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Things Fall Together 

The Roots finally have support from their record label. Will the hip-hop audience fall in behind?

No Busta, no pretty girls: The Roots.
  • No Busta, no pretty girls: The Roots.
Despite a five-year run with Geffen Records and a mountain of press suggesting the Roots were the next big band, year after year, the innovative hip-hop act remains relatively obscure. And for that reason, they're mad. Included in their scorned crosshairs are Geffen, the white-run music industry machine, and the African American community.

The Roots' lack of quintessential rap components — DJ, turntable, sampler, DAT machine — made their 1993 debut release, Organtix, extraordinary. Their jazzy break-beat music was based around an acoustic bass, keyboards, and drums. Frontman/street poet Black Thought offered the rhymes, while two singers mimicked scratching sounds (appropriately, one of the singers is named Scratch).

The success of Guns 'n Roses and Nirvana made Geffen one of the most successful labels of the early '90s. But there's a difference between breaking a rock act and breaking a rap act, and the Roots found out firsthand how unprepared Geffen was to take on such a venture. Their first meet-and-greet appearance at a record store was a joke. Not only had the local promotions crew not plastered the store with Roots posters, but the band wasn't even provided any 8x10 photos to sign for fans.

So, with royalty checks that couldn't pay for a pizza, the Roots realized they would have to go on the road to sustain themselves, a notion that played to the band's strength. "Our live performance is what blows people away," says Roots bass player Leonard "Hub" Hubbard. "With Geffen and the people who make the money decisions, it was well after fifteen months that we were on the label before they ever saw the group live. So, the same people for fifteen months were making business decisions based on nothing. And then, when they saw the group, they were like, "Oh, we didn't know these guys were talented fellas. Oh my goodness — who would have known?' So, then their attitude changed."

Unfortunately, the Roots experienced the same mishandling by the label on their next two releases, 1995's Do You Want More?!!!??! and 1996's Illadelph Halflife. It wasn't until the recent music industry shakeup that the band finally caught a break. Geffen folded its urban music department, and the Roots landed with MCA. "MCA had a five-month setup, so last summer, I saw the first "coming soon' ad for one of my records," says Hubbard, "and I've been on a major label since 1994."

While the Roots enjoyed decent record sales — each of their first three CDs sold around 300,000 copies — they lacked that mainstream, "Hip-Hop Hooray" single success. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Without MTV acclaim, the band has been able to maintain its grassroots integrity. Still, there is the feeling of a lost financial opportunity. "We don't have a pretty girl out front singing," Hubbard says; "nor is the lead rapper a Busta Rhymes kinda individual. Thus, you don't have the same kind of glitz that Hollywood is able to market from to put into that kind of mainstream appeal.

"It's always been more or less like an underground appeal group from its inception. We are a live band. Just from the beginning, a lot of heads had to be convinced that a live band was something that they could appreciate, playing this style of music. Because, up until whenever we came out, there wasn't really any established live hip-hop groups that were signed to a major-label contract in the world. So there wasn't nothing for the kids who were following this style of music to say, "Yeah, I guess I could go see somebody play the drums.' It's always been just drum machines and someone pumping the shit up from a needle and a turntable."

While he doesn't bad-mouth other hip-hop acts, Hubbard does exude some contempt toward the industry and its fans, including the group's experience with Geffen and the rap-buying public. The Roots' live following is primarily white, but Hubbard is loath to directly criticize African Americans for their lack of support. "It's a known fact [that] anything called traditional African American music in the United States of America is surviving because of the white people," Hubbard says. "The only way B.B. King can make a living is because it's a white audience. It's part of the overall propaganda dating back to slavery: not supporting your own. Because everybody on the block can sing as well as the guy on stage, why go to the show?

"The only reason hip-hop exists in America is because of the white audience. We're in America; anything that is going to make front page is because it's been sponsored by the white industry, Madison Ave. It wouldn't exist without it. We're on MCA-Universal. All of these are white companies with [their] black music thing. Janet Jackson, Tupac Shakur, Busta Rhymes — very few of these people were with a black company, and if it was a black company, they had a white distribution. Your success is based on the white market as far as our country is concerned. If you're a successful person in the field, it's because you have those white dollars."

The title of the Roots' latest disc, Things Fall Apart, is taken from a 1959 novel written by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. Hubbard sees the book's theme — how crusading Christians destroyed centuries of African tribes' religious heritage — playing out in the music business. "The correlation was that, in the novel, they speak of traditions being lost — people coming in and changing the original tradition of that tribe. From its inception, Madison Avenue comes in and changes [hip-hop]. So, it's been changed over to something else, where the people who started it aren't the people in charge. The foundation isn't the same now. The foundation of hip-hop was the DJs, the graffiti, and dancing. The foundation of hip-hop today is, if you have a $400,000 video, that could make you a hip-hop star."

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