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.”
I delve into the new album on the two-hour ride to Boston, where the band is staying before its next gig. Opening with a “virtual” duet of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everybody Is a Star,” the band invites you with an embrace, but suddenly Black Thought shuts the door, sits you down and slaps you to make sure you’re attuned to what he’s laying down. Although dangerously dexterous with his slack-jawed delivery, the lyrical message is downright lethal. As always, Thought holds up the mirror to today’s society and demands that we all atone for past—and potential—mistakes, including the mediocrity that now counts as star power:
Hip-hop is not pop like Kylie Minouge …
Cause it’s a lot of bullshit flooding the scene
Where everybody’s a star and hot shit is far and few between
You lose a grip on what garbage mean
Shorties wanna be themselves I know it’s hard to be
Don’t wanna do the Ruben Studdard and come off less threatening.
It occurs to me that his political and provocative sentiments may indeed be the biggest reason why The Roots, with all their adulation and chops, have yet to find the mega record sales they seem to be craving. The Roots do not create better worlds with their words. The big sellers in their delegated genre sing about Benzes, Benjamins and bravado, showcasing a richer world than the street life a lot of people buying their albums endure. If they do speak about hardships, it’s always in the past tense and with a light at the end of the tunnel that isn’t an oncoming E Train. On the flip side, the rock ’n’ roll road warriors with whom The Roots are often lumped create parallel universes, idyllic landscapes and third-person narratives where people can tune in, tune out, rise above, find love or simply escape. Like a Venn Diagram of musical expression, The Roots land in the cross-hatched overlay, where the joy and spiritual release of musical exploration meets the lyrical triage needed to confront the problems surrounding us. While these truths may set us free, everybody knows what happens to the messenger. Just look at the guy on the album cover.
Later, with Dave Matthews’ lyrics, “I love you oh so well, like a kid loves candy and fresh snow …” piping in over a store’s PA, ?uest addresses the dichotomy. “When Dave wants to play his credibility card and pull in the anti-DMB act, he grabs us, which is way cool. I enjoy the opportunity since the associations help in finding new fans, but in the meantime, it hasn’t translated into getting their same dollars. I think bands like DMB and Phish offer the same bang for the buck live that we do, but we aren’t really in their generalized fan base. Hell, we’re black, and who wants to see a black band sing a love song? I see The Roots as a one-person baseball team, like when Bugs Bunny would pitch the ball and then run around home plate, switch hats, and swing away. That’s how we are. It’s hard being all things to all people, because Tariq and me are the exact opposite—socially and musically—which is good ’cause he won’t let me go too far left into the field and I won’t let him go too far right into the street. The tension in the middle of the rope, when we pull in different directions, is where the answer and the music lies.”
The next day is a day off, and thankfully ?uestlove passes on sky diving with some of the crew and band so he can spend his day trolling the aisles of Boston’s everything-hip store, Newbury Comics. Entering a record store with ?uestlove is like walking into a shark tank wearing a seal suit. One by one managers and customers circle closer trying to make eye contact. Those who come in for the kill are greeted warmly and graciously, and once fed, swim off with toothy grins. When the chum settles, ?uest heads to the book section and quickly grabs Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, Lester Bangs’ Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste and Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, Andrew Emery’s The Book of Hip-hop Cover Art, and 33 1/3’s pocket series on The Velvet Underground & Nico and Prince’s Sign of the Times. If I hadn’t heard his convincing arguments on why a pre-Springsteen Jon Landau is a better writer than Lester Bangs, or why he’s moving to Canada when the G.O.P. announces bin Laden’s been found sometime in late September, I might’ve thought he was trying to impress or unnerve a journalist. What’s more impressive, though, is when he puts the books on the counter and heads back to the vinyl section. An hour later, with a stack higher than his hair, the checkout receipt reads not as a mere laundry list of prime record-bin nuggets, but as a treatise on what makes people shake their ass after a few drinks on a Friday night. He should know, as the stack of postcards and posters by the cashier announce ?uestlove will be playing a special DJ set tonight at one of the hippest clubs in town.
