The Roots are a band that defies classification, which makes them the perfect artist to launch this month’s look at 20 Black Voices For The New Century.

Sure, they’re a hip-hop act on the surface. But for The Roots, that means being a massive live band in a genre where an MC and a DJ (or an MC and a laptop) is the standard. Their ranks approach a dozen members, from the lively brass section leader Tuba Gooding Jr. to versatile guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas. They make albums that unfold like narratives, with 2011’s acclaimed Undun being its most significant work. MC Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter’s lyrics cover a spectrum of ideas outside of standard rap convention, leaning philosophical, introspective, romantic, angry, critical of the industry and grateful for the exhilaration of music at any given point.

And of course there’s the unmistakable Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, who leads the band from the drummer’s throne, and whose zeal and talent has propelled the band from Philadelphia stalwarts to nationally recognized celebrities on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Beyond the drum kit, ?uest is also a connector, nurturing collaborations between his band and rap kingpin Jay-Z, or iconic rocker Elvis Costello, or jazz vocal luminary John Legend; or among any of the eclectic roundup of artists who play the band’s annual Roots Picnic. 

Read more in the series: Twenty Black Voices