The Roots of Hip Hop is 23 songs that attempt to connect the dots from Reverend J.M. Gates and other early 20th century black musicians to Nas. The raw, scratchy recordings bear no obvious resemblance to hip-hop, but the project is so well-researched that the tenuous connection to hip-hop is an afterthought. The songs on The Roots of Hip Hop reference gospel, hillbilly folk, street poetry, doo wop, boogie woogie and soul, similar to hip-hop, politics, poverty, women and street slang fill the subject matter. ("He was a good president ’til the end," sing the Soul Stirrers on "Why I like Roosevelt.")
Few can argue that hip-hop began at block parties in the Bronx in the 1970s, and it wouldn’t have happened without James Brown or disco or the civil rights movement. These essential artifacts are absent on this disc. Still, hip-hop’s oral tradition comes through on tracks like "Hambone," by Red Saunder with Dolores Hawkins. The inchoate scat singing at the break is an early use of words as rhythm.
One of the tracks on The Roots of Hip Hop could be the requisite vocal interlude on a current hip-hop release. "Hello, Sue" by Butterbean is the precursor to those minute-long vocal outtakes that are in each of Outkast’s records — music-less rhyming along a metaphorical theme (in this case, playing cards) to send a message and massage one’s ego: "The king is me, sweet papa Butterbean/ I’m goin’ to wear the crown/ Be careful, Sue, you ain’t losing/ When the deal go down."
Tracing the roots of a genre that came to life in the late 1970s with music from the 1930s-1950s is like following Cuban gaujira back to Arabic folk songs. That is, it’s an ambitious endeavor. And it’s something that could never be executed on one disc. Still, this compilation by Harte Recordings should not been penalized for overreaching. The only glaring mistake is the title.