women in hip-hop and their love of the flashy lifestyle in their fun and classic video. What they do.

The Roots achieved great commercial success with the Grammy Award-winning Things Fall Apart. He won Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for the song. You got mewith Erykah Badu (the original was sung by Jill Scott but Badu’s voice was used for the album).

You got me it changed my career and my life forever. It was my first Grammy and I feel like it cemented my place as one of the all-time greats. We pave the way with that song for everything Erykah [Badu] and jill [Scott] and D’Angelo, and so many other artists that would come out later would do,” Black Thought said. Rolling Stone magazine during an interview earlier this year.

Back in 2002, The Legendary Roots Crew had fans eagerly awaiting any sign of new music. At launch time, Phrenology was met with criticism, with many die-hard fans expressing their dissatisfaction with the band’s departure from the organic hip-hop-jazz sounds they were now famous for.

Knowing what we know now, it’s clear that The Roots knew they couldn’t approach this album in the same way they had with previous projects. They risked losing fans and I wonder if they even cared.

Putting Down Roots: The Do You Want More?!!!??! Album made the American hip-hop band The Roots famous in 1995 and they are still going strong. Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

The album Phrenology it is named after the discredited 19th century pseudoscience used to justify slavery. At the time of its release, hip-hop enthusiasts also proposed a specific new meaning of Roots for Phrenology: “Ph” for Philly, “re” for re-entering the scene, and “nology” for knowledge.

Looking back at where The Roots were as a group, it makes sense that they wanted to reintroduce themselves and take it back to its “roots.” Many fans had no idea that the band had formed their first musical influences in Europe. Although die-hard fans felt the band’s departure from their signature sound was turning their backs on neo-soul music, to me it was a celebration of their musicianship. How can you know what you are capable of if you don’t make an effort?

To honor their history and growth as musicians, the band had to break out of the neo-soul hype they helped create, which was at an all-time high, with artists like Scott, Bilal and India Arie dominating the R&B charts.

Ironically, the first single released from Phrenology It’s the classic R&B song break you, with Musiq Soulchild. Questlove, who won his first Academy Award this year for Summer of Soul, said the song was created during a sound test recording for a pilot that was never released. They were blocking the camera and decided to play around with Musiq on vocals. The drummer then went on a trip, and when he returned, the band was recording the song for the new record.

Questlove thought the song was “cheesy R&B”, which went against their original concept for the album. The second single released from the album was The Seed 2.0 with neo-soul artist, Cody Chesnutt.

“This was polarizing. Everything You got me it was for us in the United States, The seed it was globally that catapulted us into glimpses of pop-rock stardom in Europe. It was no easy feat to take something that was essentially unbroken, and already an amazing song, and add to it in an organic way without ruining what Cody Chesnutt already had,” Black Thought said, reflecting on his top songs for Rolling Stone.

The seed was recorded by Chesnutt as a single before The Roots reworked it for Phrenology. the reworked The Seed 2.0 it’s a masterpiece: as soon as the song starts, Questlove’s drums resound directly in your chest. In an alternate universe I imagine Lenny Kravitz performing the song; it could have to do with the rock ‘n roll influence peppered throughout or Chesnutt’s laid-back, sexy appearance.

The Roots crew have always had a knack for delivering a strong message and using tunes and instruments for a soft landing. You get so lost in the rhythm that you miss what Chesnutt sings in The Seed 2.0. “I fertilize another behind my lover’s back / And I keep my secrets my own / I push my seed into his bush for life, / It’s gonna work ’cause I’m pushing it right / If Mary left my baby tonight / I’d name her rock and roll”.

Another song on the album that had fans talking was the 10-minute song. Water, where Black Thought talks about Malik B’s struggle with drug addiction. The thought asks Malik to stop letting life pass him by and to help him, because together they need to overcome “the water”.

The long-awaited album was recorded over a two-year period, from June 2000 to September 2002.

“If you’re already a Roots fan, you’re at the point where you can be sure about the quality of the music. But that’s what we racked our brains for, and that’s what took so long on this album: trying to make this release a step up from the last thing we released,” says Black Thought. “But it’s difficult.

“In ’92, ’93, I was in a completely different place. I had crazy ammo, crazy stuff, I had my life’s worth of ideas and shit. I would be constantly writing rhymes and always have a book with me, freestyling a bit. Now, if I’m writing a song, it’s because I’m in the studio and I’m about to record it,” Black Thought adds in a 2002 interview with the dimmer magazine.

For an album that essentially broke all the rules, Phrenology became an international hit and was nominated for Best Rap at the 2004 Grammy Awards. The album featured guest appearances by Chesnutt, Scott, Nelly Furtado, Talib Kweli, and Musiq Soulchild.

The Roots have recorded several albums and starred in movies and television shows. They are the official band of Tonight with Jimmy Fallon.


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