This article was originally published as the cover story of Paste 12. John Legend & The Roots' Wake Up! is out today.
For three days, Paste's Jay Sweet traveled with the ground breaking hip hop group throughout the Northeast on its pair of tour buses. Most of that time was spent shadowing de facto bandleader ?uestlove. Here's a glimpse behind the scenes into the wild and thoughtful world of The Roots:
”Yankees suck! Yankees suck!” chant a few thousand people on a muggy July afternoon in a concrete concert shed, amid the fluorescent jet-ski dealers, homemade firework stands, T-shirt shops, Harley detailers and endless lawn ornaments of New Hampshire’s Live Free or Die lake region. The crowd is almost entirely made up of white, male 311 fans, sun-burnt and pickled. And by the sea of red-letter capital B’s on shirts and backward baseball caps, not to mention the rising volume of their beer-soaked sentiments, they are also 100 percent Boston Red Sox Nation. This doesn’t bode well for the man onstage wearing a black-on-black New York Yankees hat. As anyone aware of baseball’s greatest rivalry knows, this could turn ugly fast, but the lidded offender deftly defuses the situation, proclaiming, “I don’t like ’em, I just like the color; hell, I’m from Philly!”
The crowd is assuaged because the Phillies—like the Red Sox—are a big-hearted bunch who play with underdog attitude and heated passion. Even though every year they end up bowing to their big-city rivals, faith is restored each season until whispers of “Could this be our year?” reach fever pitch. The same can also be said for fans of the band onstage, for they, too, carry the weight of expectations and potential only to repeatedly fall just shy of the brass ring. Yet we still believe, for this really could be the year for The Roots.
Onstage, the man at the mic, MC Black Thought (a.k.a. Tariq Trotter), turns to the band—bassist Leonard “Hub” Hubbard, keyboardist Kamal Gray, guitarist “Captain” Kirk Douglas, percussionist Frankie “Knuckles” Walker, and drummer and de facto ringleader, ?uestlove (a.k.a. Ahmir Thompson)—and lets out a sly smile. He’s a player, and he’s not going to lose this game so easily. Hub, gnawing on his omnipresent licorice root, calmly lays down a tooth-rattling bass line as Black Thought starts the sing-along with pieces of the Sugar Hill Gang classic “Rapper’s Delight.” The hip-hop flashpoint even inspires the hackey-sacking crowd in the corner to join the fold, arms raised, throwing “whassup” signs to the beat. Once captured, Thought conjures up his best Christopher Walken, and mutters, “More cowbell,” mimicking the absurdly funny SNL/Will Ferrell send-up of VH1’s Behind the Music. Like a charging rhino on methamphetamines, ?uestlove bangs out the intro to Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” This is classic-rock country, and the New England audience eats it up. Although not exactly in a hotbed of hip-hop, The Roots are still here to spread the word, so they furtively bleed Blue Oyster Cult into “The Seed 2.0”—a Roots/Cody Chesnutt collaboration and a dedication to the group’s mistress, rock ’n’ roll, behind the back of its old lady, hip-hop. A little infidelity and, just like that, the crowd is theirs.
Without short-changing their integrity, their quest is simple and ambitious. The Roots are trying to change the cultural mindset of hip-hop with nothing more than a bass, a keyboard, a guitar, a voice and a big pair of sticks. For the rest of the set, the band continues to bookend its tunes with old-school, hip-jazz backbeats and imaginatively camouflaged rock standards. Thought injects Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” into the chorus of The Roots’ “Break You Off.” During his solo, Captain Kirk gels a John Coltrane/Stanley Jordan-infused rip of “My Favorite Things” with a Peter Frampton-laced version of Marley’s “Stir It Up”—complete with Pete Townsend-style windmills, scat singing and crowd-surfing fans. Kamal spices his solo with a little “Shake, Rattle and Roll” into Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid,” while his four-year-old son, Kamal Jr., huddles underneath the keyboard slapping his legs in time.
