As a founding member and drummer of one of the genre's most vitalizing groups of the past decade, ?uestlove (aka Ahmir Thompson) is no hip-hop nihilist. But his allegiance to hip-hop runs only as deep as his critical realism will allow.
"History will show you that every 20-25 years, another genre comes and does something innovative," ?uest says. "We'll know what that next thing is once it disgusts hip-hoppers because everyone just thinks that their music is still the alternate thing, just like rock 'n' rollers were all about rebellion. Of course, another art form comes in and out-rebels that, and people get snobby. When the new art form comes along, I'm not gonna be one of them people that gets snobby. I'll be, like, 'Right this way, come on, please hurry. My other one's dying.'"
While hip-hop might not be on its deathbed just yet, it has long since contracted a terminal musical disease: mainstream commercial appeal. And never has the "commercial" part been so literal than in our age of space-suited Sisqos slugging sodas.
"Now I'm starting to see the big picture," says ?uestlove. "Basically, a lot of the popular hip-hop of today is used as a marketing tool. You always hear about, 'Well, you know, these 10 groups are all over TV to make money for the companies,' but that really didn't become apparent until I saw this whole influx of television commercials. I'm, like, 'OK, they're now selling the product [directly].' Not that I've got anything against endorsements, but now I see that it's a commodity thing. That's the bigger picture."
For hip-hop's high-minded, however, the bigger picture doesn't seek out blame for this situation so much as it seeks a solution. While an artist can't really fault hip-hop for becoming commercially exploitable, he can raise the consciousness or awareness of the system in place. This, in large part, is where the Roots come in.
"I just think that whatever makes money is what will rule the masses," ?uest says. "And a lot of people are not knowing that they're being lured into some sort of corporate vacuum, you know what I mean? They're just thinking about, 'Oh, that's my favorite song on the radio,' not knowing why that shit comes on, like, 42 times a day."
Though ?uestlove might aggressively approach the state of hip-hop with a critic's perspective, he is reluctant to frame the music of the Roots as some brand of saving grace.
"I don't think people make non-commercial music in order to 'save the art form' or whatever. We sort of got out of that mind state, like, 'I'm gonna single-handedly save it.' Right now, I'm just trying to make a little discography that my children can be proud of, and that I can be proud of. I don't want to be 60 years old wondering why I attempted to do 'Thong Song 2001.' I mean, that's good for Sisqo, but it's not good for me."
What's good for the Roots is a question many an aspiring act has pondered. Their 1999 release Things Fall Apart makes as good an argument as any that hip-hop can continue to be a powerful and ground-breaking presence in music. If the transition from hip-hop to the next great style is a little more gradual than ?uestlove envisions, the Roots might very well be on the leading curve, brandishing their subtle but potent acts of rebellion from hip-hop convention. The band foregoes the samplers and often the sequencers in forging a more organic path to the hip-hop soul. The result is a more complex, jazz-oriented understanding of the style -- an understanding antithetical to that of hip-hop's simplified and formulaic commercial acts.
"You've gotta love music and satisfy yourself," ?uest says of the Roots approach. "There's plenty of classic hip-hop albums that came out that didn't reach the upper ends of the charts. What made a lot of money in the past is not necessarily what is respected."
Whether it is doomed to be buried or merely searching for another way to reinvent itself, the Roots will be making an impact on hip-hop. "I don't want to appear like some old fogey who's like, 'hip-hop's dead' or whatever," ?uestlove says. "Obviously, I still love it ... but I think the cool shit about us is that we always keep the public guessing. I would like a radical change."
The Roots headline the Okayplayer Tour, Fri., Oct. 13 at the Tabernacle. Also appearing: Bahamadia, Talib Kweli, Slum Village, Dead Prez, Jazzfatnastees and others. Showtime is 9 p.m. For information, call 404-659-9022.