The Roots Back to The Roots

The Roots Back to The Roots
Ahmir "?uestlove” Thompson of the Roots doesn’t mince words about his friend Jay-Z, the former crack dealer turned rapper turned CEO of Def Jam. "He saved us,” the drummer and founding member of the Roots says. In May 2005, the group split from Interscope Records; Jay-Z scooped them up in November. He knew what the Roots were capable of — the Grammy-winning band backed him on his 2001 MTV Unplugged performance and recent Radio City Music Hall shows. ?uestlove says Jay-Z’s top request was simple: "Gimme that artsy shit.”

That "artsy shit” was already underway in Louisiana, three months before the deal was signed. Then Hurricane Katrina hit. It levelled plans for the Roots’ seventh studio album, Game Theory, and sent the group fleeing to higher ground. There, a different album took shape, one that triggered the group’s return to their roots while still moving forward. Propped up against a chair, his hands folded across a Prince "Purify Yourself” T-shirt, ?uestlove explains.

"We were going to make a New Orleans brass band record. We found this band called the To Be Continued Brass Band,” he says, cueing up a video on his PDA. A bombastic blast tumbles out of it like a marching band materialising in your bedroom — all stomping horns, trombones, tubas and swaggering percussion. "We were in the process of putting them on the record and then Katrina happened and it just all fell apart. That set the stage for what became the total opposite, which is some of the darkest, moodiest shit that we’ve ever done.”
In the August 2003 issue of Believer magazine, ?uestlove said, "crack is responsible for the hip-hop movement.” Is Katrina responsible for Game Theory? Tariq (aka Black Thought, MC and founding member) Trotter’s children lived in New Orleans. Although missing for some time, they were found alive.

On Game Theory, Black Thought abandons battle rapping, his long-time forte, to express his disgust with the American government’s lacklustre response. Lyrically, "Clock With No Hands” creeps closer to his personal life than ever before. ?uestlove says BT even let loose on a previously taboo subject — his parent’s death. But rather than bog down listeners, ?uestlove says they aborted the sensitive tracks because he didn’t "want the album to be that depressing to listen to.”

To understand this album is to know that the six o’clock news doesn’t always tell the whole truth, as "False Media” implies. Feel the paranoia? It pulses through every song, snaking its way through BT’s poisoned-tipped verses to the raw guitar rock and sinewy bass line on "Game Theory.” "In The Music” showcases ?uestlove’s better-than-an-808-drum-machine skills. "Baby” sees the Roots sample ’60s funkster Sly (of the Family Stone) on a song that lurches forward with the cadence of a chain gang. Even the saloon-worthy piano line on "Don’t Feel Right” can’t go wrong.

Game Theory makes a quantum leap to what the Roots often lacked — focus. The exception is the last track, "Can’t Stop This,” a taxing but touching tribute to legendary hip-hop producer James (J Dilla) Yancey. It’s J Dilla’s humbling beat — blending a mellow guitar riff and bass-heavy drums — slowed to a drawl, sped up and slowed back down before returning to normal speed and later a completely different beat. At eight-plus minutes its great stuff, but the answering machines shout outs make multiple listens tough at times.

Thompson and Trotter birthed the Roots in 1987 while attending the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts. The group have since swollen and shrunk to their current six-member status: guitarist Kirk Douglas, percussionist Knuckles, keyboardist Kamal, MC Black Thought and ?uestlove on drums. Like hip-hop’s Broken Social Scene, a group of satellite artists orbit the Roots, including but not limited to: human beatboxers Rahzel and Scratch, keyboardist turned mega-producer Scott Storch and MCs Dice Raw and Malik B. (the yin to Black Thought’s lyrical yang) who was kicked out of the group for hard drug use. Both MCs appear on Game Theory, though Malik B.’s contribution begs the question — did he sober up?

"My engineer sat me down and said, ‘Ahmir I want you to listen to [something],’” ?uestlove says. His engineer played him "In The Music.” "I was like, ‘Yo, who’s the second dude?’And he’s like, ‘It’s Malik.’ It was undeniable. I was like, ‘Fuck it, I miss Malik.’” Despite appearing on the record, ?uestlove says, "He, to my knowledge, is still co-dependent on his lifestyle of old.”

Change kick-starts the engine that drives the Roots. Major overhauls and fine-tuning have sent the group careening through the peaks and pits of the music biz as fans held on, jumped off or got onboard. "We’re insatiable,” ?uestlove says of his band’s refusal to remain the same. "I don’t believe in sighing. Sighing as in [his chest puffs up with exaggeration], ‘Ah, we made it, this is nice.’ You can’t afford to do that shit. People are quick to forget and soon to replace you.”

Replace them with whom? No one does what the Roots do. "We’re our own competition,” he admits. "That’s why we always had to change our stripes every album. We’re like a rock band in Phrenology, we’re neo-soul in Things Fall Apart, we’re this band on Game Theory and we’ll be that band on the next album.”

He fails to mention what band they were on 2004’s sub-standard effort The Tipping Point. Maybe it’s an oversight, but it reveals a tug-o-war between artistic integrity and commercial success.

Ten years ago, the Roots were too cool for what everyone else was doing. So they wrote a song, "What They Do,” and shot a video exposing every commercial hip-hop video cliché — from rented, half-naked models to borrowed mansions, BMWs and Moët champagne. While recording The Tipping Point for Interscope, ?uestlove says record label executive Jimmy Iovine told them, "Don’t come to my office unless you got some [hot] shit.” Translation: Do what other successful hip-hoppers are doing. "Never do what they do” became "If we want a platinum record maybe we should please the president.”

Sales of The Tipping Point stopped short of 500,000 copies — not bad, but by Iovine’s multi-platinum-selling standards (Eminem, 50 Cent, G-Unit), not hot.

I wonder aloud if that album’s title, lifted from Malcolm Gladwell’s book about how specific people help make unique things become popular trends, was a mistake — considering they’re still stuck in the mainstream’s outer reaches.

"People mistook The Tipping Point for, ‘Oh, if we all get together then this will explode,’” he says. And it didn’t. "The story of the Roots is the tipping point.” What he means is that every Roots album has attempted to push a unique experience from the fringe to the mainstream. All the right people (Jimmy Iovine, Jay-Z, Erykah Badu, Common, you, me and even Dave Chappelle) and institutions (MCA, Geffen, Def Jam, the internet, word of mouth) have pushed and yet that magic moment — the one Gladwell’s book describes as "when an idea, trend or social behaviour crosses a certain threshold [say one million copies of an album sold], tips and spreads like wildfire” — eludes the Roots.

And yet, with all that pressure built up over seven studio albums spanning 13 years, ?uestlove is just happy to be around. "I think it’s worth some sort of applause that we’ve managed to surround ourselves in rare company,” he says. "As in to be a group that signed their deal in 1992 [and] to still release music in 2006 and have it be as relevant or as exciting and as anticipated as our first or second album. [But] sometimes I do lay back and I’m just like, ‘Yo man, we’re getting fronted on. I feel like we don’t get the proper respect.’ And that happens a lot.”