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The Roots discuss hip-hop’s second jazz age 

Wednesday, May 27 2009
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Hey, Bay Area: Don't tell anyone, but Questlove thinks you're special. According to the Roots' drummer, our music scene is unique in fostering acts that cross genres the way pedestrians cross streets. "You come from one of three places that is still producing that type of culture," he says, naming Austin and his band's stamping grounds, Philadelphia, as the others.

Since forming in 1991, the Roots have broken from sample-reliant rap, writing original music and using live jazz-funk breakbeats instead. Now it's no longer unusual to see MCs with full bands — and, most recently, symphony orchestras. From Too $hort's Town Bizness to Bayonics to the Kev Choice Ensemble, a number of local acts are fusing hip-hop with jazz, funk, rock, and Latin elements onstage. Add to that list the Jazz Mafia's recent orchestral collaboration with Lyrics Born, and the Roots' upcoming performance at Davies Symphony Hall — the first such appearance by a hip-hop group at that esteemed venue — and there's a hint of hip-hop's genre transcendence becoming a larger live phenomenon.

There's mounting evidence that hip-hop culture may indeed be entering its second Jazz Age. Swank, upscale venues aren't as afraid of the genre — "the most dangerous music in the world," according to Questlove — as they once were. The Lyrics Born and Jazz Mafia performance played to a sold-out audience at the Palace of Fine Arts. Yoshi's hosted a full band concert by Mos Def earlier this year, and just announced an upcoming show by drum virtuoso Karriem Riggins (the connecting link between Diana Krall and Talib Kweli), featuring Pete Rock on turntables. Similarly, Stern Grove's 2009 schedule features the S.F. Symphony, the S.F. Ballet — and the Lyrics Born Revue.

Questlove notes that the Roots have also headlined at such chi-chi venues as Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center, and Radio City Music Hall — drawing a different crowd from the youngsters who might attend Rock the Bells. "There's people that like us because we're not Lil' Wayne," he says.

Still, a rap group playing the same venue where Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony represents a broadening of the hip-hop spectrum well beyond the urban demographic. Does breaching venues once off-limits to hip-hop indicate that on a cultural level, the oft-maligned genre is beginning to be as accepted as jazz, classical, or opera? "Absolutely," Questlove says. "I make that comparison all the time. Any American-bred music starts off as a subculture." It takes about 20 years, he adds, for a subculture to reach a creative peak, after which it "manages to work its way into modern society."

This appears to be what's happening to hip-hop these days — it's subtly merging into the larger pop culture canon. The barriers among rap, funk, jazz, and even classical music are being broken down, resulting in wider appreciation among nonunderground audiences — and incursions into MTT territory.

What's most interesting about the Roots' Davies gig, perhaps, is that even though the group will be playing for a well-heeled crowd, they aren't planning to do anything outside the norm onstage. "Probably my biggest thought," Questlove says, "will be will I wear a tie?"

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Eric K. Arnold

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