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.”
(Quick note on those sandwiches: Though licensing money is tight, of course, and the Roots are encouraged to use originals whenever possible-the show’s theme song is their own “Here I Come,” off 2006’s Game Theory-they do get to use “walk-on licenses,” so when a guest is announced and heads out to Jimmy’s couch, they can play someone else’s music. ?uestlove has a specific memory of Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra playing Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin’ ” as Tom Cruise walked onstage for a Letterman interview, and he’s looking forward to doing that sort of thing himself. “So when Tina Fey comes out, I can do ‘Wild Thing,’ or ‘Sexy Motherfucker,’ ‘Hot for Teacher,’ whatever,” he enthuses. “Did I just reveal too much? HAHAHAHA.”)
One irony of this elaborate plot to keep the Roots off the tour bus is their new commute: As many of them still live in Philadelphia, right now, they get on a tour bus every morning for NYC, rehearse all day, and then turn around and bus back home, deep into the night. Four or five times a week. Black Thought’s even got an hour’s drive to and from the Philly bus stop; though he’s got reservations about uprooting his school-age daughter, he’d consider moving here, depending. (As would ?uestlove, though he notes that “a New York lease commitment is a major, major commitment.”) And though the Roots clearly play some role in Late Night With Jimmy Fallon‘s fate (they’ll apparently flex their comedy/acting chops, too; perhaps Black Thought is the next Max Weinberg), it’s the guy on the marquee’s baby, in the end, win, lose or-well, those are the two options.
Meanwhile, the Roots are guaranteed 10 weeks off a year, and that’s before reruns, etc. New Zealand hasn’t seen the last of them. ?uestlove says that the fairly brutal months of prep have also yielded a rare phenomenon: all eight guys in the band in one room, writing songs together. Furthermore, on March 5, the band will begin a long, allegedly guest-star-studded, jam-session residency at the Highline Ballroom, with multiple dates already set through June-a freewheeling, mostly weekly gig akin to their reign at Tribeca’s Wetlands Preserve club from 1997 to 2001. Their commute notwithstanding, for at least the next several months-and, if Jimmy’s got a few masturbating bears up his sleeve, possibly years-the Roots are a New York City band.
So drop by 30 Rock sometime and say hello. There they are on a recent Tuesday night, all eight dapperly dressed gentlemen sauntering out, sousaphone-first, onto the Late Night With Jimmy Fallon stage for an early test show: real set, real guests, real live audience they are tasked with firing up. They’re getting used to this, the firing up. “It has the feel of a Roots show-it goes in and out, and it’s like comin’ in and out of a dream or somethin’,” says Black Thought. “You come out, you feel like, ‘This is the Roots, we’re ready to rock it, we’re marching out, everyone’s excited-they’re hype, you know what I mean-we start performing, and you’re like, ‘I got ’em. These are our fans. They’re here to see us-wait, wait, no, they’re not. You start looking, and some people are honestly engaged, and they’re fans, and they’re super-excited, but other people are super-excited, they’re like, ‘Wow! A rap group!’ When you start to process what’s really going on in the room, it changes a little bit.'”
From the perspective of someone in the room, what’s really going on is warmly familiar to Roots-show vets: a manic 20-minute medley that bombastically jams their own stuff (“The Seed,” “Thought @ Work”) together with “Movin’ on Up,” “Apache,” “La Di Da Di.” The audience is made to stand, to pump their fists, to soul-clap, to say owwwwwww. The “applause” signs are superfluous. They sound fantastic. The Roots have got ’em. And then, just like Black Thought says, suddenly the cue-card lackeys sneak into place, the media dudes are hustled out of the room so as not to spoil any surprises, the guy everyone actually came to see takes the stage, and the guys revert to their new role: backing band. I imagine they will be extremely good at it. Possibly too good.
The Roots start their Highline Ballroom residency March 5, see highlineballroom.com for dates. Late Night With Jimmy Fallon premieres March 2