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The Roots chop '...and then you shoot your cousin' into art live at The Public Theater (photos by Mel D. Cole)
The Roots chop '...and then you shoot your cousin' into art live at The Public Theater (photos by Mel D. Cole)

The Roots Chop Their New LP Into Art Live At The Public Theater [Photos + Recap]

The Roots chop '...and then you shoot your cousin' into art live at The Public Theater (photos by Mel D. Cole)The Roots chop '...and then you shoot your cousin' into art live at The Public Theater (photos by Mel D. Cole)

Photos by Mel D. Cole for Villageslum and Okayplayer.

The Roots gave the digital world its first listen to their new album ...and then you shoot your cousin Tuesday via an online stream. That night (and again last night) the band--in slightly mutated form--took the stage at New York's Public Theater  to present it live--or rather to wrestle with the longplayer's dark themes in a live setting. The result--equal parts deconstruction of the record as it is recorded and live elements comprising dance, poetry, DJing, performance art, piano, strings, beatbox, guitar and MPC b!*ch-slapping--is better described as a brilliant if unsettling post-modern cabaret than a 'concert' (let alone 'listening session').

Even a casual listen to &TYSYC reveals that it is taking aim at some pretty cosmic targets; god, the devil, nothingness--not to mention the rot of the American Dream radically deferred. Those demons--often heard whispering off just stage left on the album--were summoned up in sometimes terrifying form directly in front of the audience at The Public. Since the intent of these performances was clearly to create a singular event (double-ular, in this case) to stand in parallel to the reproducible art of the album, it seemed more appropriate to record the moment in impressionistic fashion than to attempt a conventional interpretation or 'review'. Accordingly what follows is a play by play of what hit Tuesday night's audience in the earhole, the retina and frequently the gut--with some visual aid supplied in the form of Mel D. Cole's photos.

The Roots chop '...and then you shoot your cousin' into art live at The Public Theater (photos by Mel D. Cole)

With the lights down, the only thing clearly visible are the glowing drum pads of an MPC, dully illuminating  the empty seats of a traditional string section next to it. These are both on a lower level; on a raised dais behind are turntables and a drum kit. Black Thought, hooded, steps up to the mic. In an uncharacteristically slow, spoken word cadence he rails against "the white bone of sky…" describing a boy who is "both usual and suspect, probable and caused." Another phrase jumps out: "We can take over but not overcome." With that word "overcome"--so redolent of uplifting spirituals --it occurs to me for the first time that ...and then you shoot your cousin is not so much about how "Hip-Hop Failed Black America," as Questlove has been detailing in his Vulture essay series. It is about a much deeper failure, in human terms; the implosion of the Civil Rights movement's upward motion, the anger at hip-hop moreso because it is in some sense the soundtrack for the debasement of those ideals.

We leave with a plodding bass march; oboe, reeds—Ellington?--that never resolves into a hummable melody but to my ear strongly suggests the mood and chords of "Strange Fruit." Another stray thought: with its dissonance, blasphemous god-talk and bloody leaves, &TYSYC could be seen as a weird companion piece to Yeezus. A rising airplane rumble lifts us out and becomes a throbbing migraine beat. Pulsing lights reveal for the first time the ominous tangle of nooses hanging from above the stage. 'Tangle' does not do the image proper injustice, though. If you can have a murder of crows, what is the correct collective noun for these executioner’s ropes? A gang of nooses, a preponderance of nooses. A thicket, a strange grove to match the bitter fruit. Or--remembering the name on the bill--maybe they are the roots of a tree above us, not so subtly letting us know we are now in the underworld.

The Roots chop '...and then you shoot your cousin' into art live at The Public Theater (photos by Mel D. Cole)

Questlove is at the decks now and as the lights strobe a massive avalanche of balloon animals suddenly falls on the stage, a Jeff Koons flood of meaningless forms, falling in the framedrop slo-mo created by the flash of the strobe. A doo-ragged character enters the stage, humming, holding a gigantic red balloon like a kite. There’s something clownish in his dancerly movements, he has his mouth absurdly open, recalling at once a mime, Flavor Flav in wop-mode, the broom-wielding enforcer of the Apollo as he sweeps balloons away in the wake of his feet. In silence his dance picks up in intensity and his movements resemble Flav less than legendary b-boy choreographer Pee Wee Danz. As he steps and swims through balloons, the pop of dying inflatables echo like gunshots. We are fully in Fluxus territory now, improvisation colliding with a wickeder kind of randomness to create an ‘anything could happen’ tension in the room.

