John Legend & ?uestlove: The Billboard Cover Story
John Legend & ?uestlove: The Billboard Cover Story

What's your first memory of seeing the Roots live as a student at the University of Pennsylvania?

Legend: I believe it was at Penn Relays, or one of our spring fling concerts at Penn. In Philadelphia they were the kings of hip-hop, so it was a source of pride that one of the coolest groups was coming out of there at the time. Me and my friend Dave Tozer, who I wrote a lot with on the last three albums, used to go to open mics in Philadelphia and just watch and take notes. We would see people like Ahmir, of course, but also Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, D'Angelo -- all these people would come through Philadelphia and jam with the Roots. It made me want to push harder to start my own solo career.

?uestlove, the Roots sound much looser on "Wake Up!" than on the band's most recent album, "How I Got Over," released in June. What approach did you take in the studio?

Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson: The Roots haven't been this raw since our very first record. It's not overproduced; it's just us jamming together, and it's got a grass-roots feel to it. It was actually liberating to not overthink it. With each album that we've made I tend to progressively lose more sleep over the tiniest detail, whereas with this it was about letting go and not second-guessing myself. Sometimes it's hard to have fun with something that's also your livelihood, because you're so serious about it.

How did you go about selecting the songs to cover on the album?

Thompson: I wanted to choose songs that wouldn't overshadow the project and that would give John a fair chance, sort of keep him out of the line of fire of critics who would instantly gun him down if he did a song that didn't hold up to a particular standard. So a lot of the artists we chose are really under the radar, like Baby Huey & the Babysitters, Michael James Kirkland and Prince Lincoln & the Royal Rasses.

There's definitely a link between the era that you're harking back to on "Wake Up!" and the "Yes We Can" fervor of 2008, but the political climate has changed a lot in the past two years. Can this album still resonate with people?

Legend: It is a different climate, but I think it makes the album even more relevant now. You would think now that we have a black president, everything's all good, but there has been more racial tension than ever before. A lot of people feel like they're losing grip of what America used to be. They long for a bygone era when America was whiter, when it was more Christian, when it was more this, more that -- they long for a more traditional America. You see that conversation, that battle, being had in America right now, so it feels like these songs are super relevant, even more so than in 2008.

Thompson: Absolutely. There's a song that deals with patriotism, which connects to what's going on in New York with the mosque near ground zero. "Hang on in There" deals specifically with the definition of an American: "Do you consider me an African American like you consider yourself an American?" Every day, new subjects and ideas are being raised that make this album relevant.