20 Years of Grandiose Hip-Hop: How Things Fall Apart taught The Roots to balance art, commerce, and deeply personal perspectives

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The Roots, circa 1999

“We had given most of our adult lives to that point to the band. What if success never came to us, or never came in the form we expected? – Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

As a teenager growing up in Philadelphia in the mid-to-late 90s, radio was a really big deal. Guided by that old algorithm of the human spirit, a handful of radio shows and the DJs and personalities that captained them fed and diversified my ever-growing musical appetite, from J. Michael Harrison’s electric Jazz fusions on Temple’s The Bridge, to the quirky Indie Rock of the Sarah and Laurie Show from Princeton’s WPRB. I’d bounce off my bedroom walls to sounds of mainstream Alternative Rock on Y-100 and fall asleep to the ambient soundscapes of John Diliberto’s Echoes and Chuck Van Zyl’s Star’s End on WXPN.

Like many kids, I’d often call into radio stations and request whatever songs I wanted to hear. Unlike most kids, the budding archivist in me would compel me to press record on my combination radio / cassette deck each time one of my request calls made it on air or my name was shouted out by a show’s host. By the time I graduated high school and I had filled up a tape of my radio mentions and shout outs.

One night, a new song by Philadelphia’s own The Roots had come across the airwaves and floored me. Slick and modern, the song fused lovelorn verses from Black Thought and a pre-fame / pre-Ruff Ryders Eve with a killer hook sung by Erykah Badu (and written by Jill Scott). Two bars into the song’s final chorus, the plodding, straight-forward drum beat that Questlove had held lockstep for the entire song transformed into something altogether different.

Gliding nimbly beneath Erykah’s voice, the quick, double time drumbeat that Quest had launched into was an intentional sonic reference to the jungle / drum n’ bass sound of U.K. artists like Goldie, 4Hero, Peshay and others that exploded out of London and threatened to take over the world a few years prior.

After hearing “You Got Me” once, the possibilities and implications enfolded within the song burned me up inside. My favorite group, our hometown heroes, were hip to this new revolutionary sound and they were injecting it into their new music, on a RADIO SINGLE nonetheless! Over the course of the next week I repeatedly called up the hotline at Philly’s Power 99 to excitedly (but politely) demand that the DJ play it again. One of these instances I caught on my homemade radio request tape.

“Power 99, what’s your request?”
“Yo! I wanna hear that new Roots jawn ‘You Got Me!’”

In his memoir Mo’ Meta Blues, Questlove describes a time in the early 90s when the band was broke and living out a full-on de facto bohemian exile in Europe. Without a record deal, the band lived on the margins, eating fish and chips and hanging with young London creatives like the legendary DJ and aficionado Giles Peterson. Broke, absorbing a world of new musical influences and standing on the verge of getting on, this would not be the first time The Roots would find themselves at a crossroads. Fast forward a few years, the band would find itself signed to Geffen Records, fully established as a touring powerhouse and gearing up for the release of their third major label album Things Fall Apart.

In the lead-up to the album’s release, the pressures around the band were significant. Their two prior releases;  Do You Want More?!?, an infectious effusion of optimistic jazz-rap and Illadelph Halflife, a approximation of rugged east coast boom-bap, had embodied the tension of an age-old record industry dichotomy. The Roots and their painstakingly crafted albums were both loved by critics while underperforming commercially.

It was this ongoing tension between art and commerce that hung over the band’s neck like an albatross. Countless hours (and dollars) were spent jamming in the studio and creating compositions from scratch, coupled with the detailed engineering, editing, resampling of drum sounds and effects processing that the band employed to get their bright live band sound to resemble the dark and heavy sonic texture of their hip-hop peers. The Roots were an expensive date for any record label, and by the time Things Fall Apart’s release date came around, the stakes were high.

In a cover story published in the Philadelphia City Paper a little over two weeks before the album dropped, famed engineer and Roots collaborator David Ivory commented on the pressure the band faced to break out of the underground, sell records and make good on their commercial potential: “You can’t spend the kind of money they spend and not sell records.”

Though Do You Want More?!!!??! and Illadelph Halflife sold 275,000 and 350,000 copies, it wasn’t enough to cover production and marketing costs.

“They better have a big record,” Ivory warned.

By the time Things Fall Apart hit stores on Tuesday, February 23rd 1999, “You Got Me” was a certified hit, climbing to number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 Hip Hop/R&B singles chart that month. Many of my peers who had previously ignored the band began to take notice, and I had never heard The Roots played so frequently on mainstream radio. Without access to an album leak (far less common in those early days of rap on the internet) it was impossible to know whether or not “You Got Me”’s mixture of pop sensibilities and progressive sounds would be expounded upon on the album. One thing was clear: the bittersweet pop song with the oddly experimental outro section was carrying the band to previously unknown commercial heights.

