Return of The Roots
By Andy Argyrakis
From the pages of Illinois Entertainer
They've never had any trouble racking up respect,
from ending up on critic's best of lists virtually every year
an album is released to playing on some of each summer's hottest
tickets to creating a diversified repertoire. But the one item
The Roots lack in its progressive catalogue is a downright smash,
a runaway hit that's sure to stand the ages and pump out of radio
airwaves, regardless of the format. It's a paradox that never
used to bother Ahmir Thompson (most commonly refereed to as ?uestlove),
the group's spokesman and co-founder with rapper Black Thought
(Tariq Trotter) but it's recently become a more pressing concern.
"Actually, the way I came conscious of that was
kind of weird," the outspoken and intelligent drummer relates
on a phone call from The Roots' moving tour bus. "I was hanging
out with this friend of mine who has a two way pager, which had
alerts of popular songs on them. I was looking through his song
list and was like 'Damn man, why can't we get one song on here?'
He was like, 'Man, ya'll ain't got no song for this' and I was
like 'Yeah, we've got plenty of songs, you could put any one on
here!' He said, 'Man, I'm gonna tell you once like I've always
been telling you and that's your songs are full of rhythm and
full chord changes, but never melody.'"
?uestlove was surprised to hear such boldness
come from the mouth of his buddy, but as he let the thought process,
realized that assessment wasn't too far off from the truth. Beyond
just stewing over the statement, the boundary pushing figurehead
went home and played every song from 1995's Geffen debut Do You
Want More?!!!??! through 1999's Things Fall Apart and was astounded
at the results.
"Literally I went through every song [between
those two albums] and was utterly amazed that maybe one of ninety
something songs had a melody to it. I flashbacked to that conversation
with my friend and remembered what he said next. He told me 'Look
man, you guys as songwriters was cute in the beginning, but it's
kind of like when I first met you as a drummer. When your were
first drumming, you were eight years old, so it was cute to see
you drum like an adult at such a young age. But eventually one
day you turned 21 and the novelty of you being a kid drummer went
out the window. If I were you guys, I would take songwriting more
seriously. It's much more than finding a good jam session in a
song while you're sound checking. You have to fully develop a
song, don't just half dress it. Make sure it has a melody, make
sure it has a bridge if necessary and make sure the rhythm is
compatible with the beat.'"
Words of wisdom indeed that were not only the
primary catalyst for The Roots' latest endeavor The Tipping Point,
but also forging points for a dramatically new band direction.
Whereas previous tracks were molded exclusively on stage and during
sound checks, this latest batch of tunes came from a series of
writing sessions, which despite being common for most pop, rock
and even R&B acts, had been foreign, for the most part, within
The Roots' blueprints.
"Not since our second album Do You Want More?!!!??! have we actually had songwriting sessions because of our touring
schedule, in between [1996's] Illadelph Halflife and [2002's]
Phrenology was so crazy," admits ?uestlove. "So we had an open
jam session in September 2003 and we basically invited outside
musicians and songwriters to come collaborate with us, jamming
all day, all month. By the time we were done, we had 80 hours
worth of music and then the hard part over the next few months
was going through it all and deciding what was a keeper, what
wasn't a keeper and how we should develop full songs from all
of that. Some of those songs were kind of sampled from the hard
drive, some of those songs we re-played again when an idea was
waxed out, some of the ideas we would give to our in house producer
people and we would sample it and make other songs out of it.
That's pretty much how the process of this album was made."
And slowly but surely, that previous two way pager
conversation played out in the studio, with cuts being carved
out at a radio friendly length, taking on a much more focused
feel and kicking up the songwriting to a much more accessible
level. That's not to say the gang has watered down their previously
recognized rap/soul/hip-hop rumblings, they've just streamlined
their ideas in a much more digestible direction merely derived
from a groove rather than building the entire song around one.
"I think our process of songwriting in the past,
especially when we were naïve, was we would just start developing
the song once we got the groove going," ?uestlove confirms. "So
we'd have the groove going and then it was 'Why don't you do this?'
We'd build it up from there with different beats and then say
'Okay, next song.' I kind of caught wind of actual song structure
with Phrenology- that's where I kind of became conscious of
'Yeah, I think we need a bridge here and we need a chorus here'
like actual songwriting structure, whereas the albums before we
would just play a groove and that was it."
