Watch John Legend and the Roots Perform at AOL Sessions
The recent pairing of John Legend and the Roots is a meeting of the minds that has born a cover album like no other. The singer-songwriter/pianist and hip-hop collective both share an appreciation for instrumentation, a vast knowledge of soul music and a history of never settling for less than the best.
An admitted music geek and crate digger, Roots drummer Questlove helped Legend select some of the most interesting, socially conscious and reflective songs — from artists you may not have heard of, but will definitely know and love after hearing the reworked tunes — for ‘Wake Up!’ Originally, Legend thought the album would be a supplement to 2008’s ‘Evolver’ or an EP of a few songs from the jam sessions with the legendary Roots crew, but instead, two years later, the crooner and the crew had a slew of tracks and, ultimately a full-fledged album, not to mention memories of a recording experience they’ll never forget. “I’ve never had an artist before tell me like, ‘Yo, we can do better. Let’s go re-record this stuff,” Questlove says of the two-year recording process. We were lucky enough to witness the fruits of their labor during AOL’s third Sessions taping with the Grammy award-winning singer and first with the Roots.
AOL: What was the inspiration behind ‘Wake Up’?
Legend: The album ‘Wake Up’ was born back in 2008. If you flashback to that moment, we were in the middle of the election cycle. A lot of young people were getting involved in the campaign for Obama. A lot of conversations were being had about the future of the country and things we needed to do to make it right. You know, a lot of inspiration was in the air. I had just finished my album ‘Evolver,’ and it was about to come out in October of that year. But, I also wanted to do something that was a little more political and socially conscious, and of the moment that we were in politically and socially. So I reached out to The Roots and said, let’s do some covers of a few songs, and make like a bonus disc, or an EP or maybe a digital download. So I reached out to them, they agreed to do it, and we started working on it, we recorded a few songs, and the more we got into it, we thought, you know, this is bigger than a few songs, this is bigger than just this moment, try to make a full album of this, you know, really get into a musical groove and let it play out fully. And so that’s what we did. After I went on tour for ‘Evolver,’ then finished that whole album cycle, we came back in 2010 and started working on the album again. We finished it up this year, and now it’s ready for everybody to hear.
Questlove: What he said.
AOL: Can you talk about the nostalgia involved with going back in time to select these songs?
Questlove: For the song selection, I spent about a week and some change, inside of my record room. I have a record library, of 70,000 plus records. And so, I just played a lot of records, made a copy of a few that I thought he’d dig. Then we made a list of 20 – 25 songs. We narrowed it down to the final selection. I wanted to avoid the usual cover album potholes. There’s uber obvious songs that I thought would have destroyed the project, even though they would have fit into it. You know, like, it would have been easy to been like, we’ll let’s do, ‘A Change is Going to Come,’ or ‘This is a Man’s World’ by James Brown, or you know, that type of thing. Or any Stevie Wonder songs. So I wanted to pick some songs that were in the middle, that had strong messages.
And one of the coolest things about hip-hop culture is that a lot of these songs have been used in well known hip-hop classics. So, even if you’re not familiar with the original song, maybe as a hip-hop fan, you know from the hip-hop generation, you might be familiar with the music, or this loop, or, ‘Oh, I heard that in A Tribe Called Quest song,’ or ‘I heard that in a Dr. Dre song,’ that type of thing. That was probably our advantage to doing this record. The fact that, even if you weren’t around during the Sixties and Seventies, you might have been around definitely in the Eighties and Nineties to hear these songs being sampled … And they still have a strong potent message.
We’re kinda hitting three demographics. People that were alive and around during that time period, that just like the music because it sounds old and soulful. People that lived through it, via the reprocessed generation of hip hop, and then John’s demographic target audience, that sort of passed the classic hip hop stage between 2002 and 2007. We’re hitting three demographics. You know, subject-wise I think we’ve hit a lot of areas, not just overtly political songs. Songs that just deal with what it means to be an American, how an American feels just from all angles. Like, we’re just trying to hit all these birds with one stone.
AOL: What do you think you learned from each other during this process?
Legend: I learned some songs I Just didn’t even know. He was able to dig into crates and really get some great material for us to, some of which I just really wasn’t aware of like ‘Hang on In There’ and ‘I Can’t Write Left Handed.’ Sometimes I would know the artist, but I wouldn’t know some of the more off the beaten path records that they recorded. And so I think, one of the coolest things was just me learning more about the history of soul music, and some artists that have been overlooked, and some songs that have been overlooked, to some extent. And it was great really bringing those to life again; putting them out there for a new generation to hear. So I think that was one of the coolest things about doing this project.
Questlove: I’ll say that if anything, this is definitely the first project that I’ve done, and which the artist that I’m collaborating with really wanted to bring, basically, the maximum performance out of the project. I kind of followed the rule that Prince always had, which was basically: make the song classic enough, and sort of middle ground enough, but just make it a great foundation, so that when you do it live, you can surpass it. One of the crazy advantages we had with making this a two year process, was that we were also doing a lot of local jam sessions shows. Of which, these songs sort of take a life on of their own. And it was almost to the [point] that they were absolutely more superior than the album versions. I’ve never had an artist before tell me like, ‘Yo, we can do better. Let’s go re-record this stuff.’
