The Roots Jimmy Fallon

Questlove remembers the exact moment when the Roots became passé. In Mo’ Meta Blues, the memoir he published last year, the renowned drummer, bandleader, producer, DJ, and all-around music geek flashes back to the filming of Michel Gondry’s concert film Dave Chappelle’s Block Party in 2004:

I remember one moment so clearly that it’s like it happened yesterday — more than that, it’s like it’s happening right now, and will continue to happen. We were shooting a performance of “Jesus Walks,” and Kanye wanted to come in with a marching band. I remember a welter of political and artistic thoughts crowding my mind. I thought about how presidential he looked and how black kids were responding to him, something I had never really focused on in our own audience. I remember having a kind of out-of-body experience and investigation of the thought of my own artistic death. “Am I dead already?” I wondered.

It was a metaphor, but it wasn’t just a metaphor. A few years earlier, my mother had been driving on a mountain road in Pennsylvania when she lost control of the car. She rolled over six times, and for whatever reason — fate, God, luck — her body went out the window, perfectly, like a letter being delivered, just before the car crashed down into the woods. It was one of those near-death experiences when death was way too near. She told me that as she went down the embankment, her only thought was, “Oh, this is how it’s going to end.” She wasn’t panicked. She wasn’t even sad. It was more of a mix of resignation and realistic observation. I remember experiencing that same feeling the day of “Jesus Walks,” of thinking to myself, “Oh, I see. This is where I get off.” I saw the rest of the plot stretched out before me. Kanye was going to be the new leader, and I was fine with that.

Sounds about right. Throughout the first act of their career, the Roots’ live band approach to hip-hop seemed like something genuinely new. When I saw them in concert in 2003 on something called the Sprite Liquid Mix Tour (N.E.R.D., Talib Kweli, Robert Randolph and, um, O.A.R. were also on the bill), their live-band hip-hop revue seemed like the vanguard — “The Next Movement,” as they put it. They were a smart, catchy, unique hip-hop act with a powerhouse live show: What’s not to like? Still, by the time Kanye showed up with his Benz-and-backpack synthesis the following year, the neo-soul movement the Roots had helped foster instantly started to feel outdated. The next next movement had arrived, and from then on the Roots seemed confined to hip-hop’s periphery. They kept making records, some better than others, and Questlove remained in high demand for any number of musical endeavors, but the band was no longer near the center of the conversation like they’d been around the time of 1999′s Things Fall Apart and 2002′s Phrenology, the albums that yielded their biggest hits. I saw them in concert again in 2006, and while their show hadn’t changed much, the context around it was completely different. As Kanye was rapidly evolving past his signature pitched-up soul samples, the Roots seemed stuck. Worse, they seemed less and less like a rap group and more and more like a jam band; maybe O.A.R. hadn’t been such a strange tour pairing after all.

When the news broke that the Roots had signed on to be Jimmy Fallon’s house band on Late Night, it seemed like an odd pairing (this was before Fallon had proved his hip-hop bona fides and everyone thought of him as the guy who laughed too much on SNL) and possibly a gesture of defeat (here was a hard-touring original band leaving the road to play standards on late-night TV). I wondered if Black Thought, the group’s lead MC, was going to have anything to do in a TV show’s house band. I questioned whether they would be able to keep ties with Philadelphia, the city that spawned them. I worried that the Roots, after being conceptually marginalized in hip-hop, were literally sidelining themselves from the music business. At least they’d be getting paid, I figured.

Thankfully, the Roots and Fallon were a perfect match. He turned out to be a song-and-dance man with a youthful appreciation for music, and the Roots were goofier and better versed in comedy than anybody realized at the time. (Anecdote #17 here, with its references to human pyramids and Lorne Michaels trivia, is illuminating.) Rather than a death knell for the band, their gig on Late Night was revitalizing. Instead of falling into the jazzy/bloozy big band mold that had become the industry standard, they reinvented the the late-night house band into something forward-thinking and interactive. They wouldn’t be window dressing; they’d be an integral part of the show, combining with Fallon on musical comedy bits and collaborating with musicians of all sorts. Over five years, they became so essential to Fallon’s operation that when word came that he would be taking over The Tonight Show, the thought of him moving to L.A. and carrying on without his musical sidekicks was deflating. Fortunately, NBC was smart enough not to mess with a good thing; they moved The Tonight Show to New York and kept the Roots on board.

During that five-year stint, the Roots reinvented themselves as a band and reinserted themselves in the musical discourse. By signing on with Late Night, they essentially parked themselves at the center of the music universe. Just about every musician who matters passes through there eventually, and the Roots not only got to witness them all in action, hobnob, and learn some new tricks, they often got to collaborate, especially when rappers stopped by. They were suddenly involved in a large percentage of TV’s iconic music moments, be they historic (Tyler and Hodgy blowing the roof off, Frank Ocean tearing our hearts out) or just plain fun (the Miley a cappella, the Mariah Christmas sing-along). And they didn’t have to stop making records, cease touring completely, or cut ties with their hometown. It turned out to be an ideal situation for them.

