The Roots Say ‘Undun’ Taught ‘Patience,’ TV ‘Made Us Better’
The concept album. It’s a nebulous, musical roll-of-the-dice that can garner both awe-inspiring returns — Marvin Gaye’s genius 1971 protest statement ‘What’s Going On’ — and laughable, self-indulgent-plagued scorn — Garth Brook’s 1999 laughable, Ziggy Stardust-biting ‘The Life of Chris Gaines.’ Knowing the history of such a risk-taking genre, it’s little wonder when the news that celebrated Philadelphia hip-hop act the Roots was set to release their first official concept album entitled ‘undun,’ some observers reacted with a side-eye. Yet for the group’s ambitious leader and drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, he says the 10-track set, which follows the 1999 shooting death of lead character Redford Stevens, was born not out of some pretentious exercise. ‘undun,’ due out Dec. 6, came about by sheer necessity.
“It’s very easy for me if you tell me to make a 10-song conceptual record with a limited amount of resources,” Questlove tells The BoomBox. “I can do that. But if you tell me to write a 3-minute pop song that was straight to the point, I would have a problem doing that. I’m not that disciplined as a pop songwriter.” Indeed, the whole left-field idea of the Roots, a unit that made their 1993 debut under the banner “hip-hop band,” has always taken the harder road. Besides, when you’ve dropped classic works like ‘lladelph Halflife’ and ‘Things Fall Apart,’ conquered the live album format with ‘The Roots Come Alive, confidently delivered grown-man rap delivering ‘Rising Down’ and ‘How I Got Over’ and took a chance with their indie street-cred by becoming the house-band for late show host Jimmy Fallon, you can do whatever the hell you want. Questlove talks about what goes into making a modern day concept album, the Roots legacy, his views on hip-hop today and why classical music is so damn cool.
Because of ‘undun’s’ conceptual nature, what impact did having to stay on message have on Black Thoughts rhyming?
This was really our first record of the 13 albums that we really were as scrutinizing with the lyrics as we were with the music — actually more so. The thing that always defined us a group was that our musical output was a little bit different than anyone else’s. You tend to concentrate on one area, but because Tariq — Black Thought — is such a wordsmith, at the end of the day, it is what it is. People will probably say he’s really matured as an MC because this is the first time in our 20-year history that he even invited the type of scrutiny and dissection of his rhymes.
What kind of scrutiny are we talking about?
Literally everyone’s verse on this record had undergone major, major operations. Phonte’s verse on ‘One Time’ went through 17 re-writes. Dice [Raw’s] verse on ‘Tip the Scale’ went through at least nine complete verses. My website [Okayplayer] is asking me if there are any extra songs or bonus cuts and I’m like, “No. But there are definitely 10 songs with at least seven other verses.” That’s the thing that really differs us from anybody else out there in hip-hop.
Hip-hop usually falls into the yes-man syndrome. You hear something and you really don’t want to give constructive criticism. You are like, “Yeah, man! That’s dope. That’s dope. That’s dope.” I believe that’s the one true element that has helped us create quality product. There were songs where I had to do my drum parts over and over again. We are not afraid to be critical of each other.
I’m sure that has caused some epic scraps, right?
Well, I’ve stopped recording vocals long ago. I stopped after ‘Illedelph Halflife’ because it always became a cause for a fist-fight [laughs]. If I say to someone in the group, “Nah, you didn’t nail that part right,” it takes a certain type of psychologist to make an MC work his ass off. And Tariq definitely has high standards. He cares about putting his best effort forward. Everything that he puts out there is bar-none quotable. When you look at his lyrical arsenal, you rarely find any embarrassing stanzas or something that doesn’t make sense.
You sound like Black Thought’s biggest fan.
I am. He’s always great, but he really showed me something on this album. I’ll say even three months ago when we were finishing ‘I Remember’ or ‘Lighthouse’ and Rich [executive producer of ‘undun,’ Richard Nichols] would be like, “I don’t like that verse.” And I’m telling him, “Yo, that’s some ill s—.” And he’s like, “Well, the ending is cool, but I don’t like the first seven lines. Change it.” I’m expecting Tariq to be on his hot-tempered, “Get the f— out of here” thing because that’s how I would roll. But he turned out to be even more patient than me.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Roots’ career has been your loyal fanbase and the rather strong opinions they offer when it comes to your music. Where do you think ‘undun’ will fall into the entire Roots’ canon for Okayplayers?
There are some Roots fans that say, “Aw, man, my favorite is ‘The Tipping Point,” or “My favorite is ‘Game Theory.'” But ‘undun’ is not going to be for everybody. Still, I can say that people look at us and can say that we put effort and thought and care into our work.
Watch the Roots’ ‘undun’ Photo Shoot
Can you take me inside the recording process on ‘Make My’? There’s a lot going on in that track.
