Leader ?uestlove on juggling TV and hip-hop cred, and their first concept album
By Kathy Iandoli
Special to MSN Music
Two years after the Roots signed on as house band for "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," it's safe to say that the Philly hip-hop collective has become a household name. But fans' fears that their move to the small screen would impose hurdles, if not an outright moratorium, for new Roots music have proved needless: The group has released three full-length sets since -- "How I Got Over," "Wake Up!" and "Betty Wright: The Movie" -- and "undun" on Dec. 6.
Underscoring their undimmed ambitions is "undun"'s status as the Roots' first formal concept album. Its title brings a surprising nod to the 1969 Guess Who hit "undun," in a cycle highlighting the destructive behavior of its central character, a man named Redford Stephens.
Bandleader Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson spoke with MSN Music about the intricate process leading up to the 10-track opus (the final four songs are instrumentals). He explains their reasoning for the concept album and how he is no stranger to those coming undone, having befriended the late Amy Winehouse.
MSN Music: The Roots have actually released two albums back to back: "Betty Wright: The Movie" and "undun." What made you decide to work with Betty Wright?
Ahmir Thompson: Once a year -- ever since working with Al Green -- I kinda told my manager even though I'm not active production-wise with my "clique," the stuff I really want to do is work with any veteran artist over the age of 65. I'm trying to produce their records. Not to be all morbid like, "Oh, before they go away," I just figured that's a good level of satisfying my hip-hop jones, which is if I can't make hip-hop records, I'd rather make a bunch of source material for the next generation to sample. You know, just create the next line of classic music. For me, I'm always going to the Grammys and seeing the acts from the '70s I used to worship only doing jazz standard records. [It's as if nobody has] a clue how to make quality soul music for 2011 and beyond. I figured that's what my mission's gonna be.
You're also making that music accessible to a hip-hop audience that only has you and the Roots as a reference point for those eras.
Exactly. A lot of people that are behind the Betty Wright album, they might know her for the "Tonight's the Night" sample, which of course has been in a bunch of hip-hop songs. Same with "Clean Up Woman" being a famous Mary J. Blige sample. But a lot of them are getting their first taste of the artists this way. And Betty ... on top of all the veteran artist talk, Betty is definitely connected. She's a marvelous, I guess you could say, networker. She's the one who pulled in Lil Wayne and Snoop Dogg [on the album]. She talks to those guys every day. She lives in Miami. There's only two studios in Miami, and she's pretty much a permanent fixture down there. I wouldn't even think like, "Put Wayne on your record." She's had a relationship with Wayne since he was, like, 17.
Let's talk about "undun." Is that a nod to the Guess Who?
Yeah, we took it from the Guess Who song -- kind of applied the narrative of a person becoming undone. The story of Redford, our fictional character, is actually based on about six or seven different people.
For all the simplicity of the album, I'll say that after making umpteenth records, it is extremely hard to make short and concise albums to the point. I'll say that this is probably one of the hardest records that we've had to make. It's easy for me to tell a story in 78 minutes, but if you only give less than 40 minutes, to be that effective in that short amount of time, that is one of the hardest things to execute.
For starters, coloring within the lines of the coloring book with the narrative, I'll say that every verse on this record has gone under immense scrutiny. Most of these verses had to have been rewritten and redone at least a minimum of eight times. I know Phonte's verse on "One Time" -- he went through about 16 drafts before we were satisfied with that verse. On an average, Tariq's (Black Thought) verse on "Stomp," that was about 11 verses in. Taking two to four hours writing a verse, spitting it, then like, "Eh, it's cool. You can do better." Next day, taking another four to six hours writing another verse, "Eh it's cool."
It still took us two years to do this record. We started this album ... when I was sequencing "How I Got Over," we were just starting "Sleep" for this record. Just like now I'm our second song for our 15th record. It takes two years to really hone it in. Most people just take six weeks and they come up with anything. If it works, it works. If it doesn't, it doesn't. Nah. We're too scrutinizing as music consumers and music makers to just turn in anything. I knew that our particular palate wouldn't allow us to turn a record in until we exhausted every last option, until we're like, OK, now it's ready.
