So iconic they’ve been affectionately known as simply “The Legendary” for over a quarter century, pioneering Philly hip-hop institution The Roots returned to the Bay Area on Thursday, February 23rd. On a short run out West originally slated for late December 2022 but postponed to late February, the band stormed through Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco before finishing in Denver. On a brisk, wintery evening, the sprawling ensemble descended on The Masonic in S.F.’s Nob Hill neighborhood, and Illadelph’s illest uncorked a two-hour tour de force that more than lived up to the sterling reputation that steadily precedes this renowned collective wherever they may roam.

The average American mostly knows The Roots as the house band from Jimmy Fallon’s late-night TV shows over the past decade-plus, but hardcore live music fans and hip-hop lifers alike have long understood that this ever-evolving organism is far more than merely a celebrity guest’s theme music, a pop artist du jour’s backing band, an interlude act for Fallon’s comedy bits or 30-second bumper beats on the way to commercial.

The most recognizable member of The Roots is—of course—drummer/musical director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the decorated author/musicologist who recently made history with his Oscar-winning Summer of Soul documentary. Next would be all-world emcee Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, celebrated for his blistering freestyle sessions. In the last year, Thought has collaborated with Danger Mouse, Seun Kuti, and El Michels Affair, worked on a Broadway play, and just last week delivered a magnum-opus open letter to hip-hop for her 50th birthday in 2023.

Despite their prodigious careers, home base for both stalwarts remains The Roots, of which Questlove and Black Thought are the co-founders, dating back to the late-1980s at Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. There have been numerous important contributors over the years, but those two gentlemen have stayed the course across three decades, and counting. In San Francisco, they were ably assisted by longtime generals Kamal Gray (keyboards) and Captain Kirk Douglas on guitar and backing vocals, both essential cogs in The Roots live band wheel since way before the boob tube era.

Sousaphonist Tuba Gooding Jr, auxiliary keyboardist Ray Angry, producer/multi-instrumentalist Stro Elliot (plus a bassist who was definitely not Mark Kelley) filled out the core band. The Roots have added a high-energy horn section featuring Dave Guy and Ian Hendrickson-Smith of the Daptone crew, fleshing out The Roots’ sound into that of a full-blown soul revue.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by The Masonic (@sfmasonic)

Oakland-based DJ James Wavey warmed up the crowd steadily filing in, mixing up throwback rap tunes with classic funk and soul jams. Just after 9 p.m., the nine-piece live hip-hop squadron commandeered the huge stage with a copious collective swagger, unleashing a lengthy medley of covers and segues that let everyone in the whole joint know The Roots is takin’ over!

The Legendary Roots Crew set it off with authority, lighting the fuse with classic hip-hop sample “Cramp Your Style” by All the People (1972), a root element of so many golden-era rap tunes. This slammin’ early-’70s garage-funk gave Black Thought a solid foundation to spit bars from The Roots’ seminal “The Pros” before the band segued into Philly’s own Instant Funk’s “I Got My Mind Made Up”, a 1979 disco-funk deep cut. Then, a laser left turn into “Jungle Boogie”, the massive hit by Kool & the Gang, the group finally getting a loud pop from the somewhat sleepy S.F. massive.

Without stopping for a breath, the band smoothly swerved into “Soul Makossa” (1973) by late Cameroonian legend Manu Dibango, with Thought kickin’ a little MJ “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin” (“mama say mama sa mama coosa”) atop the sizzling groove. From there, a bombastic reading of Donald Byrd’s “Think Twice” (1975) as Dave Guy took a searing trumpet solo, making sure to wake the town. “Think Twice” was doubled up as Black Thought spit lyrics from Main Source’s “Looking At the Front Door”, a subtle intergenerational connection not lost on this writer.

Right away, it was crystal clear that these dudes were still arsonists of the highest order. They had come to play, and they weren’t playin’. Indeed, we were in for another lesson in game theory, the latest in a storied South Philly tradition like none other.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by @tim_has_tinnitus

After a nod to De La Soul’s beloved 1996 jam “Stakes is High”, The Roots revisited the early days of their major label journey with jazz-rap gem “Proceed”, culled from 1994’s Do You Want More? and sprinkled with a little D.C. go-go vibes. They touched on the breezy single “What They Do” (1996’s Illadelph Halflife), before detonating the bubonic thump of “The Next Movement”, off 1999’s Things Fall Apart. Extrapolating into a frenzied Crescent City second line strut, “The Next Movement” then moved through the synth-bounce of “Dynamite”, a J Dilla-produced banger on Things Fall Apart. The Roots swiftly stopped on a dime to reveal “Clones”, blessing domes with the fan-favorite from Illadelph Halflife.

Another segue arrived with the second Donald Byrd cover in the first 40 minutes, this time dropping 1975’s “Change (Makes You Wanna Hustle)”. The fly-guy vibes flowed into a funkified reimagination of “Don’t Say Nothin” from 2004’s The Tipping Point. Staying with that body of work, this mind-boggling run continued with the superhuman emceeing exercise “Web”. The fiery segment concluded with a transition to its sample—1974’s “Dance Girl” by The Rimshots, complete with a scorching sax solo from Hendrickson.

