The legendary Roots crew from Philadelphia were the perfect choice to represent Hip Hop at this year’s Meltdown festival at the Southbank. The annual event celebrates eclecticism, originality, reinvention and improvisation in music. No other band in Hip Hop could have readily embraced the ethos of the festival and effectively demonstrated the array of musical styles that inform the genre.
This wasn’t just a gig for fans of the band. The audience was a diverse mix of b boys and girls, middle aged bohemians and some stiff upper lipped artsy types who were dressed as if they were prepared for a night at the opera!
It didn’t matter who they were or where they were from though as it didn’t take long for incendiary MC Black Thought and excitable percussionist Frank ‘Knuckles’ Walker to hype the entire crowd out of their seats as the band ripped through a collection of old school classics from the Wu-Tang Clan (”Protect Your Neck”), Rakim (”As The Rhyme Goes On”), and The Jungle Brothers (”I Got It Like That”) before launching into a selection of cuts from last year’s slept on release ‘Rising Down’ and the band’s extensive back catalogue of classic material.
Anchored brilliantly by the beats of drummer Ahmir ‘?uestlove’ Thompson, the band effortlessly switched styles via jazz, rock, blues, and afro beat. Their eclectic set reflected all the musical influences that define hip hop as we know it today.
Extended reinterpretations of ’Step Into The Realm’ ‘Mellow My Man’ and ‘I Shall Proceed’ incorporated solo interludes from legendary guitarist Vernon Reid ( of ‘Living Colour’ fame) and sax legends David Murray, event curator Ornette Coleman and 91 year old Andy Hamilton (MBE).
One of the highlights of the set was ?uestlove and Knuckles combining for a phenomenal percussive duet which, at one point involved them both leaving their drum kits and walking around the stage using any object they encountered en route as percussion including drum rims, microphone stands, chairs and the stage itself.
Nigerians among the crowd went nuts when the band launched into a tribute to Afro beat pioneer Fela Anikulapo Kuti which involved reinterpretations of ‘Beasts of No Nation’ and ‘Zombie’. The set ended with the band paying homage to aforementioned sax legends, Murray, Hamilton and Coleman (combined age over 250 yrs)! Each of them improvising sax solos over afro beat influenced rhythms.
KRS 1 may have coined the term ‘Edutainment’ but this performance encapsulated the very essence of the word. Anyone in attendance whose understanding of hip hop was limited to the stereotypical, woman bashing, gangster posturing, auto tune dirge currently being consumed by the mainstream will have left the gig with a greater appreciation of the genre.
Meanwhile, the educated few in attendance will have left with emphatic confirmation of what every bona fide b boy and b girl already knows. The Roots are the best live band in hip hop. Period.
Reviewed by Little Drummer Boy
Photography by Akin Aworan