Being the Roots ain’t easy. Although they’ve managed to amass one of the most loyal fan bases in popular music through their incessant touring and consistent catalogue, their experimental nature has always kept them inches away from the record company chopping block. After departing Geffen—the label whose hip-hop identity they helped create—they finally seem to have found a pressure-free home in Def Jam. To hear ?uestlove talk about it, big bossman Jay-Z just wants The Roots to do them. But with no grain to go against, can the group still make powerful music? In the conclusion of XXLMAG.COM’s conversation with ?uest, he speaks on Jimmy Iovine’s spaghetti-on-the-wall theory, Jay-Z’s laissez-faire plan for success and why their new album, Game Theory, will be their version of Radiohead’s Kid A.
Why did you decide to leave Geffen after so many years with the label?
It wasn’t the same Geffen that we built from ’93. We’re the ones that brought Mos, Kweli, Common and Pharoahe Monch. We built the regime that was there. Back between ’93 and ’99, that was a time for experimentation. They had a very healthy catalogue that enabled them to squander $2 million to see if this “left-of-center hip-hop” thing would work or not. When the bottom fell out in ’99, when the catalogue started going down and it [became] obvious that Guns N’ Roses ain’t gonna turn in another record, we got transferred to MCA and then came back to Geffen, which is really just Interscope. They used the spaghetti theory, meaning just throw it on the wall, and if it sticks, it sticks. If it doesn’t stick, your ass is in trouble.
Is it possible for an artist like you to survive with expectations like those?
The solution for Common was really easy. We started working on the BE record in the very beginning and he was doing one or two songs with Kanye. I said, “Yo man, this is a whole new different era and you need to attach yourself at the hip to Kanye.” The name of the game is association and celebrity. Sure enough, once that association started and the heat started picking up, then [the record company] took an interest in him. But for our case and Kweli’s case, we said, “Look, if we leave this label, it’s not like you’re going to have a financial loss. You’ll probably save money because were going to spend a lot of money to make these records when you’re going to get diminishing returns.” It’s harder than just, Give me a hot radio single and we do the rest. We were choosing between four different labels, but we chose Def Jam for one reason and one reason only: everybody was an hour away from us. The CEO and President, L.A. Reid and Jay-Z, are New York-based. We’re signed to Def Jam proper, but we started Def Jam Left. Our idea was trying to start a label that would sort of be run like an indie, a Rawkus if you will. But we’re not signed to Def Jam Left. In order for this group to even survive, it takes money.
So how do you think things will be different on Def Jam?
In our head we’re like, Okay we’re never going to respond to any energy from the President. But Jay’s whole thing was the exact opposite. He went over the top on some, “Don’t come here with no radio bullshit. If y’all even think of walking in here with ‘Don’t say Nuthin’,’ you’ll embarrass me. I can see it now, like I signed the Roots, you come with some radio bullshit, and then everybody will blame me.” That was his concern from the gate. He said, “I want y’all to do the record you wanna do.”
It must have been a relief to hear that from a label.
That scared the shit out of me, ’cause I’m so used to playing the adversarial position. That actually crippled me for, like, a month. It’s just confusing. You take the Phrenology shit to the President and they’re like, “Is it necessary to have this free jazz shit in the middle?” Now, all of a sudden, he’s asking for an album full of “Waters.” That’s just as crippling as “Give me a radio hit.” But just after the initial four weeks, we finally fell into a groove.
You’ve said before that Game Theory is supposed to be a dark record. What exactly does that mean?
It won’t be “Lean Wit it, Rock Wit it”! [Laughs] It definitely has a mood to it, and hip-hop rarely gives this sort of vibe off. Most hip-hop records are always leaning towards giving you a mood that’s more or less something to do with aggression or a party atmosphere. You put “Shook Ones” on when you want to feel tough, and that’s what the backdrop is for hip-hop for most people. If they want to get romantic with their lady, I don’t think they’re going to put “Touch It” by Busta on. They’ll have their slow jams. But as far as this album is concerned, it’s very dark. Probably the darkest record that we had was Illadelph Halflife, but this is way darker than that. This is our Kid A album. Hopefully, your readers can understand my Radiohead reference. That’s an album that’s aggressive, but it’s a very serious, dark record.
