By Brian Ives
Last night (May 13) at New York’s Public Theater, fans of The Roots gathered for a performance by the legendary hip-hop group showcasing their upcoming album, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, due out next Tuesday (May 19). But no one seemed to know exactly what the performance was going to be. The album itself features full tracks by late legendary artists Nina Simone (“Theme From ‘Middle of the Night'”) and Mary Lou Williams (“The Devil”), and has a runtime of about 30 minutes total.
If you only know the The Roots’ from picnics or the best backing band on late-night TV, you may not have guessed this show would be a dark performance art piece utilizing a combination of DJs, sampling, spoken-word poetry, mime, dancing, classical music, jazz music, and no shortage of balloon animals. The Roots’ drummer/leader Questlove was the only member who spent the entire show on stage, although most of his time was spent behind a DJ setup with turntables, a Mac laptop and a sampler.
Quest started the show by creating ominous sound effects from behind the decks, and during this intro, hundreds of balloon animals descended onto the stage. Throughout the show, balloons were bursting to jarring effect.
The groups’ venerable MC, the always underrated Black Thought, came onstage throughout the show, but always for spoken-word narrative segments, always shrouded in a hoodie. His rhymes were heard via the recorded versions of songs from the album, occasionally manipulated by Quest along with Jeremy Ellis, who comes off as a sort of Eddie Van Halen of the sampler.
Early on in the show, Questlove and co. were joined by former Roots member, human beatbox Rahzel, who left the band in 1999. Rahzel jammed with a multi-instrumentalist Craig S. Harris, whose jazz and avant-garde credits include collaborations with Lester Bowie, Don Byron and Sun Ra. While Rahzel blew minds with his vocal percussion, Harris switched between trombone and didgeridoo as dancer/”motion artist” Jadon danced and contorted his body.
For those who haven’t listened to the album, it was a bit difficult to absorb Black Thought’s lyrics, especially with the other visual stimuli going on. But Jadon’s acting, Black Thought’s spoken-word narration and, well, the nooses that hung over Questlove’s head made it clear that the new album is along the same lines of their last one, 2011’s existential concept album undun. In fact, if you felt undun —which ended with a three song neoclassical suite— was too commercial, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin may not be for you.
After they finished their performance of the album, Roots guitarist “Captain” Kirk Douglas, who watched most of the show from the audience, joined them, as Questlove got behind the drums for a fiery rendition of Funkadelic’s classic “Maggot Brain,” changing the original’s spoken word intro about “Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time” to sampled vocals asking, “If you are not a myth, whose reality are you? If you are not a reality, whose myth are you?”
As the audience filed out after the approximately hour-long show finished, most everyone was smiling with the knowledge that they’d seen something unique, if not difficult to understand. So what was it? Whatever it was, it’s a bit hard to define, but it was definitely thought-provoking.
All photos by Maria Ives for Radio.com