We all know the funky old saying, popularized by P-funk, "Free your mind, and your ass will follow." It's a deceptively simple slogan, on the surface just a clever introduction to the best way to learn how to dance, but really it's a summation of philosophy, of the connection between mind and body, of consciousness and its relationship to the restrictions we place on ourselves as human beings.
It's also a bit hackneyed now and less respected in today's world than it was 30 years ago, when the psychedelic funk of George Clinton, Bootsy, Sly and their ilk lifted the tradition of black music, jazz and blues—genres which always maintained sophisticated existential themes for which they are given little credit—into a twilight zone of bizarre metaphor and Timothy Leary-esque mind-expansion, fueled by both drugs and amazing bass lines. And you could dance your ass off to it. Like most things from that era, the resonance has faded, even if the relevance has not.
But invert the phrase, make it "Free your ass, and your mind will follow," and you've got a credo for one of the most vibrant, important and overlooked varieties of music today: conscious hip-hop. At least that was the vibe at Minc last Sunday night, as ?uestlove, the drummer and all-around badass for the conscious hip-hop group the Roots, kicked off his DJ set with a James Brown tribute that immediately stripped each individual in the room of any color, class or creed. It's pretty simple really: It's hard to be racist or sexist or even a more general asshole when James Brown is played with the deft, expert touch of a self-assured man with his Afro bobbing along to the music. It's a hackneyed thought, too, but nonetheless a true one, that being lifted into a booty-shaking trance does much to indeed free one's mind.
?uestlove's 11 p.m.-2 a.m. set that night was stunning, but the next night when the Roots took the stage at the Gypsy Tea Room was transcendent. Sold out, the Tea Room felt like the Deep Ellum of old, the crowd ranging from sneaky teenagers to very hip Japanese couples to incredibly geeky white people to black guys with sideways Texas Rangers hats. And the Roots rocked us all down to the very core of our coccyges. This group, people, is the best band in America, and here's why:
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With a horn section (tuba, even), sizzling psyche-keys, ripping electric guitar, beautiful nylon-string guitar and Black Thought's point-on flow, the Roots represent a perfect evolution of music, mainly—though not solely—the music of black America. In one sense, they hearken back to a good old-fashioned funk band, the horn section blasting away in perfect time and stepping in perfect rhythm, giving the exhausted, sweat-drenched crowd no respite as they moved from song to song with no breaks in between.
But then there are the jazz elements too, ?uest's drums shimmering with off-kilter time and hi-hat, electric guitar chords that you'd never hear on any other hip-hop album, or a lovely, understated Gilberto Gil-esque nylon-string motif. And don't forget the zinging prog-rock jam-outs, resounding and screeching like an entire Black Sabbath album played through an echo pedal, or an updated P-funk warbler. The entire thing, of course, is held together by ?uest's mind-blowing ability to basically fuck up your head with how good a drummer he is while at the same time directing the ensemble with a subtle look or a quick nod of his 'fro. And all of it is fronted by an MC who slings intelligent, political rhymes, old-school references and modern philosophy. The Roots are tradition and the now and the future at once, and the beauty of it is, it all works because they freakin' nail it. Their musicianship rivals that of any of the storied figures of American music—Louis Armstrong, George Gershwin, Prince—in both composition and execution.
At first you don't even notice because you're dancing so hard, grinning so big, breathing so quickly; I only started to put it all together at Gypsy midway through the show, when Erykah Badu stepped out on the stage to do a few numbers. The crowd went cuckoo, of course, and with good reason, as the entire crew shifted into a more soulful vein and Badu's strange, strong, wonderful voice hit the rafters. She remained on stage for much of the show, sometimes shaking a tambourine, sometimes contributing backup vocals, sometimes sitting down and taking it all in. Heads poked out from behind the backstage curtains, and a few people danced on the stairs that flank the back part of the stage. And when the Roots shifted from a tight version of "Jungle Boogie" to a loose, improvised version of the Police's "Roxanne" during the encore it became so clear: This was just a plain ol' jam session with a group of people who are in love with music, and who understand music; this night could have occurred in 1827, 1957 or 1977.
But it's happening in 2007, and thank God for that.