The Roots Band of Brothers
Published Jun 26, 2010The history of the Roots is rife with the themes of collaboration, improvisation and experimentation ― hallmarks of a vintage jazz ensemble all; the Roots are not jazz, yet they are that too. Forever refusing to deliver the expected album and neglecting to bite their collective tongue, the Illadelph collective has broken artists, broken records, broken rules, and broken through to popular culture. More important than all of that, though: they know how to blow the roof off a concert venue. Despite enduring more casting changes than Survivor, the core of this multi-pronged juggernaut has remained drummer Questlove and vocalist Black Thought ― the former providing the beat, the latter riding it into submission. Here we trace a risky and rewarding, genre-blurring recorded history that stretches 17 hip-hop years (which, in rock terms, translates to roughly three lifetimes). From a drummer-rapper duo of art students busking on Philadelphia's South Street to appearing nightly on network television as the charismatic house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, the Roots' growth has opened ears of everyone, from staunch hip-hop heads to jazz purists, and unhinged doors for a brigade of soulful voices and talented instrumentalists, Philly-bred and otherwise. The careers of hall-of-famers such as Jay-Z and Al Green and unsung heroes like Little Brother and Ursula Rucker all owe a nod to the Legendary Roots Crew, simply the most influential hip-hop band ever.
1971 to 1986
Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter and Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, future cofounders and the heart and soul of the malleable Roots crew, are born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Questlove is the son of Lee Andrews, whose great '50s doo-wop quintet, Lee Andrews & the Hearts, serves as an influence on the youngster. Not wanting to leave their son with babysitters, Quest grows up backstage at doo-wop shows, begins drumming onstage by age seven and becomes a musical director by age 13.
1987 to 1992
Trotter and Thompson, both students at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (the same alma mater as Boyz II Men), become friends, form an MC/drummer duo and begin performing on the streets of Philly and in talent shows. Linking with another MC whom Trotter meets in college, Malik Abdul Basit-Smart, the Square Roots are formed with Josh "The Rubber Band" Abrams on bass and eventual super-producer Scott Storch on keys. Questlove co-founds Okayplayer as a loose musical collective.
Abbreviating their name to the Roots, the crew record their debut album, Organix, while performing a concert in Germany. Originally sold at the band's European gigs, the independent album's live instrumentation and cipher-friendly raps builds enough buzz that the Roots start fielding major label offers. The most notable hip-hop live band since Stetsasonic hint at their future of supporting many an MC by providing the backbeat to "The Session (Longest Posse Cut in History)," an epic freestyle session clocking in at 12 minutes, 43 seconds. MC Kenyatta "Kid Crumbs" Warren appears on Organix and then disappears.
Josh Abrams is replaced on bass by Leonard "Hub" Hubbard, who appeared on Organix. The Roots sign to DGC, a subsidiary of MCA/Universal known for its grunge catalogue, and release a six-song EP, From the Ground Up, that contains tracks to be featured on their next LP.
In January, The Roots' release their first major album, the jazzy, phat, nasty Do You Want More?!!!??! Critics love the sample-free opus, which receives four mics in The Source and four stars in Spin. Because Organix was 17 tracks long, Do You Want More?!!!??! begins at number 18 and runs to 33 ― a trend that a group placing high value on consistency and legacy will continue throughout their career. Spoken word artist Ursula Rucker and beatbox specialist Rahzel make appearances. Ironically, the vocal component of the group, Black Thought, writes three sentences in the liner notes: "Peace to my fam & my crew. Thanks to all the real heads across the planet. Death to the wack." Questlove (a.k.a. B.R.O.T.H.E.R. ?) is a little more verbose. The album builds on the jazz/hip-hop fusion that Gang Starr's GURU had popularized with 1993's Jazzmatazz Vol. 1. The Roots make an appearance at Lollapalooza and the Montreux Jazz Festival.
Feeling like an underdog from Philadelphia, Black Thought sharpens his freestyle rhymes in preparation for the Roots' appearance on New York radio's legendary Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show, a mid-'90s rite of passage for East coast lyricists. "I just remember this one night driving up to New York, listening to [rappers freestyle on] Stretch and Bobbito on Columbia radio, which was the holiest of the holies. And we were like, 'Yo, man, we know this rhyme. This is from the B-side of da-da-da,'" Questlove tells Pound magazine in August 2006. "It finally hit us: 'Yo, no one freestyles. Why?' Since then, we feel it's necessary to demonstrate some sort of spontaneity in your art form, but then again, with being sort of like the only band in this realm, Tariq grew irksome at the fact that he was training for, like, wrestling. It's like spending every day going to the gym training and now you're in the WWF. There is no competition. Only because we were from Philly and thought that we had to impress New York did we over-prepare for the test. I mean, studying on Saturdays, studying on Sundays, not going on dates, going to the library. And it's like, you get there, and the people you thought you'd be competing with on that level can barely remember their written rhymes on their album. It's like, 'Ah, we did all this preparation for nothing.'"
