The Roots Debut As Fallon's 'Late Night' Band Philadelphia-based hip-hop band The Roots recently began their latest gig as house band for "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" when the show premiered on Monday. Drummer and bandleader Ahrmir "?uestlove" Thompson explains about the band's decision to join the show and how the gig presents a significant musical opportunity for the group.
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The Roots Debut As Fallon's 'Late Night' Band

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The Roots Debut As Fallon's 'Late Night' Band

The Roots Debut As Fallon's 'Late Night' Band

The Roots Debut As Fallon's 'Late Night' Band

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Philadelphia-based hip-hop band The Roots recently began their latest gig as house band for "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" when the show premiered on Monday. Drummer and bandleader Ahrmir "?uestlove" Thompson explains about the band's decision to join the show and how the gig presents a significant musical opportunity for the group.

CHERYL CORLEY, host:

I'm Cheryl Corley and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, we'll hear about diversity, or the lack of it, among late-night show hosts. But, first, we sample the new sound of late night.

(Soundbite of "Guns are Drawn")

CORLEY: The Philadelphia-based hip-hop group The Roots made a name for themselves in the mid-1990s by being innovators. They used live instrumentation, elaborate beat-boxing and thoughtful rhymes. Take a listen to this cut, "Guns are Drawn," from their 2004 album, "The Tipping Point."

(Soundbite of song, "Guns are Drawn")

Mr. AHMIR ?UESTLOVE THOMPSON (Musician): (Singing) What you gonna do when the police state begins? Well, it already began, but I guess it depends on what's really going on, what's happening. Military target practicing. They finna write another patriot act again. The days is short, the nights is long. The fight goes on. The pistols and the pipes are drawn. Come on.

Unidentified Male: (Singing) The middle of the night. We fight…

CORLEY: Now The Roots are, again, breaking new ground, doing what no other hip-hop act in history has ever done. They started this week backing Jimmy Fallon for his show, "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." Here to tell us about that move is band leader and drummer, Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson. And he joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome.

Mr. THOMPSON: How are you? How you doing?

CORLEY: Pretty good.

Mr. THOMPSON: I'm good.

CORLEY: Well, you know, The Roots is one of the most critically acclaimed hip-hop acts of the last decade. And you guys decided to become a house band. So tell me about that decision.

Mr. THOMPSON: You know, I guess we just, we kind of have a history of sort of being on our own island, if you will.

CORLEY: Okay.

Mr. THOMPSON: So, you know, even - you know, I tell people all the time, you know, when we first came out, the idea of a band in hip-hop was almost like a threatening thing, like we were violating the code or, you know, sort of paying our way into a fraternity without having to go through the initiation process.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: And subsequently, like most of our albums are also pretty much hard pills to swallow for just the person that wants, you know, the casual background rap music on. You know, it's kind of a weird thing to get into. So for a true Roots fan, for us to do something absolutely left and crazy, this actually doesn't come as a shocking move. I think our whole career is based on what shouldn't we do? Oh yeah, okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: We're going to stop touring for 300 days of the year and, you know, just become the regular late night band.

CORLEY: So you're contrarians?

Mr. THOMPSON: Pretty much, yeah. You know, some say self-saboteurs. Some say contrarians. But, you know, we just like new challenges. And, you know, we don't often parade the number 17, as in the years that we've been professional musicians, but this is almost past hip-hop. You can count the amount of groups that can manage to put up with each other for 17 years, even marriages, even, you know. So it was just time for a new challenge, a new direction.

CORLEY: Something different.

Mr. THOMPSON: I guess we kind of got tired of looking at the Great Wall of China or the Eiffel Tower over and over. It became - you know, blase, if you will.

CORLEY: You get tired of touring, is that what you're saying?

Mr. THOMPSON: We tour so much that we actually know Tokyo's subway system inside out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: All right, so it's time to put down some roots, I guess.

Mr. THOMPSON: Exactly. This has actually proven to be probably the best move for the group. Well, besides the obvious, us being home with our families. This is also probably the most rehearsal and song writing that we've done in our whole history ever. I could count the amount of rehearsals that we've actually committed to Root shows and maybe one hand in the last 17 years.

CORLEY: So it's really changed how you operate then.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. Like, we've just, any time that we have to play for more than three hours there's always been an audience of two to 3,000 people watching. Just for us to play without an audience, like, that was so - it was so uncomfortable on the first day, like, you know, you mean we're actually going to play a song and no one's going to be hear to watch and applaud at the end?

Like, it restrains. But rehearsing has actually made us better. And I guess that at the time, well, right before, I say a month ago, I was reading Malcolm Gladwell's new book, and he was, you know, doing this whole theory about 10,000 hours of perfecting your craft makes you a genius. You know, we're definitely going to log in 10,000 hours of practice in the next year-and-a-half.

CORLEY: Yeah.

Mr. THOMPSON: So we can only get better.

CORLEY: You know, in some musical genres like jazz or alternative rock, when artists decide to do something that their fans or other artists believe is commercial or doesn't stick to the program, they've been called sell-outs and at least that used to be the case.

Mr. THOMPSON: Right.

CORLEY: And I wonder if you've had to reckon with anything like that at all with people saying, oh, you know, by The Roots becoming a house band now.

