The Roots: Doing It Their Own Weird, Wonderful Way

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Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, drummer/sonic visionary for hip-hop icons The Roots, is currently being harassed by a gang of rowdy Muppets.

“Are we doing the Muppets now?” he asks a visitor outside his dressing room, his voice barely rising above a frustrated whisper. “Crap! I’m sorry—I gotta do this one song with The Muppets real quick.” And just as soon as he’d stumbled into the phone call, he’s vanished.

It’s probably a surreal sight—one of modern music’s most celebrated figures jamming with Kermit the Frog. And promoting the new Muppets film in an absurd comedy sketch probably isn’t, well, a “cool” thing to do for a hip-hop icon. But all-in-all these days, a typical afternoon for Thompson is defined by its chaos and all-around unpredictability. On this particular afternoon, the Afro-sporting 40-year-old is multi-tasking to the extreme—conversing on his cell phone during a brief respite in his dressing room, located at New York’s GE Building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. It’s a legendary location in entertainment history, home to shows like Saturday Night Live (and, yes, 30 Rock), in addition to Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, the hottest young talk show on television, on which Thompson and his fellow rap-soul chameleons serve as the house band.

Early on in the show’s development, Fallon was an awkward host, fidgeting and sweating nervously in the spotlight. The smooth, veteran Roots kept the show anchored, and interesting; even when the jokes fell flat (as they often did at that point), the music was always red-hot, the eight-piece band effortlessly tossing out blazing transitional grooves, not to mention one of the most striking opening themes in TV history. They also were (and remain) one the funniest elements of the show, too, Thompson and rapper-singer Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter frequently flexing their comedic muscles in various one-off bits.

The funkiest, sturdiest drummer alive has already postponed and/or cancelled our interview a handful of times, but it looks like today’s not going to work, either: “I apologize, man. When Jimmy grabs ya, you just gotta jump out there…”

Nearly two weeks later, Thompson’s back on the phone. This time, there are (to his knowledge) no Muppets—or other distractions—in sight. He’s in the thick of promoting undun, The Roots’ 14th studio release. It’s a cohesive, headphone-worthy, concept album about the tragic rise and fall of the semi-fictional character Redford Stephens: an intelligent, charismatic 25-year-old Philly native who succumbs to a life of violence, crime, and seedy luxury—eventually dying a lonely shell of a man, filled with regret. Though the actual narrative itself is slightly vague and not exactly a page-turner on paper, the concept—which is told in reverse, starting, as it were, with the character’s flatlining heart monitor and descent into the afterlife—gives the songs focus and thematic tension, helping bind disparate moments like the Kanye-esque soul-sampling “Kool On” and the album’s extended closing suite, which features an orchestral section, along with two piano cameos: one from indie-pop hero Sufjan Stevens (who re-works his own instrumental “Redford”) and another from virtuoso D.D. Jackson, who plays a free-jazz duet with Thompson.

Needless to say, undun is thinking man’s hip-hop—more lyrically complex and musically sophisticated (with its glistening keyboards and Thompson’s deft, nuanced percussion) than anything this heavily-decorated, progressive-minded band has yet released. And this type of creative re-awakening, 18 years after their debut album, would never have occurred if it weren’t for their tenure with Fallon, which Thompson simply describes as “freedom.”

“I feel as though we’re still at the peak of our powers as far as creativity is concerned,” he enthusiastically boasts. “I really feel this is a second wind for us. And I really feel this is our second album, only because the process by which we made this album and How I Got Over was way different than how we made the 12 albums that came before it. And a lot of that has to do with the simmering and the concentration of it all.”

While previous Roots albums were written in “jam circumstances, two hours to sound-check at a show” (often recording ideas on cell phones and re-doing them later in the studio), the post-Fallon albums have been made in a much more luxurious environment, at a much more comfortable pace. “Here, our central location is at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, so you get a whole new spirit and energy because we literally are now living in our studio. Our dressing room has been transformed into a full-fledged recording studio, and that’s where we’ve created four of our records, including the John Legend record (2010’s excellent Wake Up!). And it’s just having that time—we’re here from like 11:00 in the morning until 7:00 at night. But sometimes I’ll stay late, until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, recording. Sometimes I’ll come in early, at 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning to record, if I gotta come in earlier.”