Illadelph Halflife features a cast of likeminded peers: Erykah Badu, Common, D'Angelo and Q-Tip. A second beatboxer, Scratch, is introduced to the fold. Harder-edged than their previous work, Illadelph adds programmed drums to fresh instrumentation. Kamal Gray begins to replaces Scott Storch on keys. The hook-free "Clones" opens hip-heads to Black Thought's raw wordplay, and the video for "What They Do" humorously mocks the formulaic rap clips of the time, further separating the Roots from their less imaginative counterparts. The Roots' live show, in which they perform a "Hip Hop 101" medley of classic rap hits, becomes a must-experience.
1997 to 1999
Organix gets re-released on Cargo Records, and Do You Want More?!!!??! is honoured as one of The Source's 100 Best Rap Albums. The Roots spend time recording at New York's famous Electric Lady Studios. The Soulquarians collective of musicians and producers ― most notably Questlove, D'Angelo, James Poyser, and J Dilla ― work on such notable projects as Common's Like Water for Chocolate, Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun, and D'Angelo's Voodoo. Questlove will estimate that the group records 145 songs during this prolific period.
Things Fall Apart, the Roots' fourth LP, supplies their pop breakthrough. Named after a Chinua Achebe novel and available in five different black-and-white covers, the Grammy-nominated album quickly goes gold (eventually platinum) and hits #4 on Billboard. The LP includes a sequel to Common's classic dedication to hip-hop, "I Used to Love H.E.R.," called "Act Too (The Love of My Life)." Fellow Philadelphians Beanie Sigel and Eve turn in standout cameos that help earn them record deals with Roc-A-Fella and Ruff Ryders, respectively. The opus's cornerstone and lead single is "You Got Me," which originally features co-writer Jill Scott on the chorus, before she becomes a household name. MCA insists that Scott's part be rerecorded by a bigger draw, Erykah Badu. The Badu-blessed track wins a Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group, but Scott performs the song when touring with the Roots. The band plays the Woodstock '99 concert in New York State.
Rahzel the "Godfather of Noize" releases Make the Music 2000, a solo album that finds him rapping and beatboxing. Rahzel would go on to tour as a solo act, collaborate on a Ben Harper single, and lend his voice to video games such as SSX. No longer with the group, Halifax-born keyboardist Scott Storch makes a name for himself as a producer-for-hire, co-producing the smash "Still D.R.E." for Dr. Dre.
In 1999, the group releases a five-song EP, The Legendary, and a live album, The Roots Come Alive, which does a decent job of capturing the ensemble's marathon performances. Questlove helps transform the Okayplayer brand into a burgeoning online community of likeminded artists and their supporters.
2000 to 2001
In 2000, Roots protégé MC Dice Raw releases a solo album, Reclaiming the Dead, on MCA. Malik B departs from the group, and guitarist Ben Kenney joins. The Roots appear as the Alabama Porch Monkeys in Spike Lee's Bamboozled, a satirical film about a modern-day minstrel show. Black Thought appears in the movies Brooklyn Babylon and Perfume; he also records a solo album tentatively titled Masterpiece Theatre for a summer 2001 release, but the project is abandoned upon learning that it won't count toward the Roots' contractual obligations. Questlove joins Christian McBride and Uri Crane for an instrumental jazz projected; The Philadelphia Experiment is released on Ropeadope Records in 2001.
The Roots find themselves in the Big Apple on September 11. "Don't you find it strange that when 9/11 went down, our first and primary concern was, let's run across the street to Virgin Records right now and get a copy of Jay-Z's Blueprint before they shut it down?" Questlove says in his Pound interview. "We in New York City! The world's literally falling apart. We was doing this big concert event, and coincidentally because of Michael Jackson's 30th anniversary celebration, we had like Liz Taylor and all those artists basically hold down every hotel in New York City. First of all, we were supposed to be in the Soho Grand, which is two blocks away from the World Trade Center. Instead, [the Roots] got separated from each other. Some of us were in one, some in another hotel. Kamal actually got to see the second World Trade Center thing fall from his hotel, 20 blocks away. He got to see that. The thing is, four hours into it, we're over in my suite analyzing Jay-Z's Blueprint: Was it the classic they all say it is? And I caught myself: The world is falling apart, and we're in here talkin' about, 'Is this Jay-Z in his prime?'"
