In today’s New York Times, Questlove pens a tribute to Amiri Baraka, the New Jersey poet—oven provocative, to say the least—who died last week:
The Roots recorded with Mr. Baraka once. It was for our “Phrenology” album, in 2002, which was titled for the absurd, discredited science of taking a measure of a man’s character by feeling his head. The album was also about racial profiling, social Darwinism, and hip-hop itself: If you’re a hip-hop head, what can you expect from the world, and what can the world expect from you?
We were at Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village, and Mr. Baraka came in to add his vocals, which consisted of reading a poem he had written, “Something in the Way of Things (In Town).” I listened to the track again Friday, after he died, and I hear so many things hiding in the corners of the poem and his performance of it. There are traces of early poetry mentors like Charles Olson, there’s a little William S. Burroughs, there’s a reminder of how he opened the door for poetry to speech to recording long before the Last Poets or Gil Scott-Heron. There’s a devotion to making language mean something, even if — especially if — that something isn’t safe and preapproved.