Twenty years later, the landmark album by the Philly rap band is one that perfectly straddles popular appeal and critical reverence.
Things Fall Apart, a novel by Chinua Achebe, details a Nigerian man who is exiled from his village and returns years later to find it changed and usurped by colonial forces. When it’s all said and done, these Western forces ended up eroding the traditions and beliefs that built the foundation for the man’s way of life. Change comes for everyone.
Things Fall Apart was a landmark in African literature upon release in 1958, selling millions of copies and studied in classrooms across the world. Several decades later, a rap group from Philadelphia would nick the title for their fourth studio album, one intended to comment on their own experiences with change. It was an album that the group, The Roots, hoped would take them to the next level after toiling in relative obscurity for years.
Their infamous 1996 music video for “What They Do” defined the group as anti-mainstream, perfectly content to keep doing what they did best. But their real and raw wasn’t making an impact on the same level as contemporaries like A Tribe Called Quest, the Fugees and Outkast: their albums, sitting in a similar sonic place, were selling in the millions. Meanwhile, the Roots were struggling to achieve even half of that number. They had earned plenty of critical attention and favour for their take on artful rap and incendiary live shows but by the end of the ‘90s, they were still broke. And time was running out for the group to figure out just what they were missing. Was there a line to straddle between art and entertainment?
As drummer Questlove noted in his 2013 memoir Mo’ Meta Blues, the band started to notice a chasm open between the band and their hip-hop fanbase. “We were already feeling like we were on the margins: not strangers in a strange land,” Quest wrote. “But strangers in our own land.”
WE KNEW FROM THE START THAT THINGS FALL APART
Things Fall Apart was unleashed upon the world on February 23, 1999, the same day as Eminem’s Slim Shady LP, Prince Paul’s A Prince Among Thieves and TLC’s Fanmail. Featuring a stark black and white photo of two black teenagers escaping a riot and introduced with a blast of Spike Lee film verbiage, Things Fall Apart is a dense slab of Afrocentrism that reinvents the Roots crew as fearless and innovative. They could play their instruments, we knew that, but somewhere along the way, they discovered the secret on how to craft evocative songs too.
The secret was hidden in Philadelphia, where the band had put in years of community building, hosting jam sessions and inviting friends to sit in for a session or two. A collective of like-minded musicians had started to form around the Roots. Things Fall Apart marked the debuts of Eve and Beanie Sigel. There was Scott Storch, the band keyboardist a few years removed from becoming a superstar producer in his own right. Jill Scott was emerging from Philly as a singer/songwriter. As time went on, others fell into the band’s orbit: Q-Tip, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, James Poyser, Bilal, Common and Mos Def, working on each others’ albums and exploring their shared love for rap and soul. The press would dub them the Soulquarians, named for the astrological sign the majority of the members in the collective shared.
Things Fall Apart took shape while work on other pivotal albums including Common’s Like Water For Chocolate, Erykah Badu’s Mama Gun and D’Angelo’s Voodoo carried on. All of these albums belong to the same musical universe and if there was one shared center to these musical worlds, it was J Dilla. His production work for A Tribe Called Quest, Slum Village and the Pharcyde was beginning to turn heads but Things Fall Apart was the start of a hot streak for the producer. While Dilla only directly contributed production on one song, the woozy “Dynamite,” his off-kilter style and influence are all over Things Fall Apart. The drums drag and lurch, sampled and edited to resemble boom-bap only to be dragged deep underground again. Vocals would be frequently processed to feel ragged or discordant, smooth or aggressive. The grooves shifted and dropped out underneath as the roars grew in volume.
The success of Things Fall Apart was how it built upon the jazz-rap foundation established at the start of the decade by other rap acts like A Tribe Called Quest but went deeper, using studio knowledge to create new textures and sounds. It makes for a fractious listen that is confounding as it is raw but it’s one that remembered to make an appeal to the heart. There’s "The Next Movement,” an effective cold-cocking in the age of Bad Boy. “Act Too (The Love of My Life)” brought Common and Black Thought together to reflect on their love for hip-hop, offering sentimentality wrapped in a warm cocoon of sound. Then there’s “You Got Me,” the song that helped the Roots get a Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group. Jill Scott helped workshop the song but the album version ended up featuring Erykah Badu, whose melancholy-infused hook kept the song grounded even as Questlove’s drum-and-bass inspired percussion threatened to take it down a wholly different direction.
I SWEAR SOLEMNLY THAT I'LL FOREVER ROCKSTEADILY
Regrettably, the success of Things Fall Apart would help define the Roots as a band that, whether by circumstances outside their control or not, were unable to capitalize on a moment they needed badly. The album was received with immediate critical praise upon its release and the commercial success of “You Got Me” gave the band the hit they desired. Twenty years after release, Things Fall Apart has survived to be the Roots’ most successful record, granting the band radio play and headline tours. They had helped launch successful careers for their collaborators and ceased to look like the Johnny-come-lateliesof rap. It was a series of feats not many groups were equipped to pull off as well as they did.
Yet they nearly drowned in a D’Angelo-sized tidal wave. Both Voodoo and Things Fall Apart shared a similar working cast and the former’s gargantuan success, not to mention the prospects of a coming tour, essentially sidelined the Roots. To Questlove, the conflict left him in a situation where he was “invented, but not invested, central but not central, a participant and observer both.”
"In the wake of [Voodoo’s] release, there would be a tour. Of course, there would be.” Quest wrote in Mo' Meta Blues. “How could there not be a Voodoo tour??? And I would be the drummer. How could I not be the drummer??? This didn’t sit well with the Roots, for obvious reason. We had finally arrived. We were headliners. We won a Grammy. why was I interfering with our momentum? I wish I could say that I spent hours agonizing over the choice, but that would be a lie."
As Voodoo’s success ballooned, so did Questlove’s commitments, spending most of the year 2000 on the road. When the Roots finally reconvened, they had missed their window to enjoy the success of Things Fall Apart. The rest of the Soulquarian collective were ready to move on; Common, Dilla, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and others were embracing new sounds and changes. Rather than chase the past, the Roots took a hard left turn of their own with Phrenology; kicking off a series of albums that dealt in matters of existentialism, racial violence, social change and poverty, all the while immersed in the sounds of popular African-American musical traditions – jazz, soul, rap, gospel and the blues – yet miles away from the neo-soul of Things Fall Apart.
Questlove's answer to this change comes down to to the loss of one pivotal collaborator: Dilla, whose death in 2006 to lupus complications not only sent ripples in hip-hop but also through the lives of those he worked with best.
“After Things Fall Apart, fans thought they had a bead on our sound.” Quest reflected “The truth, though, is that much of that record’s success was due to the fact that it was the finest record that Slum Village never got to make. Their demo was our food and fuel during that period…[and] after Dilla’s passing, I couldn’t imagine going back to the sound of Things Fall Apart. It was too fraught, too sad, too connected to the admiration [we] had for him.”
Yet the sound never truly left. Even as the Roots went down different rabbit holes, their influence lingered on till this day in the works of artists that worship the altars of hip-hop and jazz such as To Pimp A Butterfly, Acid Rap, Black Radio, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, and Drunk, all indebted to Things Fall Apart in their sense of freedom and creative approach. And twenty years after Things Fall Apart, the Roots managed to crash the mainstream after all: working on late night TV all the while recording and touring. They’re no longer broke outsiders, struggling to reach a crowd. They’re hip-hop’s best live band, but listening to Things Fall Apart now, reminds you of a time when they also served as hip-hop’s vanguards, fashioning new movements where they went.