Monday, December 23, 2013

Why the "ROOTS" are Hip Hop Royalty - The Age


Before anyone knew that a band could play hip-hop, the Roots were hip-hop's best band. Two decades on, with hip-hop now the sound of pop songs, television commercials and concept albums alongside Jay-Z, Kanye West and Eminem as global superstars, the Roots are still the best band in hip-hop. They can out-play what any producer can digitally assemble and have amassed an enduring and eclectic body of work.

The eight-piece group, about to tour Australia for the first time since 2005, has multiple identities. Hip-hop fans know their albums, which stretch back to 1993's Organix, while casual listeners identify them as the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, the weeknight US talk show where they play the guests on and effortlessly improvise. In the same week the Roots might appear on children's television show Yo Gabba Gabba! and back reclusive soul music great D'Angelo in a one-off set at a music festival.

"We're too busy to get everything done at once, but all things will come in good time," says the group's rapper, Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter, who is, unsurprisingly, sitting in a departure lounge at Los Angeles International Airport before flying to Japan for gigs.

The Roots' ability to be many things to many people stems from their own structure. The group's founders, Trotter and drummer and producer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, are contradictory characters who complement each other creatively. The former can be powerfully quiet, the latter volubly enthusiastic.
"I'm not driven by the spotlight and I'm not that outgoing," explains Trotter, a 42-year-old husband and father. "I work well within The Roots because I can let my music speak for itself while Ahmir does most of the press and the promotion and the brand-building because he enjoys that."
The pair met in the mid-1980s at Philadelphia's High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, where Thompson, whose father was a successful performer, was studying music, while Trotter was in the visual arts program but liked to freestyle rap lyrics over his new friend's rhythms.

"He had discipline, which continues to define him," says Trotter of Thompson. "I was able to take his lead and apply it to what I was doing: if you want to be great at anything, you have to do it all the time. We'd work on our majors at the School of Art all day, but then he'd go home and work on it all night. He made a lasting impression on me and nothing has changed."

On their 2011 album Undun, the Roots told the life story in reverse of a semi-fictional character, Redford Stephens, who dies violently after a pungently short life of crime resulting from childhood deprivation. The group was reflecting a reality for many of the young people they grew up with in an era when the crack epidemic swept through Philadelphia and crime became rampant.

"Twenty-five years ago I couldn't imagine reaching the age of 25. I'm very thankful because so many people that I grew up with and went to school with didn't make it out of their youth," notes Trotter, whose childhood was tragically bookended by the murder of his father when he was aged one and the murder of his mother when he was aged 17.

"I live comfortably because we work hard. My children have a world of opportunities that were not available to me," he adds. "My kids have no idea about going without - there's no desire or need they have that hasn't been fulfilled, which is a blessing."

In February, Jimmy Fallon moves up an hour, replacing Jay Leno as the host of The Tonight Show, an American television institution, and by taking the Roots with him he'll expose their playing to an even broader audience. The band's decision to join Fallon in 2009 was treated with scepticism at the time, but it's launched the second act of the Roots' career as they've cut an entire album with singer-songwriter Elvis Costello (this year's Wise Up Ghost) and had hip-hop medleys fronted by Fallon and Justin Timberlake go viral online.

''As we get further into our career we're figuring out how to become more efficient as artists, and doing so many different things is testament to our cohesiveness as the Roots," Trotter says

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