On the day Things Fall Apart was released, I cut class and hung out solo in downtown Philadelphia. Usually, I’d idle around, listening to music in my headphones, watching skaters do tricks at Love Park and roam aimlessly around Chinatown. On that day, I found myself in the newly opened HMV on Walnut Street. A hulking 25,000 square foot neon behemoth of a record store, an apt representation of an industry flush with cash. Each of Things Fall Apart’s five separate and unique and stark black and white album covers were displayed prominently. A bombed out church, a scene from a mid-60s riot in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn, a starving child shedding a tear in Somalia etc. Each emotionally challenging image suggesting some reflection of the state of the band and society at large.

I scanned these images as I stood at the store’s listening station, dropped the headphones on my ears and pressed play.

Mastering notes to The Roots’ Things Fall Apart | via the National Museum of African American History

“And you are all…..”

The album opens with this familiar callback to Do You Want More?!!!??!’s sincere and charmingly naive introductory proclamation “And you are all about to witness some organic Hip Hop Jazz…100% groove.”

Here, that proclamation is stunted, cut off mid-sentence. The optimistic idealism of the band’s youth is cut short by a bitter dialogue sampled from Spike Lee’s 1990 Jazz epic Mo’ Better Blues. In the film, two bandmates Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington) and Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes) debate what it means to be “serious” musicians struggling to thrive in a world where serious Black art is perpetually devalued, often times by Black audiences.

“And you are all…”

“….But we don’t even come to see our own, man….If we had to depend on Black people to eat, we’d starve to death,” Bleek deadpans coldly, while a collage of samples from the Roots prior releases float, disembodied in the background.

Shadow shoots back:

“Bullshit! It’s all bullshit. The people don’t come because you grandiose muthafuckas don’t play shit that they like. If you played the shit that they liked, then the people would come, simple as that!”

The final word on the matter comes from journalist and media theorist Harry Allen in the 1996 NPR audio documentary Hip Hop 101: On The Road With The Roots and is delivered in a matter-of-fact, even diagnotic manner.

“Inevitably, hip-hop records are treated as though they are disposable. They’re not maximized as product…not to mention as art”.

With this opening salvo, the message was crystal clear. The Roots had come to a crossroads. If Things Fall Apart didn’t break through and achieve the kind of sales the band and the business interests around them anticipated, they might find themselves dropped from their label, their names added to the long list of promising acts that simply couldn’t make it. Five years earlier, their former Geffen labelmate Kurt Cobain included in his infamous suicide note, a Neil Young quote that suggested that it was “better to burn out than fade away.” For hip-hop’s number one band, a different question and potential set of outcomes hung over their heads. With Things Fall Apart it was evident that The Roots would have to either blow up or fade away.

In stark contrast to “You Got Me” and the pair of singles that preceded the album (“Don’t See Us” and “The Next Movement”), Things Fall Apart’s first song “Table of Contents (Parts 1 & 2)” was decidedly avant-garde. Part 1 is rough and tinged with noise and hostility. Black Thought swaggers over the track his confidence glowing amidst a spinning storm of bubbling bass, Quest’s clanging drum kit and electric piano chords that slide in and out of harmonic space between straight and discordant.

“The R-to the, double-O to the, T-S an’

Y’all niggas in the mix, keep guessin’

The world traveller in the flesh without question

Last seven years on tour without resting

Yo the kind of rapper you should reconsider testing

Supreme simply, o-fficial Dundee

What I bring will motivate to move your whole country

Throw your hands up if y’all want me to proceed”

As soon as Part 1 fades, Part 2 emerges, this time with Malik B repeating the “R-to the, double-O to the….” chant. The song’s ragged, breathless first section tucked behind a curtain of brief, black silence leaving us to imagine that the track’s wheels may have fallen off before being replaced with the brighter, more solidified second section.

“The Next Movement” is the type of track that DJs at the time loved to play out: the type of fun-but-muscular, big room jam that was absent Do You Want More?!!!?!?! and Illadelph Halflife. The song’s bouncy groove is augmented by Scott Storch’s delicately arching classical piano arpeggios and the Jazzyfatnastees’ vocal harmonies swooping in from above like a cadre of Valkyries riding out to war.

“Step Into the Realm” the kind of dark and moody Philly street Rap that groups like 100X and Roots affiliates Minds of Sol were crafting at the time.

Malik B characteristically enters the scene with a loose, gun-slinging verse that threads the line between shit talking and vivid streetwise imagery.

