Illadelph on the Move
By Bill Murphy
Mar 1, 2006 12:00 PM
Rolling down a rain-slogged thruway on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., The Roots' caravan is heading toward the 9:30 Club for one of the group's sold-out, legendary year-end live jams. Behind the wheel of his silver Scion wagon, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson scrolls through his prodigious song selection and alights on a string of raw funk tracks from Sly and the Family Stone's classic album Fresh, and for a moment, we're transported back to 1973.
“There's definitely a particular sound from that era that I've tried to approximate, and I'm just learning how to find it now,” ?uestlove says, referring to the endless studio hours he has logged while coaxing his drum kit into the dirt-encrusted, vintage groovalactics that virtually define the sonic direction of The Roots — hip-hop's baddest (and for all intents, hip-hop's only) full-on live band. But as many of its loyal fans have discovered, The Roots is not just about any one particular style or approach; its eccentricities run the left-of-center gamut, whether it's psychedelic neo-soul, off-kilter jazz-rock fusion or exotic, dub-streaked production techniques. Like the streets of Philly where they grew up, the members of The Roots embody a musical history that is rich, radical and wholly unpredictable.
“You remember in the movie Heat,” ?uestlove asks, “when De Niro was like, ‘Can you walk away from everything that you know in 30 seconds?’ but he had the itch in him to do that one last killing? We're known for absolutely changing our sound and our direction and totally alienating our fan base and embracing a new fan base with every album. The attraction to all nine of our studio albums is pretty much a different demographic each time, from Do You Want More?!!!??! [Geffen, 1995] to Phrenology [MCA, 2002]. Part of me still wants to keep that tradition, but another part of me is itching to see if it's time for us to absolutely reintroduce ourselves and start back at square one again. So right now you're catching us at a transitional period, and it could go either way.”
A fair amount of ink has already been spilled about Game Theory (Def Jam Left, 2006), the much-anticipated follow-up to The Tipping Point (Geffen, 2004) and The Roots' first since signing last September with the Def Jam label and the blessings of Jay-Z. As of this writing, the album hadn't quite entered the mixing phase, but enough is there to suggest flashes of the band's early hip-hop influences, tempered with a much deeper shade of funk and soul sensitivity. Last year's buzz-quote from ?uestlove was “gritty and dark,” but he cautions once more against reading too much into that.
“If you Google enough of my pre-album quotes,” he jokes, “there's a 100-percent chance that whatever I say the album's gonna be, it's the exact opposite. Right now, people are under the impression that this is our darkest, most political album yet, but a lot has happened in just the past few weeks. For starters, all the research we did for Home Grown! [the two-volume set of crucial soundchecks, remixes and outtakes released on Geffen last year] has made me rethink some things. As far as making a real dark record, I would like to do that, but part of me also knows that the marketplace is starving for The Roots. So you kind of have to be a chess player — I mean, this is a business, after all.”
ALL FOR ONE, ONE BY ONE
Earlier in the day, back at the loft complex in North Philly that's credited on Roots albums as The Studio (founded in 1996 by cellist, arranger and MFSB/Salsoul Orchestra alum Larry Gold), executive producer Rich Nichols, who has been with the band since the beginning, is cueing up rough mixes for Game Theory and waxing philosophical about hip-hop in general. Like ?uestlove, he fully understands the complexities of the business and that the unique creative model espoused by The Roots is really unmatched in popular music today.
“We're finding ourselves in the funny place of almost being like an island,” Nichols observes. “A lot of things in hip-hop are textural, like an 808 sound or a snare sound — a particular kick sound will change your kick pattern, you know? But when you're playing with live instruments like we do, you almost have to create a particular texture as opposed to just turning on a keyboard or a drum machine or sampling from a record. So we're an island because it's obviously live and because we don't borrow as many of the actual sonic palettes from previous things like other hip-hop artists do — we create them, and that in turn influences the musical patterns that come out.”