Indeed Phrenology was the precursor to such
expansion, toying with such ideas at a moderate level, but mostly
building a bridge to The Tipping Point in hopes of making the
leap seem less extreme to longtime followers. And speaking of
faithful fans, what will they think of this jump in song length
and melody focus? Though it's in inevitable some may automatically
label the guys "sell outs" (that is, before they hear the record)
the truth is The Tipping Point still has many of the group's
classic elements, like sly rhymes, a danceable urban groove and
progressive hip-hop contexts. Just because the song's durations
are shorter doesn't make the flow of "Guns Are Drawn" any less
sophisticated, nor do three-minute offerings like "Web," "Don't
Say Nuthin" and "Stay Cool" have any less street credibility than
previous outings. Those jams is filled with complex instrumentation
and riveting rhythmic explosions, while the hand clap base of
"Duck Down" and the neo-soul rippling throughout "Somebody Gotta
Do It" demonstrates the group's development of concepts from start
to finish, rather than having them fade off into oblivion without
closure. "If anything, I'd say that Phrenology was sort of equivalent
to Eve biting the apple and sort of realizing the truth," adds
?uestlove. "Then The Tipping Point came along and it gave us
the chance to think out ideas and become more sketched out."
Aside from taking his friend's advice, ?uestlove
also cracked open his vinyl collection to examine projects that
have been the most inspirational to the group throughout the years.
Amongst those he revisited were vintage works by Stevie Wonder,
Marvin Gaye, Al Green and others under the soul umbrella (from
Motown to 80s dance). The experience was not only pleasantly nostalgic,
but informative and educational. It also sparked a re-visitation
of Sly and the Family Stone's "Star," which is presented as a
virtual duet with Sly himself (along the lines of Natalie Cole
teaming with the late Nat King Cole for "Unforgettable").
"One thing I wanted to do was a more simple album,
just a 10 song record, which is pretty much all the records I've
been listening to and continue to listen to- most of them from
the 70s," he explains, referring to The Tipping Point's primary
base (minus the "Outro" and bonus tracks). "Your average Stevie
Wonder record, your average Michael Jackson, your average Prince
record- all that stuff was just 10 or 11 songs long and every
song had you."
Beyond just carving out a sonic appeal with each
composition, ?uestlove and company also sought a theme for fans
to sink their teeth into, one that would not only represent a
social statement, but have relevance to everyone listening. In
order to do so, The Roots turned to the Malcolm Gladwell's book
The Tipping Point, which is basically a text of observations
relating to how small ideas can spread to astronomical proportions
within the context of pop culture. It's a scenario that's not
only governed the grassroots rise of many best-selling products
over time, but it's closely mirrored the group's ascent from Philadelphia
students to an international, full time touring outfit.
"The book gives several examples as to how certain
concepts, items or ideas have spread," summarizes ?uestlove. "It's
kind of like the shoes Hush Puppies, which had a cut back after
their first reign in the 1970s, but then one designer single handedly
brought them back to a million dollar conglomerate in 1996. [Gladwell]
also talked about how Jim Henson started Sesame Street as just
a marionette show and turned it into a multi-million dollar empire.
For us, The Tipping Point is sort of meant to represent the
boiling point or the climax at which something grooves. We feel
for us a rap group with no dance single, no recognizable club
hit, no Viacom presence as far as MTV or BET is concerned, no
radio hits, no visible celebrity in the group- pretty much all
the ingredients needed to make a hip-hop act work- we've seemed
to miraculously bi-pass it all. If anything, The Tipping Point is just the fact that we're just a small group out of Philadelphia
that somehow spread our fan base, which is somewhere in between
600,000 and 900,000 fans."
This summer has been just like the ten preceding
since the band's indie album Organix hit streets with members
remaining on the concert circuit. In keeping with the trend to
jump on diverse bills (which has most notably included Moby's
Area One Tour) The Roots teamed up with 311 and Medeski, Martin
& Wood. Though tickets have sold steadily at all the dates (including
a stop at Tinley Park's Tweeter Center last month) ?uestlove admits
this triple team has moments of difficulty.
"The 311 tour is probably our biggest challenge,
not because it's a new audience or anything but simply because
I think both the Roots and 311 are sort of doing our breathless
race to the finish line," he says. "What it's coming to, I guess,
is the post Phish jam band Olympics. Those guys, they amaze me
with their set every night. They jam and they pretty much have
a loyal audience. I've seen the same fans in the audience every
day for the last ten cities."
Despite having some friendly competition, The
Roots are still satisfied with the pairing and insist that being
on anything less than a diverse bill would make for a boring show.
Luckily, their fans and those of the other bands are incredibly
respectful of all types of music, and even if it's not their primary
bag, still seem to be responsive. "That's probably because The
Roots' audience is a diverse, left of center audience," ?uestlove
contends. "It's always been that way, we've just applied ourselves
to weigh out all of our options every tour because there's a lot
changing, especially in the urban audience."
?uestlove is referring to the increasingly prevalent
philosophy that brand new material and chart action have become
priority ingredients for some fans to purchase a ticket. He asserts
it's no longer about improvisation and changing up the set list
every evening, but more about presenting a carbon copy show night
after night that's exactly what one's used to hearing.
