Digging The Roots 

Hip-hop's only live band continues to push creative limits.

The Roots often are classified as "conscious rap" or "alternative hip-hop" but mostly that's because they play instruments rather than relying on a DJ to provide backup. Thompson, who now goes by "?uestlove," says they're not trying to be sophisticated; they're just rapping about what they know. But with a music education, a CD collection he's not afraid to brag about and experience producing all the band's CDs, ?uestlove knows a little more than the average hip-hop artist. We spoke to him recently by phone.

Style: On the new CD you have a song that delayed the album for five months and cost three times what your first album cost. How has experience complicated your craft?

?uestlove: We're just in a position that we can experiment and do a really technical job. Usually before a record, I take all of our albums, listen to them thoroughly and I make a little list. One observation I made was that … we were lacking in the songwriting department. In other words, can I whistle this song and people know immediately off the bat which song I'm singing? It also explains the fact that I always cringe when people ask me, 'I know what song y'all sing, sing that song y'all sing again' and I could never do it. Why can't I hum my own song? One of my main goals was to present an album, which I could at least hum more than half.

Is that why you almost named it "Introducing The Roots"?

We almost named it "Introducing The Roots" because I knew there was going to be a five-year gap between the last album and this album and with hip-hop there's a reintroduction period that you have to sort of renew your license. … The game of hip-hop is so disposable.

In addition to writing his album's extensive liner notes, ?uestlove reaches out to fans on the band's Web site, which he calls his focus group.

Yet The Roots' relationship with fans is tenuous because of its constant reinvention of its sound: The first album was big with the "artsy, uppity, bo-ho crowd," he says. The second album was less jazzy and more hip-hop. The third was a dark, hard-core look at street life. The fourth, the Grammy-winner, was neo-soul, and the latest album is being condemned for being too rock and too radical. It contains a punk song, a rock song, a 10-minute electronica poem about death, plus a few more melodic and commercially viable songs, featuring guest vocalists Cody Chestnut, Musiq and Nelly Furtado.

"My whole career is based on throwing die-hard fans for a loop," ?uestlove says. "With each record released we're met with indifference and we're met with support, but if the day comes that everyone says 'I love it,' then we know we're in trouble."

While artistic integrity is important for the group — made up of a guitarist, bass player, keyboard player, human beat box, drummer and MC — The Roots are careful to balance the creative with the commercial. "I'm not totally stupid," ?uestlove says. "I don't want to absolutely alienate people just because they don't have the record collection that I'm fortunate enough to have." The Roots know they need to sell some albums to keep their record contract, he says, but because of the Grammy they are now considered a "prestige act" and don't have to sell as many albums as other artists.

Style: Your music is usually called "sophisticated" and "organic." How does that put you at odds with mainstream hip-hop acts?

?uestlove: I don't know about sophisticated. I don't even think it's that deep. I just happen to know that that particular [gangster] lifestyle is being rewarded because it's cinema, it's acting. Why do you think 50 Cent is so engaging to people right now? There's a man who had nine bullets go through him, one through his face, and he could live to tell the story. That's an amazing story. That's more amazing than 'Damn, I'm a dope MC and I know how to scat sometime when I rhyme.' That doesn't sell papers.

"I went to college" doesn't compete with "I got shot"?

Exactly. You just have to take the high road. That means getting ignored, being perceived as boring, that means only one out of every 10 people is really going to pay attention to you and one out of those 10 people is really going to get it.

You guys seem to have struck a good balance where you're kind of outside the mainstream, yet you have a Coke commercial, you've played with Jay-Z on MTV Unplugged …

We're still not in the mainstream, we did Jay-Z but that hardly affected our record sales, we're still a gold group. If anything it just became water-cooler conversation the next day like 'I cannot believe I saw The Roots and Jay-Z.' Pretty much that was a no brainer, it would have irked me to see any other band back hip-hop because pretty much there is no other band. Right now, The Roots is the only group in the pop-recording market with a record deal, like there are no bands.

After one of your albums came out you said people still don't get what The Roots are about. Do you still feel that way today?

Yeah, but part of that is just martyr posturing because that's what I'm used to doing for the past 11 years and part of that is true. But I think I like it that way. I don't think I'd be 100 percent comfortable with people just knowing what to expect and I don't like releasing anything mediocre, so I kind of depend on the reaction. S

The Roots perform as part of the Friday's at Sunset series at Kanawha Plaza, Eighth and Canal streets, May 16 at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $15. For details call (888) 301-4102, or visit www.fridaysatsunset.com.


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