The newest album by one of hip-hop's best live acts, The Roots, is called "undun" and it's more than a concept album. It's the story of a life.


THE ROOTS: (Singing) Like when autumn leaves fall down from the trees, there goes my honey bee. I've lost a lot of sleep to dreams...

CORNISH: This is Redford Stephens on his deathbed. Stephens, a young drug dealer, is the fictional character at the heart of the album.

We sat down for separate interviews with the co-founders of The Roots. And we'll hear from drummer Amir Questlove Thompson in a moment, about what they've learned as the house band for "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." He'll also tell us the secret to making it a quarter century in the music industry.

But first, Tariq Trotter, better known as the MC Black Thought, explained how The Roots took one of the most stereotypical characters in hip-hop and turned it into art.

TARIQ TROTTER: It's the story of the character's life becoming unraveled, so to speak.

CORNISH: And we first hear your lyrics on the song "Sleep," and that's when the character Redford Stephens, it's almost like he doesn't know he's been shot and killed.

TROTTER: It's kind of like Patrick Swayze in "Ghost."



ROOTS: (Rapping) Illegal activity controls my black symphony, orchestrated like it happened incidentally. Oh, there I go from a man to a memory. Damn, I wonder if my fan will remember me.

CORNISH: And that's the song "Sleep" off the album "undun."

Tariq, talk a little bit about how you came up with this character.

TROTTER: Even though this is a fictional story, so to speak, it's just something that, you know, I definitely can identify with because where I'm from that's what the life expectancy is, about 25 or 26. You know, my father was murdered at 26.

I remember when I was 15 or 16 years old, and I couldn't imagine what life would be like, you know, past the age of 30. Because I didn't know that many men who had lived beyond their 20s. So it's something that just hits kind of close to home. But it's not specifically like my story, or my father's story, or my older brother's story. But it could very well be any of those.

CORNISH: This character, the drug-running character, is so common in hip-hop. What did you want to do or what did you try to do to elevate his story, or make it different?

TROTTER: I wanted to present it in a way that wasn't necessarily exaggerated or cartoonish. I wanted to make it easier to understand, you know, how people wind up in the situations that they wind up in, or how easy it is.


ROOTS: (Rapping) Yo, we obviously need to tone it down a bit, running around town spending time like it's counterfeit. Everybody catching hay fever like sinuses. Step in my arena, let me show y'all who the highness is. You might say I could be doing something positive. Humble head down low and broke like promises. Soaking and broken and a joke like comics is, not enough paper to be paying folks compliments. But when that paper got low so did my tolerance, and it ain't no truth in a dare without the consequence...

TROTTER: The song "The OtherSide" is very much about what you do coming back and sometimes coming back to haunt you.

CORNISH: And one of the striking lyrics there: Even if I'm going to hell, I'm going to make an entrance.


ROOTS: (Rapping) Even if I'm going to hell, I'm going to make an entrance. Yeah, let them know I'm here...

TROTTER: Right, yeah. I feel like, you know, it's just a bit of irony.


ROOTS: (Rapping) I'm the toast of the town like Thomas is.

(Singing) We're all on a journey down the hall of memories. Don't worry bout what you ain't got. Leave with a little bit of dignity. Never loved what I had, always felt like I deserved more. But when I make it to the other side, make it to the other side that's when we'll settle up the score...

CORNISH: Tariq, you're essentially the chief writer, right? And I'm wondering what it was like to keep everyone in line and in the same voice, as you guys do something that needs to be as disciplined for a concept album.

TROTTER: Right, yeah. It wasn't as easy to write this record as it's been, you know, to produce stuff in the past. Everything that you hear me saying on this record is at least, you know, the fourth or fifth draft. I would write a verse and then rewrite it and rewrite it. So, I don't sit down to write a song and then, you know, slam down the phone like, we got another one, you know, and pop some champagne. It's like if someone's writing a novel, you know, you write a chapter or there's a series of drafts.

CORNISH: And, Tariq, the album actually ends with a suite of songs that are instrumental. And you're not on them.


TROTTER: No, yeah, there's...

CORNISH: But I want to ask you about them, 'cause they're essentially a kind of elegy for this character the album, "undun," tells of Redford Stephens.


TROTTER: It's just like a natural progression to do something more substantial sonically. I feel like the musicality is the vocal at that point. It just completes the story. Or, if you listen to the record backwards, it begins the story - that music can represent death, as well as it could represent birth.

CORNISH: Tariq Trotter, also known as Black Thought of The Roots.


CORNISH: The man behind that foray into strings is Roots' co-founder, Amir Questlove Thompson. Earlier this year, Thompson, one of the best drummers around was asked to curate classical compositions for a performance in Philadelphia, which got him thinking...

AMIR QUESTLOVE THOMPSON: What if we were to combine that inside of the next record? And that's where the inspiration started.


CORNISH: You've been the house band for a "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" for a couple of years now. How has that changed your sound, 'cause you're performing nightly, live audience, skits - a lot going on there.

THOMPSON: We entered the building in January 2009, and there's a few things that not many people knew. Number one: The Roots have never ever rehearsed up until that point. So...

CORNISH: In general?



THOMPSON: Well, The Roots starred in by busking on the street corners and going off the top of our heads for the next five hours. And, you know, that's where Tariq really honed his freestyle abilities - the ability to walk up to the people and start rhyming about their glasses or, you know, the mustard stain on their T-shirt, or that type of thing. So...

CORNISH: What has it been like adjusting to this new format? How do you...

THOMPSON: The discipline?

CORNISH: Well, not just that but handled the spotlight. I mean obviously there was this big controversy over the song you intro'ed GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann. The intro you used for the song - the name we can't say on the radio - and both NBC and, I believe, Mr. Fallon and you had to apologize for it.

THOMPSON: You know, I owned up to it. I crossed the line. This is a comedy show and, you know, for me I always felt like you go for the laugh. And so, some of my judgment calls have been called into question, I mean as a result. And I can understand why, you know, they would - from now on, I have to clear it with a jury of people.


THOMPSON: In my head, I will always still feel like the underdog. Like, I don't feel like we're above the radar. And I don't feel like people really know about us. Like, I still feel like the underground group that has, you know, one album out that people still don't know about. So, I mean my failure to really realize the level above the Mason-Dixon Line that The Roots are now on definitely played a part in it.


ROOTS: (Singing) My way. My way...

CORNISH: Next year is going to be a big anniversary for you guys as a group. I mean you've been in the business for a long time and what have you learned about in what it takes to have longevity in the music business, especially in hip-hop?


THOMPSON: OK, you want the deep answer or my answer?

CORNISH: I want your answer.

THOMPSON: My answer is just one sentence. Matter of fact, its two words. You ready?


THOMPSON: Two tour buses.


THOMPSON: It's not that deep. I believe that, you know, maybe if George Martin or Brian Epstein thought about, you know, separate rooms for the Fab Four maybe The Beatles could have went past, you know, 15 professional years. You know, we've always kept our art first. We've never compromised. I mean we've had a few failed attempts but, you know, at the end of the day: two tour buses.

CORNISH: Amir Questlove Thompson of The Roots. He and the group's co-founder, Tariq Black Thought Trotter, spoke to us from the NPR studios in New York.

The new album is called "undun." You can hear this track called "Make My" and extended excerpts from our interview at

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

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