When asked why he’d consider working on his precious days off, he replies, “I’m a control freak, plain and simple, and it’s the only time I am the master of the music, which is quite a release after playing in the band. Basically, I play drums in order to buy records. … I try and set gigs up in every town even before or after a Roots show. I actually charge the promoter more if he gives me less than three hours. You want to give me all night, you can get me cheap; you want me for an hour and it’ll cost you. I don’t take requests; I am there to educate. The high comes from playing the one or two songs at 1:00 a.m. that makes everyone on the floor feel like they are back at their first sleepover wearing pajamas with feet—or even better, their first co-ed dance. That’s when all the cool moves and attitude wash away and you’re left with happy feet. Plus, buying and organizing records is a Zen thing for me; it’s my only real form of relaxation.”
How many records does he have? “Last count was 40,000. I like to relax a lot.”
After taking some pictures and signing autographs for the people who’ve been following him around the Puma store, ?uest ducks into a Dunkin’ Donuts for a calming glass of milk. Suddenly I hear an old Devo tune. It’s his cell phone. The call concerns The Roots’ new record label, Interscope. After being signed to Geffen, which Black Thought compared to “sharecroppin’,” the band was passed off to MCA right before the label’s implosion, which landed them on hip-hop’s biggest label. Unsurprisingly, The Roots are finding it hard to fit in. Although the band’s numbers, by any other standard, are strong coming out of the gate, the talk is tense and centers around every artist’s common cry, ‘back us up or let us go.’ It’s an all or nothing statement, and ?uest hangs up to await an answer. He drinks some more milk and looks at his new vinyl.
Suddenly the phone rings again, but the ring tone is different. He doesn’t answer it. “It’s Spike Lee,” he says. “He’s got his own ring on my phone. We have some knots to untangle, and it’s gonna be a long talk. I have to mentally prepare for it and I’m not ready.” I press him on it. “Spike and me go way back. Ironically, I played a minstrel in Bamboozled, but I’m guessing this is probably about me saying stuff online about his new flick—stuff he probably wasn’t too psyched about.”
Before he discloses anymore, Devo rings. ?uest quickly looks at the number and answers it by asking if the label has dropped them. After a long pause, he hunches his shoulders and says, “OK” before hanging up. It’s good for now, and with that settled he stops to buy some high-end record needles for his set tonight before returning to the hotel. The DNC is in town, and the hotel lobby is a three-ringed circus, crawling with politicos, suits and celebs. At one point, Democratic mouthpiece James Carville—sweating from a run—steps into the elevator as Little Richard steps out wearing a cape and more eyeliner than Eartha Kitt. In town for a three-game series with the Red Sox, the New York Yankees swarm the elevators like well-tailored locusts. Surrounded by Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, Bostonians are simultaneously star struck and contemplating assault and battery with a nearby umbrella stand. Passing in the lobby, ?uestlove is introduced to A-Rod, and another potential Yankee confrontation slips by without incident.
Over dinner with The Roots, 311 and both bands’ crews at The Barking Crab, a rough seafood joint on the Boston waterfront, ?uestlove waxes poetic about the past, about playing everywhere and anywhere, and about the moments that have defined his group. “Our proving ground, our CBGB, our woodshed was The Wetlands. We were lucky because now there is no venue structure to incubate talent. Where is a black band going to get their chops? There’s not one club in the entire world dedicated to showcasing young black talent. That’s why we give young players time in our rehearsal space and our records. It’s about creating a community. Back in the day, every Sunday night we’d do like six-hour jam sessions where Mos Def, Jill Scott, Talib Kweli and India.arie would come down and hone their skills. We were the torchbearers of the underground movement, and we knew we had something when Puffy and Biggie started showing up on the dingy backstage couch. The whole experience of The Roots is that we were so underestimated—because we did everything live, without a net—that once we surpassed your expectations, it made us seem that much greater. But when you live this way, the bar just keeps getting higher. Like orchestrating Jay-Z’s farewell show at Madison Square Garden and his MTV Unplugged special, being the first hip-hop act to play Lincoln Center and, of course, backing Prince. We were so lost in the moment we were yelling out chord changes in the middle of the tune.”
In fact, ?uestlove has played with all the people he dreamed about playing with as a kid—except one. “I won’t play with Stevie Wonder,” he says “The expectations are too high and you don’t want your image of what it would be like to change, because it can never be as good as in your imagination. He’s even asked me to build him some beats, but I graciously declined; some things are just too sacred.”
