A couple weeks back, Bruce Springsteen celebrated the release of his newest album, “Wrecking Ball,” with a grand, week-long stint on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The week ranged from tributes by far-ranging entities like John Legend and Elvis Costello, to the Boss himself gracing the studio audience with some tunes old and new.
One of the most enthralling moments came at the end of the week, naturally, when Springsteen, the E Street Band, Tom Morello and the legendary Roots crew jammed, dismantled and rebuilt the “E Street Shuffle” from the ground up.
It was one of the more exciting moments that any late night show has featured in a long, long time. Watching the camera cut from a joyous looking Questlove to an even happier Springsteen made me stumble upon a strange hypothesis: The Roots are the Bruce Springsteen of hip-hop.
Before I get too far into this theory, there are obviously some holes that need to be filled. Springsteen has reached the summit of music, in terms of active artists, when it comes to sales and popularity. When the guy goes out on tour, whether with the E Street Band or solo, it will sell out – it’s long been a guarantee.
The Roots aren’t playing giant stadiums and they probably never will. But they don’t need stadiums to get a crowd moving. Springsteen, unlike the Roots, also gets a bad reputation for being “music that my parents listened to,” and that’s only about half right. In the audience at one Springsteen show I attended in 2009, the ratio of people older than 50 to those younger than 50 was not as high of a divide as one might think.
The Roots are at the opposite of the spectrum as critical darlings that have had two out of 11 studio albums go gold. “Born in the USA” went diamond.
But the similarities make themselves apparent with a little bit of digging. Both Springsteen and Roots drum major Questlove are noted music nerds, and have been known to often drop their knowledge at shows. Springsteen recently played at the Apollo and subsequently paid tribute to soul luminaries such as Wilson Pickett and Sam and Dave, and then brought the songs on tour with him.
As for the Roots crew, it’s not a real show unless some majorly impressive covers are unknowingly cropped on the audience, and sometimes it’s taken up a notch by featuring the original artist that did the track.
And here’s the crux of it: Both groups are not afraid to take chances whatsoever.
The Roots were somehow able to release a concept album about death based off of a character from a Sufjan Stevens song a few months ago, which was seemingly buoyed purely by the collective good will they’ve drummed up since their formation as the Square Roots in 1989. It’s glorious.
Springsteen just released the aforementioned “Wrecking Ball,” which, among other things, features an Irish stomp, a song ending with a continuous Curtis Mayfield-sample, and yes, a song featuring a rapper. It’s similarly glorious.
With age, the Roots, established 1989, and Springsteen and the E Street Band, established 1972, have become increasingly experimental, testing their rabid fans and not allowing themselves to fall into the trap of irrelevance like some of their peers. Both groups should have peaked by now but neither of them have slowed down in the slightest – it’s inspiring.
As much as this is music nerdery at its most heinous, it’s always interesting to think about.
You could draw similarly thin lines between nearly anybody – Thin Lizzy and Young Jeezy – Johnny Cash and Nas – Vampire Weekend and Big L. Both groups are such long-worshipped pillars of their genres that it seems almost illogical to think that one day they won’t be there.
As I re-watched that “E Street Shuffle” video, it looked like the Roots were having the time of their lives jamming with the E Street Band, and the feeling appeared mutual. It’s moments like these that remind me that something like this would be totally illogical even a decade ago and that the lines between genres are still in a rapid free fall. Now I shall eagerly anticipate the Roots utilizing the riff from “Adam Raised a Cain,” or maybe Springsteen featuring Black Thought on his next 2DopeBoyz mixtape.
Five Country Songs:
“In Germany Before The War” — Randy Newman
“Holiday In Cambodia” — Dead Kennedys
“Postcards From Italy” — Beirut
“Big in Japan” — Tom Waits
“Diamonds From Sierra Leone” — Kanye West
Kevin Stairiker can be reached at email@example.com.