Any musician slogging through endless months of touring knows that even if they’re playing exactly the music they want, what they’re doing is a job. When The Roots, known as one of the hardest-working touring bands in America, suddenly accepted new employment as the house band for the new Late Show, the move could have been seen as lateral, but it was enough to raise some eyebrows. How much difference does it make though, whether your paycheck is cut by Seagrams or G.E.? Still, the question arises: What the hell does it mean that the Roots are on this lame TV show every night? Let’s face it, during a recession it can become, uh, important to consider job opportunities that might have been off the menu previously.
In some sense the Late Show is like your artist friend’s day job, since The Roots are still putting out high-integrity CDs and maintaining a running series of gigs in NYC. They’re the kind of artists who take as much pride in fixing someone’s computer (or the window in their apartment) during the day as they do in making art. And it’s all work—and therefore creative. In hip-hop the line between art and advertising can be disorientingly thin anyway, and who’s to say which of the two is more revealing about our culture or ourselves?
Certainly The Roots are holding down the cool element in a dorky, predictable TV formula. Jimmy Fallon’s show sags with the affable but enervating blandness of an average Saturday Night Live skit. There are times, though, when the band becomes directly involved in the material, and these are by far the show’s funniest and most engaging moments. In “Slow Jam the News,” The Roots emerge from the off-center supportive role they occupy—but are constantly threatening to explode out from—just as they seem barely containable by the stage that has been assigned them by NBC. In the skit/song they move briefly into the center of the creative space of the show, not just as musicians but as writers, since vocalist Tariq Trotter’s lyrics and vocals are of a higher caliber than the show’s baseline writing and line delivery. You can tell by Fallon’s affect that the material in the song is the best stuff he’s got going, as Trotter croons the words “Nancy Pelosi” and then delivers a staccato “she ad-ded an amend-ment” in a raunchy, perfectly calibrated R&B call-and-response. The music is a parody, but it’s just as winning as any 90s Usher hit in the same vein.
Here, The Roots are parodists whose material is just as good or better than the material they parody. It’s also exactly the kind of goofing-off that would be expected from a smart, broadly talented band in a context so attenuated that most of their airtime consists of sawed-off beginnings and endings of songs emerging and disappearing at the margins of TV commercials. This makes for constant jarring sequences where the dull corporate entertainment time‑space continuum of the show is briefly torn open by the snap of Ahmir Thompson’s razor-sharp, piquant, subatomic snare drum, which operates by a different set of rules. That sound inevitably disappears into the music of a car commercial, and then reemerges just as fleetingly from the other side of the wormhole. One thing is for sure—we missed something. It could be argued that being paid to bookend chunks of dull schlock in this way is questionable, but it is equally possible that these alternative hip-hop framings of commercials render far more transparent the process through which the ads are constantly infiltrating our casual resistance, precisely by framing the sounds and music of advertising with the sonic intimations of a party we actually want to be at but can never quite grasp as long as we’re soaking in these disembodied images of consumption. You could also say that The Roots are just trying to do a good job while still being themselves in a brutal job market.
Exactly the music they want to do, that’s what they’re doing at The Roots Present The Jam at the Highline Ballroom. The tickets were priced as a recession special of $10 (in contrast to the $7 beers). The band, and the crowd, were slow to warm, but their continuous, contoured set was aimed at the long haul, and the crowd was ready to listen, even if they weren’t quite ready to dance. By the time things got going, the music and the screams of the audience blended better than I’ve ever heard. The set had much of the eclecticism and jubilation of a vintage Fishbone show with none of the incoherence, and included combinations of guests you don’t get to see together every day, like Talib Kweli and Gary Bartz. Questlove stayed on the two and four all night, like anything good and reliable in life that one returns to despite the vagaries of the economy. Bartz played the saxophone lead in one of the multiple dramatic peak-outs of the evening, and his inclusion, as well as much of the Hancock-esque keyboard playing, indicated that a chunk of The Roots’ artistic DNA is as traceable to 70s Miles as it is to Stetsasonic.
With a complex mixture of ingredients, some seemingly contradictory—relaxation and excitement, inclusiveness and self-assertion, frustration and joyousness—the band gradually altered the social atmosphere of the club to the point where it seemed impossible that anyone could be there for the wrong reasons. When people are this stressed about money, that’s no small accomplishment.
DREW GARDENER is the author of Sugar Pill (2002) and Petroleum Hat (2005)