Tramps, New York, May 31, 1998
No samplers? No drum machines? No New York representation on stage? You call this hip-hop? If the purveyors of such an aberration are Atlanta's Goodie Mob or Philadelphia's the Roots, the answer is an unqualified yes. As for how well they pull off the feat of delivering engaging hip-hop backed by live instruments on stage, the answer is a somewhat less certain "somewhat."
Following opening performances by Atlanta's Witchdoctor and P.A., Goodie Mob's backing band and rapper Khujo took the stage. They promptly slid into the slow-jam "Free" off their 1995 debut, Soul Food, and by the end of the song, the whole group, Gipp, Cee-Lo and T-Mo, had descended upon the platform, roaring into that record's title track. Sheer energy pulsed through the ominous "Dirty South;" when they served up "Black Ice," the first song of the evening from this year's Still Standing, the staccato vocals and drums hit home with ferocity.
"Fly Away" highlighted one of Goodie Mob's underrated strengths: Cee-Lo's voice. By harmonizing with backup singers, Cee-Lo redefines rap's vocal boundaries. His bona fide singing provided a link between the southern-fried soul music and the beats over which the Goodie Mob rap, blurring the line between the two musical styles. On "Beautiful Skin," their ode to black women, Cee-Lo again took the song to another level of rarified style. They ended their set with "They Don't Dance No Mo'," an ironic closer considering that all bodies were in motion, moving to the fast-paced version of the song.
After a thirty-minute break that threatened to turn anticipation into impatience, the Roots finally took the stage. Scratch came on first, warming up the audience with his turntable noises, which were mimicked with nothing more than his vocal cords. It was a sound that Rahzel, the human beatbox, then embellished with his oral percussion. The band got the crowd moving with the jazzy hip-hop of "Proceed" and "Mellow My Man," (from Do You Want More?!!!?!) and then displayed the harder style they're moving toward with "Concerto of the Desperado," off their last release, Illadelph Halflife.
One of the rips against the Roots has been that they aren't true hip-hop, that as live musicians with no samples, they more closely relate to rock than rap. The fact that they're not a traditional rap group, but an actual band, has hurt their street cred. But when you strip away the hype and neo-Nineties technology, hip-hop is beats and rhymes. That is the head and the heart of the music. And the Roots have these essentials down.
Unfortunately, the Roots did not keep up the momentum they had built. After a smooth, grooving version of "Push Up Ya lighter" and a new song, "The Ultimate," the show began a long, slow slide into self-indulgence. Guestlove kicked off this portion of the show with a drum solo banging on everything on his kit, including the microphones. A virtuoso act, certainly, but his descent into prog-rock theatrics was overblown. Kamal, the keyboardist, took the floor next, then bassist Hub took a shot at keeping the crowd's attention from turning to their drinks. Hub's fuzzed-out riffing might have been more fun to watch if thirty minutes hadn't passed with out a legitimate, structured song. By the end of the solo sessions, even members of the band looked bored.
But then came Hip-Hop 101 to the rescue. Those who have seen the Roots perform know that this is the group's raison d'etre. As they played the samples used in classic raps *live*, they saluted the birthplace of hip-hop with snippets of A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, and the Sugar Hill Gang. Rahzel and Scratch also recreated, among others, Run DMC's "Sucker MC's" and the Beastie Boys' "Paul Revere." And they weren't even close to finished.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I will now attempt the impossible," said Rahzel. "The chorus and the beat at the same time." Impossible? Not for him. He pulled it off flawlessly.