9/11 serves as a momentary wake-up call to hip-hoppers and radio programmers. "We all thought hip-hop's gonna be more serious. It's Public Enemy time. And that shit lasted for four months. The government ― program directors, Clear Channel, Viacom, bigwigs that own shit ― they decided to change the airwaves and only play a certain type of music on the air, which, strange enough, was beneficial for the Commons and Kwelis and Roots of the world. That was the only time in my career where all of a sudden my publicity went from zero to 100," Questlove will tell Pound. "They weren't gonna play Puffy at a time like this, but it was OK to play 'The Light,' by Common. We thought it would be a systematic change, but after December everything went back to normal. I was like, 'Ah, OK, America doesn't want a reminder of how fucked-up it is. We just want to forget.' Which is why we were up there analyzing Jay-Z's Blueprint and not worrying about what just happened earlier that day."
In December 2001, The Roots back up Jay-Z for the rapper's gold MTV Unplugged album, enlivening Jigga's greatest hits with the band's signature flair.
In January, the Roots become the first hip-hop group to perform at Lincoln Center. Highly anticipated after Things Fall Apart's success, the delayed Phrenology takes two years to see a release and contains several tracks demoed for Thought's abandoned solo CD. Titled after the discredited pseudoscience that studies head shapes to determine intelligence and character and was used to rationalize racism in 1800s America, the rock-tinged Phrenology would slowly reach gold status and be nominated for a Best Rap Album Grammy; Nelly Furtado, Musiq, Jill Scott, Talib Kweli and Cody Chesnutt appear, but its more experimental sound fails to match Things' sales. DJ Questlove also drops a mixtape of slow jams, Questlove Presents: Babies Making Babies (Urban Theory). Scratch releases The Embodiment of Instrumentation (Ryodisc). Black Thought and Quest appear in the film Brown Sugar.
DJ/beatboxer Scratch abruptly leaves to further pursue a solo career. Ben Kenney departs to play bass with Incubus, and Captain Kirk Douglas joins in on guitar. Guest percussionist F. Knuckles becomes a permanent member of the Roots, who are named one of the "20 greatest live acts in the world" by Rolling Stone. Questlove's reputation as a tastemaker accelerates as his endorsement of North Carolina's Little Brother helps usher a relatively unknown rap trio to success. Further expanding his network of collaborators, Questlove plays drums on John Mayer's "Clarify" and arranges a White Stripes cover tune for singer Joss Stone, "Fell in Love with a Girl." "I knew how I was gonna execute it in my head, but sometimes you got to put on a horse-and-pony show," Questlove explains. "With the whole Joss Stone thing, I was like, 'OK, let me get my vision ready.' Do all these effects with this type of mic and that type of mic and this type of mic. And at the 45-minute mark I knew I was going to use this particular mic and this particular EQ setting. I'm gonna do it in one take, and I'm-a go home. But somebody will get uncomfortable with that. I'll do a song in one take, it'll take five minutes to do a beat, and they'll wig out: 'Oh, he didn't put enough effort into it. Took him five minutes.' But it's just that easy."
Black Thought acts in the film Love Rome, and Rahzel appears on five songs of Bjork's Medulla. Questlove appears in Jay-Z's supposed farewell documentary/concert film, Fade to Black, and is the drummer and musical director of Jay's "final" live show at Madison Square Garden in late 2003. "I got to witness Jay-Z in the studio doing his sequel to '22 Twos,' '44 Fours.' In the studio, him actually sitting there 'writing.' I was taking photos, but I wanted to peek around and see his cheat sheet. There wasn't a cheat sheet. He stood there, and he would go eight lines at a time. He would go eight lines and then stop [and mumble to himself]. He'd do that for five minutes," Questlove tells Pound. "To see him running lines and not have to stare at the speakers for 12 hours, that takes confidence, especially to do it in front of people. I know motherfuckers that even make the engineer leave when they're doing their vocals."