It must have been twice as difficult making it a concept album.
In order to do a concept [album], like all of our records have been thematic, but none have ever been a concept record. I got the initial inspiration -- I've always been a fan of Prince Paul's "A Prince Among Thieves" album, which was a narrative story on wax. We wanted our narrative to sort of be a reverse narrative, a la like a Tarantino story. Technically the album starts at the end. The album is backwards and starts with [Redford Stephens] dying and you kind of have to work your way backwards from him dying to him having a confrontation, to getting shot, to him being at a party, to him working on the job, to him committing a murder, to him having to decide to off a co-worker's close friend, to him waking up that morning. So, basically it's a 24-hour period on the last day of this person's life, done in reverse. Whew, it was exhausting.
What inspired the darkness of the album? This is a pretty morbid topic.
We're from Philadelphia, and just because we personally escaped a particular fate ... Well, for starters, it doesn't mean that we're immune to it. Even in our daily route, we're still in the heart of Philadelphia, which is one of the most violent cities in America. Just two weeks ago, my trainer just got robbed at gunpoint. It's just a very common thing. If you're walking around, you are vulnerable and you are susceptible to any sort of violent action, be it a Grammy Award-winning hero of the city or an unemployed have-not of the city. It's just ... I don't know.
Did this concept of coming undone hit close to home, having known someone like Amy Winehouse?
It's weird because in the beginning, I tried to avoid her like the plague because I knew that was going on. I felt like, "Ah, man, am I an enabler because I'm turning a blind eye?" Part of the enabler in me felt like, "Oh, I can save you."
So, we developed a really nice Skype relationship. Maybe like four or five times, I saw that Amy that you guys have in your heads, but for the most part we really had music to connect with ... and a lot of music. Not to sound sexist, but I just never met a woman that knowledgeable about music. Usually the role that I play in people's lives is that I'm the teacher and I've gotta teach you and put you onto things. I'm like the human Wikipedia. It felt good to have a woman teach me stuff that I didn't know about music.
I was really intrigued that she actually lived up to my fantasy of what I thought she was. I met Amy and I knew of "Frank," but the difference between "Frank" and "Back to Black" to me was the difference between Sly & the Family Stone's "Stand" and "There's a Riot Goin' On" or Prince's "For You" to "Dirty Mind" or [the Beatles'] "Rubber Soul" to "Sgt. Pepper's," just night and day. I was mad that Mark Ronson knew how to produce that well, but I was like, "She sounds so damn seasoned," and her inflections ... I know cookie-cutter singers; I've worked with cookie-cutter singers -- people that are fans of particular artists and emulate them ... I knew then and there that I didn't want to meet [Amy] because she was going to disappoint me when I find out that she is not as knowledgeable about music as I think she is. I couldn't have been more wrong.
Do you think that the concept of "undun" might go over people's heads?
I know that in this ADD society you deal with people who -- I'd like to find a nicer word than "lazy" but ... I mean, if you sit and read and you understand the words that you're reading, then it's clear as day. For a lot of people, especially in American society, they want the answers spelled out and given to them, not really to do much work. I can't dumb it down any further than make it a 40-minute record, you know? My main concern was not losing people, which is why I felt it was crucial to make this record under 45 minutes, just so that people could pay attention. A lot of the more impactful records that have sort of changed society, those records were under 40 minutes: Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," Stevie Wonder's "Innervisions." A lot of the records we hold up in a high light were short or under 40 minutes. As with most original material, this isn't something that you could just gander at once and have full comprehension. It's made to listen over and over again.
Will you be touring this album?
We'll do dates. The way ["Late Night With Jimmy Fallon"] is structured is we get 14 weeks off for the year and weekends. So weekends and hiatus weeks, we're always gonna tour. There's gonna be a presence, but to me a real tour is when you tour five or six consecutive weeks in a row, to which the answer is, no, we will never tour, but we'll do a lot of dates.
Kathy Iandoli has written for publications including The Source, YRB, BUST, XXL,VIBE, RIME and Vapors, and her work has appeared online at MTV, AOL and MSN Music sites. She is the former Alternatives editor of AllHipHop.com and the current music editor of HipHopDX.com.