Ahmir ” ?uestlove” Thompson had finally reached his breaking point. It was during an early-2011 recording session for the Roots‘ new album, undun, when the drummer of the acclaimed Philadelphia hip-hop band stormed out of the troop’s recording studio. At issue? Thompson’s meticulous percussive work on an early version of the group’s somber first single, “Make My,” was rejected by his fellow members. Cue blow-up.
“I worked so hard on the drums alone for a month and I presented it and they just told me, ‘Thumbs down,'” the usually affable Thompson recalls. “And I’m like, ‘What?’ I instantly said, ‘I quit.’ I left for three weeks. I didn’t show up to the studio. I went to the movies. I went out on DJ gigs. I’m telling the guys in the band, ‘I’m not coming back . . . fuck y’all.’ But then I started to think, ‘If [MC] Tariq [“Black Thought” Trotter] can write a verse 15 times in a row and not complain, I can do the same.'”
Through the years Trotter has gained a reputation as the most uncompromising Roots member. But like Thompson, he had to leave his comfort zone throughout much of the recording for undun, the Grammy Award-winning act’s 13th set, due Dec. 6 on Def Jam. For Trotter, writing within the parameters of a 10-song concept album that begins with the 1999 shooting death of lead character Redford Stevens was an exercise in patience. He says that everyone-including the album’s roster of guest MCs, such as Mississippi rapper Big K.R.I.T. and longtime Roots affiliates Dice Raw, Phonte and P.O.R.N.-were subjected to endless rewrites in order to stay on topic.
“I could actually put out an album called undun-rough draft,” Trotter says with a chuckle. “There were some good lyrics that we thought of and wanted to contribute to the album, but it would have strayed away from the overall topic. I submitted my lyrics to Richard Nichols, the editor and executive producer of this record, and he would manipulate my words so they would fit into the concept. It was more of a challenge to stick to the script.”
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Sticking to the script is something the Roots have largely avoided throughout their 20-year run. “The artistic freedom that we fought so hard for during our career has allowed us to become a prestige act as opposed to just being a ‘Hey, this is our third album’ type group,” Thompson says of his band’s improbable run.
And the Roots are still rolling the dice. Thompson points to the group’s use of orchestral arrangements on undun, an idea he introduced to the band while he was collaborating with an ensemble of classical musicians for an April performance at the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts.
“Most of the string players we used on this album were from the same orchestra that I worked with on orchestral projects like the ‘Philly-Paris Lockdown,'” he says. “I feel like we are at the point now where the label respects what we do and there’s not any pressure to get our music on ‘106 & Park’ or beat out Adele for the top of the charts.”
Indeed, when the eight-piece band released its 1993 jazz-inflected independent debut, Organix, the group was an East Coast hip-hop aberration in the sample-heavy era of A Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr and the Wu-Tang Clan. Even with its fiery MC attack and Thompson’s boom-bap production sensibilities, many observers considered the act a novelty. But after a run of critically acclaimed projects highlighted by 1995’s “Do You Want More?!!!??!” (No. 22 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart), 1996’s “Illadelph Halflife” (No. 21, Billboard 200), 1999’s “Things Fall Apart” (No. 4, Billboard 200) and 2010’s “How I Got Over” (No. 6, Billboard 200), hip-hop’s first official band more than survived. Through its continued success, the Roots created an alternate rap universe that would go on to influence everyone from Common to the late J Dilla.
High-profile gigs backing icons like Jay-Z and Eminem, along with Thompson’s production work for D’Angelo, John Legend, Al Green and Betty Wright, further established the group’s mainstream presence. Then, in 2008, NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” hired the Roots as the show’s house band, a slot that Thompson credits with making the group a dramatically tighter outfit-a factor that he says can be heard on undun.
“Being on [“Fallon”] has made us all better songwriters, better musicians and better producers,” he says of the group. “I believe people will hear that dedication on the new album.”