Named one of the “twenty greatest live acts in the world” by Rolling Stone Magazine in 2003, The Roots have worked with a who’s who in music, from Al Green, Jay-Z, Erykah Badu and D’Angelo to Kanye West, John Mayer, Jill Scott, Christina Aguilera, and the list goes on.
Drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (recognizable for his Afro and pick) and rapper/MC Black Thought (Tariq Trotter ) formed The Roots back in 1987 as classmates at The Philadelphia High School for Creative And Performing Arts. Fast-forward to 12 albums and 20 years later, The Roots continue to produce head-bopping, timely and relevant music for all.
The Roots released two albums this year, “How I Got Over”(in June) and “Wake Up!” in collaboration with John Legend. “Wake Up!” is a blend of soul, hip hop, funk, gospel and reggae which draws inspiration from the soulful music of the 1960s and 1970s.
In the album’s liner notes, Legend says “we wanted to make an album that spoke to the times in which we live … and this music feels so relevant right now. It’s funky & frustrated, revolutionary & reflective, raw & righteous, spirited & spiritual.”
The Roots were recently nominated for the 2011 Grammy Awards in the categories of Best R&B Album for “Wake Up!”; Best Rap/Sung Collaboration for “Wake Up! Everybody” and Best Rap Album for “How I Got Over.”
The Roots have not only redefined hip hop, but they’ve also put their stamp on American pop culture from music and movies and now to television. In March 2009, they were named as the house band for NBC’s “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” They performed for the second time this year at Macy’s Annual Thanksgiving Day Parade and the group and John Legend opened the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington, D.C. this past October with Stephen Colbert.
The conception of the albums started back in 2008 and two years later, the albums are very timely and relevant. What do you attribute that to?
“How I Got Over” and “Wake Up!” are the first two albums that The Roots would have done since the Clinton administration. There was such a false sense of celebration during those days. I think that a lot of that had to do with letting our guard down. And sensing that, I really wanted to make two records that would reflect the barometer of the country. I pretty much had a feeling it would be 75 percent turmoil and 25 percent relief.
I told John that we shouldn’t do celebratory songs. I didn’t want to get to political on “How I Got Over.” All the songs really had to do with a fork in the road, a quagmire, some sort of puzzle … you know I need help, I don’t know what step to take, etc., without it being a gospel record. I wanted to question God and ask why we were in this disposition.
“Wake Up” can be covered in the four verses in the song. They bring up the environment, health care, education and safety. We need a song that deals with extreme poverty, God. The hardest song of all … I knew there had to be one song written about citizenship and this being our country and our forefathers built this country. And “Hang On In There” deals with this issue. This song really plays to the immigration issue. What does citizenship mean? What does it mean to be patriotic? What is the true definition of being an American?
“I Can’t Write Left Handed” was a simple and dark song when we first started. The more we do the song, the more intense it gets. We’ve done a 20-minute version of the song at some of our shows. It has become the spiritual centerpiece of the album.
Why was it important to make this album now? What do you hope to accomplish?
The thing that I’m concerned with is that this will represent me when I’m gone. I feel that it’s important. There’s only one album that I cringe at. I had to mix from afar … while I was on tour. It irks me not to mix a song through the end. I turn in no record before it’s time.
Why do you think The Roots have been so successful and have had such longevity?
We’ve been in existence professionally for 18 years and our creativity has not waned. Most rap groups get eight records if they’re lucky. But at the end of the day, it’s about the music.
How is it working with Jay-Z?
He’s the easiest artist to work with. He knows exactly where he wants to go and knows how to execute it. There’s the trust factor. He knows that I’ll never drop the ball and fumble. I still work for him. Nine times out of ten we’ve had to build the bands and they’re out of Philadelphia. We built Jay-Z’s band, Kanye’s, Common’s, Eminem’s and Jill Scott’s. Jay-Z makes work fun. Jay’s the foremost authority on “The Simpsons” and “The Cleveland [Show].”
The Roots will perform at Showcase Live on Thursday, Dec.30 at 8 p.m. Tickets: $55 and $40. To purchase tickets, visit: www.showcaselive.com.
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