The team is remarkably adept at fusing together organic hip-hop of the past and present, mining sample sources, peeling off classic rock riffage, syrupy R&B chestnuts, fatback funk bangers, New Orleans brass band riddims, yardie dancehall jams, and still manages to flip the script in a new style all their own.

Though The Roots did lean heavily on cover songs, the intention was obvious to anybody paying close attention. For hip-hop’s 50th birthday, the band wanted to dig into the annals of history and the art of storytelling, not just by way of rhyme or rapping, but also through the selections they chose to incorporate into their live set. Legends, legacies, and lineage forever intertwined.

The Roots swaggered their way through Donald Byrd & The Blackbyrds’ breakdance anthem “Rock Creek Park” (1975), keeping the time machine intact with peerless steez. The spaceage bridge from Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” benefitted from a keytar solo courtesy of Ray Angry before he set about “battling” Tuba Gooding Jr., much to the delight of The Masonic.  “Here I Come”, from 2006’s Game Theory, found its way to The J.B.’s’ “Gimme Some More”, as nothing was off limits to the Legendary Roots Crew.

I’d posit that no other emcee has ever been outright better at rapping than Tariq Trotter, and very few artists on this planet have ever perfected their instrument to the level that Black Thought has. His comprehensive vocabulary, complex rhyme patterns, extremely-dense wordplay, and intricate articulation are second to none, past or present. His voice is instantly recognizable and never cartoonish; he will make you think, laugh, gasp, and occasionally well up with tears.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Jay Holla (@therealjayholla)

After stunning every last beating heart in The Masonic with his lyrical and melodic virtuosity, “The Dalai Lama on the mic, Prime Minister Thought” took a moment to note that this very evening was the 24th anniversary of The Roots’ landmark fourth LP, Things Fall Apart.

With that proclamation, The Roots delved into their Grammy-winning 1999 single “You Got Me”, as Captain Kirk Douglas handled the chorus originally sung by Erykah Badu. Douglas then took off on a kaleidoscopic guitar solo complete with jazzy scatting runs and a detour into the theme from Outkast’s dubbed-out “SpottieOttieDopaliscious Angel”.

Douglas kept his foot on the gas as The Roots charged into an old faithful in Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”, then another with Ini Kamooze‘s “World A Music” (the sample for Damian Marley’s “Welcome to JamRock”) before raving up—then winding down—with the drum and bass coda from “You Got Me”. Your favorite jam band’s favorite jam band, at your service.

Thought led the crowd in a brief series of De La Soul chants, a tacit acknowledgement honoring the memory of one of their heroes, Trugoy the Dove, who passed away just a couple of weeks ago. The Roots launched into their biggest hit, “The Seed 2.0”, from 2002’s Phrenology. Again, Douglas held down vocals on the big chorus, the frontline performers shimmied in cheeky choreography, and the now-lubricated crowd belted out the lyrics with aplomb.

The Roots began to bring the freight train into the station with a spirited romp through Curtis Mayfield’s timeless “Move On Up”. This blissful number spilled into a freewheeling dance party before segueing into another breakdance anthem, The Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache”. Questlove and Stro Elliot took a few moments to “battle” on some James Brown breakbeats, with Elliot mesmerizing all who remained in The Masonic with his mastery on the drum pads and sampler.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by ~B.Getz~ (@upful_life)

They finished this frenetic two-hour showcase with yet another golden-era classic, “Men At Work” by Kool G Rap & DJ Polo, off their 1989 LP Road to Riches. A progenitor of East Coast gangsta rap, G Rap is someone that certainly paved the way for Black Thought’s murderous rhyme styles and no-frills delivery. “Men At Work” samples an obscure cut in Boobie Knight & the Universal Lady‘s “The Lovomaniacs”, another jam that allowed for the incredibly tight band to properly get their funk freak on one more time with feeling. Black General 215 took one last victory lap while paying proper tribute to a godfather of rap, with The Legendary Roots Crew still leaving fans wanting more.

At the end of the whirlwind concert, after a quick bite at a nearby dive, we moseyed over just a few blocks away to August Hall for the official afterparty featuring none other than Questlove on the wheels of steel. Upon arrival, just after midnight, those of us with the good sense to follow Ahmir to the spot were treated to two uninterrupted hours of nothing but De La Soul. From the hits to the posse cuts, collaborations, remixes, skits, bootlegs, rare jawns, Dilla joints, and unreleased nuggets, Quest dug deep into his Native Tongues crates and blessed up the people. Together, we danced the rest of the night away, and collectively grieved through the music. In celebration of the life and legacy of the dearly departed Trugoy the Dove, also known as Plug 2, the late, great David Jude Jolicoeur of De La Soul.

words: B.Getz