“But we’re just way better,” Thompson continues. “I think just the time we’ve spent here has really made us aware of songwriting and engineering and producing and recording. There’s a lot of time spent here we didn’t get running in and out of studios while touring 200 nights out of the year. It’s a different energy, and not to mention having Fallon as some sort of back-up player also frees us. The number one obstacle in most hip-hoppers careers is that whole thought of ‘This must work for me. This must be a hit. I must make an impact, or else I’m going to get dropped from my label.’ I guess we sort of felt what I would call a reckless abandonment. I’m not saying it was like, ‘Oh, pfff—we got dropped from Def Jam! We have NBC to fall back on!’ I never treat anything like something’s really gravy and I got it good. But I will say that I didn’t create this record under the guise of ‘Someone’s finger is under the guillotine,’ whereas I feel most recording artists are like, ‘Yo, the finger’s on the guillotine, and I could wind up back at square one if this album isn’t a hit.’ That’s what most hip-hop artists live under.”

Most hip-hop artists operate under that “back against the wall” mindset, using a “me against the world” sensibility as a creative launching point. But The Roots, now elder statesmen in the rap community, are at a position of relative calm—what with the security provided by Fallon and a newfound promotional support and general excitement from their record label, Def Jam.

“I just did something I thought I would never do again in this lifetime,” Thompson says. “I actually entered the Hot 97 building. I guess there’s new blood—well, not new blood—just new energy at our label, at Def Jam. I think the old regime was like, ‘Winner takes all; let’s roll with the winners. Let’s stick to Rihanna, The Dream, Jay-Z, Kanye—if they’re winning, let’s roll with it. And The Roots are a prestige group, so let them get their acclaim and then the record will go by in six weeks, and we’ll just go on about our day.’ I’m just really not used to all this energy at the label now, their genuine excitement. You also have to understand that we’re from—I would assume the staff now at Def Jam were once college students back in ’94, ’95, when we started. So it’s a whole ’nother way of looking at it. This isn’t just your father’s A&R or that type of thing, or the people who even signed us back in the day. These are actual Roots fans—like you guys, you know? There’s just a crazy energy there; they love our record, and they’re just trying to do everything in their power to expose it to as many people as possible. I really haven’t seen this kind of energy at the record label since Things Fall Apart [the band’s 1999 critical break-out]. Not saying that it’s going to yield the same results, but I was kind of used to them not knowing our names.”

“Last year, this guy said this in front of us not knowing he was there in front of us. He was sitting next to Tariq not knowing he was sitting next to Tariq. He was on the phone, like, ‘I’m here in now, sitting with all the press people.’ He was like, ‘I know the drummer cat, but I don’t know the rest of them niggas.’ Tariq was like, ‘Huh?’ And you know, he still didn’t know that that was Tariq—or who it was. I think the atmosphere back then was basically, ‘You fear for your job, do what you’re told. Only stick with the big ones that are going to sell—that’s what we gotta concentrate on. Don’t worry about other stuff falling by the wayside; don’t put your energy into that.’ But now we’re getting that energy. I literally have not been in Hot 97 since like 1998. We never had to rely on radio, but I’m just saying that—it was weird to sit there in a big-ass radio station.”

But even though the early hype for undun has been overwhelmingly positive and the promotional process newly energized, the album’s recording was certainly not free from creative turmoil. Initially, it took plenty of strain to sculpt the album’s backwards narrative:

“When we were creating this record, the first thing we did was write down—not the blueprint—but the outline: the rising action, the falling action. And we tried to figure out how we could twist the story around, and that’s the weird thing; it’s like you’re creating a song and you don’t know exactly where it’s going to fit on the record, so we didn’t start dealing with the death of the character until almost late in the record. So when we figured out exactly where it’s going to fall.”

