With 18 years in the game, there’s really not much of an introduction needed for The Roots. Headlined by resident drummer ?uestlove and MC Black Thought, the hip-hop band has collaborated with some of the biggest acts worldwide (Jay-Z, Erykah Badu, Common, et al), and have helped launch the careers of even more. But just when we thought The Roots had been totally figured out, last year they made the curious decision to become the in-house band for NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Cautiously, fans joined the famous Philadelphia collective as they cracked jokes, acted out skits, and who can forget ?uestlove’s World Record for most picks placed in an afro?
Fear not, die-hard-Stans, just because The Roots have planted themselves on late night TV doesn’t mean they’ve given up on making music and touring altogether. Their ninth studio effort, How I Got Over came out this June and for the second year in a row, The Roots will be involved in the Hennessy Artistry series, this time, co-curating the exclusive four-city tour with Q-Tip. Blending together artistic, musical and cultural talents, this year’s tour promises to be filled with a different set of acts in each city—those slated to appear so far include the much talked about Jay Electronica, Big K.R.I.T., Kid Sister, Travie McCoy, Marsha Ambrosious, and many special surprise guests.
XXLMag.com recently caught up with The Root’s Black Thought to discuss his involvement in the Hennessy tour, life with a day job, and why his long awaited solo album, Masterpiece Theater, will never be released (because we’ve already heard it).
XXLMag.com: How’d you guys get involved in the Hennessy tour and what exactly does it means to “curate” it?
Black Thought: Our relationship with Hennessey started about a year ago… We did a run of something very similar but it was with The Roots and Common. But this time what’s different is the capacity to which Amir [?uest] and I are involved. Last year we were basically only involved on a musical level… Common was kind of, I guess, the ambassador. And this year, we’re in that role that Common was in last year. We’re more of the ambassadors. We have a higher level of involvement. We got to go out and go to Cognac and see where and how Hennessy has been made for years and years. We got to make our own blend to taste, we got to see what goes on behind the scenes at Hennessy and see the whole process that takes place before Hennessey winds up at your bar, or your store, or your home.
There are supposed to be plenty of special guests on this tour; how did you go about choosing the respective guests for each city?
We wanted like-minded individuals—people who share the vision. We wanted people who do very different things than what we do, but still compliment what we do. And we also want a certain level of surprise. We want the people at each show to walk away feeling like they’ve been privy to something very special… Something that’s like a once in a lifetime experience.
The Roots , as a whole, have spent about 18 years touring; is it a bit weird to stay in one place for a bit at the Jimmy Fallon Show?
Very much so… It’s a totally different animal than what we’re accustomed to. And I think that we’re getting used it but it’s still a bit awkward. I feel like I have a lot of time on my hands at home. I feel like I have a lot of time just up in the NBC building and a lot less time alone if that makes any sense. Like, we toured a lot, so we got accustomed to being in a different city every day and being in front of an audience but the audience didn’t really come around ‘til show time. So during travel time and before the show from day to day, that would be mine… I could read, write, and just do my personal thing. But now there’s a lot less time for me to do that with me having an official day job I have to be at.
The Roots have already quickly become a part of the show’s fabric with the frequent skits; are you feeling the pressure to be funny? The audience seems to really be expecting a lot from you guys now.
I don’t quite feel “pressure” to be funny but I definitely feel it’s necessary to come across as someone who’s open to suggestions, though. The writers weren’t quite sure if The Roots wanted to be seen in that type of a comedic light, you know? Just based on whatever image we already have. People have the tendency to think that The Roots are ultra serious and militant and…
You think people see you as militant?
Well, totally non-comedic. I mean, we aren’t really known as a band of funny guys so, making it known that we’re open to that type of humor is important. And we pick and choose. There are certain things that people write that I might not feel like it’s something I should do, but maybe a different member of the band won’t have a problem with it. There hasn’t been anything too outrageous to oppose to as of yet but people who have been a fan of The Roots or of me personally, they get a chance to see us in a totally different light. They get to watch us just cuttin’ up, you know?