?uestlove extrapolates further, going back to the early days when the band was still in search of a unifying sound. “We were blind, and we had to feel our way around,” he recalls. “Our main concern was to make sure that sonically, we were on point as far as the hip-hop connoisseur is concerned, because before us, I think a lot of people's standard for what was good with live instruments, in 1993, was the Brand New Heavies. And you know, I like their songs, but their instruments had no warmth to them and sounded absolutely clean. So that's when the whole idea came into play of let's sample, loop and quantize ourselves and make it sound perfect. And we found a whole 'nother door of creativity that we never knew about before.”
From a songwriting and recording standpoint, the door has since opened onto a couple of different scenarios that have led up to the making of Game Theory. One is what ?uestlove calls “the Abbey Road approach” (in deference to The Beatles), where instead of tracking as a group in a series of stream-of-consciousness jams — which is how much of The Tipping Point came together, and which actually still guides Game Theory to some extent — each member of The Roots records on his own, gradually building the song into a finished whole.
“There are still occasions when we'll do stuff at the same time,” ?uestlove clarifies, “but I prefer, only because I'm very anal about the time and the meter, just to concentrate to a click [track]. I can imagine the song in my head, so it's okay. I know it's hard for some musicians to even fathom tracking a song by themselves without having someone to play with — it's kind of like acting in front of a green screen, doing the CGI thing — but I've absolutely conditioned myself to concentrating that hard.”
As acolytes of the '70s funk school and all the analog thickness that emanates from that style, The Roots also took the unusual step of tracking entirely to Digidesign's Pro Tools|HD system, without any access to the 2-inch tape machines they had used on past albums. “This will also mark the first record in which I'll track my drums in stereo,” ?uestlove confides, deferring again to the stripped-down tracking methods of bygone days. “But it was really [mix engineer] Bob Power who showed me — along with Rich [Nichols] and [engineer] Jon [Smeltz] — the potential with Pro Tools that I didn't know before. It's more than just a time-saver; it allows you to try different things out instantly. I've actually become very much addicted to [Line 6] Amp Farm because as it turns out, it's a great tool for getting an old Studio One sound [after Coxsone Dodd's legendary 8-track studio in Jamaica]. It has a 1985 amp setting that for some reason just gates and compresses the drums; I can put a whole song through it, and it sounds like it's 1972 all over again.”
Recording engineer Jon Smeltz has his own accolades for the digital platform. “Ahmir and I and everybody involved have learned how to manipulate Pro Tools into capturing what The Roots wants to capture,” he says, citing Pro Tools|HD itself as the main catalyst for the change. “That really nailed it. Digidesign basically updated [itself], which was a big move for the [company]. The digital converters, without question, have been the biggest improvement.”
THE SOUND AND THE FURY
On the tour bus outside the 9:30 Club, Roots frontman and lead rhyme guru Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter is staring ahead intently, as if steeling himself for battle before the band hits the stage. Like the other core members of The Roots — ?uestlove, bassist Leonard “Hub” Hubbard and keyboardist James “Kamal” Gray, along with guitarist “Captain” Kirk Douglas and percussionist Frank “Knuckles” Walker — he too has devoted much of his life to perfecting his craft in an effort to push the envelope.
“We made live instrumentation and black soul music relevant again,” he insists. “Relevant in the world of music on a larger scale, but credible in the world of hip-hop because it had never been there before us. And when I say credible, I mean I can rap with instruments and still be considered a rapper or an MC, you know? And I'm always trying to get better. Everything I do is gonna be a graduation in themes — it's gonna be an evolution.”
Like The Tipping Point before it, Game Theory is rife with openings for Black Thought to flex his ever-expanding verbal acumen, as well as for The Roots to reassert its standing as a bona fide, studio-savvy rhythm engine with an ear for densely layered beats and melodies. “Long Time,” for instance, is a driving, upbeat anthem that surges on the strength of Black Thought's incomparable flow, making it arguably one of the centerpiece cuts on the album. Chicken-picked guitar lines (courtesy of Douglas), sustained bass chords and a crafty arrangement that bears the stamp of Philadelphia International legend Walter “Bunny” Sigler — who The Roots re-cruited for the session — help bring it over the top. “It's a song about Philly,” Black Thought explains, “and how rich the musical history of Philly is. I'm referencing South Philly, which is where I'm from, and musically we're kind of paying tribute to all our hometown influences.”
