The Roots: How They Got Over

 
It's an album that deals with angels and demons. And man's inner struggle to do good and the temptation to do bad, which is easier than taking the scenic route to good. It would have been very easy to do the celebratory 'It's a new day' kind of thing. This is the light at the end of the tunnel record but there's this sort of gasping for air.

-Questlove on the forthcoming new album

 

The band is the focal point of two regular segments. On "Slow Jammin' the News," as The Roots lay down a Quiet Storm-style slow jam, Fallon and MC Black Thought (Tariq Trotter) croon their way through an issue in the headlines, from the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to North Korea's latest nose-thumbing at nuclear weapons inspections. In one recent edition, they took on the California economy. Fallon delivered lines in spoken word, while Black Thought backed him with over-the-top, soulful affirmations like one that pointed to legalized gay marriage as a revenue generator: "Recognize the gay nation and end your stagflation!!"

The Roots
The other regular Roots skit is loosely titled "Audience Improvisation." Fallon picks an audience member to give their name, their hometown and some random fact about them. Fallon then gives The Roots the details and a musical style, and the band dives into a brief jam that incorporates the given facts. They nail it every time. "We have a little system that helps us," Questlove says. "We know that we're doing three songs, but we don't know the details or the style. Usually the first song Kirk handles, and the second song Owen handles and the third song [keyboardist] James Poyser handles." The band rarely needs a moment to rehearse the tune, although The Beach Boys sound recently had them searching for the right harmonies for about 30 seconds, Questlove says.

The improv segment was basically the ultimate test from NBC execs, he says. "The looks on their faces the first two times that we did it was funny," says Quest. "All of a sudden all of the executives came in and I was like, 'Oh, we can NOT fuck this up.' Once we did it they were all like high-fiving each other."

Questlove revels in those moments. He and Black Thought are the face of the band, but its current lineup is loaded with veteran musicians with a wide range of experience. "What [NBC] didn't know was that even though we are a band, we are eight individuals with 25-plus years each. So pretty much you have 200-plus years of musical experience on stage and we all have a vast geek-like, sponge-like knowledge of different musical genres."

Black Thought
While the segments, the sandwiches and the walk-ons all show off the band's incredible versatility, Fallon's musical guests have a helluva choice: perform your song as you would at any other venue or supercharge it with backing from The Roots. To date, a number of stars have chosen the latter, to stunning effect. Ludacris, Rick Ross, the Beastie Boys, Chrisette Michelle, Asher Roth, and Mos Def have all gotten The Roots treatment. Questlove says his favorite was when The Roots and the Antibalas horns backed Public Enemy for an incendiary rendition of "Bring the Noise." Two weeks ago, Paul Simon was joined by The Roots and the Antibalas horns for a breezy rendition of "Late in the Evening" that had the 67-year-old legend getting down as percussionist F. Knuckles unloaded on the timbales.

"I've really enjoyed all of them," Questlove says.

The drummer also says that the decision to join Fallon has put the band "in a stable spot," and he's relishing the moment. So is Fallon, who seems legitimately thrilled every night to have The Roots in the house. While the show's early days were mostly noteworthy for Fallon's overly fawning interviews ("You were so awesome in...") and nervous energy, he clearly sees The Roots as a huge asset and has leaned on them. In May, he told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "It's the one good thing everybody says about the show. People will say, 'The show has this problem, and this is good but that's bad.' But the constant is, 'Man, The Roots are fantastic! They are just phenomenal!' And they really are."

The band is about "80-to-90 percent" finished with How I Got Over, although Questlove recently posted a Tweet that said an expected August release has been pushed back to October "in a well thought-out effort to give you people the best product possible - and to give [their record label] Def Jam proper set up time." On the heels of 2006's Game Theory and 2008's Rising Down, the darkest albums of the band's career, Questlove says that the dawn of the Obama era has given them a glimmer of hope but not yet unadulterated celebration. The title is a reference to the Clara Ward gospel hymn made famous by Mahalia Jackson.

Questlove
The album will feature collaborations with Chrisette Michelle, Beanie Sigel, Young Chris, Blu, Phonte from Little Brother, and Pharoahe Monch. The band has also worked with Cody ChesnuTT, the rarely seen singer-songwriter who re-recorded his song "The Seed" with The Roots in 2002. They'll do the same on How I Got Over with ChesnuTT's "Serve This Royalty." The album also features a cover of Gary Bartz's "Celestial Blues," featuring its original singer, Andy Bey.

"It's an album that deals with angels and demons," Questlove says. "And man's inner struggle to do good and the temptation to do bad, which is easier than taking the scenic route to good. It would have been very easy to do the celebratory 'It's a new day' kind of thing. This is the light at the end of the tunnel record but there's this sort of gasping for air."

He refers to the scene in Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear, one of Questlove's favorite films, in which Robert De Niro's character is tied to the boat and the water is at nose level, leaving him just enough space to breathe before he starts drowning. "That's sort of the tone of the album," he continues. "The album is like, 'We know there's going to be light at the end of the tunnel but it's still a struggle.' A lot of mess has been made in the last eight years. We are probably the only rap group whose creative direction really depends on where things are socially in America. This time it's a slight sigh of relief, not as angry as the last one."

The Roots
The Roots have always been a proud band, able to let artistic impulse guide them through a bevy of shifting popular tastes over the years. They've weathered lineup changes and record label drama like pros. While How I Got Over hints at survival of the Bush years, it's also an assessment of the hip-hop landscape. When The Roots recorded their debut Organix in 1993 to promote at European concerts, the most popular hip-hop acts were Arrested Development, Naughty By Nature, and Onyx, while a 20-year-old upstart named Snoop Dogg was propelling Dr. Dre's "Nuthin' But a G Thang" up the charts.

Now they look around, and many of their peers have fallen off, or gone through lengthy periods of creative infertility. In their early years, The Roots were frequently reminded, even in their hometown, that the world wasn't ready for a live hip-hop band. But their own dedication to live performance has spread virally throughout hip-hip, with live bands becoming much more prevalent for big-name acts in recent years, particularly with the likes of Jay-Z and Kanye West.

"The wonderment of The Roots is that a lot of the glory we get is sort of based on the fact that most people really won't be honest with themselves and admit that they always underestimate us," Questlove says. "When we first came out, people weren't waiting with open arms for a hip-hop band."

At Davies, The Roots showed themselves to be much more than that. They are a globe-traveling jukebox, a sonic beauty that has reached that perfect age where it has curves in all the right places and enough experience to know how to wield them. As elated fans filed out of Davies, the band seemed in no rush to head back to the hotel - heck, Questlove was off to play a three-hour "W Night" DJ gig, where he played nothing but Wu-Tang Clan and Stevie Wonder. He and Knuckles signed drumsticks and tossed them into the crowd, and the whole band shook hands with fans and soaked in the love. Nearly two decades on, The Roots continue to blossom, and they're loving it.

Public Enemy with The Roots and Antibalas horns:

Paul Simon with The Roots and Antibalas horns:

The Roots tour date available here...

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[Published on: 6/16/09]

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