Because of the nature of the song, you have to understand that we built this concept record as a means of somebody dying in the beginning of the record. So the very first song is this person at the end of his life at the moment he pretty much gets murdered. So when we were listening to the song I said, “Well, I don’t get the feeling that his spirit is leaving his body. I want to know that he is really dying.” So I put a coda at the end of the song so that you get this sort of weird feeling sort of like Mobb Deep‘s ‘Shook Ones.’ The way that Prodigy describes the burning sensation that you feel with a bullet goes through your body, it’s almost like a beautiful description of such a violent act.
That’s a heavy description, huh?
It is. But I worked so hard on ‘Make My’ for over a month. Even with the intro of the album, I went through nine versions before people in the band were happy. I got out-voted on a drum patch [laughs]. They didn’t like the mix or the way my hi-hat sounded. I think making this album taught me patience.
What was it about Big K.R.I.T. that made you say, “OK, we have to get this kid on the record?”
The process is always the same. There’s a social interaction. It’s not like we went and looked in the blogosphere to find the hottest mixtape MC. We just happened to be curating these Hennessy shows where we would perform with the likes of a new act like Big K.R.I.T. and also perform with the veteran likes of Chaka Khan or Bobby Brown or Ronald Isley. These were private shows that we did all last year and we did about six of them. Just on a social level we got real cool with K.R.I.T. He would tell us he was a huge fan of ours and that one of his favorite albums was ‘Headphone Masterpiece’ by Cody Chesnutt. He was like, “Yeah, y’all definitely put me on to that when I was kid.”
That must have been surprising, right?
Yeah, we just bonded. So when it was time to record ‘undun,’ it was more like us calling our friend up rather than us calling someone that had some buzz on them. It’s way easier for us to collaborate with people who we are in good social standing with.
There’s been a lot of talk about the orchestral element of ‘undun.’ The Roots have used strings before, but on this one you guys take it to new heights. What was your inspiration behind taking on a more classical feel musically?
There are a lot of quiet side projects that we do. It may catch the ear of the occasional Pitchfork blog, but there are a gazillion collaborations that I do with different genres of music that kind of goes under the radar. One of them was a project that I have been working on in Philadelphia called ‘Philly-Paris Lockdown.’ They wanted me to give my interpretation of the early 20th Century Renaissance era of classical music — the French composers. When they first asked me if I had any interest in doing classical works and what did I know about it, of course I told them about me having gone to performing arts school in Philly and that I had experienced classical music. So I did about two or three of these types of orchestral works during these Philly concerts, which mixed jazz with classical music with great artists like saxophonist David Murray and [pianist] D.D. Jackson.
How did that classical element translate to ‘undun’?
Having worked hard on ‘Philly-Paris Lockdown’ all year I didn’t want to let it go. So I wanted to see if I could include come of that experience on ‘undun.’ We’ve always worked with strings before, but never to this level where we just started writing straight up compositions without it having it be connected to hip-hop or anything. One of the things that interested me was the Impressionist period of French classical music. It’s sort of like their foray into modern music, which you could say Miles Davis picked up on when he started doing ‘Sketches of Spain’ and the kind of work Miles was doing with Gil Evans.
When the news came out that you would be allowing fans to view the lyrics to ‘undun’ tracks online, you referenced Lil Wayne, Drake, Kanye West and Nicki Minaj and made the following quote: “I’m over 40 now and I’m no longer haunted by a young man’s hoop dreams. But, I’m anything but resigned, just comfortable in my skin.” Why did you feel the need to make that statement?
I think the more honest you are about the situation, the more it actually frees you. I think a lot of people, despite hip-hop’s 30-year presence, I would expect there would be at least one or two figures that could supersede hip-hop and show the possibilities of it. I feel like a lot of the times the Roots have to prove ourselves and over-explain certain situations and why we do things. Starting with our last album, ‘How I Got Over,’ I want this to be a time where we just don’t have to over-explain so much on what our motivations and intentions are.
What impact has being the house-band on ‘Late Night with Jimmy Fallon’ had on your career?
I will say that being a part of Jimmy Fallon has really marked the first time that I’ve given time to concentrate on just being a songwriter. The problem with us doing the 250 shows a year was the fact it took a lot of effort in crafting and building a show. You really don’t get that much of a chance to hone your craft that got you there in the first place. When ‘Things Fall Apart’ came out, it took us two years to make that album. We put all our energy and effort into it and we were rewarded as such. We put out that record and the next thing you know we were on tour for three years. It got massive acclaim and our audience was building by the thousands. But when we got home, we had to start the process all over again. Next thing you know, it takes two years to make the next record. Now that we are in a place where we have a regular steady life, we can now put a lot of energy into writing songs.
Fallon opens up the Roots’ most productive period. Who knew?
Being on Fallon requires it. That’s my day job. I’m required to make songs all day whether they are used or not. Just being in an environment of writing and being in that editing process, where you see them cut to the chase to get to a certain point quicker, has made us better.
Watch the Roots’ ‘Don’t Say Nuthin”