The first thing you must understand about the Roots' debut is that there are no samples and no DJ. I repeat -- a hiphop record with no samples and no turntables. For this Philadelphia-based rap group, if it ain't live, it ain't live. Snippets from buried vinyl treasures, programmed basslines and drum kicks make way for the lush sounds of live instrumentation. Now, we all know that rappers and live players have tried valiantly to marry sensibilities in search of that potentially limitless realm where music production extends beyond a break beat into boundlessly creative imaginations. None have succeeded as well as the Roots.
They confirm that hiphop's inherent sonic eclecticism can extend to orchestral proportions without flip-fancy limp-wristedness (see US3). Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter fronts the groove poetic with frenzied rhyme schemes, while partner Malik B. balances the verbal exchange with mild-mannered yet formidable flows. Supremely afroed B.R.O.THER? paces the beat with on-the-mark drumming, and Leonard Hubbard's upright bass, Scott Storch's keyboards, Steve Coleman's massive sax, Rufus Harley's bagpipes, and the lips and vibrations of the human beatbox -- Rhazel the Godfather of Noize -- complete the Roots' next-shit cipher.
On "Essaywhuman?!!??" the hiphop band races to keep up with Tariq's mimicking scatspeak in a raucous, party-starting jam session only to segue into Cassandra Wilson's graceful undertones on "Swept Away." On "Silent Treatment," a lovelorn Tariq sweetly pines for the girl who keeps passing him by. And just when you think that the Roots kept their promise to bring you 100 percent live music, the title track is adeptly cut and scratched. But it's not a needle being tweaked -- it's Tariq verbally cutting up. The LP's intro says it all: "You are all about to witness some organic hiphop/jazz ... 100 percent groove ... And ya don't stop." True, indeed. -- Brett Johnson
Funkify Your Life:
The Meters Anthology
If a rhythmic pocket is a "groove," the Meters are the depths of the muddy Mississippi. Twenty-five years ago, these New Orleans instrumentalists perfected a sound that has reached nearly as many backwaters as the catalogue of James Brown. From roots-browsers Little Feat and Bonnie Raitt to the Chili Peppers and just about the entire hiphop oeuvre, any pop venture set in a sweaty tarpaper shack owes its plate of red beans to the Meters.
The Meters took the B-3 organ precision of the Stax/Volt house bands and added the second-line syncopation of Mardi Gras, creating a svelte blend of rock/blues/funk that defined N'Awlins. Doubly assuring their ambassadorship in the City that Care Forgot, they added chants like "Hey Pocky A-Way" and "They All Ask-d for You" borrowed from the town's age-old verbal tics.Primarily waxed between 1968 and the mid-'70s, the Meters' out-of-print records are top-dollar collectors' items, making the two-CD set Funkify Your Life long overdue. After a string of classic hit singles on the Josie label ("Cissy Strut," "Look-Ka Py Py"), the Meters bagged their funky booty with the 1972 Warner/Reprise LP Cabbage Alley. But their compact sound began to bloat with Reprise, as funk bred disco and the popularity of three-minute instrumentals waned; as a result, disk two is a bit spottier than its indispensable counterpart.
Though the Meters scattered in 1977, they've reunited more times than Peaches and Herb. Keyboardist Art Neville and bassist George Porter are mainstays, the former doing double duty with the Neville Brothers, the latter stepping out with David Byrne and with his own group, Runnin' Pardners. Estranged original Meters Leo Nocentelli and "Zigaboo" Modeliste (guitar and drums, respectively) both live on the West Coast but play infrequently in the Bay Area; the current "Funky Meters" include New Orleans session men Russell Batiste on drums and Brian Stoltz, guitar.
-- James Sullivan
The Funky Meters play Sat, March 25, at the Fillmore in S.F.; call 346-6000.
Red House Painters
A classic. There, that gets the critical-assessment portion of the program out of the way. And it must be done swiftly, because the Red House Painters' marvelous acoustic confidences don't exactly give you the space you need to establish scientific distance or engage in methodical dismantling of their guts. Instead, Mark Kozelek and company simply put forth a declaration of subterranean emotional journeys and plaintively melancholic memorandums wrapped around a ludicrously solemn core. The band wears such a messy heart on its rolled-up flannel sleeves that to not feel utterly moved would be akin to punching a midget.
Everyday life would surely continue if the San Francisco group's tour bus drove off a cliff, but it may never again be defined with such charm and stunning candor. "Summer Dress" captures the breathless apprehension of a heart newly aroused, though as a misanthropic and self-respecting adversary of artistic transparency, Kozelek keeps the sentiment vague: "Summer dress/ Separates you from the rest/ Easiest days of your life already spent/ Wonders if she is loved/ Or if she is missed/ Says a prayer as she's kissed by ocean mist/ Takes herself to the sand and dreams." Could be about an estranged lover. Could be about the latest episode of Baywatch. Either way, Kozelek's naked, gut-wrenching pathos gives us a bit of the rapture as our very own.
Kozelek is one of those rare performers who can say everything at once without saying anything at all. "So much that I can say to you/ My voice shakes from the hurt that I hide/ Ashamed of my existence/ And of my petty, often wounded pride," Kozelek begins on "Moments," backed only by the subdued plucking of guitar strings. And before us, a new galaxy of emotional terrain is sprawled out, uncharted and tear-ready. Then "Over My Head" rolls by with sweeping, finely tuned politesse and "Red Carpet" diffuses in a fluster of musical firecrackers. Ocean Beach is a lovely postcard from the edge.
-- Aidin Vaziri