Known for dropping science

The Roots work to bring their live show and studio sound together.

Tom Horgen

On any given night, when ?uestlove cracks the drum sticks and Black Thought’s vocals ride in on a wave of sound, The Roots deliver the type of rap show you can’t get anywhere else.

It’s not just because the band is setting hip-hop ablaze with live instruments. It’s also that the group has been expanding its sound into places even long time fans never expected. The genre-hopping of 2002’s “Phrenology” finally found the band’s studio work catching up with the vivacity of its live show.

University students will get a chance to experience The Roots firsthand when these road warriors play Saturday in the Northrop Auditorium.

This is as good a time as any to see the band. It’s in the final stages of finishing its new album and has already begun performing songs from the hotly-anticipated project at shows. The album, titled “The Tipping Point,” is due in late April and is said to be less experimental than “Phrenology” but as ambitious in scope.

The band held a two-week cycle of jam sessions in late 2003 with other artists such as Jill Scott and Musiq to come up with new material for the album. Footage from these sessions can be seen at the band’s affiliated Web site, www.okayplayer.com. “The Tipping Point” also includes production work from outside The Roots camp. USA Today reported that two collaborations with The Neptunes will be on the album while a track by Jay-Z beatmaker, Kanye West, also could make the cut.

The album’s title, “The Tipping Point” is taken from Malcolm Gladwell’s book of the same name that tracks how social movements often start with a small group people. “The tipping point” is the moment of critical mass when such movements change the world. While The Roots’ next release might not shake the planet, the collaborative focus of the project is well in line with the book’s schema.

The Roots didn’t always sit at this pinnacle of innovation though. For its first few albums, the band ran on the novelty of being hip-hop’s only big-name live band. And while these early releases drew curiosity, they were fairly inconsistent and sometimes dull.

It was with 1999’s “Things Fall Apart” that the band found its footing. The album’s title was taken from Chinua Achebe’s novel about African colonialism. Instead of creating simple moods, the band began crafting fully-realized, dynamic songs that flowed together, making the entire album seem like one cohesive thought. The Roots also solidified alliances with other progressive new school artists such as Common, Mos Def and Talib Kweli.

The band had established a formula and at last refined it with “Things Fall Apart.” But then came “Phrenology.”

While much of the 2002 album followed the band’s jazz-funk foundation, there were moments that strayed far from the beaten path. Some of these bold moves were celebrated. “The Seed (2.0)” found the band reclaiming rock ‘n’ roll in sound and lyric for its black originators. Other artistic decisions are still being squabbled over by the group’s hardcore fans. Most jarring were the sudden dips into far-off genres like punk and techno. And then there was “Water,” the 10-minute opus that exploded into an electronic soundscape more typical of a Radiohead record.

But in the long run, these moments of divergence seem necessary for the band’s growth. The Roots shouldn’t have to resign themselves to the constraints of simply being hip-hop’s live band. These guys are taking risks, questioning the very mold they and their fans created for them. And it’s risks that make great bands intriguing.

The Roots are also making moves on other fronts to ensure its artistic progression. The group just announced the formation of its own Okayplayer Records. The band hopes to sign underground acts, and after its contract ends at Geffen, release its own albums on the label.

For now though, let’s hope The Roots’ current project, “The Tipping Point,” will combine the boldness of the group’s experimentation and the trusted formula of its past to deliver that organic hip-hop feeling that the band, and its name, has promised all along. But even if “The Tipping Point” isn’t the record everybody wants it to be, we still can’t hate on the live show.