I remain on the tail end of a generation raised when Black culture was not synonymous with Hip-Hop. I was one of the last kids to know what it was like to have a R&B/Soul radio station and an urban music station. I was raised amidst the era of Stevie Wonder, Phyllis Hyman and Luther Vandross, and later Boyz II Men, En Vogue and SWV. When Hip-Hop crossed into mainstream, I liked Biggie, Tupac and Jay -Z, but I didn’t live it, not like I did Destiny’s Child and Christina Aguilera.
In college came the point of differentiation when my friends from Philadelphia introduced me to Amir “Questlove” Thompson. This was years before his associations with “Chappelle’s Show” and “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” when Questlove was the incidental musical director for my life, and that of every other politically astute college student.
With college came a set of so-called “conscious” Black friends who also introduced me to Slum Village, Common, Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, Bilal and The Roots. The Roots were everything and I went from an ear saturated with Pop music, to a state of mind soundtracked by Neo-Soul and the debate on the difference between Rap and Hip-Hop. (I think that meant that The Roots were rap.)
Conversations wrapped around the significance Mumia Abu-Jamal, the digital divide, justice, integration and well, boys. (Only to later discover that there was nothing safe or significant about anyone who self-defined as a “conscious” brother. Young men can be reckless, deep thoughts or not.) And while I lived for dancing to music from Bad Boy at the everyday dorm party, I was anchored in relationships harmonized by artists who were down with the Roots crew. In fact, it was Jay-Z’s MTV Unplugged album, for which The Roots provided the acoustic sound, that moved me from a fan of a few of his hits to a lover of Jay-Z’s craft as an emcee.
The Roots were woven throughout Spike Lee‘s “Bamboozled,” and Questlove (then ?uestlove ) and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter were characters in nearly every conversation I had. By the time “Brown Sugar” came to the theaters, R&B/Soul and Hip-Hop integrated and the Roots were no longer a private political cypher, they were Hip-Hop, no sub-category. And I guess that’s a statement best understood if you knew anything of the battle between conscious and mainstream Hip-Hop fans.
Once I partied out of the downtown scene in New York, Questlove’s night at Tillman’s was the best part of a grueling work week. And as my music taste burst through any barriers and I evolved out of a deeply particular political identity, the Roots moved out of the center of my existence, that is except for the fact that the DJ of my weekly social rotation was a guy who had been in my imagined present throughout my formative years. Questlove directed the musical accompaniment those early adult questions that always seemed to boil down to “what about me?” And all of a sudden, faced with a human behind the magnificent sound, I began to wonder who is this dude?