The new iteration of The Tonight Show is at once a renaissance and a revelation. Unlike his predecessor Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon is a talented impressionist and musician that seems to be universally adored by even the most diva-ish of A-listers. Moreover, Fallon is a huge fan and supporter of hip-hop, giving artists like Odd Future their first big break as well as enlisting one of the biggest stars on the planet to give a performance that details the history of the genre. Most importantly, his house band is an authentic, universally respected hip-hop group that has been around for two decades, touring the world and working with the culture’s giants.
Despite my best efforts, I was not able to ascertain the first hip-hop artist to appear on The Tonight Show and that probably tells me all I need to know. I can remember iconic rap performances from SNL, Letterman, Conan, Arsenio, even Vibe, but when I try to think of one from The Tonight Show, I draw a blank. Now, The Roots are the house band of that iconic show.
Think about that.
Hip-Hop is a genre that was still being called a fad and was being attacked by presidential candidates for ruining the youth of America when Jay Leno took the reins. While The Roots were releasing their first few albums in the early-to-mid-‘90s, 2 Live Crew was being censored by a judge, Ice-T’s song “Cop Killer” generated a firestorm, and C. Delores Tucker was stomping on CDs outside Interscope’s offices.
Now, Tucker is dead, Luther Campbell and Snoop Dogg are youth football coaches, Ice-T plays a cop on a prime time network TV show, Interscope has Ellen DeGeneres starring in a commercial for its headphones, and the first episode of the new Tonight Show featured a history of hip-hop dancing with one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. Hip-Hop won.
I was first introduced to The Roots in 1996. I had heard of them before that — while Philly has a long hip-hop history, it isn’t necessarily deep so most talented artists are talked about early and often — but that’s when I actually heard their music, on their third album, illadelph halflife. It was unlike anything I had ever heard before. It incorporated jazz elements like Gang Starr, but it was mostly live instrumentation usually found in other forms of music, while the rhymes were simultaneously gritty and insightful, raw yet complex.
Their breakthrough would come three years later with the release of Things Fall Apart, an album that celebrated its fifteenth anniversary over the weekend and stands as the group’s magnum opus, which was powered by the single “You Got Me” featuring Erykah Badu and a then-unknown (and uncredited) Eve. It was then that I finally was able to see them live. While they are from Philly and rep it hard — they call themselves the “Fifth Dynasty,” a reference to Philly’s 215 area code — their home city seemed to take them for granted, so they spent most of their time on the road, touring other cities, including New York City, that embraced them more fully. I was a junior on March 20, 2001, the night before I turned 21, when they came to La Salle and performed. It was a relatively small crowd — most of the rich white kids had wanted Sugar Ray instead — but they rocked it like it was a stadium, giving each member a solo and never letting the energy die down. A decade later, I was able to see lead vocalist Black Thought at an even more intimate venue and, again, he tore it down. That night felt extra special because there were so few of us there. Twenty years from now, that’s a show that ten thousand people will claim to have attended.
Philadelphia is a major American city — 1.6 million people, fifth most populous, major media market — but it can be a very small city too. Depending on a person’s interests and social circle, you could easily meet the most famous and affluent Philadelphians, a feat much more difficult in New York or L.A. It is because of this that I have seen various members of The Roots off stage much more often than I have seen them on stage. I once saw Questlove at a favorite restaurant of mine and my first thought was, “Hey, I know that guy,” as if we had been classmates. I know several people that refer to Black Thought as “Tariq,” as if they’re on a first name basis with him because they really are. This is probably another reason that their genius has been taken for granted in this city. They don’t feel like rock stars. They feel — and act — like our neighbors.
I have a feeling that is all about to change. And that’s a great thing. The Roots have been recording and touring nearly non-stop for twenty years and while Late Night was big, The Tonight Show is enormous. Pretty soon the rest of America — and the world — is about to discover what a small pocket of us have known for almost two decades: The Roots are incredible.
They are extremely talented musicians that have proven time and again that they can play any style or genre with any artist, from Ice Cube to U2. They provided Jay-Z a completely unique soundscape when they backed him for his 2001 Unplugged album. They have one of the best catalogs of any musical act of the past 25 years. They introduced Eve, Beanie Sigel, and Jill Scott to the masses, as well as advanced the neo-soul movement along with frequent collaborators D’Angelo, Common, Erykah Badu and others, known collectively as the Soulquarians. Plus, as I argued in my first book, Black Thought is the most underrated MC in hip-hop history. For proof, look no further than the fact that they can even make great acoustics out of classroom instruments.
The Roots finally have the opportunity to show the entire country their genius.
America will not be disappointed.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of six books, including Publish Your Book for FREE! His books can be purchased in Paperback, Kindle, and Nook. A former feature contributor and managing editor of I Hate JJ Redick, he has also written for XXL, Please Don’t Stare, Amusing My Bouche, Reading & Writing is for Dumb People, and others. He works in finance and spends his evenings changing diapers and drinking craft beer. He once applied to be a cast member on The Real World, but was rejected. You can like his Facebook page here, follow him on Twitter here, and read more of his work here.