The Roots: Rise & Shine

When you really analyze the Roots’ entire body of work, you understand that innovation is synonymous with the Philadelphia collective. How many Hip-Hop outfits can really say they brought musicianship to Rap? During the mid '90s they ushered in a Jazz infused lane that previously didn’t exist amongst West coast gangsters and East coast hard rocks. Although their incorporation of live instrumentation initially seemed foreign to many, the legendary Roots crew have become a permanent fixture within Rap.Primarily spearheaded by lyricist Black Thought, marquee drummer ?uestlove and an ever changing supporting cast, the Roots are on the verge of releasing their tenth album. Yes, do the math, ten. A couple of artists have previously reached that storied benchmark but few have delivered something we all still bump. With their veteran stripes intact and their new release Rising Down in tow, it’s still just another day at the office for the Roots. Here Thought and ?uest break down their newest effort, talk about their inner circle and let us know why Barack Obama is their man. So tell us about the album and the direction this time around?Black Thought: It’s called Rising Down. The direction is basically, I mean like progressing more the direction we started heading with Game Theory. More social political commentary but it’s a little more accessible. The album is more dramatic in that most of the songs on the record gel together, kind of like an adhesive; like a cohesive darkness to the record all except maybe one or two joints. One being the last song which is “Rising Up;” like the beacon of hope on the record. [The Roots f. Wale & Chrisette Michelle "Rising Up"] At some of the recent concerts you guys will cover “Roc Boys” but will flip it to say “And The Winner Is Obama.” Do you think having a president of color would really cause some change?Black Thought: Having a Black president, things are going to change immediately know what I’m saying? The way America is perceived by the rest of the world is going to change and the way things are run in the country; there would be immediate change in that too. But the whole flipside to it is, if Obama is elected there’s going to be a massive amount of political tape and wires that’s already tangled up that’s he’s going have to untangle. Like all the problems are going to be heaped on his lap or whoever is going to be the next president. It’s going to be the same situation for whomever, but definitely more so if a Black man is elected as the next president. The amount of the bullsh*t he is going to have to unravel, I don’t know if it’s really going to be worth it. Is Malik B. on the album?Black Thought: Yeah Malik B. is going to be on the new record. He’s on two songs, it’s two stellar You’ve always been a distinguished lyricist. How do you stay inspired amongst the gimmicky Rap?Black Thought: I don’t know. I’m inspired I guess by everything that’s going on. Whatever I hear on the radio or whatever I see on the video or somebody’s show or whatever I hear in passing it’s all going to influence me in one way shape or form. It’s just some of it has a more positive influence than other material in my head, or vice versa. That’s what makes you a more rounded individual. It’s not like I walk around with blinders tuning out everything else that’s going on in the world, I’m definitely not looking to the current state of music for inspiration. I kind of reach back; I go '50s, '60s, '70s, and '80s. With such a rigorous touring schedule what is your social life like?Black Thought: The Roots is my social life, other than that it’s the at home family type of life. All that socializing I feel like you know I’ve done it. I’m at a different stage of my development right now. Are there going to be initiatives from your camp with the election this year since the Roots have always spoken politically?Black Thought: Every year we have a party the night before the Grammy’s in L.A.; we have a jam session in an effort to create awareness of issues in the world. One year was Darfur, another year was feeding at risk youth and this year was Rock The Vote. I feel that’s a pertinent issue and it’s something we addressing and we definitely going to support who we going to support. I feel me and ?uestlove are definitely supportive of Obama, his campaign has reached out to us a couple of times like to maybe do something. So it’s something we’re definitely This year is probably one of the most violent years in your hometown of Philadelphia, what are The Roots doing in relation to the crime there? Black Thought: I mean what we’re doing to get behind that is you know not necessarily only a local effort as much a national effort and international effort; just working with like minded individuals like Dr. Cornel West. I did an appearance on his record; his whole album was like a message to the youth. I did two commercial spots with him for this MTV thing he just did. Just working with the people that I normally work with, cats who I just cross paths with just like minded individuals put out music that’s going to make a difference or put forth an effort that’s going to bring out some change. ?uestlove: I don’t know if I exactly agree with [Mayor] Nutter’s approach right now. For those that don’t know Michael Nutter is pretty much making our fourth amendment rights null and void. Which basically says