The Roots Interview
|Next Project:||Rising Down|
|Twitter:||The Roots on Twitter|
|Website:||The Roots's Website|
Fifteen years ago, Philadelphia’s Legendary Roots Crew released their debut album, “Organix.” Little did any of the band members know then, but the collective would develop a large underground following and go on to release nine more albums, including their politically-charged new project, “Rising Down.”
Having predicted that eight years of Republican rule in the United States would make way for a more creative and politically active hip-hop community, Grammy Award-winning drummer and group leader ?uestlove, along with his seven other crew members, are on a mission to point out the blatantly obvious and encourage the possibility of change in the future.
In an exclusive interview with DJBooth‘s DJ “Z,” ?uestlove steps inside the booth to talk about the group’s longevity, a lack of free speech in the today’s music, the end of racism in America, and which group member he wouldn’t mind switching places with during a performance.
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The Roots Interview Transcription
DJ Booth: What’s goin’ on everybody? It’s your boy “Z,” doin’ it real big, and joining me inside the DJ Booth is the Grammy Award-winning drummer from The Legendary Roots Crew, baby. Please welcome ?uestlove – how you doin’?
?uestlove: Hey, Z, how you doin’, man?
DJ Booth: I’m doin’ great! Congratulations on the album drop!
?uestlove: Man… all too often an artist never gets a chance to see their tenth record, but I thank you for that, man – we worked hard on this record.
DJ Booth: No, thank you for providing great music for all of your fans. My first question actually was, with the release of Rising Down, the group’s now, as you said dropped ten albums. So think back for me to ‘93. You just released your debut, Organix. Did you imagine, fifteen years later, you would be on album number ten?
?uestlove: I didn’t even imagine five years later that I would be on my most realized album, number four. It’s like, back in ‘93, you looked at ‘99 like that was the future, like the Jetsons. It was enough just to imagine what 1999 would be like, let alone would I even still be a factor in 2008. Which is rather sad, ‘cause singers think they’ll be as old as Tony Bennett, still rockin’ the mic, whereas rappers think, I may or may not be alive in the next ten years.” It’s a strange feeling, but I’m very grateful to have gotten here, and I hope that we can get ten more out of us.
DJ Booth: It’s been a wonderful journey thus far. What would you say has been the most pleasant surprise of your entire recording career?
?uestlove: Oh my God.. there’s so many. Probably my best surprise is, it’s a little personal, but the fact that I was able to get my mom her dream home, which, that means more to me than winnin’ the Grammy or meetin’ people. I consider myself, like, the hip hop Forrest Gump; I’ve seen magic moments, and moments that I can document and write books on and all that stuff. But at the end of the day, I got to give back and give to my mother.
DJ Booth: Well, the Forrest Gump analogy is great, because, as a group, The Roots just keep on runnin’ and runnin’ and runnin’ – they don’t slow down.
?uestlove: [laughter] That too – no rest for us, man!
DJ Booth: Well, my favorite Roots album of all time is Things Fall Apart. What is your favorite Roots album of all time? Is it Rising Down?
?uestlove: I think askin’ me what my favorite record is… that’s like askin’ me what’s my favorite breath that I’ve ever taken, you know? I’m always gonna like it. But actually, in my heart, I don’t know. To me it’s like, filler-free. I kind of realized this just wondering why it does feel filler-free – for starters, seven of the songs, when they were created, they were all created with bein’ the first song on the record in mind. It’s like, we made Get Busy, and we was like, “Yo, we’re gonna open the record with Get Busy>” And the next week we had 75 Bar, and we was like, “All right, we’ll make Get Busy number two, but we’re gonna open the record with 75 Bars!” And this happened like seven different times on the record. The reason I think it’s so hard-hittin’ is because as we were writing the material, it was like, “Yo, man, this is gonna open the record, this is gonna kill people!” and then we do it, and then a better song comes, and a better song comes. I think that’s probably the coolest thing about makin’ a record. If you just make fifteen openers and spread ‘em throughout your record, then it’s all bangers right there.
DJ Booth: Well, lucky for all of us – and I wouldn’t normally say this – you guys stopped recording new material, or else we would’ve never gotten this album, I guess.
?uestlove: [laughter] We’ve been known to get our quote unquote, “2Pac” on. We normally don’t like to stop until, five or six hard drives are filled. You know it’s time to stop when you’re on your eighth terabyte of hard drives. I know that Birthday Girl actually came from the Tipping Point sessions, and that was pretty much just us going through about nineteen, then we had nineteen hard drives that we went through, and that just happened to pop up at one of them. We have an overabundance of material; we could actually stop and just let Tariq rhyme over all the music, and I wouldn’t have to lift a finger, but I still like creating.
