Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The End of Illadelph?

I'm sure many others had the same reaction when watching the debut of "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon": "The Roots gave up touring for this?"

For sure, seeing one of the most vibrant live acts in music give up their legendary shows to be a backup band for the terminally wooden Fallon is puzzling to say the least. Black Thought and ?uestlove know how to get a crowd moving all on their own. Playing vamps for a talk show, becoming simply a part of the set, seems like a waste of that rare talent.

It's easy to balk at the prospect of one of the most stylishly rebellious acts in Hip-Hop to start playing talk shows. Plenty of music bloggers have done just that. But the sheer volume of the hemming and hawing overstates the case. For one, The Roots have not "given up live shows." Written into their contract is the stipulation that they have ten weeks off a year to tour outside of the Philly-New York area. For a group that once played 200 shows a year, it's a big switch, but it's far from giving up tours. The group also continues to work on material for an upcoming new album. Rumors that equate the move to "Late Night" with hanging it all up seem to miss these crucial points.

The decision for them to take on their gig at "Late Night" has to be viewed from the point of view of one of the hardest working bands in the world during a time of economic crisis. When the recession hit last fall, The Roots, like most other acts, saw their tickets sales hit hard. For Black Thought and ?uestlove, who both have families and are pushing forty, such a hectic schedule simply didn't seem tenable.

It would be wrong to not take note the of significance of the first Hip-Hop house band in the history of "Late Night." Hardly earth-shaking, but worth pointing out. In the grand picture, it's part of the overall shift the genre is experiencing right now: towards a greater amount of legitimacy and mainstream acceptance in the wake of the Obama campaign.

By that same token, though, much of the concern for the group becoming watered-down are legit. When ?uesto asked his friend Branford Marsalis about the move, the iconic sax-man advised against it. His own words, in fact, were "you'll be neutered." Marsalis should know. He walked away from his contract as Jay Leno's bandleader in the early 1990s.

The Legendary Roots Crew have made a name for themselves over the past fifteen years because they have pushed the envelope and always culled Hip-Hop's rebel voice the way few others have. One of the last times they showed up on a late night talk show, they were promoting Rising Down--a dense, raw album that was admitted as their most political to date--and wore all black to protest the verdict in the Sean Bell case.

Will they bring that kind of incendiary spirit to the stages of "Late Night?" Hard to imagine when they're only given a few seconds of camera time each night. But of course, time will tell.



LBoogie said...

Good post, Alex. Kris and I both did a jaw-drop the other day when we saw the news. We still gotta watch an episode and see how good or bad it is.

You make some great points about the hype (or over-hype) folks may be making of this move by the Roots, especially when you link it to the wider changes in hip-hop. I would add that it reflects the wider changes in what counts as "mainstream" -- just as hip-hop is moving, so too is "mainstream" moving. It's definitely a dialectical relationship.

Some have made the case about U.S. cultural and political history that beyond thinking that "Black culture" is American, we have to see that "American culture" is and has always been black.

A similar point can be made about hip-hop -- in a certain sense hip-hop has become more mainstream, but much more so, the American mainstream (a broad term, but for lack of a better...) is hip-hop. The ethos and sensibility of hip-hop has been generalized, to the point that you can't understand American politics and social life today without understanding hip-hop. (And I don't mean that in the hip-hop historian way, like you gotta know every artist, every album, every track, etc.).

Is that a stretch?

Alexander Billet said...

That's not a stretch at all. Our concept of what's "mainstream" and what's acceptable in the mainstream is shifting rapidly right now because capitalism is going through the biggest restructuring in 30 years. Culture, art and music will necessarily follow.

Hip-Hop's been "accepted" in the mainstream for a while now, insofar as a rebellious subculture can be, but I think recently the genre and culture has found itself a lot more powerful, and with a lot more ability to break down barriers that were previously impenetrable. A lot of that has to do with the culture industry being forced to reckon with today's young folks--Black, white, Latino, Asian, Arab, gay, straight, etc--who are a lot angrier and confident than we've seen in a long time.

Binh said...

Maybe they prefer a steady paycheck over touring and messing with labels all the time. It's not like their disbanding or doing something irreversible.

Jimmy Fallon is garbage by the way. The Benzino of comedy.

I was hoping to see a review of Joe Budeen's new album on your blog...

Alexander Billet said...

No doubt, Binh. And I've listened to the new Budden, haven't had a chance to write anything up on it yet. It's coming, though.