Now, we have such a challenge on our hands because the mind blowing version is now what the album is, and so we have to surpass it. He taught me a lot just about achieving the best performance, because I have a tendency to be very loose in my production.
Legend: And I think another thing that was cool, for both of us I think, neither of us have done a truly kind of live band arrangement for an entire album as well. Even though The Roots use a lot of live drums, and a lot of live instruments, neither of us have done the process of really being in the room together as a band, recording a full album. You know together, almost as it would be live. I’ve never done that, and Ahmir’s never done that, and I think that was cool for both of us to kind of navigate through that. And like he said, playing a live show helped us come back and actually do better versions than we originally did. But that whole live interaction, that whole process, which is how people used to record albums all the time, is something that doesn’t happen a lot now. And so it’s kind of cool to bring that back. Because I think it gives it a sound, that other albums don’t have.
Questlove: Yeah definitely a different energy.
AOL: Who can you credit with some of your early introductions to these inspirational artists?
Questlove: Strictly hip hop. You know, some of these records were definitely staples in my household. You know, Marvin Gaye‘s ‘Wholy Holy,’ Donnie Hathaway‘s ‘Little Ghetto Boy;’ compared to what was done to what was done with various artists, from Della Reese to Roberta Flack, to Eddy Harris, Les McCann. And then some of these records like our generation, from Earnie Hines, and ‘Hard Times’ by Baby Huey and the Babysitters, I knew because of — well ‘Hard Times’ has been sampled so many times. I guess A Tribe Called Quest was the first to use it in the ‘Can I Kick It’ remix. And probably the best usage of it was Ghostface Killah in the Supreme Clientele record with Buck Fifty.
And pretty much Pete Rock and CL Smooth used ‘Our Generation’ by Earnie Hines in their ‘Straighten it Out,’ of which CL Smooth is also on the record doing a verse. Some of the songs I knew from — he’s a good friend of mine — I guess I credit him with helping The Roots get a record deal. His name is Gilles Peterson. He’s a DJ in London on Radio 1. He’s basically I guess the new John Keal, the tastemakers, tastemaker. You know, the guy that still believes in digging for old great records and then playing them on the air, and then all the tastemakers find out what he played and then they claim it as their own. Like oh look at this guy I discovered. So, when he played me Hang on in There, like the last time I was in London, I thought it was just a Marvin Gaye outtake.
And he gave me the record, and that’s — I’ve always just loved that record for so long. I had it for ten years and played it for people. I think one of the great things about that song, is that’s one of the rare songs in which you’ll actually a hear an African American, discuss sort of the taboo subject of you know, I guess, what his version of being patriotic means. ‘Cause it’s not too often do you find African American’s talking about patriotism, or being proud of their country. Especially with the experience that we’ve had with America. So that’s always been on the shelf, and the music was awesome as well, so, yeah I guess you could say it’s sort of a three way tie of my father, and hip hop history, and great tastemakers.
AOL: What are some issues that you talk about, that you don’t think get enough media attention?
Legend: Well it was interesting, particularly with ‘I Can’t Write Left Handed,’ you know, war is an interesting subject now. ‘When I Can’t Write Left Handed’ was written, war was much more on the top of people’s minds. Partly I think, because, the draft was in place, and because of that, there were more people that felt like they were at risk of having to go to Vietnam. Basically the whole country, unless you had the connections to get out of it in some way, or defer in some way. Basically the whole male population, was possibly gonna go to Vietnam. And so, I think that created a lot more angst, and a lot more anger, and a lot more rebellion in the youth community, because any of them could have been called to this war. So, it made them be even more skeptical, of you know, why are we there?
Why are we going over to kill these people that I have no idea what they’ve done against me or to harm my family, or to harm my country. Why am I going there? And so you know, there was that sentiment. And then when you look at the anti war movement now, I don’t think it’s ever, in the last ten to twenty years, even though we’ve been fighting someone almost through out that time, the anti war movement hasn’t had that kind of you know, mass appeal, hasn’t had that sort of resonance over a long period of time. I think part of it is because, unless you have military over there, unless you have family over there, you don’t feel the war. You know, you could go about your business and kind of ignore that it’s even happening.
Questlove: Yeah there’s more distractions today than there was during the Vietnam period. I actually knew a human being who was in New York — on Sept 11th, that had absolutely no clue what was going on until 7pm that night … in New York City. That’s just a minuscule example of how you can sort of put blinders on and not even be aware. The type of entertainment that’s out, a lot of it is means for an escape … to a harsh reality. So, this is a very risky record to make, because we’re addressing a lot of the issues. A lot of the issues that, thus far, this generation has really, really turned a blind eye to.