(Soundbite of song "Rising Down") THE ROOTS: (Rapping) Spinning of its axis, Got Mother Nature doing back flips. The natural disaster is like 80 degrees in Alaska Doing trouble if you're not an Onassis.
It's ain't hard to tell the conditions are drastic, Just turn on the telly...
MIKE PESCA, host:
That is the title track from the new Roots album "Rising Down." You say "the Roots" to most rap fans and they'll go, oh, yeah, the Roots, they're good. You'll say "the Roots" to a fan of music in general, talk to the guy you know with the most eclectic taste, and he'll get all spasmodic and start going oh, the Roots? ?uestlove, we love the Roots. And we'll say something like, Ian, calm the hell down.
Mr. AHMIR "?UESTLOVE" THOMPSON (Drummer, The Roots): "Spasmodic," I'm putting that one in my ?uestsaurus, "spasmodic."
PESCA: And that is ?uestlove, the drummer and producer of this. Welcome. He's in the studio. Thanks for coming in, ?uestlove.
Mr. THOMPSON: How are you, how are you doing?
PESCA: Shall I call you ?uestlove?
Mr. THOMPSON: Ah, it's cool. ?uestlove is fine.
PESCA: So that's "Rising Down." That's the title track, right.
Mr. THOMPSON: Yes, that's the title track.
PESCA: And also on the album is a song called "Rising Up." And I read that the kind of concept behind the album, or at least the jumping off point, was that William Vollmann book "Rising Up, Rising Down."
Mr. THOMPSON: "Rising Up, Rising Down."
PESCA: Now that book's 3,500 pages.
Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, it's more of a reference book.
Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, I mean, there's an abridged, condensed version of it, but pretty much, yeah, it's a hard read.
Mr. THOMPSON: You must have a lot of time on your hands if you go through it...
PESCA: I mean, the first 1,800 pages are a little slow, but then it really kicks in.
Mr. THOMPSON: Well, my manager claims to have read it once or twice, so...
PESCA: Do you ever quiz him on it?
Mr. THOMPSON: That's how I know he's crazy.
PESCA: So what ideas did you take out of the book that we hear...?
Mr. THOMPSON: I mean, really, it's just pretty much a study in violence, in short, a sort of psychological effects of how violence - how a human being comes to violent means. And pretty much the album and sort of its political hand really deals with how humans tend to use violence before anything. You know, we're from Philadelphia, unfortunately, which holds the tag of the murder capital...
PESCA: It's one of the most murderous cities of the U.S., yeah.
Mr. THOMPSON: Of the United States. And it's just that, I don't know, I've been really shocked at hip-hop's sort of lack of - or their whole apolitical stance right now. Whereas 20 years ago, this would have been a normal record by the Roots.
PESCA: Right, yeah, and we've gotten away from Public Enemy being really political...
Mr. THOMPSON: Exactly.
PESCA: And we've gotten to in fact, you know, a little ambivalence, but without claims of being victims and perpetrating violence where would 50 Cent's career be? You know, and a lot of these other rappers.
Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, his life is almost like - you know, I mean, it's sort of - you go to Six Flags, and you want to get on or you go to Brigantine Castle, did I just date myself with that one?
(Soundbite of laughter)
PESCA: Dorney Park in Pennsylvania?
Mr. THOMPSON: I meant it's like a thrill thing, which is pretty much - I mean, you can take it as entertainment, although I tend to see the microscope that most hip-hoppers are under as sort of the art-imitating-life dichotomy as opposed to Schwarzenegger - he's an actor, but in real life he's a father.
PESCA: It does seem weird that, you know, actors that are in action movies don't feel like they have to, you know, either commit crimes or save people from burning buildings...
Mr. THOMPSON: Right.
PESCA: But there's the embrace of it to some extent. Probably people feel forced into it, also.
Mr. THOMPSON: Well, my main problem is, mainly, rappers really aren't seen as three-dimensional people.
Mr. THOMPSON: We're more seen as one-dimensional entertainment and that's it. So if anything, I think that was like one of the biggest struggles of this record, trying to paint three-dimensional pictures of ourselves to see that we're humans and not just cussing to be cussing.