The sessions for the melancholy, synth-coated “Make My,” the album’s lead single (and possibly the most beautiful track in the band’s history) were especially tense, eventually leading to Thompson’s two-week departure from the group.

“This is a running joke with The Roots—I always quit. Sometimes you gotta walk away. More than anyone, I take criticism the most personal. Everyone adds something to the Kool-Aid, you know what I mean? And I feel as though the esoteric mark of the album—that is my contribution. So usually when a song takes a different ending than what it started with, that’s my specialty. I’ll take a song, and in its dry form, I’ll sit there—once a song is completed, then we listen to the song, and I say, ‘Can this stand on its own? No.’ It’s a good burger, but we gotta put better condiments on it. ‘Who’s gonna chop the onion, and put the pepper and the ketchup and the mayo on it?’ And that’s usually where I come in. So a song like ‘Make My,’ in its original incarnation, ended after Tariq’s verse, and we faded. But I was like, ‘It needs something!,’ and they agreed. So we were like, ‘OK, we need a coda.’ And the whole challenge was, ‘What should I do?’ So the whole goal of the coda at the end of ‘Make My’ was to make death sound beautiful, like a soaring thing, someone’s soul leaving their body. And the first time I did it, it was around February, which was around the time [Radiohead’s latest album] The King of Limbs came out, so I was OD’ing on that. Back in the day, you wouldn’t listen to other hip-hop records while you were making a record, so I would just listen to other genres while I was creating. Now the opposite has to be true—maybe I should only listen to hip-hop. [Laughs] But that was the first thing they started saying—this sounds too King of Limbs-ish, and you’re using too much electronics, and it sounds cold.”

“So I went back for Part Two,” Thompson continues, “and I really killed it. I was like, ‘This is the one!’ And they were like, ‘Ehh, nah, that’s not it.” And I kept my patience, so the third time, I really—oh, man—I pulled out all the stops, all the whistles and bells. I gave it to them, and they were like, ‘Ehh, nevermind.’ I was just…I was like, ‘Fuck y’all!’ I didn’t talk to them all during Fallon—nothing. I was like, ‘Fuck it! If you don’t accept my contributions, there is no record! I quit!’ I was just like, ‘Fuck it! Let How I Got Over be our last record!’ [Laughs] And knowing me, they were like, ‘He’ll be back…’ And sure enough, three weeks later, I was back, and I was just like, ‘What do y’all want then?’ And they were like, ‘Yo, just make it sound like one continuous song!’ They said, ‘Don’t pull a “Warner,” which is basically the last time they let me run amok alone without any supervision on our Phrenology record. I turned what was simply a three-minute anti-drug song into this ten-minute nightmare of a drug trip. And they were like, ‘You don’t have to do all that! Just keep it simple and keep the beat regular!’ And I did it, and in retrospect, they were right. I’m smart enough to know that I can’t drink and drive. I can create the alcohol, I can consume it, but I can’t get behind the wheel.”

Every single sonic detail on undun—every lyric, every instrument, every single effect—was scrutinized. Even the album’s opening wash of noise—the reverb haze of a distant flatline—was toiled over, with several band members expressing hesitation over Thompson’s taste in atmospheric sounds. A crying baby effect, which (according to Trotter) “sounded like a billy-goat being sacrificed,” was eventually cut—or at least “tucked away” in the track, despite Thompson’s initial enthusiasm: “The flatline represented his death, and I guess the baby represented his life. I wanted his death and his birth to be in one fell swoop.” And every sonic decision was made with specific intent: “The way that ‘Make My’ starts—it starts in a haze, in a cloud of reverb. So I would imagine that his eyes are either closing or slowly opening, so the whole object was to make his eyes slowly open. And [Big] K.R.I.T.’s verse is more or less about regret—I am mortal, and I did it for the money, and I was greedy, and I did the wrong thing, and now I guess I’m paying for it. And so it just felt like a person who realizes his mortality, so once we established that ‘Sleep’ and ‘Make My’ would be the post-mortem death songs, I really wanted that end to be a sprawling thing—sort of the equivalent of a spirit flying off somewhere, leaving his dead body behind, so that’s what I was trying to imagine.”