"Our audience is about change, elevation, musicianship,
virtuosity- they support that fully," he continues. "But the video
generation isn't ready for that. They want to hear the album version
or they want it just like the video. They want no additives, no
preservatives and it's a shame really that the younger generation
can't make something it's own. There's really not much loyalty
left in that particular sound and there's contempt for anything
historical. It doesn't cherish its resources as other cultures
and art forms do. Kids right now are applying the term 'Old school'
to anything that's more than three years old, like Wu Tang Clan
and Snoop Doggy Dog. I'm like 'That's old school?' That's pretty
much new to me! You're not going to be throwing the Beatles away
just because they came out a few years ago, you know what I mean?"
Aside from trying to break outside that mold within
the context of his group, ?uestlove has also sidestepped on several
occasions to produce records for other artists. Not only has he
added a dose of integrity to material by D'Angelo, Macy Gray,
Joss Stone, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake, but each
of those artists went on to earn a balanced degree of acclaim
and commercialism. Out of that pack, Stone has made the most recent
breakthrough, and despite having a solid track record, such a
runaway response still surprises ?uestlove.
"When I got word that Joss Stone was kind of hitting
overseas and in Europe, I was shocked and had no clue she would,"
he admits. "I thought it was going to be yet another obscure artist
from some place in America that I'm working with, but it's cool.
I definitely felt vindication when D'Angelo won his 'Album of
the Year' at the Grammy Awards in 2000. That was a happy moment
being part of that and see him shine like he did and they all
No matter how often ?uestlove's production work
has turned to gold, he's quick to note those projects are merely
supplementary to his day job. Even though offers keep rolling
in for work behind the boards, he's put the band at the top of
the priority list and turning down more extracurricular work than
he's been taking. "It sometimes becomes a task, but it's nothing
that I can't handle," he reiterates. "I've definitely lessened
my production duties in the past year or so simply because before
I put more priority in my production work than I did in The Roots
work just because I didn't think that The Roots could somehow
get out of 300,000 record selling hell. But as soon as our fourth
album had reached like 900.000 units in sales, I thought otherwise.
It may have seemed like a fluke, but then our last album did a
miraculous 750,000 sales and that confirmed I needed to keep developing
this. As a result, I thought it was important to concentrate more
on The Roots, which is a bummer because there are some artists
that I want to work with. Building The Roots' brand name is something
I really have to work on right now."
Recalling just how far the group has come throws
?uestlove back in time to his days at the Philadelphia High School
for the Creative and Performing Arts. He reminisces to a period
when the group's name was The Square Roots and how they used to
compete in local talent competitions with groups like Boyz II
Men. "Sometimes I miss it, believe it or not," he offers. "And
even a bit past that when we lived in Europe between 1993 and
1995. That's when we got our kick-start simply because there was
so much work for us over there, but the conditions were bad. There
were three to a room in a two star hotel- somebody would have
to sleep on the floor, somebody would have to take the mattress,
and somebody has to take the pillow. Or someone would say 'I'm
going to sleep on the bus because this room is too filthy.' That's
a little different now because we can stay in a Four Seasons or
a Hilton and everything's okay. I kind of miss that beginning
period because it was an innocent time for us."
The guys may never be able to reclaim those early
days, but one element that cheers ?uestlove right back up again
is the realization of the group's longevity. The fact that he
can recall days of competing with boy bands that have long been
brushed under the rug is a testament to The Roots' endurance.
And besides just lasting, the group has become quite influential
on modern day acts focused on musicianship and genre fusion. But
how does it continue to define the trends rather than follow them?
"I actually asked Prince the same thing and I
framed it around the period between 1999 and Sign of the Times,"
?uestlove shares. "I asked him 'How did you do it?' and he said
'You just keep working. Not everything comes up a royal flush,
but if you work on 30 songs, you're guaranteed that three of them
are going to be excellent.' I just think that we surround ourselves
with the right group of people who sort of play judge and jury.
Sometimes your feelings get hurt- you present a song that you
think is incredible and none of them are doing cartwheels over
it, but I've just always credited us for not hanging around a
bunch of 'Yes' men. They're people that actually care about the
group. If they don't like it, it gets trashed or worked on again."
Besides going through a carefully scrutinized
approval process, The Roots have also stayed in the game so long
simply because of their tireless work ethic. Song ideas are always
being generated, future plans are continuously being brainstormed
and even when the gang doesn't have a new record to promote, everyone's
on the road refining their chops. "We're always working, working,
working!" ?uestlove concludes with pride. "Our motto is 'Sleep
is the cousin of death.' We can sleep when we're dead. There's
too much work to do!"
And lots of two-way pager and cell phone companies
to win over that still haven't used The Roots' music as ring tones…
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