The familial environment onstage is nothing new for ?uestlove, who literally grew up touring with his father, famed doo-wop singer, Lee Andrews. He began playing drums around Kamal Jr.’s age and once ran onstage at a Madison Square Garden show when he was two. So it seems fitting that when ?uest and Knuckles’ tribal drum solo flowers into a choreographed dance where they snake in and around each other’s sets like some maniacal, multi-armed Hindu deity, Kamal Jr. adds to the cacophony by sneaking onto the drum riser and beating the life out of a defenseless crash cymbal. From a rising crescendo, the place erupts as the little drummer boy flashes a wide smile when triumphantly hoisted onto ?uestlove’s shoulders. This inherited showmanship, musicianship and ability to win over a seemingly stolid crowd should come as no surprise; the band has been on the road 250 days a year since 1993. Its constantly spinning odometer draws comparisons to other road stalwarts like the Grateful Dead and Phish, as much as to other hip-hop groups.
Looking closer, it’s not simply the miles that have generated these comparisons. It’s also the ability to tap into every aspect of America’s musical landscape and to draw in those searching for an evolving musical community. The Dead, Phish and even the current headliner on The Roots tour, 311, have all made a career of redefining the premise of musical genres without fear of failure, and tonight’s set list is ample proof that The Roots have the very same roadmap. While critically this may be admirable, to find oneself in the unclassified section is both a boon and a burden; without a reference point the music can be tough to sell. All you can do is be sincere in your convictions and hope people find you along the way.
“We are simply the Larry Davids of music,” offers ?uestlove, as I step onto the tour bus for the first time. Wearing a bright yellow T-shirt that demands the freedom of Tommy Chong, he paces the bus while picking his trademark Afro. He smiles as Captain Kirk plays a note-perfect, slide-guitar version of the Stones’ “Loving Cup.”
After Kirk sings the chorus, ?uest continues, “We get the acclaim, just not always the appeal. Phrenology was supposedly an anti-Roots album because it had some rock and funk influences. Vibe even called it ‘an identity crisis.’ I guess to some, Tipping Point would then be a more pure Roots album. I say they’re all Roots albums. Although we are considered a rap group, I continually see our progression and presence in Led Zeppelin terms. They could blow the doors off live and still maintain that vitality on vinyl. I’ve been researching the production notes of some of the best albums of the past few decades, as well as the best of today, to crosscheck for commonalities, because I feel we can make the hip-hop version of [Springsteen’s] Nebraska or [Beck’s] Sea Change. What I came to realize was the best records aren’t crammed. …[Rich Nichols], our manager and fifth Beatle, said, ‘It’s too easy to construct an album with everything including the kitchen sink.’ And he’s right. Making Phrenology was a breeze. He was the one who threw down the challenge on Tipping Point; construct a 10-song record, no tricks, no super-special guest stars, just 10 bare-bones, great songs. That’s obviously trickier than it sounds, because it’s simply hard to make a basic hip-hop album—especially when no one has a consensus on what that means anymore.”
?uest is right. Although The Tipping Point’s title came from the Malcolm Gladwell book of the same name, it’s not just a nod to a possible paradigm shift where the group’s labors finally come to fruition with epidemic success; it has more to do with coming into their own. The cover captures this sentiment with a picture of then street thug Malcolm Little, shortly before he became Malcolm X. Although no one needs another dead hero who takes it in the heart for speaking the truth ahead of his or her time, it must be problematic being a black band in today’s hip-hop world, seeing the fading shadows of A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers and De La Soul and wondering how this came to pass. With no present reference points, The Roots stand alone, faced with the near impossible task of remaining relevant in an increasingly gentrified music industry. For them it’s a continuous dance of moving beyond the margins while keeping an eye on permanence and legacy. As ?uestlove says, “there’s no black Mars Volta or Radiohead, or at least none that can stay critically acclaimed for pushing boundaries while staying commercially viable; it’s rarefied space, and we aim to fill it.”