a cop can walk up to you any time of the day, search you, go through all your stuff with no questions asked. And I understand there is a desperate feeling throughout the city of Philadelphia. I think that that’s not the answer. No opportunities breeds unemployment, which then breeds desperation, which then breeds a point of no return and a breaking point and then you have to resort to crime. If Mayor Nutter really wants to truly get to the bottom of why we are the murder capital of the United States then you have to break it down to its smallest element. The thing is you have to somehow figure out a way for the Governor of Pennsylvania to provide opportunities so jobs can open. Let’s get some factories back in the open. Let’s provide some better job opportunities. Did you ever think you would see Bill Cosby and Beanie Sigel marching through Philly?Black Thought: No, I mean I didn’t. It goes to show you times are changing [and] people’s outlook on the situation is changing. In 1998 you wouldn’t have seen Beans with Bill Cosby marching in Philly, because Bill wasn’t supporting Beans and I don’t know that Beans was supportive of Bill Cosby’s views. Just being two adult Black males who are in the spotlight and being from Philadelphia makes us one in the same. It’s a joint effort but not only in Philly, but everywhere. What’s new with you outside of The Roots?Black Thought: We got this thing popping off [with] the rest of my squad in Philly with my peoples Dice Raw, Truck North, Skillz from VA, my man P.O.R.N. who’s probably on three or four songs on the new album. We doing this thing The Money Making Jam Boys; that’s a side group that doesn’t have anything necessarily to do with the Roots aside [from] Dice Raw and I. Musically it’s not as heavy as Roots music; it’s more like a lighthearted return to that kind of Hip-Hop.I did a film this summer. Written and directed by Marc Webber; a fellow Philadelphian. It’s called Explicit Ills, it stars myself, Lou Pucci, Rosario Dawson, Naomi Harris. It’s about life, love, and addiction and it takes place in Philadelphia. It premiered in South By Southwest; a lot of festivals checking for it. So what’s going to be dope about the new album??uestlove: I don’t know. Something I have learned over the years is to never overhype something up or never throw too many fireworks because I think that experiences are best had when you have lowered expectations. That way it’s that much better when you go see it. For instance a friend of mind said go see No Country For Old Men. I’m like come on dog, do I really want to see a film called No Country For Old Men and come to find out it was one of the best joints this year! The most ganster s**t I have seen this year. So I think that experiences are relative to people. That’s why that pressure is always on Nas so much because people just want him to release a ten song record with these amount of producers and give them the same feeling they had back then. That’s like a crack hit, you’re never going to get that hit again. To me people I think people know that the Roots are about quality work and we put one hundred percent effort in everything that we do and we would never phone it from home. We can’t afford to. Rising Down comes out April 29. We wanted to save the date for the anniversary of the uprising of Los Angeles; the sixteen anniversary of the riots. [The Roots "Get Busy"] The Tipping Point was a very dark record for you guys, is Rising Down along those same lines??uestlove: It’s more intensified, it’s a serious record. If anything I wish people would see Game Theory as a serious album. I mean it was moody, because I don’t think any Rap group has ever done a serious album to that level where it just wasn’t about a boom bap. Hip-Hop has a party record, Hip-Hop has your escapism from your wimpy life. Cats put on some shit like aaargh! When I was younger [I] would put on Redman “Time 4 Sum Aksion”, [or] some MOP; your whole steez would change. That’s good and all, I don’t want necessarily want to strictly use Hip-Hop for straight up boom bap. With Rising Down we definitely turned up the political content not to mention it’s probably the most MC’s we had on the record. Mos [Def], Kweli, Wale, Styles P, Common; it’s a whole slew of people on board. It’s like our heaviest hitting record. It will definitely be satisfaction for people that want boom bap, serious content; it’s very concise. I’m happy. Since the group’s inception, The Roots lineup has always changed. Was there always a revolving door policy with the members? Black Thought: When we started the group it wasn’t necessarily an open door policy where musicians can kind of just come and rock with us for as long they want and then be out. The way we assembled the band it just worked itself that way in that people like Leonard Hubbard and Rahzel The Godfather of Noise and Scott Storch and even Josh Abrams, the very first bass player, we had people who we worked with in the formative stages of the band, they had other obligations and you know weren’t able to commit themselves fully to the Roots effort for whatever reason. So we just had to hire people as not necessarily sidemen, but as independent contractors. I feel like it’s allowed us to have an ever changing sound because the roster is ever changing. For a long time it was just me and drums, then it was me, drums, and bass. Then we incorporated