FEATURE: Things Fall Apart And The Three Year Reign Of NeoSoul
by Lawrence Ferrell
Fifteen years ago, a Philadelphia team threw a Hail Mary, hoping for even the semblance of success. Things Fall Apart (TFA), the fourth offering from hip hop ensemble The Roots, was on the line.
Two years in the making (1997-1999), Things Fall Apart gave listeners fourteen songs–seventeen including interludes and a bonus track–with one ear in the past, and one in the future. Fronted by heavy, Rhodes keyboards-infused beats, TFA offered homage to old school hip hop– successfully borrowing the Double Trouble routine for “Double Trouble” and sampling Schoolly D’s “Saturday Night” for “Without A Doubt”. It also featured youthful local talent, including Beanie Sigel, Eve, and Ursula Rucker. In one smooth, musical motion, the world learned Philly offered more than Jazzy Jeff, Will Smith, and Gamble and Huff.
TFA’s release brought The Roots commercial and critical acclaim, and inspiration was in the air. In 2000, Electric Lady Studios released Common’s Like Water For Chocolate, Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, and D’Angelo’s Voodoo–albums that sent shockwaves through the industry. Modest visuals replaced overly produced, high budget music videos. Incense burning, tea sipping “natural” women overrode smoke machines and champagne-drenched, thong-clad vixens. Production favored home-grown sounds. Neo-Soul had reached its apex.
Another phenom to emerge due to the success of TFA was the womanist based showcase called Black Lily. Held every Sunday at NYC’s Wetlands (later on Tuesdays at Philly’s 5 Spot), founders Jazzyfatnastees gave a space for female artists to perform their work. Some who have graced the stage were soul singer Jaguar Wright, rock group 3-7000-9, emcee Flo Brown, husband and wife team Kindred The Family Soul, Brit duo Floetry, and co-writer of “You Got Me” Jill Scott. Most who were able to secure recording contracts due to Black Lily, adding more female voices to the music industry between 1999/2000.
The ripples didn’t just touch the music industry. Okayplayer, The Roots’ website, changed the internet landscape in 1999. Before Facebook and Myspace and well before Twitter, Okayplayer connected artists with fans beyond press releases and occasional Q&As. On any given day, Questlove interacted with users–a precursor to Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” posts.
The site’s message boards–especially “General Discussion” and “The Lesson”–drew an eclectic, ethnically diverse, college-aged community. Suddenly, nerds and music geeks were the cool kids. Discussions on current events might seamlessly flow into musings on Radiohead or Alice Walker. Eventually, annual gatherings–jokingly called (Re)Unions–were organized.
But, nothing lasts forever, and things did indeed fall apart. Three years later (2002), Neo-Soul faded away; follow up albums from the Okayplayer collective alienated diehard fans; and original Roots’ members disappeared or branched into other ventures. It seemed the “Next Movement” grinded to a halt before it got a solid foothold–but, like most things, it simply changed.
Common, Erykah, and Jill Scott added acting to their repertoires. Okayplayer co-founder Angela Nissel became a TV writer with credits on Scrubs and Boondocks. Okayplayer transformed into a multimedia hub. The kids on the boards matured into published authors, lawyers, and Grammy nominated artists.
In the end, the pass completed and led to the end zone, with The Roots ultimately landing a gig as the official house band for the Tonight Show.
Evolution is required for growth. Growing pains can be hard. How one deals with it is what makes one stronger. Change forever moves forward. The Roots and the Okayplayer collective proved that by given the listener an alternative. They took a chance fifteen years ago and their influence is still being felt.
Check out the 15 at 15: The Early Years of the Okayplayer Collective Spotify playlist. Don’t forget to share your memories of Things Fall Apart and its impact!