Leonard “Hub” Hubbard, The Roots’ longtime bassist from 1992 to 2007, passed away at the age of 62 on December 16. A trained bassist (he attended the Settlement Music School in his youth before going on to study classical upright bass at Carnegie Melon), Hubbard not only brought a level of professionalism and musicality to the group but personality, too. The smoothness of his playing is what made him so distinct, and served as the connective glue to The Roots’ sound as they evolved from a jazz rap group to the best hip-hop band of all time.
Hubbard’s bass playing wasn’t bound by genre: he could do jazz, hip-hop, rock and roll, and punk — all without ever dropping his chew stick. In honor of Hubbard and his undeniable bass skill, I’ve highlighted his seven best bass lines, with each one highlighting a line from each album he appeared on.
“In The Music” is the most menacing song off Game Theory and Hubbard’s bass line is a subtle but still integral part to that. The back-and-forth he does between those two notes don’t only add to the alertness of the track but the eariness, too, the dissonant melody cutting through the sparseness of the song’s production. It’s a line that shows how Hubbard, even at his most subdued, could command one’s attention through his distinctly smooth sound.
What’s great about this line is how Hubbard goes in and out of playing the track’s guitar melody. Sometimes he’ll follow it note for note, sometimes he’ll only play parts of it, sometimes he’ll add notes, and sometimes he won’t play it at all. The spontaneity of it all creates a playful tension, the slightly upbeat groove contrasting the bleak lyrical themes (police states, the Patriot Act) being touched on by Roots MC Black Thought.
Of course, the safe choice here would’ve been to select “The Seed (2.0).” The call and response between Hubbard’s line and the guitar melody is infectious in its simplicity, and he practically has a 10-second solo towards the end of the track. But “!!!!!!!” is so unexpected. Never has a punk bass line sounded so smooth, Hubbard leading the frenetic track with an effortless coolness and precision. In its brevity, it’s a song that not only speaks to the unconventional ethos of The Roots but their versatile musicality, embodied in Hubbard’s enthralling bass line.
Are you surprised? Hubbard’s bass line on here doesn’t just provide low end but melody, too, almost functioning as a second vocalist alongside Erykah Badu. Just listen to the way he accompanies Badu during the hook: it’s like he’s responding to her, reciprocating the calm reassurance of her vocals. The beauty of Hubbard’s playing is in its fluidness — how each note is seamlessly connected to the one that comes after it. His part on “You Got Me” is one of the best examples of that.
Although Q-Tip takes the top spot for most captivating part of this track, the runner-up is clearly Hubbard. Unlike “Guns Are Drawn,” where he alternates between playing and not playing the same melody as the guitar, he’s playing the same exact part as the keyboard on “Ital.” It’s cool to hear him remain in the pocket on this one, adding a beefy layer of lowness to the warbly high keys, resulting in a line that doesn’t take away from Tip’s incredible guest appearance but doesn’t undersell itself either.
What was great about Hubbard was that, along with playing electric bass, he could play upright bass, too. Do You Want More?!!!??! came at a time where either hit rap songs were centered around infectious upright bass samples (Digable Planets’ “Cool Like Dat” or Black Sheep’s “The Choice Is Yours (Revisited)”), or rap groups were bringing in famed upright bassists to record with them (A Tribe Called Quest getting Ron Carter of Low End Theory). The Roots had their own in-house upright bassist through Hubbard, and that’s showcased in his part for “I Remain Calm.”
Bouncy and lively, Hubbard’s bass plucks cut through the track, essentially serving as both its low end and main melody, and being the connective glue between hip-hop and jazz that The Roots built their identity and sound off on Do You Want More?!!!??! and Organix.
If there’s any song that truly shows Hubbard’s prowess it’s “Writer’s Block,” (at the 10:35 mark) a Roots track that finds the group offering their own take on bebop. Hubbard carries this song as he effortlessly and smoothly pulls off fast walking bass lines, pinch harmonics, and chords. It’s a testament to his background as a trained bassist, Hubbard playing a barrage of notes throughout the track’s almost two-minute-long run time. It’s a great display of his skill, and a reminder of just how integral he was — and continued to be — to The Roots’ sound.
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