The TV gig paid off big-time for the Roots in terms of exposure — how many viral videos have they been a part of in the past five years? — but it also catalyzed a new wave of creativity. The fresh environment on Fallon jolted them out of their routine and exposed them to an even vaster array of music. (Who could have imagined the Roots backing up Mark Kozelek on a 19-year-old Red House Painters song just because?) In the years since they joined up with Fallon, the Roots’ sound has evolved faster than ever, incorporating the likes of Jim James, Dirty Projectors, and Sufjan Stevens into their LPs without giving up their well-established identity. As Questlove explains in his book, the job security has freed them up to make the records they want to without worrying about keeping their label happy. They made an entire record with Elvis Costello, which wouldn’t have happened without the show. They’re in the spotlight to an unprecedented extent and at the peak of their powers — more well-rounded, better-rehearsed, and more widely known than ever.

The move was a game-changer for the Roots, but also for the institution of late-night TV. They brought fun and unpredictability to a venue that had become entrenched in its ways, clearing the way for all kinds of new possibilities down the line. It’s hard to imagine a late-night band featuring members of Les Savy Fav if not for the Roots first putting in work to make late-night TV hip. They have effectively vanquished Kevin Eubanks elevator music from the airwaves, and now, along with Fallon, they’ve taken over the most prominent perch in late night. Just as they had previously redefined what was possible in rap, they’ve rewritten the rules of music on TV. In a completely different context, they’ve become what they always claimed to be: The legendary foundation.

Comments (9)
  1. Nice article, man. That’s what I want for my friday!

  2. What I love about the Roots in their current position is that they’re bringing integrity back to the idea of a studio band; simply being a group of professional musicians without the need to follow the rules of “Record>tour>break>record>tour>break.” You have to go back a couple decades, but you had the Funk Brothers, the Wrecking Crew, the M.G.s. Pure talent, pure class, pure integrity, and no need to try to become stars. The fact that they turn around and play with all these different acts on any given night, never pandering, and never sinking down to some lowest common denominator TV sidekick band schlock, and then say, “hey, let’s record an album as Elvis Costello’s backing band.” I love it. They’re just on the cutting edge of realizing there’s no “right way” to do it.

  3. Very well said, Chris. It’s amazing how perfect the situation has become for both parties. I’m so glad the Roots stayed with him in the move to the Tonight Show. Interesting point about the Roots now being at the center of the music universe. It’s so true.

    Jimmy Fallon, IMO, has the coolest, most enjoyable show in Late Night (er… Tonight), and music is a big part of it. Like Letterman, for whatever reason, bands always seem to bring their A-game when they perform on Fallon’s show (Kanye West, Fiona Apple, School of Seven Bells come to mind… and I mean, whether you like the band or not, how AWESOME was that U2 performance on the roof of the Rock the other night?)

  4. The second half of the article, the Fallon stuff, is quite nice and true, but the slagging of the late-mid-2K Roots is way off-base. Granted, I’m more or less arguing against a ?uestlove quote here, but the fact is the album (The Tipping Point) that came out shortly after you saw in in ’03 was the most average release they put out – there you could maybe accuse them of stagnating, and that would have been the same year as the Kanye bit.

    But Game Theory and Rising Down (particularly the former) found them absolutely changing up their sound and approach and coming off artistically reinvigorated in doing so. There was nothing “jammy” about those albums – they were dark, political and claustrophobic as Hell, but they still packed with humanity and banged HARD when they chose to. The shows were a different thing, and I always loved how they let loose with any muse they felt like, regardless of what genre it skewed to. Any band that seamlessly weaves together a medley of “Jungle Boogie”, “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” and “Iron Man” and makes it at once heavy and genuinely funky is probably okay with me, and that’s the kind of thing I was seeing from these guys around that time. Yeah they stretched out live, but that hardly justifies even the insinuation of an O.A.R. similarity.

    And then of course after that we’re already on How I Got Over, which I guess we agree is pretty good stuff, but again a totally different direction.

    • I was thinking the same thing. “Game Theory” and “Undun” are two of the best hip hop albums of the last decade or more, despite not being “fashionable,” and I’ve always thought that The Roots would ultimately go down as one of the most important hip hop acts of all-time – post “Things Fall Apart” releases included. I found it odd that there did seem to be a movement away from their brand of music – jazzy, conscious hip hop with live instruments – even though they’ve never released anything less than very good and are frequently great.

      I would add a bonus note: The Roots’ “Come Alive” is one of the best live albums ever.

      • I actually didn’t connect much with Undun, but I definitely respect what they were going for there and agree with the basic sentiment. And I’ll go one further – Game Theory is one of my Top 5 hip-hop releases period.

        As for the move away from that kind of hip-hop, it seemed like once the Soulquarians thing they had going with Common, D’Angelo, Badu, and kind of Talib & Q-Tip started to run its course/fall apart in the early 2Ks that style started to fall off. Maybe because the Kanye-era was gearing up, maybe it was because some of the more experimental stuff to come out of the Soulquarian thing didn’t connect well enough with big audiences – I dunno. Shame, though, I’m always down for tight collaborative crews of talented musicians.

  5. Quality music journalism

  6. Wait, the Roots are still together?

  7. Great article. And for my money, Wise Up Ghost was the best album of last year in a lot of ways. It felt like an effortless collaboration yet every artist on that record felt like they were pushing themselves to new heights with their amazing songwriting on top of incredible jams. Even Elvis Costello (one of my long time idols) felt new and refreshed with the Roots behind him. It felt like one those challenges that you’re excited to set and accomplish.

    And let’s not forget this magic right here.

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