DJ Booth: Who’s protecting all this valuable music?
?uestlove: We protect it in terms of [having] multiple copies of them. Lord knows we can’t trust a hard drive nowadays. They’ll break down on you. The general rule is there’s three duplicates of every hard drive that we have, so that way we don’t lost any information. And – knock on wood – it’s never been that way. Not to mention it’s fireproof, so there’s hopefully not gonna be a Q-Tip incident goin’ down.
DJ Booth: Yeah, seriously. Let’s focus on the album for a second. I was able to take a listen to most of it, and I’ll agree with you guys – by far, some of your most political work to date. Was the motivation behind the political angle because of the forthcoming presidential election this November?
?uestlove: I think the motivation for it is actually the reason why we need a new president: because a lot of things have just gotten neglected. And unfortunately, we live in Philadelphia, which carries the burden of bein’ the murder capital of the United States, and with that burden, it’s a whole new world. Whereas, you take a place that’s previously known for it’s troubles, like Detroit or New Orleans or even Baltimore, or even Los Angeles or even New York – their trouble, at least for New York crime has decreased. Maybe it’s a murder every three weeks. Now, in Philadelphia, it’s six to nine murders a week, in record numbers. So it’s a situation we’re not proud of at all, and if affects us as well. This isn’t one of those situations where it’s like, “Well, what do The Roots know about strife?” and that type of situation, with us always bein’ on tour or whatever. We wanna really show people the level of violence that Philadelphia’s gotten into. People are always goin’, “You’re just bein’ melodramatic!” [But] that’s how bad it’s gotten.
DJ Booth: Is there a specific track on Rising Down that you feel, more than any other, you have a strong personal attachment to, outside of just, “I’m a resident in this city that’s being deeply affected by all of these issues?”
?uestlove: Actually, the one song that didn’t have Philadelphia as a backdrop inspiration. There’s a song called Singing Man which I’d pretty much call the centerpiece of the record. We were booked to play Virginia Tech the day after the shootings occurred. We kinda went there not knowing what happened, and the show was obviously canceled. But just that whole murky afternoon, it was dark clouds, and, man… watchin’ that on the news. This one marked the first time that we’ve been in sort of a situation of, a tragedy while recordin’ a record. I’ll say about five to six days later, we kinda made a song about it. The musical atmosphere of Singing Man really lends to what it was like to go on that campus that day, and see that.
DJ Booth: In a copy of the group’s newest bio, you were quoted as saying eight years of Republican rule in the US would produce more creative and innovative hip hop music-
?uestlove: I was wrong! [laughter]
DJ Booth: The Roots are probably more of the exception than the rule here. Why do you feel so few artists, given the opportunity to express their opinions in such a prominent, free-speech platform, are so afraid to do so?
?uestlove: Two words: Natalie Maines. Another two words: Dixie Chicks. I think that that played a very big role in a lot of artists wantin’ to speak out against the government. Most of America didn’t agree to it until it was suddenly damn near bandwagoning. It’s almost bandwagoning to jump on George Bush right now. I was very wrong about this statement, simply because I didn’t know that people would be so numb to the situation now. Which, pretty much, that’s what we’re dealin’ with: we’re dealin’ with people so numb to a situation that they don’t even have that fire in them to fight no more. So, records like this are few and far between, but, for us, we just felt the need to make this record, because, we couldn’t believe how apolitical hip hop was really being. They don’t want to ruin their good thing. A lot of people’s lives depend on their being employed via their record label, and to get officially or unofficially blacklisted is a horrible thing. And I definitely know that Natalie Maines has somehow been unofficially blacklisted from the Dixie Chicks for sayin’ what she said about George Bush. Even though now I’m almost certain that ninety percent of the world agrees with what she said, I really just feel like it was time that somebody say something, so we did it.
DJ Booth: Let’s take this a step further. As a US citizen, who is politically conscious of what is going on, not only with our country, but in our world, and as a recording artist signed to a major label, what kind of internal moral difficulties did you guys experience during the recording and creative process for this album?
?uestlove: As far as, was there any type of adversarial objections, as far as the label was concerned?
DJ Booth: Yes.
?uestlove: Absolutely nothing. That’s one of the coolest things about it. If anything I think they sort of expected that from us. If anything, I think there’s a prestige, not a moral prestige but just a prestige, a power, that the group holds, that sort of looks good on your roster. And people know that we stand for something. They didn’t have any objections whatsoever. It’s kinda weird. We played them 75 Bars, and they didn’t flinch once! [laughter] They were very open to let us release the record as-is.
