While serving as the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, the members of The Roots also found time to record their 13th album, Undun, which many are calling their masterpiece. Marlow Stern followed the hardest working man in music, drummer Questlove.
It’s just past midnight on Dec. 7, and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, drenched in sweat, lumbers down the stairs from the stage at New York City’s Highline Ballroom, one step at a time. His cymbal-shattering drum solo just put an exclamation point on The Roots’ raucous, one-and-a-half hour set, to commemorate the release of their 13th studio album, Undun. Questlove has a thriving Afro atop his hefty 6-foot-4 frame, and as he reaches the bottom of the stairs, he lets out a deep sigh, gives me a pound, and says, “I’m worn down, man.”
The pacesetter and de facto ringleader of The Roots has, to his credit, had one hell of a day.
On the seventh floor of 30 Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan, across from The Dr. Oz Show, is the studio for NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The Roots serve as the house band for Fallon’s talk show. So every morning around 11 they arrive and hole up in their mini recording studio adjacent to the sound stage. Hanging on the wall outside of their fortress of solitude is the band’s Grammy Award for Best R&B Album for Wake Up!, which they made with John Legend last year. I turn around and see Jane Fonda stroll down the hallway, past the displayed Grammy. Just another ordinary day at 30 Rock.
At just past noon, The Roots emerge from their den and strut into the Fallon studio. First, Questlove, and then the rest of the band, including Kamal (keyboard), Frank Knuckles (percussion), Damon “Tuba Gooding Jr.” Bryson (tuba), Cap’n Kirk (guitar), Mark Kelley (bass), James Poyser (who provides additional keyboards for Fallon), and fellow founding member (along with Questlove) Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, the band’s MC. It’s a special night for The Roots. Not only will they be assuming their usual house-band duties, but they’re also the featured musical guests for that evening’s show.
The band begins rehearsing “Tip the Scale”—a song off Undun, which hit stores that day. A nine-piece orchestra backs the band on the number. The Roots perform about five or six runthroughs of the song, with near-flawless execution. Questlove’s drum kit is stage center, like a hip-hop Jesus at a groovy Last Supper.
At about 1:15 p.m., the band finishes rehearsing and heads back into their “man cave.” Inside the grotto, the walls are lined with memorabilia, including Late Night signs they’ve stolen from the show’s guests over the years. “We’ve stolen Juliana Margulies’s sign,” Questlove says. “We turned the sign for ‘Trump’ into ‘Rump.’ And there’s Christina Hendricks … mostly hot women.” He lets out a laugh. “And Barry Sobel.”
Questlove stalks over to his side-room, containing a drum kit, a TV playing Soul Train episodes on a continuous loop—to drum along to—and a host of personal effects. Above his TV there’s a framed photo of him with Barack Obama, and on elevated shelves sit two of the band’s other Grammy Awards (he gave the fourth to his mom), an NAACP Image Award, several pairs of custom basketball sneakers, and a few stuffed animals. His favorite item? “My bowling trophy,” says Questlove, with a smile. “We have a bowling team here at 30 Rock. In here, we play a very thin line between our white-collar world and our rock star existence. It’s a world mixed with going to parties with Mick Jagger and being here at 8 o’clock for HR meetings, and playing kickball with The Daily Show.”
From 2 p.m. until about 5 p.m., Questlove and the band practice intro songs for the evening’s guests. The band recently got into hot water for playing a rendition of Fishbone’s “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” as presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann’s intro music. Fallon, The Roots, and NBC brass apologized to the Minnesota politician, and the NBC higher-ups must now approve of certain guests’ intro songs. Questlove says he regrets the decision. The likelihood of controversy is small tonight: for Sarah Jessica Parker, they’ve decided on a song from Annie. And for Willow Smith: “She’s had a somewhat opposite narrative than what Will Smith had with his parents in Fresh Prince, so we want to play, ‘Parents Just Do Understand.’ ”
Another incident that got Questlove trending on Twitter, for entirely different reasons, was when he served as the Occupy Wall Street movement’s Paul Revere. The drummer was being driven back to his apartment in the Financial District—or “FiDi,” as he first dubbed it three years ago to “make it sound more hip”—on the evening of Nov. 14, when he witnessed what would later become the most severe Occupy Wall Street crackdown yet by the NYPD.