Later, towering over the DJ booth like an ear-muffed marionette, the control freak effortlessly wields the sharpened talons of the turntables, digging deep grooves of hot, buttered beats and fortified funk. While he spins, gyrating, loose-limbed hipsters writhe blissfully under the stalactites of sweat hanging from the low-slung ceiling. Revelers lounge like sated cats on vinyl lipstick couches for a better view of those dancing on tabletops. High heels be damned; there’s no fear of gravity here tonight. The DJ is relaxed and in control of his craft. At 1:00 a.m. exactly, the woofers bleed a medley of lost innocence with cuts from the Grease soundtrack and Human League before launching “The Theme from Cheers.” Happy feet indeed. Suddenly this den of iniquity becomes an eighth-grade gym cloaked in tissue streamers and Christmas lights. Even the spiked punch tastes great.
The next day starts at 2:00 p.m. with an endless stream of interviews for radio, print and film. Listening to ?uestlove answer countless questions about the frustrating lack of record sales and radio play that The Roots deserve is maddening. However, he calmly articulates his answer to each one: “It’s not as frustrating as it is about patience; I know we’re going to get there. Our story is the tortoise and the hare; we’re going to get there soon, but it might take people awhile to catch up with us.”
Ironically, media perception of unfulfilled potential seems to ignore the numbers. The Roots have been together for 12 years, sold more than three million records and won a Grammy. Labelmates The Hives, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Loretta Lynn combined don’t sell as many records, but by anyone’s yardstick have achieved success. The explanation may not lie solely in the folded arms of Interscope, a label built on the giants of the genre—Snoop, 50 cent, Tupac and Eminem—but in the genre itself. The narcissistic ethos of hip-hop can be traced back to the contrived realm of disco, when image was king. But, in the ’80s, the audiences became disaffected and Booker T’s rallying cry of ‘pick yourself up by your bootstraps’ married President Reagan’s trickle-down economics, and hip-hop’s winner-take-all attitude was born. As it grew mainstream, the suits took over, the cash landed and soon the genre quickly evolved into neo-minstrelsy. It’s easy to see why The Roots, who’ve ignored the happenstance nature of popular culture are having a hard time fitting into any kind of mold.
On the ride to the show, ?uest tries to keep it light. All topics are fair game and he’s firing away. Politics—“Would you be at all surprised if the Republican Party invented Michael Moore? He’s taught me to question everything, and I think he would be proud of me if I started questioning him, because he’s too good to be true.” Sampling—“It would make my universe if we could come up with a pay-rate system for samples, for it’s killing the careers of the some of the most exciting artists out there.” Movies—“Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenebaums is the best trilogy of all time. Every time we play Austin, Wes and Owen [Wilson] are in the house.” Venues—“We’ve been on the road so long it’s rare for us to play somewhere new. Like tonight, we’ve probably been here 10 times. Unlike Spinal Tap, I can easily show you the way out of the boiler room.”
It shouldn’t be hard. The Tweeter Center is a larger replica of the New Hampshire venue, including the audience and their baseball caps. The only exception is that instead of wearing them backwards, they’re straight-brimmed and cocked to the side. The dressing room is also a tad bigger, so ?uest hides out in an alcove and eats a quick dinner. As Medeski, Martin & Wood open the show with their kinetically funk-fueled jazz, ?uest can’t help but tap along to the music seeping under the stage door. I ask him why The Roots are digestible to a white audience and vice versa. “Because the audiences we play for are usually open to new musical experiences as much as we are. The irony is a white Flaming Lips fan is more apt to go and see a hip-hop show just for the experience than a black Usher fan is to go see a jamming rock show. For all the sampling, hip-hop can be musically isolating. I mean I can’t pry Wilco’s new album out of my CD player. Hell, the best song of the year is Loretta Lynn’s “My Little Red Shoes” off Van Lear Rose, which Jack White produced. I mean how inspiring and spooky is that shit? I dug it so much I called Jack, who I know after a month of touring with [The White Stripes in] Australia in a single tour bus, just to ask him how it all went down. To be honest, in a way I’m more comfortable playing the likes of Lollapalooza or Bonnaroo, where we may have something to prove but we can also let it all hang out, than playing in Harlem, where I know what kind of show they want. And if we don’t give it to them, it can get ugly. In the end, it’s not really the venue, it’s the people in the seats. So to finally answer your question, I can find something redeeming in all music, and I think you can hear that in how we play.”
To prove his point, The Roots pull off singing Prince’s “When Doves Cry” while playing The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” before naturally segueing once again into “The Seed.” Case closed. Game over. Roots win.
