Copyright ©2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

GUY RAZ, host:

The hip-hop collective known as The Roots formed in Philadelphia in 1987. Since then, some members have changed but not the band's innovative approach to making music.

SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW I GOT OVER"

THE ROOTS: (Singing) Out on the streets, where I grew up, first thing they teach us, not to give...

RAZ: This is the title track of The Roots' new album. It's called "How I Got Over." The Roots are best known nowadays as the house band on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." But since 1987, its members have looked to jazz, soul, electronic rock, even classical music as sounds to highlight a hip-hop core.

SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW I GOT OVER"

THE ROOTS: (Singing) How I got over. Someone has to care. Ya, when you on the corner's too much drama, living with the police right behind ya. It's always more than a slight reminder we're living in a warzone like Rwanda.

RAZ: Amir Thompson, better known as Questlove, is one of the original founders. And he joins me from our studios at NPR in New York.

Questlove, welcome to the program.

QUESTLOVE (The Roots): Hey, how are you doing?

RAZ: How are you?

QUESTLOVE: I'm fine.

RAZ: The track we're hearing, "How I Got Over," such an incredible song. We actually played it on this show six months ago. We've been waiting so long for this record to come out.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah. We tend to prematurely give a release date. We get overexcited and then much to the chagrin of our record label, we have to push it back for a few months - only to perfect it...

RAZ: Only to perfect it. Right.

QUESTLOVE: ...you know, only to perfect it.

RAZ: Your last two records, "Game Theory" and "Rising Down," were sort of reflections on the political state of America. And both...

QUESTLOVE: Right.

RAZ: ...I think it's fair to say, were pretty pessimistic. I read that parts of this record were inspired by the change in administration, that optimism that many people felt in the fall of 2008. Is that true?

QUESTLOVE: Initially, I felt as though we were going to jump the gun. During the time that it took out in 2008 to campaign with the Obama administration, talking to people, it was almost as if they were talking about like a magician or wizard. And I was like, okay, well, do people understand how the government is run? Like, it's not like he's going to wave a wand and we're all going to live happily ever after. I think that was one of the prime reasons why we decided to put on the brakes, if you will (makes screeching noise) just to - let's see how, you know, let's look both ways before we cross the street first. Before we make the happy-days-are-here-again record, let's just see how America feels. And sure enough, we kind of called it, it was setting in.

So, yeah, I'll say that the new incoming administration had a lot to do with it. But more or less, we wanted to just wait to see what the temperature of America was before we jumped the gun.

RAZ: The theme of change seems to be pretty present on this record as well.

QUESTLOVE: Absolutely.

RAZ: And you hear it really clearly on the song "Now or Never."

QUESTLOVE: Yes.

SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOW OR NEVER"

THE ROOTS: (Singing) Everything's changing around me and I want to change too. It's one thing I know, it ain't cool being no fool. I feel different today. I don't know what else to say. But I would get my - together, it's now or never...

RAZ: There's that line: everything's changing around me.

QUESTLOVE: And I want to change too.

RAZ: And I want to change too.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah, that was important, at least in my travels in doing a lot of the door-to-door stuff that I did in 2008 and just talking to people. They really wanted something to believe in. I think that it really starts within yourself first, as opposed to, okay, well, where's the change that's going to happen, you know, that type of thing.

So, that's why we made this.

(Soundbite of song, "Dear God 2.0")

THE ROOTS: (Singing) They said he's busy, hold the line please. Call me crazy...

RAZ: Now, not every song on this record is by any means optimistic or even sort of, kind of pointing out positive changes. I'm thinking about a track called "Dear God 2.0."

(Soundbite of song, "Dear God 2.0")

THE ROOTS: (Singing) Technology turning the planet into zombies, everybody all in everybody's dirty laundry, acid rain, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis. Terrorists, crime sprees, assaults and robberies, cops yelling stop, freeze, shoot them before we try to leave. Air quality so foul, I gotta try to breathe, endangered species and we running out of trees. If I could hold the world in the palm of these hands, I would probably do away with these anomalies.

RAZ: There's sort of like a litany of disasters in this song, kind of a sense of anxiety...

QUESTLOVE: Yeah.

RAZ: ...about the world.

QUESTLOVE: Another thing that we've noticed is that, you know, people are really quick to press the panic button if their particular prayer isn't answered. I won't say it's questioning God. You know, I don't want to say that, you know, it's like an existentialist song or even an atheist song like do you even exist, but I mean, it's so hard sometimes to do right and to believe that you exist when all these things are happening in the world.