Album six, The Tipping Point, features only Black Thought's image on the jacket ― a bid to place the Roots' frontman as the face of the group (as opposed to the interview-friendly Questlove, instantly recognizable by his hefty Afro). The image of Thought replaces a similar mug shot of an 18-year-old Malcolm X before his conversion to Islam in prison; the Malcolm cover can be found on early releases of the CD. Two tracks on The Tipping Point (named after a Malcolm Gladwell book) earn Grammy nominations, and guitarist Martin Luther enters the fray. An uncredited Dave Chappelle appears on bonus track "In Love with the Mic." The Roots return the favour when Questlove acts as drummer and musical director for Chappelle's Block Party concert in Brooklyn, which reunites the Fugees. King Britt and Questlove make On the DL, a short film about the musicians' mission to obtain driver's licenses; the clip is accepted into the Tribeca Film Festival. Quest launches Okayplayer Records, an outlet for his online community, as a division of Decon.
T.I., Common and Black Thought honour Big Daddy Kane at VH1's Hip Hop Honors show, and Thought is the only one whose verbal cadence matches that of the legendary King Asiatic. "Speed. He's from an era of battle rap. His idols are Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, Special Ed, KRS-One, Chuck D ― class of '88. And most of their rhymes were done somewhere between 100 to 120 beats per minute," Questlove explains. "When we did the VH1 Hip Hop Honors, Tariq paid tribute to Big Daddy Kane, and I was utterly amazed at how his pacing and his breath control was. I was [drumming] 120 beats per minute, and he was right up there, not even losing one breath. I wanted a song that could move like a train."
Questlove gets crammed in a phone booth with Madonna, Little Richard, Bootsy Collins and Iggy Pop for a Motorola commercial. Geffen releases Homegrown! The Beginner's Guide to Understanding the Roots, a two-volume collection of hits and rarities. The best part? Über-detailed liner notes from Questlove on each track, including a five-and-a-half-page breakdown of the drama behind completing Phrenology's "Break You Off."
Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the Roots flirt with the idea of recording a New Orleans record when they meet a brass band called To Be Continued. "Three weeks before Katrina, we met these little boys that are some of the baddest brass cats I've known. Actually, they're so good, an heir to multimillions, this kid from Japan ― he doesn't even speak English ― he's on vacation with his parents in New Orleans, sees this band on the street corner, tells his parents, 'I want to join them.' Of course, they said, 'No. You're crazy.' He actually ran away, and he's secretly funding them. He plays the cowbell. Doesn't even have great rhythm. OK? Seventeen black kids in the brass band, and this one Japanese kid who doesn't even speak English. You ever watch Arrested Development? Remember Annyong? He's like an Annyong character ― totally sticking out. But that's how dope they are. They were so incredible, Tom Hanks walked up and put $4,000 cash inside their bucket. They reminded me of us. So, we were gonna do the brass record. Then Katrina happened three weeks later, and it totally fell apart. The [brass band] got separated, some of them lost their families, we didn't know what to do."
Black Thought's children, who live in New Orleans, are not injured, but Quest says the hurricane changed his partner. "Literally, the first few days, he didn't know where they were or anything. He assumed they all went to Houston. And then it's like, well, how do they survive? New house, new school... that's something that doesn't change."
Word of a Black Thought/Danger Mouse collaborative LP, Dangerous Thoughts, circulates, but no music surfaces. J. Period drops the stellar Black Thought-hosted Best of the Roots blend tape that gets named one of the Mixtapes of the Year by AllHipHop.com. Malik B releases his first project outside of the Roots, an indie EP titled Psychological. Questlove appears in a couple of sketches on Chappelle's Show, and the Block Party documentary concert film gets a theatrical release. Esquire magazine gives Quest an Esky award for Best Scribe in its April issue.
The Roots leave Geffen and release Game Theory on hallowed rap label Def Jam. "The main thing was, 'Do we want to give Geffen another record, in light of the fact that they're not the Geffen that we were on back in 1993?'" Questlove tells Pound. "Then we came up with an idea: Why don't we just ask Jimmy Iovine to let us go? It's not like he's gonna miss us. He still has U2, still has Gwen Stefani, still has 50 [Cent], still has Em, still has Lloyd Banks, still has [Young] Buck, still has Sting, still the Black Eyed Peas, still has Ashlee Simpson... he has 'em all. He ain't gonna miss us. We'll sneak out the back door. Surprisingly, he agreed," Questlove says.
"[Def Jam] was the label I dreamed about being on 20 years ago in high school. We'd sit in class and do mock-ups of our album covers, and the Def Jam logo would always be at the bottom. I'm happy we're on the label, however I know that people's expectations for this record were like, 'OK, they about to cash in. We know what's up. They rollin' with [president] Jay-Z. They gonna cash in.' It's funny: If this were 1988, us joining Def Jam would've seen like a very natural thing: 'Oh, wow, Def Jam! Congratulations!' Now it's like, 'Def Jam? Really?! Jay-Z? Hold on, let me grab this popcorn!'"