“I walk across this world that’s deceptive

Beats are perfected, the ghetto’s infested

With more destruction, my vocal eruption

Was speaking bout corruption with no introduction”

Interestingly, every six bars, the song’s backing track begins to fade in volume before dropping out completely and returning full volume on the first bar of the next measure. An extremely novel sonic trick that Questlove had imported in from his days of making pause tapes (a hip-hop production technique where handmade loops of pre-recorded break beats are recorded onto cassette) back in the late 80s. This was just one of the many moments in which Things Fall Apart displayed the band’s ability balance well-crafted songs with a novel and experimental approach to production.

In addition to the strides the group made with its production, Things Fall Apart also saw The Roots reaching new heights in the craft of MCing. In retrospect, Black Thought and Malik B’s performances here make a strong case for themselves as one of rap’s most underrated rhyme duos, while The Roots’ extended family of lyricists shine in full force as well, from ELO and Black Thought’s gleefully bouncing all over the J. Dilla-composed banger “Dynamite,” to Mos Def’s show stopping performance on “Double Trouble,” a kalimba(?) laden b-boy jam that references both Bob James’ jazz fusion sample grail “Nautilus” and the classic hip-hop film Wildstyle, and “Diedre Vs. Dice”, a quick fast sonic jab to the face in which Dice Raw is pitted against avant-garde Jazz cellist Diedre Murray in a brutally dazzling race to the track’s finish line.

On “Adrenaline,” Black Thought, Malik B and Dice take turns catching wreck over Scott Storch’s dramatic piano flourishes. Anchoring the track was a verse from then 24-year old MC from South Philly named Beanie Sigel, whose intricate storm of tersely rhymed couplets would immediately influence the generation of Philly street rappers that followed.

A diverse and varied listen, the emotional gravity of Things Fall Apart revolves around two tracks that couldn’t be more different. Sentimental and optimistic love letter to Hip Hop “Act Too (Love Of My Life),” and Ursula Rucker’s harrowing examination of domestic abuse, addiction and generational trauma “The Return to Innocence Lost.”

While “Act Too” plays on Black Thought and guest star Common’s nostalgic relationship to hip-hop, casting the culture as a of protective shield that kept them safe while navigating the challenges of boyhood in the ghetto and manhood in the music business, Ursula’s “…Innocence Lost” tells a much more grim tale. After growing up in an abusive household and getting mixed up in the streets, her oldest brother, whose “heart start(s) to wither in pain and shame” is shot and killed. She describes how the news was delivered to her family on Christmas Day.

“Baby ‘Sis awake for dawn on Christmas morn
To Mommy’s sobs and shakes
Daddy’s silhouettes of regret
All past, omitted, and absolved by lost
As they clung to each other
Knowing…”

I stood transfixed at that listening station 20 years ago. I thought of my father who had also been shot and killed when I was a kid. Like Ursula with her brother, I also received the news of my dad’s death on Christmas Day. When I first heard “…Innocence Lost,” I fought back a wave of emotions that rose up from deep within my spirit.“ Today, I cried while listening to it and writing this.

Unlike “Act Too,” “…Innocence Lost” is not optimistic or caught up with concerns about how to make it in the record business. Thompson has stated before that the group’s albums are designed to function on multiple levels. The themes of each record intended to speak to both the state of the world at large and the band’s place within and in relationship to the industry around them. The deep emotional contrast between “Act Too” and “…Innocence Lost” crystalizes that dynamic.

“Act Too” is a reminder that a love and commitment to one’s art can eventually bear fruit and sustain even the most unlikely success story in rap. On the other hand, “…Innocence Lost” is a snapshot of what real life is like beyond the self-sustained fantasyland that is the music business. It is a fitting, but bitter end to a record that is (in part) about keeping it together and moving forward in the face of certain tragedy.

20 years later, The Roots are still wrestling with the demands of serious art, commerce, and the world around them. Things Fall Apart would go on to sell over one million copies and win a Grammy for “Best Rap Performance by a Duo or a Group.” After 20 years of building one of the deepest and most varied catalogs in hip-hop, The Roots are no longer a band struggling on the fringes, they are a certified legacy act and a household name. In a seeming contradiction with their “day gig” as the house band for comedian Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, their albums have since grown increasingly experimental and political. From the ecstatic urban blues of Game Theory to their moody 2014 epic Undun, The Roots are still grandiose muthafuckas, but it was on Things Fall Apart that they learned to play what the people liked.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Roots’ Things Fall Apart, this Saturday, February 23rd, World Cafe Live hosts a tribute show featuring ILL DOOTS, Chill Moody, Hardwork Movement, Khemist, and more. Tickets and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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