Although “Long Time” is the product of one of those rare in-studio Roots jams (see the sidebar “Organic Mechanix”), “Baby” is a reverb-drenched dub-funk excursion that boasts the results of ?uestlove's solo experiments with drum miking and recording. “In my room at The Studio, I have the privacy to sit there and play with it,” he says. “Nowadays, I'm able to track at least 70-percent of the drums myself, and what I've found is that if you want to sound like you're in the '70s, you need to use [Neumann] U47s and Royer [R-122V] ribbon mics and then experiment with how the signal is processed. When I did the Voodoo album with D'Angelo, Russ Elevado explained the difference to me. I always thought it was all in the mixing, and it didn't matter what we recorded the instruments with. That's when I learned from Russ that the [Shure] SM57 mics are your enemy — they're really only good for the snare, and that's about it.”
Oddly enough, it was Eminem who ?uestlove credits as having first turned him on to the fat sonic imaging that ribbon mics can deliver. He also picked up some insight from engineering legend Eddie Kramer — the man behind the console for classic sessions by Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and, in particular, Stevie Wonder.
“Stevie would play a straight drum track as a metronome,” ?uestlove says, “and then he would go on top of what he was doing to make it sound even fatter. So when it came time to do the ride cymbal, he was damn near destroying it. Eddie talked about this Neve compressor that he had that made the cymbals sound like a splash — almost like they were being squeezed. Once he taught us that trick, we used it for Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun record and Common's Like Water for Chocolate and Electric Circus. I used the vintage Neve compressors on ‘Baby’ to approximate that ‘slow-motion’ sound, and I'm stacking snares by duping them in Pro Tools.”
DEF, DOPE AND DAUNTLESS
As with any Roots project, Game Theory embraces multiple musical styles. Along with the naked funk of “Long Time” and the spacious dub of “Baby,” there's the chaotic big beat (replete with distorted synth lines) of “Here I Come,” the bluesy guitar-and-handclaps of “Bread and Butter” (not the track's official title, but one that draws some of its inspiration from the song by Johnny “Guitar” Watson) and the lush, orchestral feel of several as-yet-untitled interludes that are planned to feature string arrangements by Larry Gold.
Of course, wherever The Roots chooses to tread, the vital presence of hip-hop is never far from the path. Rumors are still swirling that Mos Def and Talib Kweli will reunite as Black Star on the new album, while another pair of tracks produced by Jay Dee, aka J Dilla, (“Can't Stop This” and “Working On It,” the latter based on a crafty — and no doubt ironic — sample of 10CC's “The Worst Band in the World”) are also slated to appear on Game Theory.
Fittingly, with The Roots now calling Def Jam home, “False Media” emerges as the album's pivotal appeal to a hip-hop audience that some might say has been lulled to sleep by the ubiquitous winner-take-all, pimp-and-hustler aesthetic still ruling the airwaves today. As a tribute of sorts to Public Enemy's “Don't Believe the Hype,” the track captures the feel of a classic Def Jam production, with ?uestlove emulating an 808 beat on live drums while Kamal weighs in with eerie atmospherics on an effects-processed Fender Rhodes.
“That's actually the first song we worked on for the album,” ?uestlove recalls. “We were all playing at the same time [live in the studio], so it was a litmus test to see if we could try it out. It's one thing when you're doing a straight-ahead song and playing together; it's totally different when you're trying to do something sonically experimental, but you want to have that band element jelling perfectly. To jell as a unit playing traditional songs is easy, but to jell the other way is a little trickier. It just takes a little more effort.”
