Hip-hop group the Roots hails from Philadelphia, but since becoming the house band on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” last year, its members have increasingly embraced New York. The Roots’ new album, “How I Got Over,” was recorded in Philadelphia and New York, and is the group’s first release since taking on the late-night TV gig.
The “Fallon” job has also moved the Roots, once cult favorites, closer to the center of the pop universe, jamming each night on the air with such guests as Sheryl Crow, Christopher Cross and Keith Urban. Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, the septet’s drummer and spokesman, says that “doing the sketches on the show, having one-on-one conversations on my Twitter account, that really helps a lot in breaking the myth of the one-dimensional band. So hopefully now we’re two-and-a-half dimensions.”
Members of the Roots are also working on a number of forthcoming projects, including collaborative albums by soul British soul siren Duffy and American singer John Legend. “Between all those records I’ve been living out of a hotel, like the lone black member of the cast of ‘Dynasty,'” Mr. Thompson said.
The drummer spoke with the Journal about the Roots’ new album, reaching middle age, and working in New York City.
The Wall Street Journal: You guys are from Philadelphia but you have a standing gig in New York. Is there any danger of the Roots losing their roots?
Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson: Technically speaking, when people ask me, do I still live in Philadelphia, I say, “My mail still goes there.” But we’ve been living out of a hotel and a tour bus for the last 18 years. I haven’t lost my roots—really my roots are somewhere behind a drum set anywhere in the world.
WSJ: Has the culture of New York seeped into what you do as a band?
Mr. Thompson: It’s always done that. For all intents and purposes, I know that we’re marketed as a Philly band, but we’ve done a majority of our records in New York. A lot of my best music in the last 10 years has been made at Electric Lady Studios [on West 8th Street]—the work with D’Angelo, Common, Erykah Badu, during that period back in the late-90s, early 2000s.
WSJ: How does location influence your work?
Mr. Thompson: I feel as if I do my best work when I’m in some sort of uncomfortable non-glitzy location. I feel that brings the best out of my performance. If it’s too comfortable I might get distracted. We made that mistake once. We took our budget money and renovated our entire studio to resemble that of a strip club. That’s one of the perils of watching “MTV Cribs.”
WSJ: Why did you decide to record the cover song “Dear God 2.0″?
Mr. Thompson: Hip-hop is 100% machismo. Even for females it’s machismo. Because we are men in our late-30s, now approaching 40, there has to be a new role, a new playbook that we have to go by. We’re writing it as we go. We wanted to make a record that reflected the tone of the country. “Dear God” is a song about someone holding on with the last fiber of their being to something to believe in. The gentleman singing on it is Jim James, the leader of My Morning Jacket; he was one of the leaders of a supergroup called the Monsters of Folk, which included him and Bright Eyes. They came on the show and I heard the lyrics and it absolutely floored me.
WSJ: There’s a line in the song “Now or Never,” from your new album that goes, “I’m ready for the next chapter and page / to start acting my age.” Do you think hip-hop can be relevant into middle age?
Mr. Thompson: I think that I personally embrace and welcome the idea of being a sage. I think there’s a way we can present ourselves that seems genuine without seeming outdated. I sometimes rack my brain to think of ways, approaches we can take as 38, 39, 40-year-olds that seem natural and not corny to someone that’s 20. It happens in rock all the time. It’s not like Rolling Stones fans were scoffing at “Tattoo You” when it came out [in 1981] and those guys were approaching 40 then.
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