Speaking of Violence
New musical artillery helps The Roots expose ills of society
by Zach Klassen
The Roots have always been known for their conscious and organic take on modern day hip hop. With bassist, drummer, guitarist, keyboardist, percussionist, MC and sousaphone player, the band channels funk, jazz, rock and soul to produce an eclectic mix of rhythmic maneuvering within their songs. But as popular music has reinvested an interest in heavier synth-laden sounds, so has the septet from Philly plugged into their own electronic experimentation with 2008’s Rising Down.
The album title is based on William T. Vollmann’s book Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts On Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means, which discusses the psychological nature of violence in society, a prevalent theme within the album. The cover art, inspired by Norman Jennett’s 1898 political cartoon “Vampire That Hovers Over North Carolina” or “Negro Rule,” depicts a newly freed southern slave with pointed teeth, claws and outstretched wings, dwarfing the tiny people who run in terror below. The image is dark, but so is the music behind it. In fact, it’s the most intensely dark and political album The Roots have put out since the release of Game Theory in 2006. And it’s not one without a message. “We just wanted to put out an album of bangers because we kind of knew we had to sort of offset the heavy message,” said ?uestlove in a recent interview. “I guess if anything probably the hardest thing to do on this record was to put everything in first person perspective. Because normally whenever we did touch something political it was always from a very safe arm’s length third person perspective.”
Dense instrumentation drives Rising Down’s 15 tracks, bringing Black Thought’s ideas on revolution, race, crime and political power to life. As usual, ?uestlove’s presence is palpable as he engages in raw emphatic bouts with his drum kit. The soul influences aren’t overlooked either, but they’re coupled with the deep grind of bass filled synth loops and stutter-step samples. Although many times the album feels like a Roots-sponsored apocalypse, lighter tracks like “Rising Up” help to balance out the album’s strong but creative content.
The Roots, Stephen Marley, 7 pm Wednesday, June 4, Cuthbert Amphitheater • $32 adv., $37 door