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The Roots of hip-hop

Published March 10, 2005

[Times photo: Ken Helle]
Roots lead singer Black Thought performs with guitarist “Capt.” Kirk Douglas.

The Roots is a hip-hop band - emphasis on band - that has been changing the game since Organix came out in 1993. It was a group even before that, but many people know the band from the Things Fall Apart album, which brought a Grammy for the single You Got Me in 1999. We caught up with Roots drummer and spokesman Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson last week. He revealed why he's glad he's not as big as Jay-Z and talked about the direction hip-hop is taking, among other things.

The Roots is unique in that it is actually a hip-hop band. You play your own instruments and make your own music. What does the audience see at a Roots concert?

The Roots are absolutely the last group of black musicians with a major label record deal, which is sort of a sad thing. Growing up as a kid, I knew all the members of Cameo, Kool and the Gang, the Commodores, War. Now, the Roots are the last group of black musicians. Now people consider the Dave Matthews Band as a black band (because a member is black.) I try not to rely on the novelty of "we play instruments." I'd rather people say, "I like you guys because you are great musicians."

What has kept the group together this long?

Really? Poverty. It's our job. We're disciplined. You'll see cats like, "I need to do something solo," and it kind of falls apart. The way our fan base is built, they've stuck with us from the beginning of time. The emotional connection is there. Sometimes we inaugurate new members into the group, but the core of the Roots, the nucleus, will always be Black Thought (emcee), ?uestlove (drums), Hub (bass) and Kamal (keys).

What is the most important lesson the group has learned in all its years together?

Don't stop. It's cool to pursue other endeavors. Like Tariq (Black Thought) had gotten his acting thing. I know he regrets that HBO has been stalking him to do The Wire, which he has turned down three times. He lives in L.A. and is pursuing his acting career. But that doesn't mean he has to stop his Roots status to pursue his acting career. The Roots have mastered that old Tom and Jerry trick of seeing plates fall and catching all 64 of them before they crash to the floor. I do solo stuff all the time. I'm Dave Chappelle's music supervisor. I'm working on Erykah Badu's record right now.

What's your take on the state of hip-hop today?

It's a big movie production. Especially with the Game recently getting kicked out of G-Unit. Oftentimes, people say it's a dead art form and not exciting. Really, that's because people haven't embraced Internet life. You have to stay ahead of the times to know what's going on. Oftentimes my peers are like, "I ain't interested in that Internet stuff. I don't want to be addicted." It's not about being addicted, it's about educating yourself. Often, computers intimidate people. You don't have to be really smart to operate a computer. If you just close yourself off, stuff is going to pass you by. The same people saying hip-hop is dead don't know about a lot of artists out now. Hip-hop is definitely no business like show business. It's 30 years old now, so you can't expect it to have the same status that it once had, as an underground phenomenon. It's a 30-year-old woman. Not the 14-year-old girl who used to have sleepovers.

Congrats on your recent Grammy and NAACP Image Award nominations. Speaking of that, what accomplishment would you say the group is proudest of?

I hold my head up high. We have been a unit for 15 years, which, if you look at every hip-hop artist in existence, if you're lucky, maybe six years. . . . I don't get gassed over the Grammys, because I didn't think we were going to win it, and it's just a gray paperweight. It sits on top of my toilet. . . .

There's a method to the way songs are numbered on your albums, am I right? Things Fall Apart goes from 54 to 70. Phrenology goes from 87 to 100. The Tipping Point goes from 103 to 112. I wondered what happened to tracks 101 and 102, then remembered Phrenology has two hidden tracks. Where did this system come from?

Truthfully, that's an idea I stole from Billy Idol. He also marked off his cassettes as side one, side two, side three, side four. I thought it was logical because it's an ongoing evolution with the group. So that's how I wanted to produce the work. Organix starts at one, Dimdada is 114. That shows how far we've come, and also it's a little scavenger hunt for those searching for things on the album. I hide tracks, but I like for people to discover them. Every Roots album has some hidden treats on them.

Earlier you mentioned that you thought your level of celebrity is pretty low. I see you as a group that's not always on TV and in the magazines but respected in the hip-hop community.

People who know the Roots respect the Roots. They come up and say, "Hey, I really like your music. Peace." They're not chasing us down the street. If that happened, that might be cause for ending the group. I don't live in a mansion. I like to go to the movies. I was walking down the street with Jay-Z one time, and that was crazy. I can't live like that.

Information from, and was used in this report.

PREVIEW: Wildsplash 2005, with Lil Wayne and Baby, Capleton, the Roots, Pitbull, Mario and Brooke Valentine, 2 p.m. Saturday, Coachman Park, Clearwater. Advance tickets: $17 plus tax and service charge. Day of show: $30. You can get tickets through or any Ticketmaster outlet.

Hear the artists: Go to and click on the Wildsplash section.

[Last modified March 9, 2005, 09:39:05]

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