And I think it's more of an honest thing as opposed to an angry thing, because I was a little worried, like, okay, well, what's my mom going to think if I'm questioning the existence of God?

SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER

QUESTLOVE: You really don't hear stuff like this on a hip-hop record.

RAZ: Right.

QUESTLOVE: So, all the more to tackle the subject and sort of get it out the way.

(Soundbite of song, "Dear God 2.0")

THE ROOTS: (Singing) Lord, forgive me for my shortcomings, for going on tour and ignoring the court summons. All I'm trying to do is live life to the fullest. They sent my daddy to you in a barrage of bullets. Why is the world ugly when you made it in your image and why is living life such a fight to the finish? For this high percentage when the sky's the limit, a second is a minute, every hour's infinite.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Questlove. He's the drummer and founder of the band The Roots.

You guys have been the house band on the Jimmy Fallon show, I think, for over a year now. And there's something I love that he does with you guys. It's called slow jamming the news. And sometimes, like in this clip I'm going to play, he brings on Brian Williams.

QUESTLOVE: Our favorite stalker, Brian Williams.

SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER

QUESTLOVE: Brian's going to kill me for saying that.

SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE NIGHT WITH JIMMY FALLON"

Mr. JIMMY FALLON (Comedian): Brian Williams was telling me that if we really want to get this green energy thing going, we all have to go bi.

Mr. BRIAN WILLIAMS (Host, "NBC Nightly News"): Actually, Jimmy, what I said was, we may as a nation need to reevaluate our investment in things like biomass and biofuels.

SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER

Mr. FALLON: Which I believe scientists call going bi.

SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER

Mr. WILLIAMS: No, that's not what they call it, Jimmy.

Mr. FALLON: You sure?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Positive.

Mr. FALLON: Oh.

THE ROOTS: (Singing) Brian Williams is furious 'cause Jimmy Fallon thinks he's Bri-curious.

RAZ: He's just - I can't talk about this without laughing. Do you guys approach comedy and sort of the art of bringing music into comedy differently than you do, say, things like this new record? Because I mean, after all, I mean, you're this critically acclaimed band, you've got a political message, I mean...

QUESTLOVE: Right. And then we're doing...

RAZ: ...I mean every - right.

QUESTLOVE: They were slow to ask us, like, would you guys mind doing some of the sketches? And we were basically like, well, what took you so long? Because the thing is...

RAZ: Everyone just assumes you're...

QUESTLOVE: Yeah, everyone assumes...

RAZ: ...quite so serious.

QUESTLOVE: ...that we're so serious. I think it's possible to have a sense of humor but still be politically aware and socially responsible.

RAZ: You've been part of The Roots now for almost a quarter century. Are you...

SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER

QUESTLOVE: Oh, wow. I'm old.

SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER

RAZ: Are you comfortable where the band is at now?

QUESTLOVE: Just from my personal insatiable self, I always felt that the downfall of any artist is to do that self-congratulatory pat on the back thing. I cringe and I get angry whenever I hear my peers say, like, oh yeah, I'm going on vacation. I took my very first vacation last year and that's because someone forced me to.

RAZ: Where'd you go?

QUESTLOVE: I've had hobo dreams since I was a kid, like that whole mythical bundle on a stick and hopping trains thing. So I traveled from New York to San Francisco...

RAZ: On a train?

QUESTLOVE: ...by train. And it was the greatest thing ever. Next time I do it, I got to braid my hair, though, because I kind of underestimated the power of the show.

RAZ: Oh, you mean everyone recognized you?

QUESTLOVE: Yeah. It was a little inconvenient. But, you know, I had a sleeper car too so, you know, I just sat there and looked out the window, which was like the greatest thing ever.

RAZ: That's Amir Thompson. He's better known as Questlove, talking about The Roots and the band's new album. It's called "How I Got Over." If you'd like to hear a few tracks, they're at our website, NPRMusic.org.

Questlove, thank you so much.

QUESTLOVE: Thank you. I appreciate it.

SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE FIRE"

THE ROOTS: (Singing) There's something in your heart and it's in your eyes, it's the fire inside you. Let it burn. You don't say good luck, you say don't give up. It's the fire inside you. Let it burn. Yeah, and if I'm ever at the crossroads and start feeling mixed signals like Morse code, my soul start to grow colder than the North Pole. I try to focus on the hole of where the torch go...

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Thanks for listening and have a great night.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.