So would you say there’s a certain vibe of sadness to it?
The only part I get sad on is the last track, “Can’t Stop This.” That’s my nine-minute “Water”-esque Dilla tribute. The thing is, I notice I have a bad habit of building it up in the press before it comes out. I will say that this is definitely our darkest record. I want people to know that we are very consistent in our inconsistency. Each album is different. As long as we’re able to do that, I’m borderline satisfied. This is the exact opposite of The Tipping Point. So thus, it’s a serious, dark record, but I don’t mean to say it’s a Killjoy.
Speaking of The Tipping Point, “Don’t Say Nuthin’” got a lot of mixed reactions. Is this record a response to that?
If people read our press, they understand the gun we were under at the time, and I’ve admitted it. We were on a label that was not the same label it was when we joined ten years ago. When you’re on a label in which 14 of the 23 artists are multi-platinum, and this one president is running them all, you know someone’s going to fall through the cracks. It’s not going to be Em, 50, Dre, Snoop, G-Unit, Pharrell, The Black Eyed Peas, Gwen or U2. Like, we played them “Star” and they had zero reaction to it. I personally think “Star” is one of our top ten songs. The fact that [Jimmy Iovine] didn’t have any history with Sly & the Family Stone like, “Who is that? He’s still alive?” I was like, Oh God, here we go.
So I’m assuming they responded differently to “Don’t Say Nuthin’”?
When “Don’t Say Nuthin’” was accidentally played, [Jimmy] was three seconds away from jumping on his table like, That’s the one! He called the staff in for an emergency meeting with the same 16 people who didn’t return our phone calls and scoffed at the budget. All of a sudden, Jimmy loves it, so it was night and day. That was the first time that we had any type of enthusiasm. MCA didn’t even do that when we played “You Got Me,” which was clearly our best attempt of meeting radio halfway. After the over-the-top nature of how they responded, it was like, Okay, this is where they want us to go. Keep it simple, straight ahead, no tricks. He was basically saying, I don’t like artsy-fartsy stuff. So we just took that to mean no preservatives, no additives, just give him a regular record and don’t confuse him. I guess we just didn’t take account of our fan base being like, Wait a minute, what are y’all trying to do? That’s the one thing we kind of forgot about.
Do you think radio is going to respond to something off this new record?
To be very honest with you, no. I don’t think radio has ever been the Roots’ friend. If there was one Roots album that could totally stretch the limits of our powers, I’d say that album was Phrenology. And just looking at “Break You Off,” Black radio was like, Yeah, right. And rock radio was like, I’ll take Green Day, thank you. The challenge is getting a label to realize that they kinda have to think outside the box.
Does the album have any surprise guests?
This is pretty much our affair. As far as guests, Malik B makes his grand return. This is a world record, he does three songs, so it’s almost like old times again. That makes me happy. I don’t know if people understand, Tariq is like the virtuoso MC, but Malik is sort of like the heart of the group. If you listen to his lyrics, especially on Things Fall Apart and Illadelph Halflife, he always has a narrative and wallows in the struggle that is his life. That comes back on this record. It’s so good that I’m going to give up my precious liner note space so that we can print the lyrics out. That was a hard decision because if anyone likes to ramble about the making of a record, it’s me.
So this isn’t going to be the “Roots featuring the Def Jam All-Stars” record that people might expect.
We knew that muthafuckas wanted a Ghost-Nas-Jay-Z orgy, but it didn’t lend itself to this record. If this were the type of record where I could have a “Live at the Barbeque” type of moment, then maybe. But anything could happen, because we’re actually two songs deep into the next album. The goal is to work our ass off till about January and then mix these babies and hopefully we’ll have something for fall of 2007. We can go in two directions with this post-Game Theory album. If we feel that we can go back to some feel lighthearted boom bap shit, y’all might get your wish. The whole thing is always based on where do we want to go. There are so many things we want to do.