the keyboard. Then it took a long time for us to incorporate guitar. Then we started incorporating background singers and now we working with a lot of brass. Sometimes we on stage with like nine or ten horns. We also got the sousaphone tuba dude, so that’s kind of the new sound now. He’s kind of picking up some of the slack in Leonard Hubbard’s absence. So because the roster is ever changing, the music is ever changing and it works. ?uestlove: The first true exit of the core group was Leonard Hubbard’s exit last year. After 17 years of doing this sometimes other opportunities will come your direction. Like he went to conservatory classical school, his heart has always been with something on that level and a lot of the times there are opportunities that come our way that we are not able to pursue because our career. Tariq [Black Thought] got offered three roles in The Wire and couldn’t shoot it. I believe he was up originally for Cheese; mad acting for him, mad production stuff for me and in Hubb’s case mad film scoring stuff. We’re a ship that runs so tight that it really doesn’t…the Roots core is always Black Thought, ?uestlove. We never had a situation like disgruntled person like, “Ahh I’m out” or whatever. If the opportunity arises it arises. That’s why Rahzel did voiceovers for cartoons, Scratch does the same voiceover stuff, Ben Kenny went to Incubus. We just keep a tight knit of musicians, it’s just much more than the seven of us. There’s like sixty musicians in Philly waiting their turn. It’s never going to With that in mind if you could draft any MC’s into the Roots, who would it be??uestlove: I wouldn’t draft no MC’s. I’m not saying that because [Black Thought] is in the group, that obligatory thing. Like for the type of Hip-Hop I love, my heart is always with the classic Hip-Hop era of 1986 to 1996 so that type of MC that’s just really bringing fire, that’s an endangered species. And there’s maybe one, two or three, but I bet you one of those three MC’s you analyze, that one is going to be Black Thought. He is a rhyming animal and there’s no way you can listen to “75 Bars” and be like “Oh what’s his name can do something like that.” Nah, I haven’t heard it done yet. So once they do it, I’ll say two MC’s. But for now Black Thought is all we need. [The Roots “75 Bars (Black's Reconstruction)”] Being that this album is being released on the anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, can you get into how it impacted you when it all went down??uestlove: We watched the verdict and when my parents told me I had came home from classes from college. We watched every aspect on Court TV. I got home, so I just thought it was a formality thing like how many years did they get? My mom was like none, they were found not guilty. I think at that point we were all numb. When you reach the point of no return and you are numb, that’s when you start doing s**t like that. You start breaking your own toys. You start throwing tantrums. You don’t care anymore. Not that I ever wanted to break my own toys, but that’s a day I will never forget in my life watching that on television. You are wearing a T-shirt listing a couple of The Roots albums. Can you briefly go over them??uestlove: Organix this is the baby. This is our demo born as…you know this is what gave us our career. Do You Want More?!!!??!! is our second album that’s pretty much the Organix Hip-Hop record. Illadelph Halflife people consider that our underground classic, where we really had to go and prove our stripes. That’s when you had to prove you had your Hip-Hop license. Many people consider Things Fall Apart our breakthrough. That’s the Neo-Soul record. That’s the album that sort of ushered in that feeling, that Philadelphia soul. Like we finally captured the essence of Philadelphia unlike today it being the murder capital of the world, but back then when it was just the breezy Neo-Soul capital. The Roots Come Alive! That’s all these records added up into one; our live record. Y’all are supporting Barack Obama. Is there anything you have done or you’re going to do to encourage voting??uestlove: I been campaigning for Obama the grass roots way. We were in California for three days. I was getting up at four in the morning I was going to door to door, literally going to South Central. Knocking on doors asking people if they vote I’m willing to drive you to the poles. I did that every day from 4 am to when the poles closed at 8 pm. I put signs on. I stood out in the middle of the street in the highway; you know when they have that Arby’s sign, like new McDonalds down the street! I was that guy standing on Pico with the sign, with anything. Some people were driving by like, “Nah that wasn’t him.” But that’s the type of person I am. When the organizations ask people to get involved, you know some quasi celebrities they’ll do some stuff in which they’ll do some radio stuff and do some press stuff but I wanted to do grass roots; drive them to the polls and call them up on the phone. I went to Obama headquarters, just like, Yo how I can be utilized? One woman she was like “If he was the last man on Earth I would not vote for him!” You definitely had your shares of ugly calls but for all intensive purposes like Obama carefully has his hand on the pulse of what America wants to hear. I think he walks the walk and talks the talk. Additional reporting by Jamile Karout.