Back to hip-hop Roots

June 25, 2009


On a scene that's too often about poses and posturing, the Roots have spent two decades focusing on the music, and they've never had much competition for the title of the best live band in hip-hop.

Rather than empty boasts about bling and bitches, racial identity and the need for community are the topics drummer and producer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson and rapper Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter have most often explored since they first connected at the Philadelphia High School for Creative Performing Arts in the late '80s.

So for anyone who's familiar with their live shows or albums such as "Things Fall Apart," the 1999 disc that stands as their masterpiece, it's a little jarring to tune into "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" and see the Roots not only serving as house band, but occasionally playing comic foil to the host a la Doc Severinsen to Johnny Carson or Paul Shaffer to David Letterman.

"The oddest thing so far has been the 'TuSpock' music video with Jimmy [as a half-Vulcan, half-gangsta rapper] and me being dressed in a blond wig and a 'Star Trek' uniform," Trotter says. "I feel like that was the most surprising thing I've done as far as my audience. The militancy with being in the Roots ... I don't think people expect that performance."

On the other hand, the musicians always have taken pleasure in confounding expectations and meeting any musical challenge, whether on the eight studio albums they've released on their own or in collaborations with other artists such as D'Angelo, Erykah Badu and Chicago rapper Common. As Thompson sees it, the new TV gig is a logical extension of his role as unofficial music supervisor for "Chappelle's Show" and the group's turn as the backing band in the film "Dave Chappelle's Block Party."

The Roots knew they'd click with Fallon. "Jimmy is more of a musical comedian; all of his comic highlights usually have to deal with some sort of song or dance," Thompson says.

But NBC executives were another story.

"The only apprehension they had was because on paper you could say, 'OK, the Roots are a hip-hop band,' " he says. "The actual truth is that we are well-rounded and each member has been doing their crap for 25 to 30 years, but they didn't exactly know that. So we had to prove ourselves. In the beginning, it was still very Elliott with E.T. and the Reese's Pieces: bit by bit. It was definitely a slow crawl to the middle -- never with Jimmy, but you still have Lorne [Michaels, the show's executive producer] and his people and the network execs.

"The big question was, 'Do these guys have range, or are they just a rap group that we haven't heard before and Jimmy keeps screaming about?'

"They'll never admit it, but I personally think that [the recurring 'Late Night' segment] 'Freestylin' With the Roots' was like a probation test: 'Look, we have this idea, people will free-style with the Roots, and you guys are going to do a whole bunch of genres and we'll see if you can handle it!' But we sort of went all out in proving that we can do anything, and now the floodgates have opened."

Indeed, from backing Iggy Pop this week as he channeled Serge Gainsbourg, to playing with Paul Simon at one extreme and Mark-Paul Gosselaar at the other (portraying the fake band Zack Attack during Fallon's tribute to "Saved by the Bell"), the Roots have shown they're up for anything late-night television can throw at them.

The one thing that hasn't worked out for the group -- which is completed by keyboardist Kamal Gray, percussionist F. Knuckles, guitarist "Captain" Kirk Douglas, bassist Owen Biddle and sousaphone player Damon "Tuba Gooding Jr." Bryson -- was the initial notion that a regular TV gig would allow the musicians to enjoy a lot more down time. In fact, the Roots have been touring as much as ever, albeit timing their gigs between tapings, and they're putting the finishing touches on a new album, "How I Got Over," scheduled for release in October.

"Actually this is the busiest we've been in a long time," Trotter says. "But since I live 30 minutes outside of New York City, I also get to spend more time with my family than I have in a long time, so it's all good."

Adds Thompson, "The dream was either to morph into the Dave Matthews Band overnight, so we could make $3.1 million a gig, or to find another gig that would allow us to stay home more. For a second, it seemed like the only logical answer would have been doing the Celine Dion trick in Atlantic City, but that would have been stressful, because how fresh can you make a show doing 300 nights a year?"

Now the band not only has one of the highest-profile gigs in America, but one that still allows them to pick and choose the live performances they enjoy, including a stint on the Rock the Bells tour that brings them to Chicago this weekend. Not that the Roots are ready to relax.

"I never, ever, ever in my entire life will see a career choice as, 'Ah, OK, we made it,'" Thompson says, laughing. "I treat this as the equivalent of that Chris Rock joke where he talks about his house in New Jersey and how he always has his bags packed in a closet, just in case he goes broke one day. The show is still fresh, and the Leno/O'Brien thing and even Obama definitely have benefitted us as well. But I'm never, ever, ever going to personally have a point where I feel like I can breathe."