The Roots play Manchester Sankey's Soap-Fat City 19 Mar, London Astoria 20 Mar

Though the Roots have been etching rap rhymes in Philadelphia since 1987, they don't show their age - they sound so fresh, and bear more sonic relation to the very mid-90s Wu Tang Clan than pioneers like Public Enemy or Arrested Development.

The time for a popularity explosion for the six-piece band seems to be now, for a number of reasons. The first is the new album Illadeph Halflife, a thunderously powerful - and long - record that is also painstakingly thoughtful. Its tunes are bleak and beautiful descriptions of the perilous assault course that is life for the urban black of Philadelphia: mercifully, after the recent violent deaths of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. they never feel the need to be revel in bad boy behaviour. On the contrary, on tracks like "Panic!!" their howls against troubled times are fiercer than anyone else's.

The Roots - rappers Black Thought and Malik B, drummer ?uestlove, Hub on bass, Kamal on keyboards and Rahzel, the Godfather of Noyze - "a human percussionist" - are fortunate in a another couple of ways. Very much aligned to the rap purist brigade, like Wu Tang Clan, their lyrics read like a PhD in street politics, rapid and deliriously passionate. But that doesn't mean that humour doesn't get a look-in - the video to "What They Do" is a mini-rap Spinal Tap, with every cliche imaginable set up for ridicule. Needless to say, LL Cool J fans might not get the point, but maybe those of Maxwell and A Tribe Called Quest will, as they both appear on Illadelph Halflife.

But the band's trump card is probably the fact that they really are a band. In the early Nineties they deserted the US for a while and toured Europe; their full-blooded sound has been positively reorientating attitudes towards live rap appearances ever since. Word of mouth after their recent London Jazz Cafe gig was unequivocally positive.

Will 1997 see the rise of a new set of era-defining hip-hop knights, sending a much- needed shiver down our spines? It looks like it.