PESCA: When you do interviews like this, do you feel that you often get questions where they kind of ask you to answer for the genre in a way that like, we'd never ask Pearl Jam to answer for Avril Lavigne or something like that?
Mr. THOMPSON: I'm so used to it. But I think that the end of the day, if someone can break it down to, you know, a very simple fraction that maybe people will understand the whole psychological effect on how people, you know, operate.
Especially my generation, you know? A lot of people gauge their whole opinion on - especially with black people - on just the entertainment they see. So, you know, a lot of times I find myself in that position where I've got to answer for everybody.
Mr. THOMPSON: Sometimes it's cool. Sometimes it's not. Like the particular so-called "Oprah witch hunt," that two-day rap special that she did, you know, where Common had to answer for everybody. I didn't particularly like that.
PESCA: It definitely all depends on the context and where it's coming from, but you know, we just heard on the track we played - I don't know of too many other rappers who talk about greenhouse gasses. I don't know if too many other rappers are talking about, you know, these world issues.
Mr. THOMPSON: Well, one day we woke up and found out that we were in the top-ten green groups...
RACHEL MARTIN, host:
Is that something you set out to do?
Mr. THOMPSON: Well, we've done so many - I mean, the perception of us being political, more or less, has to do with the fact that, I guess, since '93 when we first started up until, I'll say, now, we've done a lot of political activity, sort of off the record, you know. We really haven't brought our politics to our albums, probably until our last - our ninth album, "Game Theory."
Because the sort of hip-hop that we were raised on was more or less about the sport of it. Like, battle/MC lyrics and the whole angle of us being a band sort of overshadowed any other agenda that we had. So we weren't necessary political.
If anything, we were political by default, because we weren't, you know, misogynistic or talking about just regular gun-play stuff. So people thought, oh, the Roots are political, but in essence, we really haven't gotten that political since our last record, so...
PESCA: Then again the timing of the last record came out, when, two years ago?
Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah.
PESCA: And so the world's changed a lot since you were first putting out records during the Clinton administration.
Mr. THOMPSON: Oh, a lot, yeah.
PESCA: War is going on and things are a little different. But speaking of wars, it's not just America at war. I said you were one of the few groups to sing about greenhouse gasses. You're also singing about child soldiers in Africa. This is a song called "Singing Man" and it's about someone maybe about someone in Charles Taylor's army or an army like that. Let's hear some of that.
(Soundbite of song "Singing Man")
THE ROOTS: (Singing) One for the crescent. Two for the cross. Three for the blessing. Four for the loss.
Can't hold in weapon, Walk like a corpse in the face of transgression, Military issue (unintelligible) machete over a pitchfork. He kill her because he feel he got nothing to live for in a war Taking heads for men like Charles Taylor. They never seen an undisclosed former arms dealer. Thirteen you roll (unintelligible).
He look 35. He changed his name to Little No Man Survive When he smoked that (unintelligible) shorty believed he could fly. He'd loot and terrorize and shoot between the eyes. Who to blame? It's a shame that youth is demonized.
Wishing he could rearrange the truth to see the lies And he wouldn't have to raise his barrel to target you. His heart can't get through the years of scar tissue. Days of living fast, bones of misery, You got something you want to sing for me?
Sing a song, singing man. Sing a song, singing man.
PESCA: How'd the topic come up that it was something you wanted to sing about?
Mr. THOMPSON: Actually that song, "Singing Man," is probably the emotional centerpiece of the record. We were hired to play Virginia Tech, the day after the incident, quote, unquote, "the incident." Went down, and we kind of wanted to put our approach on it, only because we were so close to it.
I mean, we were like on our way to that campus, and then we found out the show was cancelled, so we just went home. So pretty much, I'll say this song was created about two or three weeks after the incident. And one of the strangest things is that you find yourself in a position of wanting to talk about a situation.
But normally, when we were talking about incidents about this level, it was always in the third-person sense, when you're like looking from the window and you're seeing what's going on. But we kind of wanted to make this one of the like first songs in which we're actually doing it in first person. But then you don't want to look like you're glorifying it because you're doing it first person, so then...
PESCA: Yeah, people can misinterpret that.
Mr. THOMPSON: Right.
PESCA: And it's a headache more than anything.
Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, so at the last minute, we figured out a clever way to paint the picture in first person. And what we did was we told three stories. Verse one is the story of a campus shooter. Verse two is of a child sort of being reared into an army, but that can also be the story of any child in south-central Los Angeles, you know, that can't avoid gang culture.
And the third verse is about a suicide bomber. So, we kind of wanted to paint a picture, show you a movie or a scene of three different characters that felt that their violence was justifiable. And we didn't want to glorify it, so it was real tricky to do, but we managed...
PESCA: But then again, I hear you coming back to the idea about what Vollmann was saying in "Rising Up, Rising Down," was that society is creating the violence, and that's the rising up, and the people instilled with their violence all around them, they in-turn become violent. And you know, it's triggered by society. You hear it there in the song. You're talking about three different societies or part of our society.
Mr. THOMPSON: Exactly, you got it.
PESCA: I think I did.
Mr. THOMPSON: You did your homework. I'm proud of you. Other people are like, why? Why can't you guys just be happy?
(Soundbite of laughter)
PESCA: I want to ask you about playing live music, because we haven't even mentioned that, and if you can't tell from the record, you don't rap over beats or just do that - sometimes you do that, too, but you're always playing your live instruments. And there's a line on the song where you compare yourself - I want to get it right - part Melly Mel and part Van Halen.
Mr. THOMPSON: Yes.
PESCA: So what live groups or what rock groups or groups that play live instruments do you think are most influential in what we hear?
Mr. THOMPSON: The problem with us is that since we're the last black band with a major record deal...
Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, we're the last black group left. I mean, Dave Matthews, technically. Yeah, we're the last black group left. I mean, Dave Matthews technically is South-African, with four black people in the group. I mean, that's probably second place. I think that in the beginning when we first started our thing was that we're the alternative to hip-hop, but then as quote, unquote, "purist hip-hop" sort of took a dive.
Then we had to represent purist hip-hop, and then once the idea of a rap group - we're almost one of maybe five or six rap groups left also. Really three, but I'm technically giving OutKast a pass because they say they're still a group even though you haven't seen them together in like four years.
PESCA: And they do different sides of a two-sided disc.
Mr. THOMPSON: Exactly. They're really...
PESCA: They're a collective.
Mr. THOMPSON: Collective, you right. Now it's just to the point in 2008 where we basically have to just represent music.
MARTIN: That's a big responsibility, that's a lot on your shoulders.
Mr. THOMPSON: So I'm not even saying we're a hip-hop band. We now have to be all those other groups that aren't around to be their competition any more. You know. So yeah, we have to be Melly Mel and Van Halen.
Mr. THOMPSON: Actually, David Lee Roth is an extreme, immense fan of the group...
Mr. THOMPSON: Which was probably one of the most shocking things ever.
PESCA: And if you ever listen to him talk off the cuff, it's some version of free styling. I don't know if - look, there's one last thing we want to do and I don't know if we have time for the clip, but you've been going around playing, doing a couple things.
You've been playing the national anthem and you played that on the "Colbert" show, right? So that was little hints of Hendrix. And then you used the melody of the national anthem to sing Dylan's "Masters of War."
Mr. THOMPSON: "Masters of War," right.
PESCA: Which is an amazing song. You know, I guess my question is, how'd you think of that? How'd you think or marrying the two if Dylan never did?
Mr. THOMPSON: Actually, the very first version of "Masters of War" that I heard wasn't even Dylan's. My father had Leon Russell, singer-songwriter, had his heyday in the '70s, early '80s, husband of Brenda Russell, "Piano in the Dark." Anyway, I'm like a walking Wikipedia.
He did a version of "Masters of War" in which he adapted the "Star Spangled Banner" to the lyrics. And he sang it in such an ironic way that that always stuck with me. So pretty much, that was our - I just married that version to Dylan's version.
PESCA: Well, it's a great idea, and it's great execution, and you can hear it on our blog. And we want to thank you very much, ?uestlove. Thank you for being here.
Mr. THOMPSON: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Thanks for coming in.
Mr. THOMPSON: Thank you.
MARTIN: Hey, that does it for this hour of the BPP. We are on digital, FM, Sirius Satellite Radio, and we are always online at npr.org/bryantpark. I'm Rachel Martin.
PESCA: And I'm Mike Pesca. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.