Mr. THOMPSON: I don't - I don't know what a sell-out is in 2009 in the age of reality shows and, I mean, if you just look at the reality shows, the fact that, you know, pretty much any challenge to win a million dollars of that type of thing, like, and they answer the call to the personality. I don't even know if those laws can even count.

I know some of the disappointment of most of our fan base that are further than 3,000 miles away, of course they are seething with anger because, you know, we are that group that will go to Warsaw and will go to Moscow. And, you know, we had to cancel three weeks in Australia and New Zealand to start the show, or at least to start rehearsals for it.

And these are places that we go at least, you know, two to four times a year. So, I can understand the - sort of the disdain and the disappointment. So, I mean, the running joke is basically that we are going to tour like a normal band and, you know, during our 10 to 12 week period off.

CORLEY: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, and I'm Cheryl Coley. We're talking with Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson of The Roots about The Roots' new gig as house band for "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." There are some hip-hop acts like the Wu-Tang Clan, who are known for being comical - The Roots really don't have that sort of reputation. So, what is it like…

Mr. THOMPSON: So you think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: Changing already.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: I'm going tell you something strange about hip-hop. See, because it's more caricature-driven. A lot of the times you're only allowed to show one dimension of your whole being, which is why it's, you know, refreshing when someone like a Kanye West comes along. Or, you know, artists of that nature that gets to show a three-dimensional side, that they're, you know, flesh, and blood, and human and that they have different sides to them.

So a lot of people sort of have this perception that, you know, we were a serious political group. And, you know, so this move did seem rather odd to them. But the thing is is that I think that you can somewhat be political-minded. You know, just because I drive a green car doesn't necessarily mean that I don't have a sense of humor.

CORLEY: Well, let's play clip a now. This is you, the rest of the band and Jimmy slow-jamming the news.

(Soundbite of crowd laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: We're singing about the president's stimulus package just passed through congress.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing) Oh yeah. Measure eights are dance one three if you spot Nancy Pelosi.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. JIMMY FALLON ("Late Night with Jimmy Fallon"): Should've passed much soon, but Congresswoman Virginia Foxx wanted to play with it a little.

Mr. THOMPSON: Oh yeah, she played with it. Just don't know (unintelligible) these tales all night long, all night long. She added an amendment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, I didn't get to watch that episode that night because I was doing our after party, but I got about 64 text messages and be sure that every last word was amendment inside of…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: I can imagine.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah.

CORLEY: So that showed a little bit of a comical side there. You know, most people that know The Roots say that you guys are hip. You know, and that's what you bring to the show. That's what you add to late night. And I don't know if people would say Jimmy is exactly hip. He is more…

Mr. THOMPSON: He's loved, though.

CORLEY: He is loved.

Mr. THOMPSON: The adoration that he has, I don't know any member of my fan base that would actually line up in this weather at 6:00 in the morning. When we arrive in the city we kind have to pass the 30 Rock building, and I can see -seeing his fan base, I was, like, wow, this guy is, like, comedy's Dave Matthews almost, like…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: That's the only other fan base I know, which his, you know, they will line up and it could snow, like, we had a blizzard and they were still out there waiting for tickets to the first show.

CORLEY: Yeah. But he's more - he's known as this kind of everyday kind of nice guy comedian, and I was wondering if you were worried that the cache, perhaps, so of The Roots changes because of that, because of your association on late night.

Mr. THOMPSON: See, but weren't not - I think we're cool simply because we are actually that - we're cool. But we're not that, you know, too cool for school, you know, I'm above all this.

CORLEY: Yeah.

Mr. THOMPSON: We've never been that. You know, in our whole history of artists that we've worked with, it goes across the spectrum. I mean, some of them are yes, they're credible based and some of them are a little like head scratching, like, really, you guys did that too? But I don't wake up every morning needing my valet to, you know, hold the mirror in front of my face to, you know, to comb my afro out or whatever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: So as long as we're cool socially, I've known him for about - I guess I met him fist in 2001, when we first did SNL backing up Busta Rhymes and, you know, we talked a little bit backstage. And I told him I liked his album and it's kind of been mutual ever since. I don't think that he thought that we take him serious when he asked us to be on the show. He kind of asked like a dare.

Mr. THOMPSON: Like, funny thing happened, like, you guys would never do to that, right? And, you know, we actually said, yeah, we would.

CORLEY: So you surprised him, you think?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, he thought he was surprising us, but we surprised him back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: So, what are you looking forward to the most with this gig?

Mr. THOMPSON: I'm trying to figure out how we can sort of maintain our, quote, unquote, our "Roots-ness." I guess we're sort of known for, you know, introducing new acts and whatnot. I can't wait to implement the sit-in-of-the-week, which is, I guess, an idea or bringing a lesser-known musician into the fold. There's a lot of great musicians out there, so…

CORLEY: Absolutely.

Mr. THOMPSON: Hopefully, a sit-in-with-us-for-a-week will be the equivalent of an A-list doing their one song for a day.

CORLEY: You know you're going to get a lot of audio now.

Mr. THOMPSON: Oh, yeah, you know, bring it on. You know, we're open to collaborations.

CORLEY: Ahrmir ?uestlove Thompson is drummer and producer for The Roots who just started their new jobs as house band for "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" on NBC. Thanks so much.

Mr. THOMPSON: Thank you.

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