By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
The Roots, perhaps hip-hop's most deified live act—and an increasingly rare sure-thing concert draw for a desperately flailing music industry—have now largely confined their tour bus route to the lonely 100 miles or so between Philly and New York City, there and back again four or five times a week, having tied their future success and viability to Jimmy Fallon's decidedly unproven skills as a late-night talk-show host.
This is a time of great possibility and profound terror.
Late Monday/early Tuesday, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon will premiere on NBC: The Saturday Night Live alum is replacing Conan O'Brien, who is replacing Jay Leno, who is jumping to an unprecedented prime-time slot as part of a bizarre internal fiasco you're better off avoiding entirely—except the Roots did not, as they have agreed to be Fallon's house band. Doc Severinsen begot Paul Shaffer begot Max Weinberg begot ?uestlove (a/k/a Ahmir Thompson), the Roots' drummer and bandleader, who now sits with rapper Black Thought (a/k/a Tariq Trotter) in a Manhattan recording/rehearsal studio, a scene from the imminent Fame remake being shot right outside, acknowledging the fact that Jimmy's quest for greatness and longevity is far from assured.
?uestlove: "It's a concern."
Black Thought: "Yeah, it's definitely a concern, but I wouldn't call it a worry. It's a concern. We're all putting forth the best effort to make sure he's the next Conan and not the next . . ."
"I'm not gonna say . . ."
"Right. The list goes on and on."
"Whoopi, I was gonna say next—the list goes on and on," Black Thought allows. "It's definitely an everyday, ongoing thing of trying to figure out what is gonna set this show apart from all these late-night shows that flopped or whatever."
"NBC's very committed—they're very excited," ?uestlove adds. "Watching it yesterday on the monitor, I see this as a staple. I don't see this as a Pat Sajak Hour."
It was actually the Pat Sajak Show, but who cares, really? The Late-Night Graveyard is a terrible and dangerously overloaded place, and however affable and likable Fallon may be, the notion that the dude perhaps best known for biting his drumsticks in a failed attempt to stop himself from cracking up during the SNL "more cowbell" sketch will now prevail over the next great witching-hour empire is, not a stretch exactly, but a roll of the dice, a leap of faith—pick your cliché, atheistic or devout.
The Roots are here to help. With apologies to Sheila E. (she of The Magic Hour, RIP, June to September, 1998), they're easily the most established and revered musical entity to go the talk-show-band route, with eight studio albums (including last year's fantastically surly Rising Down) and nearly 20 years of nonstop touring to their credit, their status as tireless, peerless globe-trotters pounding out two-hour-plus concert spectaculars beyond dispute. But that's just the thing. Consider the possibility that they're tired, and consider the draw of something a bit more stable, or at least somewhat stationary.
"This is the beginning of a new phase," Black Thought says. "I don't know, we may have different opinions on this, but I definitely don't look at this like the end of the Roots, the end of touring. A lot of people are like, 'Aw, yeah, you guys retired.' We're, we're—no. No. It's just, we're gonna be touring like a normal, human band now."
For the once-inhuman band's devout fans, though, the announcement late last year came as quite a shock—"The Roots will be Jimmy Fallon's house band" is an awfully surreal sentence to read, to process, to accept. Online reaction (to which ?uestlove, an astoundingly prolific blogger, is far from aloof) ranged from "trepidation" to "way more trepidation." Which does not necessarily surprise him. "I understand the disdain," he says. "You're used to seeing us three times a year in Warsaw, Poland, and then being in Tokyo the next night. Of course it's gonna be technically harder for us to up and go to New Zealand for a day."
More unnerving to a devout Roots disciple, though, is the thought of a group beloved for their ambitious, meticulously crafted LPs and exuberant marathon live shows now largely working in the "sandwiches" medium—the band's pet term for the myriad beds, bumpers, and interludes their new gig demands. As stylistically diverse as the guys intend to be in crafting these bits, you, the uneasy late-night viewer, will only hear them in 10-second increments; the fact that most bands sound terrible on TV these days (SNL, in particular, is a death sentence) doesn't help. But maybe all that just adds to the challenge. They intend to sound good—and sound different. "I know that there's a tiny underestimation factor that's going on," ?uestlove says. "The first thing that people ask is, 'What's Tariq gonna do?' And I'm like, 'Yo, dude, we got range—you think we're just a rap group, that's all we can do?' I like the initial look of shock on people's faces when we can do different things. Yesterday, we had to do a Broadway skit from Chicago."