The Roots: Blood, Sweat, and No Tears
By Abran Maldonado
The “Game Theory” is defined as "An agent or person who is faced with a set of moves he can play and will form a strategy, to best respond to his environment." Nobel Peace Prize-winning mathematician John Nash, the subject of the film A Beautiful Mind, developed this theory to calculate an actual formula to winning and losing. Amir "Questlove" Thompson and The Roots are poised to release their next album entitled The Game Theory demonstrating how they have always stood the test of time, musically cultivating every album to best respond to the current climate in Hip-Hop like a barometer foretelling of turbulent conditions. Questlove affirms, "For me, it’s important that the title of each Roots album embodies what we're going through at the time, what Hip-Hop is going through, and what the world is going through… As for The Game Theory, someone's gonna win and someone's gonna lose." The Roots don’t seem to be losers, and they certainly aren’t on a losing team. Aligned with Hova, the group retains their constant goals, as Questlove changes the production technique for their first Def Jam release. With Malik B back in the lineup and a point to prove, The Roots have the fertilizer to grow now more than ever.
AllHipHop.com: There’s an energy around this album, as if you’re finally getting your due respect in Hip-Hop, I don’t know if you agree or not. What makes this album different from the rest, I know a lot has occurred between now and The Tipping Point that might have developed the energy behind this album.
Questlove: I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we actually have lasted for that long of period. But more than that, it’s kinda hard to tell with today’s marketplace, especially with the sound that we’re traditionally associated with.
There’s always a pressure to stay current in the marketplace, we were always in control of our artistic vision. The last album [The Tipping Point] we kind of let our fear get the best of us. Because we just didn’t have a feel for what Jimmy Iovine (at Geffen/Interscope) liked and didn’t like. The fact that (Jimmy) is the same guy that controls around 15 or 16 platinum acts, someone is going to get neglected if you don’t set a fire or raise a stinker. That was the first and last time we took the approach of doing a “please the president” album.
AllHipHop.com: I figured now with Jay-Z this would be the time you would do a “please the president” album.
Questlove: Yeah, but Jay already made it clear that he ain't havin' that. The first thing on his mind is that “I don’t want to be the big bad wolf that killed The Roots.”
AllHipHop.com: There are a lot of people both nervous and anxious at the same time about your move to Def Jam.
Questlove: Well I think a lot of people see the move to Def Jam as, “Oh man y’all ‘bout to cash in, y’all with Hov, it’s over!” Fans already throwing diamonds in the air, but it’s far from it. Number one, he’s not on the album, we didn’t want him on the album. I think its important that we coast that line and not get over excited like “Yay Hov, we’re finally gonna make it,” that’s when you start to fall off, when you start having these expectations and setting those marks for yourself that aren’t going to happen. I expect this album to follow the same trail, and the same potholes that we’ve encountered throughout our career. I’m still very much in the knowledge that we are a very hard group to swallow for mainstream America. Just because we’re on Def Jam, the world’s most popular Hip-Hop figure, doesn’t mean it’s going to be smooth sailing.
AllHipHop.com: Yeah, I viewed it as your greatest opportunity is also your greatest challenge. Your albums are usually a reflection of the times, are you going to do anything different this time around to fit into this marginalized Hip-Hop market? Are we going to see you sitting on 24’s or Hub snappin’?
Questlove: This is the thing; this is why I’m mad at snappin’ only because I view it more as a culture thing with snap music but that is one of my signature sounds. If anyone knows my production, they know that I’ve always used handclaps and snappin’. But no, there is no snappin’ on this record. The direction of an album just follows what album came before it and how many times we had to perform set songs on stage. We’re one of the rare acts in Hip-Hop that have to perform these songs 200 times the previous year. By that point you’re usually trying to get away from that previous sound as much as possible. I’m the type of producer that makes a laundry list of things we haven’t done yet. With this album and just personally, I think of what ways can I make the drums speak this time. The whole idea of me doing the minimum drum kit that I’m known for of just kick, snare, high hat - that’s over. This is the first time I’ve played with like a ten- 13-piece drum set, tom toms, other symbols. I wanted more rhythmic percussion sound with this album, it gave me different textures and colors to deal with. This is still a very dark album.
AllHipHop.com: I’ve always viewed the song “Water” off the Phrenology album as a turning point for the group. It showed a side of the group and Black Thought that was more personal and opening up emotionally on a record, something that was rarely seen before this record.
Questlove: I’m glad someone recognized that, and not just the chaotic noise. Well number one, Malik B. is back…
Questlove: Yeah that’s the surprise.
AllHipHop.com: There are a lot of fans that are dying to hear Malik back on a Roots record.
Questlove: Malik is the heart of The Roots. The balance of Tariq [Black Thought] and Malik was definitely based on Tariq being the more virtuoso MC, the battle MC - his style is impeccable. Malik was the heart of the group. If you actually take time to listen to what Malik says, he’ll say some ill s**t about how f**ked up his life is.
AllHipHop.com: In my opinion, Black Thought should be on everyone’s Top 10 or Top 5 list.
Questlove: Believe it or not, I do random Google searches to see what people thought of the first single and their like “he’s lackluster, he doesn’t have charisma.” I don’t think charisma is a good judgment, a real MC chooses his words carefully. I’m saying for the record that this is definitely Tariq’s heaviest hitting record, as far as his lyrics are concerned. He made a complete growth and a lot of people mistaken that for "blahzayness." He’s not animated on this record, he’s very serious, he’s not minstrel, he’s not coonin’…
AllHipHop.com: You know the first time I’ve ever heard Eve or Beanie Sigel was actually on a Roots record. A lot of people still don’t realize that Scott Storch has been down with y’all since the beginning. Does it bother you that people that you have put on have gone on to reach greater levels of mainstream success than the group itself?
Questlove: I find it ironic, there’s an ongoing joke that the women that we are no longer with from the Do You Want More?!!!??! era have all performed some sort of hex on the group. They’re off somewhere in West Philly with dolls and pins in our hearts. Scott has a 12 million dollar yacht and my cable just got cut off. Nah, I mean it’s just the nature of what it is. It really depends on what you measure as success. I’ll be very honest with you, there are times when I’m like “God damn, what the hell did I do to deserve this? Why can’t I catch a brake?!” But then again not many Hip-Hop artists can say, “This is my ninth great record.” I don’t feel as though we’ve reached out peak yet, I still feel like there is still genuine interest in the group, that to me is much more important. I never thought back in 1992 that in 2009 I’d still be doing it and enjoying the perks of having a good job.
AllHipHop.com: Do you feel even amongst a marginalized market with all the leanin' and rockin' and snappin', that very quietly there is a resurgence going on with the Native Tongue movement?
Questlove: To be honest, no. I’m still close with Common, Kweli and Mos, but clearly a tsunami has occurred on our property. I understand cats gotta run for cover. Making sure your daughter has clothes for school and a secure home, that’s some real s**t so you gotta do what you gotta do. I actually do see the native tongue thing occurring, but I see it with it SaRa, who’s signed with Kanye and this other group J.Davey. Those two, I see as part of the next Native Tongue movement, not to say that we won’t still be a close knit crew, but the Native Tongues have kind of drifted apart. Mos is doing his thing with his movie career, Common is on the GOOD Music side of things - we’ll still do s**t together. But the idea of jam sessions together, I see how the original Native Tongues just got older, but that was the time period.
AllHipHop.com: That’s always been the dichotomy in Hip-Hop, one side has to exist for the other to work.