After graduating from high school, Thompson took it to the streets. In 1992, he rolled out some pots, pans, and white buckets, grabbed a shoe box for cash, and he and Trotter hit South Street, a popular hangout spot for teens and artists filled with boutiques, restaurants, bars, and clubs—Philly’s answer to New York’s Village. The first week they made $100.
Then Josh Abrams, a jazz bassist, picked them up in a station wagon, brought drums for Thompson, and joined the band. That week they made $200. MC Kenyatta “Kid Crumbs” Warren, a friend of Black Thought’s, joined up when Abrams left to finish college. After four months on South Street, they found a manager, Rich Nichols, who put on hip-hop workshops for kids. His coteacher was a bassist named Leonard “Hub” Hubbard, who soon became a part of the group, along with their student, keyboardist Scott Storch.
“We were doing it for short-term money,” Thompson says about their South Street jaunt. “But it taught us how to improvise.” Thompson also figured because they were a hip-hop band, they would have to find a radical approach to creating a buzz and garnering a fan base. “We weren’t a traditional rap group, we were a band, so it was hard for us to establish ourselves,” he says. “My only answer was we had to play on the streets.”
This decision meant the band played amidst hecklers, in not-always pleasant weather, and with more than a few discouraging fans. “If we made it, anybody can make it,” Thompson says. “We got a lot of laughs and a lot of ‘get the f— outta here’s’ in our formative years.”
During this time, the group recorded and released the independent album Organix. Within six months, and after selling thousands of copies on a selffunded European tour, they had earned a nice buzz within the industry. That led to a bidding war between at least six different major labels. In 1993, they signed with Geffen/DCG in a unique deal where the label was required to keep the band for two albums after the first, virtually ensuring artist development.
For many bands, the next step would be to record a slew of radio-friendly singles to keep the record company happy. Instead, the Roots packed up and disappeared to Europe with what was left of their advance money, rented a flat, hired an agent, garnered a fan base, and kept the lights on by touring relentlessly. By the time the label looked up and discovered that the band—and their money— was missing, the Roots had completed Do You Want More?!!!??!, considered by many to be a perfect marriage between hip-hop and jazz.
The European jaunt is just one example of how this troupe took the path less traveled. Its enduring struggle over its 25-year career hasn’t been to get recognition for its musicality, or for Trotter’s relentless, ingenious flow. Its persisting task has been to have the energy of its live shows reflected on its albums.
The Roots have never been in competition with anyone besides themselves.