Darker and better than they've been in ages, Game Theory is a post-Katrina monster of political and personal turmoil and triumph. Troubled Malik B returns to rap on three tracks, and recently deceased friend J Dilla is honoured throughout an album that was recorded between contracts. "Necessity is the mother of invention. It was like guerrilla songwriting. Even some of the speakers didn't work in the studio; it was all right [channel] speakers. Having that environment, it's a little different when you don't have a luxury couch and a fish tank and a plasma screen and great mics and my choice of five drum sets," Quest explains. "We're trying to make an album out my small-ass closet of a mixing studio. I'm actually glad that we did it, because that makes you work harder, when you don't have necessities."
In September, Pharrell gives Questlove and James Poyser the complete a cappellas and carte blanche to remix his debut album. An improved version of Out of My Mind by "Pharrell & The Yessirs" surfaces on the web in 2007.
2007 to 2008
Longtime member Leonard Hubbard and his omnipresent chew stick retire on August 31. He gets replaced by new bassist Owen Biddle. Damon "Tuba Gooding Jr." Bryson joins the stage, playing sousaphone. The Roots perform "Lovely, Love My Family" on the popular kids' program Yo Gabba Gabba. The NAACP gives the Roots an Image Award for Outstanding Duo or Group, and PETA nominates Black Thought as one of the "World's Sexiest Vegetarians." In July '08, Questlove works with Nike to design a limited edition Air Force 1 with burgundy leather, red canvas and neon-green elephant print. "A very loud statement," he says. "A sneaker that sort of has 12 exclamation points behind it." Music-wise, he produces Al Green's Lay It Down, which enters the Billboard top 10. It's the Reverend's most successful album in 35 years.
After a false start with the pop smear of a lead single, "Birthday Girl" featuring Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump on the chorus and porn star Sasha Grey in the video, the radio-friendly track gets dropped from the Roots' Rising Down album, relegated to iTunes bonus track status because it jars with the CD's aggressive tone. "It's just an easy pop song," Quest would say. "We had that song kind of as a joke. It was birthed somehow during the jam session for Tipping Point." Named after a William T. Vollman book, Rising Down continues to spotlight Philly talent ― DJ Jazzy Jeff, Peedi Crack, Truck North, Dice Raw, Malik B ― while giving up-and-comer and Black Thought fan Wale a chance to shine on the single "Rising Up." The disc's April 29, 2008, release date is chosen because it coincides with the 16th anniversary of L.A.'s Rodney King riots.
Blasting "Here I Come" as the show's theme song, on March 2, the Roots become the house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, not only supplying head-nods during commercial breaks, but appearing in comedy sketches and supporting acts like Public Enemy and Freeway during typically rap-deficient late-night programming. James Poyser joins in on keyboards for the TV show. A single called "How I Got Over," which features a soul-singing Black Thought, is released in the summer of 2009, but the planned album of the same name fails to see an '09 release. Thought appears in the redemption movie In NorthWood.
Dice Raw releases "100," his first solo single in ten years, and hints at another full-length. Questlove starts writing material for British singer Duffy's second album, and the Roots produce Wake Up Sessions, a yet-to-be-released LP by John Legend. Through Twitter, singer Amy Winehouse hints at forming a super-group involving Questlove. Recorded during their tenure backing up Jimmy Fallon, How I Got Over borrows its name from Clara Ward's gospel classic. The crew's ninth LP, which features cameos from John Legend, Phonte, Patty Crash, Blu, and Monsters of Folk, is released in June. Black Thought explains that the album is more positive than the crew's previous two Def Jam efforts, exploring the members' relief as the Bush presidency ended and the Obama administration took charge. The Roots' work ethic endures, and concepts for future projects spring abundant.
"There are different ideas I want to do. We're flirting with the idea of doing the Double Roots Quartet: two bassists, two guitarists, two drummers, two keyboard players, two MCs. The Graceland idea, either South America or South Africa," Questlove tells Pound. "I also wonder what would happen if me and Tariq did a DJ/MC show all by ourselves. But I'd be afraid that he would do the old 'And now hit it!'" the drummer says, pointing to a hypothetical DJ. "And I would be forced to do some DJ tricks."
Questlove makes Dilla Joints, a collection of J Dilla beats covered live by the Roots, available for download. Dice Raw then takes those instrumentals and raps over them for his Dice, Dilla, Pregunta mixtape.