“That night, I got off on the wrong exit and found myself in a swarm of cops that had these bags, and they were pulling out their masks, bulletproof vests, and helping each other get their armor on.” He took to his Twitter to warn the OWS protesters in Zuccotti Park about the imminent police raid. “That was my moment to tell my friends, ‘I’m not bailing you out. Run,’” he says. “I hear the drums from afar, and I agree with them in spirit, but they’re really lacking in rhythm!” He laughs, then the smile goes away. “I’ve got to know a few of them and I’ve told them, ‘I think you guys need one central figurehead.’ I’ve never seen a revolution without a leader or a face you can identify with, someone with a complete plan.”
While he’s practicing the guest intros, he’s also rehearsing five Super Bowl anthems for when the show shoots live from the sporting event in February. The Roots’ decision to serve as the house band on a late night talk show initially took a lot of people by surprise, especially since they’ve been called “the last band of black musicians doing urban music on a major label.”
“By mid-2008, we felt as though we had seen enough of the world. I often joke that we were one of the rare groups of Americans that freely knew how to navigate Japan’s subway system, the Moscow subway system, and the subway system over in China, without a translator or a guide,” Questlove say. “And also, those in domesticated situations with kids and wives, we just felt if an opportunity came where we could be in one central place, and be stable with our families, we’d take it in a second. Now, America’s answers to that for musical acts are Vegas or Atlantic City, and I didn’t think that we’d be able to do ‘Fishsticks Tuesdays.’”
Questlove and Black Thought, who formed the Philadelphia-based band when they met in high school in 1987, had just purchased homes in California in 2008. On his second day out west, the drummer met Jimmy Fallon. Six months later, the two had sold their houses, moved back to the East Coast, and by March 2009, signed with Late Night. The Roots’ five-year contract with Fallon expires in 2014, but Questlove says the group members don’t see themselves leaving the show then.
“This was the break we needed,” he says. “It was painful to take it, and we knew we would be criticized, but it was our version of the rope-a-dope.”
Despite the criticism, the band has managed to find a happy medium. Fallon, the six sets of writers on the show, and the band work together so well that they can produce dazzling performances in a jiffy. These have included a glitzy version of Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” featuring Stephen Colbert, and a trilogy of “History of Rap” medleys with Justin Timberlake. “We learned that third ‘History of Rap’ in less than a day.”
And they’ve continued to pump out brilliant albums at a breakneck pace. The Roots have released three in the two-plus years since they started on Fallon: How I Got Over, Wake Up! with John Legend, and most recently, Undun. Their latest is the band’s first-ever concept album, centered on a fictional character named Redford Stephens, inspired by the kingpin Avon Barksdale from the HBO show The Wire. Stephens must choose between the straight life and the drug game. He chooses the latter. It took The Roots about a year-and-a-half to record the album—they work from 7 p.m., when they finish taping Fallon, until about 3 a.m. Despite their hectic schedule, Undun, a moody mélange of soul, hip-hop, and orchestral interludes, is the band’s most critically acclaimed album since their 1999 breakthrough Things Fall Apart. The BBC calls it “a stellar masterpiece.”
It’s now 5 p.m., and Questlove gets whisked off to his 20-minute 'fro-maintenance session. By 5:30 p.m., the band members emerge—dressed to the nines—and assume their position. They perform two songs to warm up the in-studio crowd—their hit “Seed (2.0),” followed by a rousing cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up.”
After the monologue and a couple of Fallon skits, the band introduces Parker with “It’s the Hard-Knock Life.” The selection stuns Parker—Annie is the musical where she first got her start on Broadway. She mouths the words “I love this” to the band, before saying to Fallon, “Oh, the music is so good. I love the band!” They then perform Christian group NewSong’s “The Christmas Shoes” to bring in the next guest, Patton Oswalt. Oswalt has often mocked the song’s lyrics in his standup routines, and he doubles over with laughter. He bows down to The Roots, and says, “I downloaded your album today … it is so awesome.”
