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by Dan Grunebaum

The Roots

The live hip-hop collective unleash The Tipping Point on Japan

Widely regarded as hip-hop's greatest live band, Philadelphia's The Roots have been in such demand in Japan that they've been playing musical chairs with promoters: a 2002 New Year's gig produced by black-owned Positive Productions was followed by a residency at the Blue Note last December, while this week finds them at one of Tokyo's newest venues.

Since opening in January with the imprimatur of Jamiroqai, Duo Music Exchange, part of the big new O-East complex in Shibuya, has been struggling to find its audience. Competing with a slew of other mid-size halls and supper clubs, Duo has lacked focus, and even at this writing in August only lists gigs on its website through July.

But with The Roots, the club-actually a great space with hip interior design, a top-notch sound system and good sight lines-has a proven winner on its hands. The group brought the house down in their December appearances at the Blue Note, and with a new album in hand, anticipation is running high.

Released in July on Universal, The Tipping Point hasn't been entirely a favorite with critics. The album has been showered with negatives for trying to be all things to all people. The Roots have also been dissed by those in the underground hip-hop community who fault it for commercial ambitions, with the album debuting at No. 4 on the Billboard album charts.

But then again it's difficult to live up to people's expectations when they are as great as they are for The Roots, and this writer suspects the album will win over even the dubious as individual singles begin to make their way to radio.

Where The Roots' live show puts the band members' musical interactions front and center, their recorded material shows off the slick rhymes of rapper Black Thought. He's in gangsta mode on "Don't Say Nuthin," while on "Everybody Is a Star" he engages in a virtual duet with Sly and the Family Stone.

The Roots were formed in 1987 when Tariq Trotter (Black Thought) met drummer Ahmir Khalib Thompson (Questlove) at the Philadelphia High School for Creative Performing Arts. The pair lacked essential DJ equipment, and so began to create hip-hop simply by matching Black Thought's flow to Questlove's backbeat.

One of a very few hip-hop units performing as sample-free instrumental unit, they debuted in 1993 with a live album, Organix. Word began to spread quickly, and The Roots were soon on stages from the Montreux Jazz Festival to the Lollapalooza rock extravaganza. This paved the way for their breakout third album, 1999's Things Fall Apart, which brought them commercial success on the strengths of the single "You Got Me" with nu-soul diva Erykah Badu.

2002's Phrenology once again called attention to the historic struggles of African-Americans. Like Things Fall Apart, named after the classic post-colonial novel by Chinua Achebe, Phrenology referred to the 19th-century pseudo-science which attempted to establish white people's superiority on the basis of skull measurements.

But while their albums can go head to head with those of other contemporary hip-hop acts, it's in their live incarnation that The Roots really stand out. Where most hip-hop artists present choreographed acts and canned music, a Roots concert is dynamic experience showcasing the formidable musicianship of its six members.

More than the contemporary hip-hop act that they sound like on record, The Roots in their live manifestation cover with incredible fluency the entire range of black music from the blues through jazz, and on to soul, disco, funk, and yes...hip-hop.

Sep 9-11, 7:30pm, ¥9,450. Shibuya Duo Music Exchange. Tel: 03-5459-8711.

credit: Duo Music Exchange


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