Long known for its tireless work ethic, The Roots made a career out of harnessing its diverse influences into a fully realized whole — one that blends an uncompromisingly high level of musicianship with an openness to experimentation that most groups, whether in hip-hop or any other musical genre, can't even hope to sustain for just one album, let alone 10. “That's a very important element of our live show, too,” ?uestlove says, and it only takes a listen to The Roots Come Alive (MCA, 1999) or, more recently, the live suite “The Seed/Melting Pot/Web” from Home Grown! Volume Two — recorded by Gilles Peterson at the BBC's Maida Vale studios and reprised in part on Peterson's excellent The BBC Sessions (Ether, 2006) — to get a feel for how hot The Roots can get when the band takes it to the stage.
“There's a meticulous detail that we probably put more into our live show than we do on our albums,” ?uestlove observes with a glint of amusement. “We're already anal in terms of the album stuff, but I think live we just take it to another level.” And a few hours later, a jam-packed crowd of Roots fans would have to agree.
GAME THEORY GEAR
Computer, DAW, recording hardware
Apple Mac G5/dual 2.3GHz computer
Digidesign Pro Tools HD3 with 48 I/O
SSL J-series console
Bomb Factory Moogerfooger bundle
Digidesign Pultec bundle
Focusrite Forte Suite
SoundToys UltraFX bundle
Waves Renaissance Maxx bundle
Mics, preamps, EQs, compressors
AKG D112 mic
Drawmer 1960 mic preamp/tube compressor
Focusrite ISA 110 mic preamp/EQs
Neumann U 47, U 87 mics
Royer R-122V ribbon mic
Sennheiser MD 421 mic
Shure SM57, SM81, Beta 52 and Beta 58 mics
Universal Audio LA-2A compressor/limiter
Urei 1176 compressor/limiter
Fender Rhodes keyboard
Korg Triton Pro keyboard
Fender Jazz Bass with Eden WT800 bass head
Marshall JCM 2000 guitar amps with 4-by-12-inch Marshall cabinets
Yamaha 5-piece drum kit with piccolo brass snare, wooden snare and Zildjian cymbals
Tannoy System 1200s powered by Bryston 4B amplifier
Game Theory marks an evolution in The Roots' exacting and often exhaustive recording method; it's the band's first album to be tracked entirely on a digital platform. For engineer Jon Smeltz, the main challenge was to preserve the fat, gritty, analog-sounding range that fans have come to expect from a Roots project while still taking advantage of the editing and effects-processing capabilities that Pro Tools provides.
“‘Long Time’ is one track in particular that occurred as a jam session,” Smeltz begins. “Afterward, Richard [Nichols] and the band and I would listen back to it and look for musical moments. Whether those occurred back-to-back as a hook with a bridge, or whether they occurred at other times during the jam, we would use Pro Tools to consolidate those into a song form with a tempo map. So we might grab musical sections and make it a played event; the key is to take long sections so it doesn't sound overly chopped up and pasted together.”
When recording the entire band live in the studio, the drums become the main focus. “Ahmir has his own miking scheme when he records alone,” Smeltz says, “but the jam-session scheme is a little different — an Electro-Voice RE20 on the kick, with an AKG D112 on the outside just in case we need something extra. The snare has a Shure SM57 on top and an SM81 on the bottom, with an SM81 on the hi-hat, and then a Sennheiser 421 on the floor tom. For overheads, sometimes we'll use a Neumann U87 really tight to the top of the drum kit.”
Smeltz front ends most of the drum mics through Focusrite ISA 110 mic preamps because “they do very little to color the sound, and they're very musical in their EQ. At times I'll use them for lead vocals, bass, guitar — it's just a personal preference. I mean, I tracked Ahmir's drums for years through Neves. It really boils down to what I have available in my rack, and the Focusrites are my multipurpose preamp.”
Another secret to The Roots' staggering low end, especially on “Long Time” and what sounds like a 5-string bass on “Bread and Butter”: the Moogerfooger MF-101 Lowpass Filter. “I almost always, without fail, duplicate Hub's bass track in Pro Tools,” Smeltz explains. “I'll put the Mooger plug-in on one of them, just to get the sub frequencies or the dominant low frequencies, and set those up against the noneffected track, and that usually becomes a composite of the bass. And the Mooger is really outstanding for other things as well — on ‘Long Time,’ I split the kick drum into two tracks and used the Mooger for a little extra kick in the ass.”