The Roots have long positioned themselves as hip-hop ambassadors, spreading the good word not only through their own musical contributions but by funneling a wide array of acts to their fans. To that end, they used this soldout Gotham show to stage something of a hip-hop “Last Waltz,” a seamless stitching of the spirits of the genre’s past, present and future.
The group’s core members held court for more than three hours, a span bookended by two short sets of straightforward Roots material. Thanks to the lava-like grooves laid down by drummer ?uestlove Thompson, the opening salvo of new songs connected despite their unfamiliarity. Set’s end brought a regrouping, highlighted by a zig-zag medley fusing catalog favorites like “100% Dundee” and “Distortion to Static” — capped by an extended “Clones,” which added one MC per verse until the stage was packed with a battle royale’s worth of bobbing and weaving contestants.
For most of the show, however, the spotlight was turned over to a stylistically varied group of up-and-coming hip-hop talents, with a smattering of old-school heroes thrown in for good measure. The former group was best represented by Jean Grae, a female MC who exudes neither venom nor pheremonal overload, relying instead on a crisp, cutting delivery and a plainspoken, non-raunchy writing style.
Little Brother, given two separate chances to strut its stuff, exhibited more energy than brilliance. On disc, the trio’s effervescent songs bob along on the airy, Tribe Called Quest-style beats laid down by producer 9th Wonder, but here — despite Phonte’s surprisingly strong singing voice — they couldn’t quite get the lead out.
A fairly long stretch of the set was given over to the cerebral meanderings of the Def Jux collective, which — with the exception of Mr. Lif, whose “I Phantom” got a kickstart from Thompson’s stunning drumming — proved too detached for the house-party proceedings.
With Black Thought acting as a host of sorts, the aud also was introduced — or reintroduced — to a passel of older talents of varying fame. Lesser-known Skillz, who’s been toiling in the underground mix-tape realm for the better part of a decade, made the most of his short stint, freestyling through some typically harsh, battle-ready stanzas, both in recognizable tunes like “Nod Factor” and newer material like the Dirty South-tinged “Ghostwriter.”
For most in attendance, evening’s highlight was the highly anticipated return of Pete Rock and CL Smooth, the long-absent precursors of conscious hip-hop. Tightly wound versions of classics like “T.R.O.Y.” and “Soul Brother #1” carried only the merest traces of rust, their alternately breezy and brass-knuckled cadences packing as much punch now as they did in the early ’90s.