"America seems to always be at war," John Legend muses as he casually plinks the keys of his piano at Brooklyn's Music Hall of Williamsburg. "While politicians go home safe to their families, we've got a government willing to sacrifice people's lives every day."
Backed by four members of the hardest-working band in hip-hop, the Roots, Legend then launches into a kinetic, 12-minute cover of Bill Withers' "I Can't Write Left Handed," about a young soldier shot during the Vietnam War. The song was originally recorded in 1973, but its message still resonates in 2010, which is precisely the point. "I Can't Write" is one of 11 socially conscious '60s and '70s soul songs covered on Legend and the Roots' collaborative album, "Wake Up!," due Sept. 21 on Columbia. (Common and Melanie Fiona make guest appearances on the set's lead single, "Wake Up Everybody.")
The Sept. 7 concert in Brooklyn marked the second time in eight days that Legend and the Roots played gratis in New York thanks to American Airlines, which sponsored the gigs as part of an initiative to promote BlackAtlas.com, a new social networking site geared toward African Americans. "Nothin' like a free show," Legend cracked. "Don't get used to it."
Video Below: Exclusive video Q&A with John Legend and ?uestlove
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.
What was it like meeting President Obama?
Thompson: Every time I saw him, he ragged on me about my hair. The first words that came out of his mouth to me were, "Man, you haven't cut that thing yet?" I'm almost certain that at the end of this project, a performance at the White House is in order. I'm putting that out there.
Legend: He's a fan of hip-hop and R&B. He's made that pretty clear in some of the conversations he's had about his iPod, and he knew how to wipe the dirt off his shoulder, so clearly he's pop culture aware. I think President Obama will dig this album.
Aside from our commander in chief, who do you think is the audience for this album?
Legend: I want everybody to hear it. I think it will find the right audience. The label is doing a great job marketing it. Not everybody's going to buy it, but the people that are supposed to hear it and are longing for this kind of music are going to hear it, and hopefully they expose it to some of their friends.
What are you doing now to promote "Wake Up!" that you wouldn't have had to do five years ago?
Legend: There are a lot more alliances with brands. We're doing this American Airlines thing with BlackAtlas.com, and we're doing an online streaming concert with American Express and Vevo. Radio isn't going to sell all your records -- particularly with a project like this that isn't really built for urban and pop radio, except for urban adult to some extent.
What about performing at the Miss Universe pageant?
Legend: The principal reason we did it wasn't for America, actually -- it was because it's watched by so many people overseas, and it's a way to get the music to them without traveling to their home countries. We were told it's only below the World Cup in international viewership. It was a weird juxtaposition, especially when this album is really socially conscious, but musically it felt good.
?uestlove, were you always so great at using Twitter or did you go through an awkward beginner phase like everyone else?
Thompson: There are a lot of stages to Twitter. Of course everybody's first tweet is like, "OK, trying to figure this whole tweet thing out." I'd say for the first 100 tweets, I was just being obnoxious -- "Taking a left step, taking a right step, taking a shit." If you look at my earliest tweets, I was highly obnoxious. It wasn't until I got 10,000 followers that I started to be quasi-serious about it. How many tech devices do you have on you at any given moment?
Thompson: I have three phones, but I carry all four of my computers wherever I go. I carry around 80 pounds of technology.
John, has being around ?uestlove and seeing your friend Kanye West dive headfirst into Twitter changed your approach to it?
Legend: I've always been active on Twitter. I'm just not naturally funny. It's not my gift. If I follow somebody that posted something really funny, I retweet it, but don't expect a lot of original humor coming out of the John Legend Twitter.
How do you get your music these days?
Legend: I never take free albums from the label. They always offer them to me and I'm like, "If I want to listen to somebody, I'll go buy it." It's funny how undervalued music is right now. For people to balk at paying $10 for a great album is amazing to me. I think a good album is worth at least $20, compared to what you would spend $20 on for any other type of entertainment.
?uestlove, as a vinyl junkie, do you stay away from buying music digitally?
Thompson: No, I kind of dig the fact that I can dig in the crates at three in the morning. I've always dreamed of a 24-hour record store that wasn't Walmart. I do all my iTunes shopping between midnight and 6 a.m. I still try to buy records when I get the opportunity -- I have a 70,000-plus record collection. But I will say that 60%-70% of my buying activity is with the click of a mouse. I see buying a record like voting for the president.
You both seem focused on making albums at a time when most people are just buying singles. Why?
Legend: We're going against the grain sometimes. Trying to make great albums is the only way to do it, as far as I'm concerned. Clearly people buy albums less than they used to, but they still do, and I feel like people who fall in love with artists really fall in love with an album and not just a song. That makes them buy concert tickets. It makes them buy merchandise and all those other things. I still think every artist who aspires to be great and meaningful and have a lasting impact should try to make great albums from front to back.
Thompson: I've never seen record sales as a way of life or as a means of support. I see it as like those people who hand out fliers in the night when you're done clubbing. For the Roots, records have always been an advertisement for the show. The show has always been the most important thing.
Legend: That's not a bad thing, because the margins for touring are a lot better than making records anyway.
Thompson: Yeah, not being available as much as we used to be and being on television is like the sweetest payoff ever.
Is "Wake Up!" a one-off project, or will you collaborate again?
Legend: Who knows? I loved working with them and I can imagine we'll maybe work on another recording project. We didn't know each other very well before but we're friends now, and we've played live together many times to support this album. We both enjoy the collaboration a lot and I see it happening again at some point.
What's next for you both?
Legend: I'm starting the next solo album now. Kanye and I are executive producers together. I also worked on Kanye's album a little bit, on the "Power" remix and other stuff. But God only knows what Kanye is actually going to put on the album and what's going to be on the other five-song album he's putting out.
Thompson: We're actually considering doing a children's record next, with "Yo Gabba Gabba!" Kirk [Douglas], our guitarist, was a kindergarten teacher before he joined the group and he has at least 200 songs in his arsenal-great, noncondescending kid songs like the real smart stuff that came from "The Electric Company." Kirk's a genius about making kids songs.
Between that and "Wake Up!," it seems like the Roots are consciously reaching out to a younger generation.
Thompson: When I was a kid listening to the stuff we cover on "Wake Up!," I was 2 or 3 years old. My mom and dad and sister constantly fed me music, and that planted the seed. So I hope there's a parent out there that takes to this record and plays it a lot for their kid, and that this becomes the soundtrack to some 3-year-old in 2010 who will be a 23-year-old in 2030 and say, "Man, I grew up on this record."