The Roots vs. Pimp C: Never do what "they" do?

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The Roots vs. Pimp C: Never do what "they" do? : Folks, [including me], were talking a lot a few weeks ago about what to make of The Roots' recent decision to serve as the house band on NBC/Universal's "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon". Questlove himself posted [a Youtube video on the subject].

Lately though, it seems the buzz has died down a bit and there's an overall acceptance that they are doing what they gotta do for their music careers, what with the market being so bad and all. The reasoning here is that because the industry is in its roughest shape in recent history, you gotta do what you gotta do. Opportunities are always blessings, right?

I'm way past my personal stages of disappointment, annoyance, and let down. In fact, now I'm more curious than anything, as to how THE band carrying the banner of anti-commercialized Hip Hop in 1996 has essentially given the reigns of their career over to the flagship operation (NBC Universal) of the largest corporation in the world (General Electric). And that curiosity, as usual, led to something interesting. The best of the Hip Hop aficionados may very well be deep into this already, but I [came across] an old UGK song recently called "Top Notch Hoes", in which Pimp C takes what seemed to be a direct shot at The Roots' 1996 song and music video "What They Do" from their Illadelph Halflife album released in that same year.

UGK: Top Notch Hoes

Pimp C: "I saw yo' video, nigga,/ Sound like you dissin' my friends./ How the fuck we played ourself?/ Our CD's always sell out./ Y'all niggas fuck BET/ 'Cause they ain't down with the South/ They play they videos everyday/ Sold 50 thousand, he swole/ Y'all bitches act like y'all don't know me,/ Bitch, I always go gold./ Pussy niggas play the role,/ Niggas mad 'cause I made it,/ 'Cause we be livin' like stars/ Comin' down on 20-inch plated./ Bitch nigga, git some nuts,/ Bitch nigga, say my name.../ We ain't got no time to be guessin'/ And playin' no pussy-ass games./ What they do, what they do/ Nigga, what's corny as fuck:/ You gets no play in that Texas/ Yo' shit don't bump in trunk./ I flip from city to city/ Squeezin' on ass, suckin' titty/ You say you're real,/ You just a busta, but/ Bitch, yo' records sound shitty"

UGK's Bun B has since made it very clear that Pimp C's lyrics were indeed intended as a response to The Roots' parody video, but also that "bygones are bygones":

Bun B: "Yeah, Pimp was talking about The Roots on his verse. Bygones are bygones now, but yeah, he was talking about them. He thought they were shooting at Too $hort in the video. And you know how close they were. Pimp was always taking up other people's battles. He never really had any proof that they were dissing him in the video, so when he says that line "I saw your video nigga sound like you dissing my friends" I'd be like exactly! That's what it "sounds" like, you don't really know. But Pimp actually liked what The Roots was doing, he always talked about having a live band on stage with him. They probably never knew Pimp was dissing them or ever did, I guess they do now. The only reason he said that was because he thought they were dissing $hort. Pimp just like to say things to get under people's skin, including mines."

But my curiosity was deeper than rap beef. So I pulled up The Roots' video to refresh my memory and was flashed back to some very different days. The video is a straight-forward parody of "commercial" rap, back in a time when to most kids I messed with, Hip Hop basically came into two flavors -- "conscious" and "commercial". And the two sides were at war. In their video, The Roots' preach about the vices of the music industry ("the principles of true Hip Hop have been forsaken/ it's all contractual and about money makin") and give advice, and make a pledge, to "never do what they do".

The Roots: What They Do

"At war" is definitely me taking poetic license with my memory and imagination, but that's definitely how it "felt" in school, regardless of the "actual" intent of these artists. I'm from the midwest though, at the opposite corner of all three coasts that have traditionally dominated popular Hip Hop music -- adding to our confusion growing up -- and my boys who thought they were gangsters were ready to fight over claims that Outkast was better than E-40, and vice versa (probably as a result, I ended up loving both).

So even though I never really bought into the idea that there was one "they" versus "us", it's clear The Roots' did -- or at least wanted someone to buy into that idea in 1996. What I'm curious about is what exactly they meant by "they", especially now that we know their trajectory took them to become one of the most commercial acts in Hip Hop via their "contractual" relationship with NBC. It don't get too much more commercial than a nightly gig on late night American broadcast television.

What is fueling my curiosity is a refusal to believe that The Roots did an intentional 180 from their principled stance of 1996 just because they saw an opportunity at fame and this idea of "timelessness" I'm hearing being praised so much lately. After all, they are now secured in the scrolls of Americana and the paternal legacy of one Johnnie Carson. And while I never expected them, or anyone, to remain stagnant, I do expect to be able to track the development of their principles and how that growth affected their art and careers.

The 1996 superhero admirer in me wants to believe that The Roots have a grand master plan and this is their "Spook Who Sat By The Door" period. But I feel that's just unrealistic. Given most artists' need to focus on personal development in order to make good and collectively relevant art on a consistent basis, combined with the workload required just to keep up with the American industry, A-to-Z grand master plans are usually something even semi-commercial artists just don't have time for, let alone the greatest touring group in Hip Hop.

And so I'm nudged toward the realist in me, which expects there to be a complicated set of nuances that take humans off paths and puts them on others at various times in their lives. It could be that The Roots were young idealistic and romantic kids who thought Hip Hop was a western style good-guy-bad-guy "war" between two clear "sides" of "commercial" and "conscious" Hip Hop, only to ascend the industry and discover differently that to succeed in any capitalist industry on their level takes compromise of principle, which perhaps they proceeded to do bit by bit. I hear echoes of, "you guys can be big!"

And perhaps when they were young The Roots made the mistake of simplifying their definition of the "they", that they tried so hard to "never do"; defining "they" solely in behavioral terms of pimping, drinking champagne, and driving fancy cars, overlooking the fact that even the most vegan-eating, scruffiest, most "positive sounding" characters are often seduced by commercialism behind the curtain.

My 1996 consciousness is still so disappointed. But my 2009 consciousness realizes that capital is blind and will shake hands with anyone, anywhere, as long as that handshake allows it to survive and grow. I might never know their true motivations, but unfortunately my 1996 superheroes The Roots ended up doing what "they do" -- just in their own special way. Never say "never do"?

Nah, I give them credit for trying, and continue to love and listen regardless, although perhaps not with the same wide open heart and ears I had back in 1996. Heroes die -- sometimes slowly -- and rather than holding on too tight or completely forsaking heroism altogether because a hero "hurt me", I think it's better to study and learn from that past in a focused, critical, and loving manner, to help the next generation of heroes do just a little better. "Never do" remains a meditation, not a commandment.