As your talent, and even your sound, has diversified, so has your audience. Do you find it hard to continue to cater to all of your different fan bases?
I think it’s hard for lack of a better term, it’s just work. It’s definitely something that we’ve had to work at. There are people who have been fans of The Roots for a long time and niggas had some reservations about how this job would affect our music and the output. And I think after How I Got Over a lot of those reservations were addressed. We realized the diehard fans were secure. They know the quality of the music isn’t suffering. It wasn’t easy. Recording that album was a painstaking process but I feel like the end result… in the end, we achieved what we set out to achieve which is to let people know that the Fallon show is just something we taking on in addition to what we normally do, but it’s not gonna stop us from what we’ve been doing in the past.
So what was so painstaking about recording How I Got Over?
We always record a mass of material and whittle it down and make it more efficient and this record wasn’t any different in that way—the process of trial and error, the think tank, playing music for people of different walks of life and just figuring out what combo of songs is gonna have the right chemistry. But with having the day job now the issues arrive of how exactly do we find the time to do all of that? The issue was time management.
Over the years, the actual line up of the group has been very diverse and ever changing. Members have been coming and going fairly frequently–has that been a gift or curse in terms of the group dynamic?
It’s a gift. It’s only added to the versatility of the group. We’ve implemented more instrumentation. The different members of the band that come in and out of play, it keeps a certain element of our live performances fresh. You know, people who have seen us dozens of times or hundreds of times, they still don’t really know what to expect, they never really know who’s gonna be on stage. The only thing you can kind of be certain of at a Root’s show is that you know ?uestlove and myself are gonna be there.
Any word on your long-awaited solo album?
I’ve been working on the solo record at different points of my career. And for whatever reason Def Jam wasn’t on board for what we were trying to do with that project. So it’s kind of been put on hold, and instead of being a full length Black Thought solo, it’s gonna be more of an EP. It’s gonna be short probably. Instead of 10, 12, 14 songs, it’ll probably be closer to six. I don’t have a working title yet, and I don’t know who’s gonna be on it yet but you can expect the bar to be at the same place that it’s always been.
So it’s not called Masterpiece Theater anymore?
Years ago I was working on Masterpiece Theater but then at the same time En Vogue had come out with an album of the same title. I don’t know how many people remember En Vogue’s Masterpiece Theater but my Masterpiece Theater project was actually supposed to be a specific collection of songs—many of which ended up being used. A lot of my Masterpiece Theater songs ended up on Phrenology. That’s the album that we were working on when I was also doing my solo stuff.
Which of those tracks were originally for Masterpiece Theater?
Songs like “Water,” “Pussy Galore,” “Rock You.” The list goes on… there was just a lot of stuff that I recorded for that project and then in the end, in the ninth inning, I took it and made them into contributions for the Phrenology album. So I don’t know if I’ll ever have another Masterpiece Theater because the title was for a very specific group of songs that have already been used.
But you’re also working on another project with Danger Mouse, right?
Yup. It’s going really well. It’s a pet project we’re been doing together in our spare time, which there’s never really much for, you know? He’s constantly working, recording, and touring and so am I but when there is time for a meeting of the minds, we’ve been putting together this album. We have at least eight bangers… We’ve played the music for a few people and they really like it. But it doesn’t feel like it’s close to completion. It’s still very much a work in progress, but for that, we have the working title of Dangerous Thoughts.
It might seem early, but any thoughts on the next Roots album?
Oh yeah, yeah, we’re already working on the next Roots album. The day a record comes out is the day we start working on the next one, so we’re beyond just talking about the next one.
Can you talk a little bit about the direction you guys might be going in?
Nope. (Laughs) I mean, I can say… maybe what we’re gonna do with this record, or the next you might be able to expect a more stripped down return to the foundation of The Roots. The drum and vocal kind of thing. An early Def Jam, Rick Rubin kind of sound for today… Maybe… Maybe… (Laughs). —Aliya Ewing