The Roots chop '...and then you shoot your cousin' into art live at The Public Theater (photos by Mel D. Cole)

The beat resolves into a heavy dancehall pattern, punctuated by reverb-y vocal percussion and birdcall sounds. The creators of the beat enter the space of the stage: Godfather of Vocal Noise Rahzel and Craig Harris on a curving didgeridoo. The combined effect is much closer to the electro-acoustic experiments of Naná Vasconcelos than anything you could call beatboxing. The dancer is back, now breaking into the more aggressive and intricate contortions of the Brooklyn-bred style known as Flexing (the dancer, I later learn, is Jay Donn, a pioneer of the genre, recognizable to anybody who has seen the film Flex Is Kings).  He crosses the stage upside down, legs cycling in the air, head buried in balloons. A beautiful brown-skinned woman with a tray of drinks cuts across my field of vision and it takes a second to realize she is not part of the performance, but bringing drinks for the label types in the front row. The rhythm is morphing into dub-heavy breakbeat, joined by slide trombone.

Though the furthest thing imaginable from The Roots' day gig, something about the mix recalls the play of early Roots performances; a hip-hop cabaret, emphasizing the novelty elements that proved to be the strongest crowd pleasers and at the same time elevating them into something more profound. We come out with an Art Of Noise crescendo into pure dissonance, whale songs and whale shrieks. Applause as Thought steps up to the mic again, to the sound of Max Roach’s “Driva Man,” phased and chopped. The poem this time begins “And there it was: Slavery.” --and ends with Thought yelling into reverb: "N**gers, Jews, Crackers, DON'T WORRY. If There's A Hell Below We’re All Going To GO.” Smoke rises and at this point I'm praying like hell it’s just a fog machine.

Strings soothe the bold anger, but eventually become skittering Psycho soundtracks, punctuated with hard bop saxophone. But now we get…a Roots song! It's “Understand”--the one where Greg Porn envisions the "fire truck washing his soul down the sewer" over organ and huge boom-bap drums. The song is ‘played’ live by Jeremy Ellis on the MPC, going manic on the drum pads and occasionally playing them with his face; pecking pads like an angry bird or a maniac bobbing for apples. The airplane rumble crashes and we get a James Brown break, cartoonishly fast and then totally disjointed as Ellis delivers a virtuoso performance on the sample pads.

Thought again. The audience is blinded by “All of The Lights” as he steps up, bullhorn in hand, talking more heretical ghetto existentialism (or is it ghetto Gnosticism?) in spoken word tempo: “the god I knew was just some n**ger, that object in my mirror only appeared bigger.” D.D. Jackson’s piano leads us into another Roots song--“The Coming”--and the flexer returns, his dance getting more epileptic, showing off his sinewy muscle in a way that seems almost like vivisection. Big drums follow; "Dark Trinity" maybe Thought's most killer verse on the album, with its "I'll lay you down to sleep" threat lines. We actually hear a good chunk of …and then you shoot your cousin, now in shuffle-culture order:

6)"Theme From Middle Of The Night" (Nina Simone)

7) "Never"

8) "Black Rock"

0) "The Unraveling (No Future)"

1) "Tomorrow"

The Roots chop '...and then you shoot your cousin' into art live at The Public Theater (photos by Mel D. Cole)

During the bittersweet but oddly hopeful piano vamp of "Tomorrow" people in the front row spontaneously pick up balloon animals and pass them amongst themselves, maybe anticipating the show is about to end on a high note. A chain reaction is started and soon everybody has a balloon, waving them in time with the music like baseball fans in an unforeseen outcome from the randomness in play. The high note fizzles out and Sun Ra addresses us in an appropriately helium-squeaky voice:

"If you’re not a reality whose myth are you? If you're not a myth, whose reality are you?"

Cap'n Kirk of The Legendary steps up to play the soul out of his guitar, an Eddie Hazel-ish lament that it takes a second to sink in is in fact Eddie Hazel—Funkadelic’s "Maggotbrain" to be exact. Though an unreconstructed "sample" of somebody else’s song, the rendition recreates what has been happening in multiple forms throughout the night; each individual player in the ensemble conjuring dissonance and chaos into a show of heartstopping virtuosity.

Standing ovation. The lights come up.

The Roots chop '...and then you shoot your cousin' into art live at The Public Theater (photos by Mel D. Cole)