The bus ride back to Boston is spent in silence watching the emotional masochism of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours DVD. When it’s over, ?uest muses on why hip-hop has no sense of its own historical significance like rock ’n’ roll, “It’s probably because there are no real unbiased elders to continually articulate its artistic importance. Where are all the great thinkers to teach the importance of the low-end theory or how to respect the One? For example, on one hand, I hear people telling us we use old-school as a crutch, but these are the same people who are telling me that Outkast is being progressive, which is ludicrous. The problem with most people’s excitement for The Love Below was that they honestly believe this is the first go around for this type of music. Why? Because they have no sense of music history, they have no reference of Maggot Brain in the past or TV On the Radio in the now. You get enough PR behind something and you can make people believe anything. There is no guardian at the gate to protect hip-hop from revisionist history, which scares the crap out of me. Music news to black culture is that Erykah Badu doesn’t have dreads; it’s a weave. Full-on scandal. If Pink changed her hair color would you give a shit? Hell no. We need someone responsible at the gate.”
Which begs the question, why doesn’t ?uestlove become the gatekeeper?
“It’s a conflict of interest, no one’s going to respect my unbiased view. Plus I am too tired. I don’t want to be yelling at some kid out of frustration for not knowing who Jam Master J or even Run-D.M.C. is, or for pointing his finger at me for the umpteenth time saying, ‘Hey, it’s the drummer from the Nappy Roots.’”
He does acknowledge he’s become hip-hop and alternative music’s credible mouthpiece and quote source for the white Anglo-centric media, even if it reeks of tokenism.
“I try to brush it off my shoulders, because I don’t want that. Perhaps I’m too giving of my opinions. I don’t have anything to hide, and I have the patience to try and answer their questions.”
By the time we arrive, it’s late, but ?uest never sleeps; he’s always afraid he’ll miss something. So we walk down Newbury Street, Boston’s Puritan version of Rodeo Drive, in search of nothing. We weave through the straggling remnants of DNC revelers, drunk on democracy and searching for another 12 ounces of cheer until a black uniformed cop pulls up next to us and waves us over. Instinctively we both freeze and our guts tighten until he smiles and says, “Forget all these politicians, I should be protecting you out here. You are the real thing, and people just don’t know how good you are for music. Please keep doing what you’re doing, brother.”
He holds out his hand to ?uest, who graciously accepts. With this simple gesture all the frustrations seem to slip away for a moment. “That’s the first time I ever shook a cop’s hand. Gotta love it.”
We reach the corner of Newbury Street and Mass Avenue only to see a massive placard of Tipping Point all lit up in the display window of the monolithic Virgin Megastore. Directly under the cold, piercing stare of Malcolm Little, a gaggle of dreadlocked hippie kids combine five-gallon bucket drums with bongos and a guitar to make a strangely familiar beat. ?uest smiles at the irony.
“I never thought I’d see Malcolm X looking over Newbury Street, although that was us just 12 years ago.” Nudged to join in, he only replies, “They’d just tell me to get lost, I’m too old-school for what they’re playing. Plus, the store is still open and I could do some relaxing.”
An hour later, carrying several bags of music, we see a throng of gloating Red Sox fans gleefully waiting outside the hotel to heckle Alex Rodriguez. Earlier tonight, the most acclaimed, most paid, most hyped player in baseball took exception to being hit by a pitch from a young up-and-coming Red Sox player. Instead of quietly taking his base, A-Rod mouthed off and wound up getting punched in the face by the Sox catcher. A bench-clearing brawl ensued and, when the dust settled, A-Rod was ejected and the Sox came back to win the game.
“It was wicked awesome, he got a shiner and everything.”
Clearly, being the underdog is simultaneously exhilarating and emotionally draining. The only way to become the top dog is to confidently keep the faith, knowing—like with David and Goliath—that it only takes one stone to push something past the tipping point. And while the adage is simple, it belies the truth, because once you’re on top there’s always someone gunning for you. Maybe just being the little guy trying to make a difference is what makes someone great in the first place. With this in mind, I say goodnight to ?uestlove, and wait with the other Fenway faithful to bid A-Rod sweet dreams with our favorite lullaby.
“Yankees suck! Yankees suck!”
Interested in reading more about ?uestlove and The Roots? Check out Paste‘s ? & A and get the straight talk from Ahmir Thompson.