Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is revisiting hip-hop history on his new Pandora show “Questlove Supreme,” so it’s only right that The Roots’ legendary footsteps get retraced too. It’s even more fitting to do that through the lens of Illadelph Halflife, The Roots’ third album, which celebrated its 20th anniversary on Saturday (Sept. 24).
What made this project special? The 20-track effort came at a crucial point in the band’s voyage, causing their tides to turn in major ways. Here’s a look back at 1996 and how it impacted The Roots’ quest towards their current iconic status.
Upon its release, the jazz-infused project was celebrated for being “innovative” by Entertainment Weekly, which awarded it an A- rating. The Source — then still known as “The Bible of Hip-Hop” — gave it 4.5/5 mics, calling it a “thoughtful musical endeavor.” But those positive reviews only came after long hours in the lab, trying to perfect the crew’s sound.
In his 2013 memoir, Mo Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove, Ahmir called Illadelph an important shift in the band’s trajectory. “We didn’t want to be as soft as we were on the earlier record, but we didn’t want to surrender our thinking-man’s perch, either,” he wrote. “We split the difference by making the music harder, and by making songs that sounded like they were based on samples, though in fact we were sampling ourselves.”
How did The Roots arrive at this new approach? Though it may seem baffling now, changes came about after DJs criticized Questlove’s drumming. They claimed his beats “fluctuated” too much, hurting the group’s appeal.
“Suddenly, I became the bad guy in The Roots,” Ahmir revealed in his 2014 Red Bull Music Academy lecture. “People were like, ‘Fine. We’re just gonna become a regular rap group and rhyme over regular breaks.’ I’m like, ‘Wait. I’m not about to be fired in my own group.'”
That gave Questlove all the motivation he needed. Two months before the group started recording, he sequestered himself in the studio. “I felt like Jack Nicholson in Batman,” he added. “Like, ‘Wait ’till they get ahold of me!’ I said, ‘I’m gonna be the coldest, most emotionless, an absolute machine.’ I spent hours and hours and hours. I probably did another 10,000 hours. I wanted to learn everything about engineering.” The result was Illadelph, a jazz-fueled, Wu-Tang Clan-inspired LP filled with equal parts grit and mellow vibes.
While the music was elevated, Illadelph was also a pivotal touchstone in the group’s lyrical progression. Black Thought continued to sharpen his storytelling sword with tracks like “The Hypnotic,” a romance-tinged predecessor to Things Fall Apart’s “You Got Me” classic. He dropped true school theories on rap’s changing landscape on “What They Do,” a cut and video that would even cause The Notorious B.I.G. to take offense.
Beyond rap criticism though, Black also provided insightful, ever-relevant social commentary. “I’m thinkin’ it don’t cease,” he rhymes on “Panic!!!!!” “It’s no more peace / Police levels increase / But what the fuck? It’s still crime on the streets / I can’t breathe.”
Thought’s poignant pen was accompanied by dexterous peers. Malik B added his flavor to cuts like “It Just Don’t Stop,” where he addressed homicide, rape, and hate crimes. Elsewhere, Dice Raw delivered even more of that, discussing gun violence on “Episodes,” for example. “Ni**as causin’ mayhem from the p.m.s to a.m.s,” he raps. “America’s worst nightmare: guns in kids’ hands.”
Consistency & Continuity
With more social commentary over revamped soundscapes, Illadelph marked a new era for The Roots, but that didn’t mean they wanted it detached from their past. In fact, the group took extra care to ensure its continuity. In some runs, they even began the tracklist at No. 34, a continuation of Organix, which consisted of 17 songs, and Do You Want More?!!!??!, which was made up of 16 cuts.
“It was a small gesture,” Ahmir wrote in Mo Meta Blues, “and possibly more annoying than effective, but we wanted to push back a bit against the idea that records were simply products or isolated snapshots that weren’t connected, spiritually or even physically, to the albums that came before and the albums, as yet unmade, that would come afterward.”
Looking back, The Roots’ wish for every album to be a part of a continuum makes sense. Twenty years after this release, it’s tough to pick out their best album, with standouts like 1999’s Things Fall Apart, 2011’s Undun, and, of course, Illadelph Halflife, among others still shining brightly.
Whether it’s deemed their best or not though, the LP remains a vital footstep in a legendary journey worth revisiting even two decades after it dropped.
The voyage continues. Join the Quest on Pandora every Wednesday at 1 p.m. EST/10 a.m. PST as Questlove adds to his storied career, sharing insightful knowledge alongside co-host Phonte and some very special guests.