Malik B: 1972 - 2020

During his inspired years with the Roots, the extraordinary MC set a standard for how rappers can lead and interact with live bands.

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The early Roots; Malik B. is far right. Credit: Rovi.

The legacy of Malik Abdul Basit, better known as the Roots’ Malik B., who died Wednesday at age 47, is not measured by his discography (he was only a fulltime member for the Philadelphia crew’s first four records), or a shelf of awards, or industry statistics like sold-out tours.

It’s simpler than that. Together with the Roots’ other MC, Tariq Trotter (better known as Black Thought), Malik B. pretty much developed the tactical handbook for rappers working with live musicians. Instinctively polyrhythmic and unafraid to address any topic, Basit created a flexible, improvisational linguistic counterpoint/parallel to Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s repertoire of finely chopped beats.

If the rhythm section behind him was hitting the offbeats hard, Malik B. crafted a contrasting syncopation that jab-stepped against the pulse. If the groove was chill, he’d ratchet up the tension — varying the emphasis line by line, fashioning twitchy phrases out of odd asymmetrical half-sentences and fragments.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, rappers were almost exclusively working from musical foundations provided by DJs. The Roots, known as the Square Roots when Basit and Trotter met at Millersville University in 1991, were outliers. Though the musicians stuck to a lean framework that resembled common hip-hop templates, the MCs had a more difficult task: to develop cogent narratives and flow against a backdrop that was not always static or predictable. Little rhythmic variables like drum fills could potentially untrack the thinking. So could the reactive energy of a band like this one in live performance.

Basit and Trotter each developed methods for navigating this minefield; by the 1995 release of Do You Want More?!!!??!, the second Roots album, they’d become authoritative voices with distinct styles. Basit began from a scrappy, defiant place, with a sharp sense of right and wrong. Trotter was more reflective, philosophical; his lines substituted keen, high-road emotional intelligence for confrontation.

In a statement released Wednesday, Trotter described the ways he was inspired by Basit: “In friendly competition with you from day one, I always felt as if I possessed only a mere fraction of your true gift and potential. Your steel sharpened my steel as I watched you create cadences from the ether and set them free into the universe to become poetic law, making the English language your b---h.”

That mastery is audible on some of Basit’s highlight-reel performances, like “I Remain Calm,” from Do You Want More, and “Step Into the Relm,” from 1999’s Things Fall Apart, which contains an intense battle verse:

Who stops the propaganda, the hot block commander / Puttin’ a halt to all the backtalk and slander

Warn every challenger about the silencer / Muzzle in your mouth for the days that’s on the calendar

Most who saw Malik B. perform with the Roots back then — especially at those early impromptu shows in front of Tower Records on South Street, or at Old City Coffee — remember the experience. First because he didn’t always show up, or he would be there but would cryptically decline to perform. But when he did take the mic, he was brilliant. Freestyling as though haunted by language, forever chasing the most apt combinations of words, Basit exploited the energy coming from the band, creating a staccato polyrhythmic assault that said, in no uncertain terms, that this was a different hip-hop proposition.

Trotter’s rhymes on several Roots tracks — “Mellow My Man,” from Do You Want More; “Water,” from 2002’s Phrenologyexpress deep respect for Malik B., who left the group in 1999.

“Water” is in part Trotter’s message to Basit, who, despite struggling with addiction, dropped insightful cameos on later Roots projects like 2006’s Game Theory. In one verse, Trotter says he understands Basit’s decision — “Instead of riding out on the road you rather chill / I know the way the pleasure feel.” Later, he’s more explicit: “And I don’t say I love you / ’Cause the way I feel is greater … You a poet, son / You a born creator / And this’ll probably dawn on you later.”

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