The Roots take hold
November 29, 2002
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
The Roots are the sort of band that tries a critic's store of superlatives,
leaving him either guilty of hyperbole or of damning with insufficient
Drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, MCs Black Thought and Malik B., bassist
Leonard Hubbard, keyboardist Kamal and DJ Scratch are quite simply the best
live band in hip-hop today, and with the astounding new "Phrenology," they
have made an album nearly as strong as 1999's classic "Things Fall Apart."
Then there's the fact that ?uestlove is at the heart of the most
significant movement in black music today, producing albums not only by his
own group, but by D'Angelo, Chicago rapper Common and Erykah Badu.
I spoke with ?uestlove on his cell phone late this summer, during a break
in the recording of "Phrenology," when he was using this rare downtime to
shop for some new shoes at New York's Niketown.
Q. One of the things that's most exciting to me about the Roots and your
music is general is that you do not recognize the arbitrary genre
boundaries that the marketing machine and radio try to impose on music
today, especially hip-hop and R&B.
A. Yeah, the marketplace just happens to call for that now, but I don't
think that's due to the artist. You're only given one chance, and I've seen
many an innovative artist disappear, unless they're coming across the board
in a press beat. When we came out originally, there were two routes we
could go: We could try to approximate the marketplace and come out wack,
trying to be something we're not, or we could be foolproof and bulletproof.
And that's in every aspect of our careers--from our live shows, to the
energy with which we carried ourselves, to the videos. Everything. We had
to be so foolproof that a label would be embarrassed to drop us. That's
exactly what happened. Because in any other situation, if that wasn't what
happened, if we didn't get all that acclaim and all that stuff, we'd have
been dropped. I'm talking about rehearsing 10 hours a day, pulling every
rabbit out of the hat that we could, so that the label started to feel
like, "Wait a minute, maybe it is us, and they should be selling records!"
Q. Critics are always looking for movements. To me, one of the most
encouraging things in hip-hop and R&B over the last five years has been the
sense of community with artists such as the Roots, D'Angelo, Erykah Badu
and Common returning to live instrumentation and refusing to be pigeonholed
in one genre. Do you feel like you are part of a something bigger? I keep
waiting for the Lollapalooza of Neo Soul. I'd love to see all of you on a
A. We've been talking about that. There is a community, but there are only
a few artists inside the community who are available to orchestrate that
sort of activity. I know that I tried to do all in my power that I could to
bring people together--to bring Common to Electric Lady [Studio in New
York], have him record here whenever so that he could stop by and record
with some of these other artists. Since 1996, that's how the majority of
the albums by the artists you mentioned have gotten done--[D'Angelo's]
"Voodoo," [Badu's] "Mama's Gun" and [Common's] "Like Water for Chocolate."
You'd just come into [the studio's] A Room, you don't even know who has a
session, but you call me: "Who's down there?" "Common's in there today." So
you come down, you order some food, sit down and bulls---, watch a movie,
and then, "Let's play something." And I say, "Who wants this?" And it would
be, "I want it!" "No, I want it!" "I want it!" [Laughs]
That's how it went. [The D'Angelo song] "Chicken Grease" was [originally
intended] for Common, then he had to Indian-give it. He was like, "Let's
trade." D'Angelo was keeping "Ghetto Heaven" for "Voodoo," and Common was
keeping "Chicken Grease" for "Like Water for Chocolate," and they traded.
Q. That's a mind-blower, because "Chicken Grease" seems like such a typical
A. That's what he said! [Laughs]
Q. To hear you describe that way of working, it seems like you're the
center of all of that activity. What happens if we take you out of the
picture? Does Erykah still have a record? Does Common have a record?
A. They'll have records. My whole goal was just to bring people together,
you know what I mean? I'm pretty sure things would get done without me. I
mean, because of my ties to the D'Angelo tour, I had to stop half way
through "Mama's Gun" to go back on the road, so I only got to work on half
of that record, as opposed to the whole thing. It goes on without me, but
you know, I feel like I'm the organizer guy. My job is to organize and
bring people together.
Q. How do you do that? What's your secret for getting the best out of all
of these different kinds of people?
A. I'm just the guy who keeps his cell phone out, that's all! [Laughs]
Q. It's got to be harder than that!
A. Not really. Common says, "What are you doing?" I say: "I'm at the
studio. Come on down." Right now, Common is sort of taking over that role
[because I'm so busy]. Wait a minute, I've got another call. [Pause] Hey,
that's Common right now, talking of Common! I'll tell him you said hi.
[Pause] He took over that role. [Laughs]
Q. Well, Common is a very together guy; he grew up that way. His mom is
still a teacher in Chicago. He probably has a Palm Pilot.
A. Oh, no! I'm the only guy as far as that goes. [Laughs] Common and Erykah
are scared of the Internet, and I keep telling them it could be their best
friend, especially when they're so introverted.
Q. So what do the Roots have in store for this tour?
A. We're definitely doing stuff from this new record. We've expanded the
band; we have a percussionist, Frank Walker, and a guitar player, Ben
Kenney, and they're adding colors that we've never had before.
Q. On the album, Ben does a little of that Blackbird/Funkadelic
psychedelic-funk guitar. It's killer.
A. He does a little of everything--whatever is required. You've got to be a
jack of all trades to be in the Roots. I don't know if you saw the MTV2
special that we did; best thing on television now. You better start
enjoying it before they get corrupted! But that's it; we're just adding
different colors. That's what the Roots are all about.