The Roots: How They Got Over

By: Jim Welte

Questlove & Black Thought - The Roots
To longtime fans of The Roots, there was something exhilaratingly fresh about the band's two-hour set at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco late last month. That familiar Roots' sound, jazz-inflected and grounded in the essence of hip-hop, was certainly front-and-center, louder than a bomb in the same hall where Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the acclaimed San Francisco Symphony. All of the familiar elements were there: Black Thought's yeoman-like wordplay, Questlove's dynamite back beat, the virtuosic instrumental solos, and the ability to mix bits of oft-sampled classics like the Incredible Bongo Band's "Apache" and Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up" into its own tracks. The band played material that spanned from 1994's Do You Want More?!!!??! to 2008's Rising Down, and even mixed in some new joints from its forthcoming ninth studio album, How I Got Over.

But there were also some striking differences. For one, instead of the Hip-Hop 101 medley of classic covers that the band has mastered over the years, the set included bits of a collection of covers so diverse that few bands would even attempt to play them all. Within the course of a nearly 20-minute version of their 1999 breakout hit "You Got Me," guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas led The Roots through a scorching mash-up medley. The sequence included Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine," Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby," Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy," Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," and a Douglas talk box solo that riffed on the horn blasts of Outkast's "SpottieOttieDopalicious" and Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing." It was downright exhausting - and thrilling.

More than anything, the entire demeanor of the eight-piece group, blue-collar and rock steady for its 18 years as one of the hardest working bands on the planet, seemed like it had been lifted by the thousands of balloons featured in the Pixar movie Up. As Douglas and bassist Owen Biddle dug into their respective solos, their bandmates didn't sit to the side of the stage as usual. Instead, they bounded all over it in full-on party mode, high-fiving fans standing in the terrace behind and above the stage. They hopped into the crowd, which the full band paraded through at the show's outset, led by sousaphonist Damon "Tuba Gooding, Jr." Bryson. Percussionist F. Knuckles even took a gleeful tumble on the stage at one point.

There's a reason for this buoyancy, and it wasn't just the chance to be the first hip-hop act ever to play in San Francisco's most revered concert hall. You see this show, like many of the band's concerts in the past few months, was more of a field trip than a tour stop. The band has spent the better part of its 18-year existence on the road, touring all over the world and playing upwards of 200 shows a year. Heck, in their fledgling years in the early 1990s, The Roots were arguably bigger in parts of Europe than they were in their hometown of Philly.

But in 2009, The Roots are road warriors no more. And Jimmy Fallon, of all people, is largely responsible. The former Saturday Night Live star with a dubious post-SNL film career took over Late Night with Conan O'Brien in March and asked The Roots to be his house band. And somehow, in the interests of stability, maturity and the possibility of making the same amount of money while sleeping in their own beds, The Roots said yes.

"We welcomed the challenge," Questlove says as he gets ready to go on stage at Davies, his prolific multi-tasking skills on full display. As we sit down, the Twittering fiend is fixing his tie, listening to some Slum Village on iTunes, checking the score of the Cleveland Cavaliers-Orlando Magic game and discussing Fallon. The nexus between Fallon and The Roots, he says, was Neal Brennan, co-creator of Chappelle's Show and a consultant on the run-up to Fallon's Late Night launch. Questlove served as the de facto musical director for seasons two and three of Chappelle's Show.

Questlove says discussions about The Roots becoming Fallon's house band started as a sarcastic, "Yeah, right, ha ha ha ha," kind of thing, but over several weeks, morphed into something the band actually considered. NBC execs hesitated, worried the band couldn't commit to a five-days-a-week gig, with a slew of production meetings on top of that. "Once we said, 'We'll consider that,' it took them about five weeks to really take us seriously," Questlove says. "I said, 'This is probably the ideal situation. We can make the same amount of money, stay at home and be with our families and tour on the weekends.'"

The Roots at The Roots Picnic 2009 by Krolick
They've done just that. Although most of the band commutes each day on its tour bus from Philly to NYC, The Roots have frequently ducked out of town for weekend shows like the one at Davies. Last Friday, the band jumped on a red-eye flight to London after the Fallon taping, played a Saturday night show at Royal Festival Hall with guests Vernon Reid and jazz icon David Murray, and then returned home on Sunday. The band has held regular jam sessions, billed as "The Roots Present The Jam," at the Highline Ballroom in NYC, serving as the backing band for the likes of Boot Camp Click, Joe Budden, Grand Puba, M.O.P., Tom Morello and The Coup's Boots Riley. They have three jam sessions scheduled in July and two in August. In addition, Late Night has at least 10 weeks off each year, giving the band plenty of time to hit the road for multiple dates at a time. "Most bands tour for 14 weeks," Questlove says. "That's a normal band. We're just being a normal band."

Well, sort of. In addition to the weekend shows, the jam sessions, and recording How I Got Over, the band just hosted its 2nd annual Roots Picnic, an event that is turning into yet another major contender on the festival circuit (see the JamBase review here). The Picnic featured sets from TV on the Radio, Black Keys, Santigold, Asher Roth, King Cudi, and The Roots themselves. In the highlight of the weekend, The Roots and the Antibalas horns backed Public Enemy for a performance of its seminal, 20-year-old album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back in its entirety and in reverse.

And then there's the Fallon show, which amounts to a full-time gig that is considerably more complicated than you'd expect. Fallon and the show's producers have utilized The Roots more with each passing week. Questlove says he's involved with production meetings, skit meetings, meetings with writers, and obviously, band rehearsals.

"This is the most work I've ever done in my life," he says. "I get less sleep during Fallon than I ever did when we were on the road all the time."

Music is a centerpiece of the show, and it requires heavy lifting that isn't obvious to the average viewer. While the at-home audience only hears The Roots play 8-to-10-second instrumental "sandwiches," as Questlove calls them, as bookends for commercial breaks, The Roots play straight through those breaks for the studio audience, hyping up the crowd. Not surprisingly, the band also pulls out all the stops for the terribly brief "walk-on" songs, which accompany a guest's walk from behind the curtain to the chair next to Fallon. For Denise Richards, the band played "Wild Thing," and for Vanessa Williams, they nodded to her starring role in Ugly Betty by riffing on Ram Jam's monstrous "Black Betty." When Stephen Baldwin visited the show, the band played the Bee Gees' "Jive Talkin,'" poking fun at the actor's recent comments about President Barack Obama on Fox News.

Questlove looks at the show's guest list one month in advance so that he can get legal clearance from song publishers for clever walk-on choices. A typical walk-on rate for a five-second clip is a few hundred dollars, but that number gets bigger fast for big-name artists. "In the case of Justin [Timberlake], he's more expensive than The Beatles or Eric Clapton," Questlove says. That forced The Roots to make a last-minute audible for Joan Rivers' recent entrance, as Timberlake's "Cry Me a River" was deemed too expensive. As they cut to commercial break right before Rivers was to appear, Questlove jumped online - he keeps a laptop next to his drum kit at all times in case he wants to Twitter - and downloaded Lady Gaga's "Poker Face." "We had exactly 35 seconds to learn 'Poker Face,'" he says. "It was like, ok, uh-huh, ok, got it, 'Ladies and gentlemen, Joan Rivers!'"

"That's probably the hardest part of the show," he says.

Continue reading for more on The Roots...

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