Their hometown of Philadelphia has been vital to The Roots since their earliest days, when Tariq ‘Black Thought’ Trotter, met drummer Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson at the Philadelphia High School for Creative Performing Arts and formed a duo that was originally called ‘The Square Roots’.
Philadelphia comes through strongest on their concept album, ‘Undun’, about the life of a character called Redford Stephens who could’ve been a poet in a different world but was driven instead to the life of a drug dealer.
“The story of Redford we’d taken right out of a Philadelphia photograph,” says Trotter. “There is no Philadelphian who doesn’t know a Redford, if that makes any sense.”
As well as telling its own gripping story, ‘Undun’ told the story of hip hop. Riddled with references to Snoop Dogg, the Wu-Tang Clan, Swizz Beatz and more, it was a densely packed document showing how far hip hop has come.
Although The Roots had recorded plenty before ‘Undun’, this was their contribution to the tradition.
“Wherever you set the bar is where you set the bar, whether an artist realises it or not. That is what you have to live up to next,” Trotter says.
“If you’re not able to – as an artist – to make a serious positive contribution to an already amazing legacy then you shouldn’t make a contribution to it. You should just let what has already taken place, like the history, speak for itself.”
Trotter’s own history is currently in the process of being told in a memoir he’s working on with hip hop critic and author Jeff Chang.
“He interviews me and family members, friends and people who played a role in my story. I write it and he writes it, we’re doing it together.”
Chang is famous for his own contribution to the legacy of hip hop with the book ‘Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History Of The Hip-Hop Generation’, which is one of only a handful of books to tackle the early days of the genre.
That book is what attracted Trotter to the idea of working with him.
“I really enjoyed ‘Can’t Stop Won’t Stop’,” he says, “and in the few brief meetings that he and I had prior to doing this writing relationship, we just hit it off really well.”
What makes ‘Undun’ stand out from their other classic albums is how cohesive it is. That came about because of a change in how they made a living.
While famous for the live shows that showcase their abilities as a full band, taking time off from touring gave them the opportunity to create their best work.
When they landed the gig as house band on ‘Late Night With Jimmy Fallon’, it meant regular work that kept them near home.
“It’s very time-consuming doing that show 5 days a week, you know, 40 to 44 weeks a year. It’s a bit of a commitment. We tour and we do shows during the other times.”
That also meant they were near the studio, and were constantly writing new music together.
Having to come up with musical fills and segments for TV every day of the week taught them brevity – ‘Undun’ may be densely layered, but it’s only about 40 minutes long.
One recurring segment on ‘Late Night’ involves them performing with one of that week’s musical guests, but on instruments found in school classrooms: kazoos, wood blocks, toy keyboards and xylophones.
“It’s a challenge sometimes doing that particular bit because the toy instruments are usually out of tune, so to get the sound that you want to come from that toy you have to manipulate it in different ways.
"Apart from that, it’s not really hard to do. A simple, fun bit that has now become almost a tradition. You know we’ve done it quite a few times now.”
They’ve done everything from a version of ‘All I Want For Christmas’ with Mariah Carey to ‘Call Me Maybe’ with Carly Rae Jepsen, but the highlight was their recent performance of the Sesame Street theme complete with a cast of Muppets including Cookie Monster and Elmo.
“Yeah, that was a dream come true,” says Trotter, “for a kid from the States who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s it was all about Sesame Street, so it was great to interact with those dudes. Fun times.”
While he’s enjoyed the four years they’ve spent working in television, it’s come at a price. They had to cancel their 2009 appearance at Good Vibrations in Australia, and scaled back their touring considerably.
“It’s cool to be home every day and to interact with so many amazing artists, people you collaborate with every day, but at the same time there’s something to be said about the creative energy that comes from travelling.”
They’ll finally be remedying that this year, heading to Australia for the Southbound and Falls festivals, as well as a couple of sideshows in the week after Christmas.
It’s been a long time since we’ve had a chance to see The Roots in Australia, what should we expect?
“Something old, something something new, something that you can sing along with. Standard Roots procedure,” he says.
“There’s a lot of ground to cover, so depending on who we’re playing for will determine what songs we play. We don’t get too deep, it’s not that involved a process, deciding what the setlist is. We just get up on stage and rock out.”
The Roots play The Falls Byron, which takes place December 31 until January 3.