With The Roots’ 13th album, undun, in stores today, I figured this was as good time as any for this post….
I’ve been familiar with the Soulquarians for a minute now, as many others have been, I know. For those who aren’t, need a refresher, or just enjoy seeing so many brilliant names listed in succession, the collective consisted of: ?uestlove, J Dilla, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Bilal, James Poyser, Q-Tip, Mos Def, Common and Talib Kweli. A who’s who of the top MCs, producers, musicians, singers and composers in Black music, and American music, in general, in the past 30 years or so, that came together to make some of the best art hip-hop and R&B have ever seen — or heard, for that matter.
Taking cues from their “Yodas” — Jimi Hendrix, Al Green, James Brown, George Clinton, Sly Stone, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, Fela Kuti and Prince — the music these brothers and sisters went on to create during that period was innovative and progressive on every level, from production to performance. Spending countless hours and numerous years at Hendrix’s famed Electric Ladyland Studios in New York, from the late 90s to the early 2000s, musically, they could do no wrong — until the end.
The period begins on February 23, 1999, with The Roots’ Things Fall Apart. The album, considered by many to be their best — it is certainly their most well-rounded and the one that granted them mainstream and widespread notoriety, along with their first Grammy.
Next up arriving on January 25, 2000, was D’Angelo’s Voodoo, around which much of this entire amalgamation takes place. This is one of my 5 favorite albums of all time, and, in my opinion, the best of the Soulquarians’ offerings.
3 months later on March 28, comes Common’s premiere piece, Like Water For Chocolate, produced in majority by the late, great Dilla. November 21 of that same year, Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, featuring standout cuts like the Dilla-produced “Didn’t Cha Know”, and the top-10 hit “Bag Lady”.
July 17, 2001 we get Bilal’s 1st Born Second (catching him in concert and seeing him murder Double Door with a two-hour set a few weeks back is what truly set off this Soulquarian splurge). Phrenology hits November 26, 2002 and the next month, on December 10 is Common’s Electric Circus, whose chaos, in retrospect, clearly signaled the end of the era, as the collective’s creativity had been exhausted for the moment.
Even in spite, we’re looking at two platinum records (Voodoo and Mama’s Gun), three gold records (Things Fall Apart, Like Water For Chocolate and Phrenology) and some of the best bodies of work in hip-hop and R&B of all time, in a 3-year period! All had a tribal, spiritual undertone to them, and most consistent throughout was Quest as the drummer. In addition, many featured Soulquarian affiliates Roy Hargrove, Raphael Saadiq and Pino Palladino, as well.
Greg Kot, of the Chicago Tribune, summed it up quite well: Though the music is not easily categorized, making radio airplay difficult, that lack of stylistic definition is also why it feels so fresh. “In essence, I don’t think rap and R&B are different,” D’Angelo says. “Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies was a pioneer of funk, which is a foundation of hip-hop. They’ve always tried to separate the genres, but the basis of my album was to bridge these worlds. All of these genres come from the same source: blues or gospel.”
The “R&B”, then, was tough and edgy, while the “rap” was soulful and insightful. And there was a dash of spirituality underlying all of it. All of it ignored the current commercial standards and pushed the bounds of hip-hop and R&B as they had been previously known. ?uestlove called the movement a, “left-of-center Black music renaissance”. Sounds about right, to me.