A decade ago, The Roots were already one of the most dynamic and potent bands in the world; then they got the call that made them one of the most popular. If you’ve heard of “The Legendary Roots Crew” from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, you probably recognize them as the house band for Late Night and now The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. The group – in an expanded form featuring more keyboards and percussion – excels at their on-air role, pulling out new walk-on music for each guest, playing along to numerous musical sketches, and sometimes going head to head with other rappers in “freestyle” games. It’s this last category of sketches that reveal a sliver of the group’s full potential as frontman and emcee Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter weaves dense rhymes that flow like warm honey.
All of that late-night talk show band workhorse talent comes from The Roots’ long years on the road and deep study of creating one of the most fulfilling live experiences in hip-hop. Live sets often reflect some of the hits from the group’s 11 studio albums – including the monumental breakthrough album Things Fall Apart – and the deep jazz, classic soul and R&B roots that fuel the symphony that surrounds Black Thoughts’ raps. In fact, the group also digs into some of the sounds that inspired them, including classic hip-hop tracks like Kool G Rap’s “Men at Work,” R&B party anthems like Kool & The Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” and heavily-sampled, well-beloved soul numbers like Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up.” The Roots’ live set can be like a jazz show in that way, a spontaneous, dynamic mix of music; with Black Thought and drummer Questlove’s propulsive attack pushing you out of your seat.
After a decade playing it up on Fallon’s shows, releasing their own studio projects and full collaboration albums with the likes of John Legend and Elvis Costello, and recording one of the most popular NPR Tiny Desk concerts with neo-soul powerhouse Bilal, The Roots cap off the 2010s with their first headlining show at the Kennedy Center. The group will take over the Concert Hall on December 29, turning the room that houses the National Symphony Orchestra into a South Philly house party for a pre-New Years blowout.
“Questlove and Black Thought are founding members of the Kennedy Center Hip Hop Culture Council,” Simone Eccleston, Director of Hip Hop Culture at the Kennedy Center, reminds On Tap. “Therefore, having The Roots at the Center reflects a natural progression in our relationship with them.”
Historically, The Roots have graced DC with a show or two this time of year and have played at the Kennedy Center before as part of tributes, honors shows and other special programs, but this will be the first time the group takes center stage at that great temple to the arts. This show also marks the last show of the year for the Kennedy Center’s hip-hop programming, which had a remarkable second year of events and performances, including notable headlining sets by De La Soul, Robert Glasper, Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) and Flying Lotus, as part of the REACH opening festival in September.
The Roots continues the line of performers embodying the highest principles of the art of hip-hop, something that is at the core of all the Kennedy Center’s hip-hop program.
“It is important to have artists like The Roots at the Kennedy Center because they reflect the very best of who we are as a culture,” says Eccleston. “Their live performance is a masterclass in musicianship, showmanship and lyricism. They have helped to shape and redefine the American canon so it’s only fitting that they would perform at the nation’s performing arts center.”
The Roots went national at the beginning of the decade, and it’s fitting that they end it at one of the biggest stage’s in the nation’s capital.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.reach.kennedy-center.org