DJ Booth: Were you expecting them to be that open, or did you guys anticipate a struggle back and forth over what could and could not make the final cut of this album?
?uestlove: I mean, at the rate where they were gonna let Nas call the album the title he [will] call his record, then I kinda knew that we’d be smooth sailing, and there wouldn’t be problems.
DJ Booth: On Criminal, one of the new songs on Rising Down, the chorus goes, “Monday they predict the storm/ Tuesday they predict the bang/ Wednesday they cover the crash/ and I see it’s all about cash/ and they got the nerve to hunt down my ass/ and treat me like a criminal.” I wanna focus on racism in America for a second. It seems to be a problem that no matter how many prominent figures in the entertainment business, in the industries, talk about it, nothing ever changes. Do you see this ever changing, in our lifetime?
?uestlove: You know, I was gonna tell you no, and then I got to briefly [sit] with Michelle Obama on [the Colbert Report], and I said, you know, “You guys don’t even know that you’re an inspiration to people; this is a self-esteem moment that black people have never even seen before.” In my lifetime, I thought I would never see a black president, ever. Just the fact that America would be open to the idea. A lot of the time, I do witness, and I do feel institutionalized racism, especially in the music business that I’m in. A lot of double standards of things that are not available to me that, say, if we were the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or, you know, The Gossip, or any indie rock group, they’d be accepted or covered. Anything is possible – if there’s anything I’m learnin’ from this whole election process, I’m learning to be more patient. I mean, at the rate we’re going, I’ve watched Senator Obama take all of these hurdles and obstacles, comin’ at him at a hundred miles per hour, and the fact that he’s able to just duck and dodge them on some sort of Matrix level, dealing with it, and have the patience to deal with it when, you know, I would’ve then broke and started cursing people out, like, “Why are you listening to the opinions of one man as my particular theory?!” But besides patience, I guess it’s the power of suggestion. I think the word “hope” is actually in my vocabulary, which is kinda strange because I know that comin up from the hip hop generation, you sometimes have to emotionally protect yourself and not fall for someone selling you the Brooklyn Bridge. And the whole idea of needing a hero, or needing someone to look up to, a lot of hip-hoppers come from broken homes, so the idea of havin’ a hero or someone to be there to fall on – even in my quasi-Huxtable lifestyle, I’ve had people close to me disappoint me all the time, but I gotta tell you: maybe it’s me turnin’ old or whatever, but I really understand, and I’m sort of embracing the idea of hope.
DJ Booth: Hey, I am on board with that one hundred percent, and, as Barack Obama has been campaigning for change in America, from your lips to God’s ears, hopefully that does take place. We’re gonna end the interview on a happy note. Is there ever a time, where you’re sittin’ and playin’ the drums, and you’re thinkin’, “I’d like to be in that guy’s shoes?” I’m gonna give you the opportunity hypothetically here on the phone with me to switch places with any other member of the group – what else would you like to do as a member of The Roots?
?uestlove: I have to be one of the six of them?
DJ Booth: Yeah. You could even be on the mic, spittin’ like Black Thought. What do you want to do here?
?uestlove: I don’t envy him, ‘cause he’s my shield; he has to face the audience every night. I get to hide behind him, and I get to hide behind to drum set. Even more ironic is, I get all the glory. It’s funny, he said this last night. [I would say] my tuba player, Damon Bryson – we call him “Tuba Gooding, Jr.” I was just like, “Man!” I watched the entire time last night, and wherever he went, that’s where the audience reacted. I have him there because he is sort of like the spike in the punch, that we’ve been needin’ so long. ‘Cause it’s like, “How is this show just becoming fun to do after sixteen years of playin’ with ‘em?” And then I’m thinkin’, “Was it really fun in 1999 or 2000?” It was cool, but I wasn’t out there just havin’ fun – I was bein’ serious. And I remember us always havin’ something to prove, and I remember us sittin’ with our tour manager, like, “Okay, who’s in the audience? GZA out there? Ghostface? All right, yo, we’re gonna kill ‘em with this one!” [laughter]
DJ Booth: Unfortunately, I think it’d be quite difficult for you to pick up your drum set and go from one side of the stage to the other to get the crowd enticed. My best of luck to you and your learning the tuba. ?uestlove, give everyone a link to your MySpace page, so that your fans and my listeners can find out more about the upcoming album.
?uestlove: Yes. Everything Roots, they can come to one of the top hip-hop websites on the Internet: okayplayer.com.
DJ Booth: That is what’s up. I thank you so much for taking the time to join me inside of the DJ Booth, and I wish you and the rest of the guys nothing but the best of luck with the new album, Rising Down.
?uestlove: My pleasure, Z – thank you.