The Roots keep blazing their own trails
By Steve Jones
Their new, eclectic "Phrenology" may not suit everyone who liked the neo-soul of 1999's "Things Fall Apart," which had veered from the underground sound of 1996's "Illadelph Halflife," the hip-hop/jazz of 1995's "Do You Want More ?!!!??!" and the bohemian flavor of their 1993 debut, "Organix."
"I never wanted us to be the type of group that did the same thing twice," says drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, leaning back in their studio's new music room, which houses his collection of 27,000 vinyl albums.
"There's a group who really love and understand what The Roots are about, but we grow our fan base with each album. It's like we keep about half the fans from our previous record and then gain new fans who weren't with us before."
Successful hip-hop acts tend to stick to their script. But The Roots also including bassist Leonard "Hub" Hubbard, keyboardist Kamal Gray, human beat boxer Kyle "Scratch" Jones, guitarist Ben Kenney and lead rapper Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter make a list of what they haven't done, then set out to do it.
In a genre rife with easily digestible artists, they've survived for 10 years without a club hit. The tireless road warriors have built a loyal following through extraordinary shows and a penchant for inventiveness. The Grammy-winning crossover success of the Erykah Badu collaboration "You Got Me," from "Things Fall Apart," was an aberration that gave them their first heavy airplay.
But any hopes that programmers were finally getting it were dashed with the uncommercial follow-up, "The Next Movement."
"The second we put that out, it was pretty much like pumpkin and mice after midnight," Thompson says, laughing.
"We haven't sold more records because we haven't made very much radio-friendly music," Trotter adds. "Our one commercial tune won the Grammy, but that isn't necessarily the music we want to put out."
The real pressure on the group comes from six strong-willed and musically diverse musicians vying to get their voices heard. Thompson says they don't pull punches with each other's ideas and likens the creative process to "the race of sperm to get to the egg." Even then, it takes time for perfectionist Trotter to come up with the lyrics; he refuses to rush and waits until a "song writes itself."
Trotter is out front more on "Phrenology." In the past, Thompson says, "Tariq was more or less part of the instrument lineup. His voice was like that of a saxophone. This time, he's talking more about specific subject matters."
Trotter says part of the reason for that is much of the material including "ThoughtWork," "Quills" and "Water" was originally intended for his solo album. He purposely made it distinct from previous Roots albums to "move away from what people might be expecting."
While he says he chose to sacrifice his nearly completed album to refamiliarize people with the band after a three-year absence, he feels he still needs to do a solo record. Even though he is the band's musical voice, people tend to think first of Thompson, the band's de facto spokesman. The friends co-founded the band 15 years ago at Philadelphia High School of Performing Arts, where classmates included Boyz II Men and jazz musician Christian McBride.
"I need to do it so people will be able to see what part of The Roots' energy is my own," he says. "People identify with Questlove, and that's not particularly who I am. This is our sixth opus (counting 1999's "The Roots Come Alive"), and it's time for me to blaze a separate trail so people can see my own specific challenges and tastes."