It’s late in New Jersey and Tariq Trotter, AKA Black Thought from The Roots, has just come home from another night fronting the house band on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. But tonight he’s coming home to watch the news explaining his country doesn’t have a working government right now. House Republicans have responded to the impending delivery of Obamacare by shutting down the government, and while every single person on the internet seems to be making the same joke about turning it off and then back on again, someday The Roots are probably going to write a killer song about this. Right now it’s a bit too soon, and Trotter’s still trying to come to terms with something that seems more like the plot of an episode of The West Wing than reality.
The Roots have dealt with reality and politics through their music from their earliest days, when Trotter met drummer Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts and formed a duo, The Square Roots. Their Philadelphia upbringing has always been an important part of their music, but never more than on the 2011 concept album Undun. That record was about the life of a character they called Redford Stephens, a man who could have been a poet in a different world but was driven instead into the life of a drug dealer. “The story of Redford we’d taken right out of a Philadelphia photograph,” says Trotter. “There is no Philadelphian who doesn’t know a Redford, if that makes any sense.”
As well as telling its own gripping story, Undun told the story of hip hop as a whole. Riddled with musical and lyrical references to Snoop Dogg, the Wu-Tang Clan, Swizz Beatz and more, it was a densely packed document showing how far hip hop has come over the years. Although The Roots had recorded 11 albums before Undun, this was their contribution to the tradition. “Wherever you set the bar is where you set the bar, whether an artist realises it or not. That is what you have to live up to next,” Trotter says. “If you’re not able to, as an artist, make a serious positive contribution to an already amazing legacy, then you shouldn’t make a contribution to it. You should just let what has already taken place, like the history, speak for itself.”
Trotter’s own history is currently in the process of being told in memoirs he’s working on with hip hop critic and author Jeff Chang. “He interviews me and family members, friends and people who played a role in my story. I write it and he writes it, we’re doing it together.” Chang is famous for his own contribution to hip hop’s legacy, the book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History Of The Hip-Hop Generation, which is one of only a handful of books to tackle the early days of the genre. It’s what attracted Trotter to the idea of working with Chang in the first place. “I really enjoyed Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, and in the few brief meetings that he and I had prior to doing this writing relationship, we just hit it off really well.”
While Undun has become the definitive Roots album, there were plenty before it, like the classic Things Fall Apart – but what makes it stand out is its cohesiveness. That came about because of a change in how The Roots made a living. While famous for the live shows that showcase their abilities as a full band – still rare in hip hop – taking time off from touring gave them the opportunity to create their best work. When they landed the gig as the house band on Late Night it meant regular work that kept them near home. “It’s very time-consuming doing that show five days a week, you know, 40 to 44 weeks a year,” says Trotter. “It’s a bit of a commitment. We tour and we do shows during the other times.” Late Night also meant they were near the recording studio, and were constantly writing new music together. Having to come up with musical fills and segments for TV every day of the week taught them brevity – Undun may be densely layered, but it’s only about 40 minutes long.
One of the recurring segments they perform on Late Night is a freestyle where Fallon picks someone out of the audience, asks for a few personal details, and then gets The Roots to perform an impromptu song about them. As if that isn’t intimidating enough, Fallon always adds some complication at the last possible moment: “And I want you to do it in the style of… 1950s doo-wop. Go!” The fact they manage to pull it off each week, and that they’re trusted to not screw it up, is a testament to their well-honed live instincts. “It’s like, ‘I’m not gonna make it that easy for you, that it’s just gonna be freestyle. We know that you guys can freestyle but I’m gonna throw you this curveball of musical genres to try and one-up you’.”
One of the other segments that’s become a tradition involves them performing with one of that week’s musical guests, but doing so on instruments found in primary school classrooms – kazoos, wood blocks, toy keyboards and xylophones; things like that. “It’s a challenge sometimes doing that particular bit because the toy instruments are usually out of tune, so to get the sound that you want to come from that toy you have to manipulate it in different ways. Apart from that, it’s not really hard to do. A simple, fun bit that has now become almost a tradition. You know we’ve done it quite a few times now.” That covers everything from a version of ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ with Mariah Carey to ‘Call Me Maybe’ with Carly Rae Jepsen – but the highlight was definitely their recent performance of the Sesame Street theme, complete with a cast of Muppets including Cookie Monster and Elmo. “Yeah, that was a dream come true!” says Trotter. “For a kid from the States who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s it was all about Sesame Street, so it was great to interact with those dudes. Fun times.”
While Trotter has enjoyed the four years they’ve spent working in television, it’s come at a price. They had to cancel their 2009 appearance at Good Vibrations in Australia and have scaled back their touring considerably. “It’s cool to be home every day and to interact with so many amazing artists, people you collaborate with every day, but at the same time there’s something to be said about the creative energy that comes from travelling.”
They’ll finally be remedying that this summer, heading to Australia for the Falls and Southbound festivals, as well as a couple of freshly announced sideshows in the week after Christmas. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a chance to see The Roots in Australia, so what should we expect? “Something old, something new, something that you can sing along with. Standard Roots procedure,” Trotter says. “There’s a lot of ground to cover so depending on who we’re playing for will determine what songs we play. We don’t get too deep into [it], it’s not that involved a process deciding what the setlist is. We just get up on stage and rock out.”
BY JODY MACGREGOR
*Photo by Danny Clinch
The Roots play Hordern Pavilion with Urthboy on Friday December 27. The Roots appearing alongside MGMT, The Wombats, !!! (Chk Chk Chk), London Grammar and more at The Falls Music & Arts Festivals, Marion Bay, Byron Bay and Lorne, December 28 – January 3.