It’s been no secret to those in the know, but since The Roots teamed up with Jimmy Fallon to serve as his house band, the secret has been let loose: The Roots are an incredible backing band, if not the best backing band out there. This is not meant to short change any of their accomplishments in hip-hop; The Roots are one of the greatest hip-hop acts ever and probably the genre’s premier live act.
That is a decent amount of superlatives. In music’s yearbook, The Roots would be well-represented.
The best backing band nod, though – I am of the opinion that is the trophy that best epitomizes just how massively talented The Roots are. Hip-hop is their wheelhouse. Being a schooled and diverse backing band that can play behind almost anyone, regardless of genre, is where they show what’s underneath the hood.
So, let’s run back five examples of times when The Roots were a rock-solid, encyclopedic, and wildly skillful backing band.
The Roots Back Jay Z For MTV Unplugged
Hov was coming off The Blueprint, an album where he embraced samples of ’70s soul music, and when it came time to do MTV Unplugged – which even now seems like kind of a crazy idea – he turned to The Roots to help bring those sounds to life. Was it “unplugged?” No, not at all. But that’s beside the point. The performance ended up serving a dual purpose. It showcased a different side of Jay Z and introduced The Roots to a larger audience; giving people their first glimpse of what kind of skills the band was packing in their war chest.
The Roots Serve As The House Band At Dave Chappelle’s Block Party
At the height of his popularity, thanks to Chappelle’s Show, Dave Chappelle rounded up some of his favorite hip-hop acts for a block party in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. The documentary about the party, released in 2005, focused not just on the concert, but the lead-up to it, as well as Chappelle interacting with some of the locals. The concert is the highlight, though, and featured Kanye West, Black Star, an impromptu Fugees reunion, Erykah Badu, and more. The Roots provided the music for pretty much every set beside Fugees. They are a jukebox, a live karaoke machine, and, for what seems like the first time, this was on full display during the film.
There’s them backing Kanye and Talib Kweli.
And then there’s them backing Dead Prez.
They also played a set of their own, which included a blistering version of “You Got Me,” featuring Badu and Jill Scott.
The Roots Host And Support Hip-Hop Royalty At Their Annual Roots Picnic
Starting in 2008, The Roots have curated and co-headlined The Roots Picnic, a day-long festival in Philadelphia. Now eight years in, a template has been set for the festival – The Roots co-headline with a hip-hop icon, backing said icon, as well as performing their own set. The rest of the lineup is a delightful concoction of DJs, up-and-coming hip-hop acts, one or two rock acts and a wild card or two. But year after year, the highlight is The Roots and that year’s headliner, whether it’s Erykah Badu, members of Wu-Tang Clan, Public Enemy or Naughty by Nature.
In 2011, at the fourth incarnation of the festival, The Roots backed Nas.
And the next year, they played with De La Soul; something I still consider one of the coolest things I’ve ever witnessed.
That same year, Yasiin Bey literally just rambled on to the stage and, because The Roots seem to know every song ever written (not hyperbole, but a fact), they backed the rapper on a handful of his tracks, including “Umi Says.”
At the seventh-annual Picnic in 2014, The Roots backed Snoop Dogg, bringing his frequent funk and soul samples to life.
The Roots Branch Out And Celebrate America
For the past seven years, The Roots have served as the house band and curators of Philadelphia’s blowout Fourth of July concert. Having to appease a variety of audiences, as well as the corporate sponsors, the city of Philadelphia, the television network airing the show, and their own desire to push musical boundaries, the Fourth of July show has featured The Roots backing everyone from Michael McDonald to John Legend, and Ed Sheeran to 2014’s headliner, Nicki Minaj, whose performance was met with just a tidbit of criticism. This year’s show was seemingly co-headlined by Miguel and Philly’s mayor Michael Nutter, who performed a fairly decent, if not merely passable version of “Rapper’s Delight.” But despite lackluster lineups and occasional controversies, The Roots have routinely both stole and made the show.
They backed Earth, Wind & Fire in 2011.
Then Daryl Hall in 2012.
And John Mayer in 2013.
Their work on The Tonight Show aside, the Fourth of July concerts have proven to be the best example of The Roots’ ability to be musical chameleons – able to play with anyone, in any style. Usually, the only bummer is an abbreviated set by the band.
The Roots Record Albums With John Legend And Elvis Costello
Their reputation as a dynamic live act will never be in jeopardy, but The Roots also know their way around a recording studio, especially Questlove. When they teamed up with Fallon, a concern among fans was wondering how that would impact their own career. Would their output end up being cut back? This has not been the case, as they’ve released two of their most ambitious albums (2011’s undun and 2014’s … And then you shoot your cousin) since taking the Tonight Show gig. On top of that, The Roots have also managed to take part in other projects.
Like in 2010, when they released Wake Up! with John Legend. The album was inspired by the 2008 election and is a collection of revamped soul music protest songs from the 1960s and ’70s. It won the Grammy in 2010 for Best R&B Album and kind of makes you wish that Legend and The Roots were contractually obligated to record an album every couple of years. Maybe this is something President Obama can get involved in before he leaves office?
A less likely collaboration happened in 2013. The Roots recorded in secret, doing mostly late-night sessions with Elvis Costello, and the end result was Wise Up Ghost, something that began as a single to be released on Record Store Day and blossomed into a full-blown album.
For The Roots, diversity is not just an old wooden ship, but a way of life. And this list doesn’t even include the album they did with Betty Wright, Questlove’s production work with Al Green, and the Okayplayer Holiday shows they do almost every year in New York City.