After Willow Smith, The Roots assemble for their musical performance. A flat-lining EKG beep on a large screen transitions into Questlove’s percussions on the soulful ballad “Tip the Scale,” followed by the orchestral strings. It goes off without a hitch, and Questlove’s frenzied mid-song drum solo, in particular, earns the group a heavy round of applause.
The show finishes taping at 7:15 p.m., at which point Questlove and the rest of The Roots go back into their tiny studio space, grab their things, and take separate cars to the Highline Ballroom in downtown Manhattan. They need to rehearse before an album release show that evening. Questlove is the last one to leave, and Fallon stops by to personally congratulate him on the band’s stellar performance. “You guys were so amazing,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it. Thank you so, so much!”
At 7:45 p.m., Questlove steps into a black Mercedes-Benz en route to the concert venue. When asked how he unwinds after a taping, he mentions the ‘Muppets Closet’ at 30 Rock, from Jim Henson’s days on The Tonight Show in the ‘60s. Henson’s dressing room used to be part boiler room, so he decided to line the ugly pipes with Muppets felt. NBC eventually tore down the dressing room and turned it into a Henson shrine. And that’s where Questlove goes when he wants a bit of quiet—a boiler room, filled with Muppets.
He checks a few emails, confesses to owning more than 75,000 records, and waxes about the state of R&B music—“I don’t even think traditional R&B exists anymore; it’s the ‘cult of personality’ phase.” He then reveals his desire to own and operate a business. “I’ve always dreamed of having a food truck outside my DJ gigs,” he says. He even held a taste-test contest with 90 chefs, judged by him and his friends, including former porn star Sasha Grey. They settled on a chef, and a product: chicken drumsticks, since he’s a drummer. They then spent three months building buzz for their chicken drumsticks food truck, which caught the eye of a couple of reality shows that are now courting Questlove.
As if they’re not busy enough, Questlove and The Roots also produced the recent Betty Wright album, Betty Wright: The Movie, which was nominated for a 2011 Grammy. And he DJs frequently around New York City. He only gets 14 weeks a year off with Late Night.
“Five weeks ago, I went to the doctor and he said, ‘Dude, you look a mess. Your blood pressure’s up. How many hours do you sleep?’” Questlove says. “I was doing the two records and getting maybe two to three hours of sleep every day. I’d go to bed at five and wake up at eight in the morning.”
Questlove now feels much better. Since his doctor’s visit, he’s getting between six and eight hours of sleep a night.
The black Mercedes-Benz grinds to a halt outside the Highline Ballroom. It’s a rainy night, but there’s a line down the block for the sold-out concert. All of a sudden, Questlove gets a call from a “female companion.” It doesn’t go well. She won’t be attending the band’s show that evening because she’s “too tired”—news that seems to bum him out.
“I’m used to it,” he says. “But this is what I signed up for and there’s no complaining.” He then pauses for a moment. “Back in the day, I thought rap groups were only supposed to last eight years, so I was ready for our fall-off period, and I was thinking I’d just do some production or even write for a magazine. But now, with Undun, the last time I was really this excited about our career was the Things Fall Apart and Phrenology days—with the critical acclaim and the reaction to the album. Shit, today we were trending on Twitter and I wasn’t even in trouble!”
Questlove looks out the window of the vehicle, eyeing the long line of devoted fans. It seems to invigorate him. “I’m already thinking about the next record,” he says. “I’d prefer to have our album released in September, so we got to start now.”
Before he exits the car for a one-hour rehearsal, I ask him what his plans are for after the show. There’s a long silence. Then, he says, “Maybe go home and watch the performance [on Fallon]. I used to watch every show and critique it for sonic purposes. Then I got to get up at 6 to do some press for the album.” He pauses once more. “And I’m going to go to Duane Reade and get some milk. I need milk ... for my cereal.”