For the past seven months, Questlove has been on the run. The Roots drummer, whose driver’s license reads “Ahmir Thompson,” wakes up every day between 6 and 7 a.m. to catch an 8 a.m. train from his hometown of Philadelphia and usually doesn’t return home until 11 p.m.
That’s because at the top of the year, the band accepted a job as the house band for “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” which premiered in March on NBC. “My friend [“Chappelle’s Show” producer] Neal Brennan asked me who I was thinking of for a house band, and I said that I didn’t know,” Fallon says. ” ‘You should ask the Roots,’ he said. ‘The Roots? You think they’d do it?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘But maybe they’d know someone.’ ”
“Back in the day, we were young and fresh out of school, had no families and no responsibilities-the sky was the limit. But, fast forward, and you’ve got wives, kids, ballet recitals, football practices, first day of middle school, flu shots, and it gets harder every year,” Thompson says. “We just wanted to be in one place, and the only job that can give us that comfort without us seeing a dip monetarily was doing a residency. For us to be in one place and make the same amount of money made a lot of sense.”
His harrowing commute is paying off, though. While the gig is time-consuming, the show has an average of 1.7 million viewers, according to Nielsen, which means the Roots are likely gaining a slew of new fans. While sales of previous albums haven’t increased meaningfully, many close to the band believe that sales of its forthcoming album will reflect its new platform.
The idea that a new fan base might be the result of the residency is a surprise to Thompson; he says his biggest concern when he took the “Fallon” gig was that he would alienate the group’s current fans.
“We put on a whole pile of extracurricular work to fend off bloggers and press people that were ready to say we sold out for taking the job,” Thompson says, adding that the Roots reinstated their Jam Sessions-weekly concerts that the group staged in 1999 and are now held at New York’s Highline Ballroom-in February (the series ends in November) because they wanted to prove to themselves “that we weren’t getting lazy. We were so busy thinking about the bullets we were going to be fired that we discounted this could actually benefit us. We didn’t think we could get new fans; we just wanted to be in one place. One thing we didn’t bank on was the show being a success and our profile raising five times more than before the show.” (At $10 per ticket, all Jam Sessions have sold out, and most sell out in advance.)
But the act hasn’t broken the 1 million sales mark with any of its albums since its 1993 inception-the group’s latest set, 2008’s “Rising Down,” has sold 171,000 copies in the United States, and its biggest seller is the 1999 “Things Fall Apart,” with 921,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan-and it plans to release its next album, “How I Got Over,” at the top of next year. Will the exposure translate into album sales?According to Roots manager Richard Nichols, that remains to be seen. “I don’t know if the new fans are the same music fans from before,” he says. “People that watch late night are older and more along the lines of middle Americans. So, it’s definitely a fan, but you have fans that don’t buy your product and don’t come to a show.”
“Fallon” music booker Jonathan Cohen says the Roots are gaining new fans every day, especially among other artists who perform on the show. “We’ve had numerous artists who were more nervous about meeting the Roots than about their own performance on the show,” he says. “People are in awe of them, for good reason. More people than ever are aware of what an amazing band they are. My hope is that because of the show, a lot of new fans will pick up the album when it comes out.”
“It’s a great opportunity for them to expand their brand and shows their level of artistry,” says Chris Atlas, senior VP of marketing at the Roots’ label, Def Jam. “They are taking their art to another platform and that’s what hip-hop is about. To me, they should be praised for continuing to expand their boundaries.”
Thompson, who calls his nightly appearances a “blessing in disguise, one-hundred fucking percent,” hopes new and old fans alike will pick up the band’s new project. “We have a slew of new fans,” he says, “not to mention the creative juices that are flowing from us interacting and playing with other artists on the show,” including Michael McDonald, Tom Jones, Smokey Robinson and Eric Idle, to list a few. In addition to music, the Roots are responsible for creative segments on “Fallon” like “Slow Jam the News,” during which Fallon and Roots MC Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter re-enact the day’s events as R&B singers, and “Freestylin’ With the Roots,” for which Fallon randomly picks members of the audience, asks them three questions about themselves and has the Roots rap on the spot incorporating their answers.
Although it doesn’t yet have a release date, the album is technically finished, according to Thompson. Because the band spends so much time working on the show, it will be the first album since the group’s debut, “Organix,” that the members recorded together. For other releases they recorded their parts separately and mix them together later.
“This will mark the first time since then that we’ve written and created songs in front of each other in the same room,” Thompson says. “That’s because having this job forces you to create music three to five hours a day.
“This is the most songwriting I’ve ever done in my life,” he adds. “Since March, I think we have about 723 jams in the can. There is a difference between a performance if you play with musicians that are in synch rather than doing it isolated and alone-there’s just a different energy when we do it this way.”
Thompson, who first calls the album “the light at the end of the tunnel,” goes on to name spirituality and the recession as two main lyrical themes, isn’t worried whether the band’s new gig leads to sales. “We’re the last group making art records on a major label for rappers. If there’s a world for Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell-prestige artists under rock monikers-then those same standards should apply to us as well,” he says. “Hip-hop acts should be able to put out art records without having to worry about putting their lives on the line or not releasing anything unless they don’t sell millions.”
At the very least, they’re already innovators in their own right for what a modern-day TV band should be, according to Cohen. “I can’t really imagine another band being able to pull this off so well. They are tearing up the playbook for what a TV band is supposed to be and coming up with something totally new,” he says.
Thompson agrees. “To complain about what we don’t have might be a moot point, because who is on their label for 17 years after the fact? Conventional wisdom says selling a million albums is what keeps labels from dropping you. But we are 11 albums in and we haven’t gotten dropped,” he says. “People that care, they respect the Roots. Others that don’t care, they are indifferent. But the cool thing is that, because of the show, they might’ve just discovered us.”