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of The Roots’ meticulous editing and song construction. “The way we operate,” Thompson says, “it just takes a year-and-a-half to two years to thaw out a record. undun was pretty much started—I started ‘Kool On’...when…shit! We had to re-record Joanna Newsom’s harp parts for ‘The Book of Right On’ on How I Got Over, so I remember starting ‘Kool On’ knowing that it was going to go on the next record that morning at 30 Rock, but then after work having to go to the studio to get her to do her harp overdubs. So you just have to start early in order to yield great results.”

Writing a Roots song isn’t exactly a straightforward, linear process. Being the overall creative force behind the band’s music—yet in no way its dictator—Thompson often finds himself in the tricky position of balancing his unflinching musical vision with the opinions and approaches of his very skilled bandmates. In the initial excavation process, Thompson uses a very particular method of achieving this unity: “My number one rule on jamming is that we don’t spend more than five minutes on it. So…I let someone take the lead, so it’s like, OK, Monday is [keyboardist] James Poyser’s day. So I’ll count off ‘1, 2, 3, 4’ then basically they give him 60 seconds to find out what he wants to do, sometimes two minutes if it’s intricate, and then once he establishes something, everyone joins in, and we mold it from there. And then maybe on Tuesday, I’ll say, ‘OK, we’ll let the bass start off,’ so this way everybody gets a chance to sort of establish the basis, and it’s an easier system. Everyone feels as though they’ve contributed, and sometimes they stick.”

“Biggie was the only artist I knew that recorded the actual amount of songs that are on his record,” Thompson reflects, “whereas Tupac recorded eight times as much record and had eight times as much volume. I’m much closer to that latter process. In our database right now, since we’ve been here, we have about 4,400-plus songs, so that’s 10-15 songs every day. And when you get 100 of them, 20 of them are bound to be cool. That’s how we do it—we gather 20 and see what 10 stick. And if we really just have to pick three, what are they? And you pick those three and throw the rest back in the lake, and once you get those three, you repeat that process about eight more times throughout a two-year period. Then you have about 16 songs that you like—but it took us a long time. That’s just how we operate. We’re still not uber-focused; I would like to get to the point where if I had to turn this record in in March, we could just record it and have the same results and plan for March now. With an album this good, it took a long time to get there.”

In many ways, it’s sort of amazing that undun was even completed—that the band didn’t split at the seams under the weight of their ambitions. But, as Thompson emphatically notes, The Roots have always aimed high.

“We’re not strangers to thematic records, so we’ve been kinda keeping themes with our records in the last five or six albums. How I Got Over was clearly an album about how to deal with mid-life crisis—being a 40-year-old or being a first-generation post-Civil Rights, post-hip-hop 40-year-old. And we got such a good response with it, we were like, ‘Let’s go deeper.’ And now that we’re getting such a good response with this, we’re really going to go crazy on the next record and tell more stories. I think that’s a comfortable lane for us. I think we were just wondering, ‘What’s our lane going to be now that we’re no longer 20 and 30 anymore?’ What’s a great way to still create stimulating, good music and not get called out because we did like too many ‘Throw your hands in the air like you don’t care’ songs, that type of thing. And I just feel—there are a whole bunch of stories we haven’t told, so I would imagine that we’ll just be writing the soundtracks to untold movies for awhile. We’re definitely going to be going full-fledged on the next record, which we’re starting now.”

undun clearly marks a new chapter in The Roots’ journey. Their perseverance has brought them to this point—from their early days as road warriors to a place of relative comfort and total creative exploration. No, they’re not exactly in the most traditional “hip-hop” place: middle-aged dudes playing silly songs with Muppets, arguing passionately over baby noises, writing concept albums told in reverse. But then again, The Roots have always operated under their own weird, wonderful terms.