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By Andy Argyrakis
The Roots on rap, racism and politics
"One on One"
Dec. 16, 2008
Over the last 15 years, The Roots steadily became the world's most prolific hip-hop band, thanks to members' ability to break beyond genre borders, offer thought provoking lyrics that promote proactivity and create a multi-cultural melting pot in concert settings. Though the group's yet to reach the mainstream peaks of Kanye West or Common, the Philadelphia-bred troupe remains one of the most respected acts of its kind that widens its reach with every record released. The Grammy Award winners recently dropped Rising Down on Def Jam, which finds the players forging additionally ambitious territory across sonic and songwriting terrain. The politically-tinged project boasts a Civil War-era propaganda poster as its cover, while also diving deep into issues like racism and politics as applied to today's society. The group's drummer and primary mouth piece Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson recently called from the road to talk about the group's progressive journey and its latest season of intrigue.
Livewire: How have The Roots been able to stay so fresh after all these years?
?uestlove: I'm surprised myself and usually at end of every album, I think to myself "we can't do it again, let's just quit." I don't know what it is, but a lot of it is in your head and you have to really get in the mind state that you were on when you made your first record. But there are some tricks I do, like [setting up] a dart board with all our contemporaries and peers and make them a target in the studio. If I need inspiration, all I have to do is look up at Andre 3000, Kanye [West], Common or Talib Kweli and say "I got one for you suckas!" You can't rest on your laurels and I feel like the method we have now is to keep on pushing ourselves.
Livewire: Is there really animosity towards your artistic peers or is this dartboard all in good fun?
?uestlove: No, it's not even like a real contest. I call guys like Common all the time and [tease him that] "I'm gonna beat your ass" [with sales]. But the reality is I don't expect to sell as many units as those people, but my heart has got to make bangin' music anyway. There's a song on Consequence's record called "Callin Me" and it has the loudest drums I heard in my life. So when I was making [the new song] "75 Bars," I told Consequence "I had to outdo you and have louder drums than you!"
Livewire: How would you describe the musical results of the new record as a whole?
?uestlove: Sonically this is a synthesizer record. As far as The Roots are considered, we've always been known for our jazzy influence, but the primary thing that sets this record apart are the synths. It's still organic and there's still a lot of instrumentation, but we've collected seventeen or eighteen vintage synths over the past sixteen years of touring and we've finally taken them out of the closet and dusted them off.
Livewire: What's the meaning behind the title Rising Down?
?uestlove: It's based on a book, actually a reference book called Rising Up and Rising Down by William T. Vollmann. It pretty much just studies the history of violence and how it's sort of applicable in today's society- nations who feel they can rise against governments, like Tibet to China, or how citizens can rise up against authority figures, like the civil rights period. It even covers basic man to man rival issues and they're all narratives that lead to some sort of violent overture. The dark cloud of violence sort of shows and rears it's head to most of the narratives- it really just seemed like an applicable title!
Livewire: Could you describe the meaning behind the artwork of what appears to be a black man with bat wings stretching his hands over a city with people trying to flee?
?uestlove: The cover was drawn in the late 1800s- post Civil War, post Constitution and post Emancipation Proclamation. Of course the main battle between the Confederates and Yankees was based on slavery and human rights. Are we property or are we human beings? Some of the political cartoons were really just propaganda and posters [like this] were used down south to sort of discourage plantations from freeing slaves. There was a notion that if the slaves were free and were given power, they'd actually turn around and kill you. I saw [the poster] and it blew my mind. I was sort of like "how does this apply to today?" All too often I hear "he has no experience" [in relation to Senator Barack Obama] as if being married to a president [in the case of Senator Hillary Clinton] gives you experience! But I think the idea of no experience is almost the equivalent of masking one's true feelings. [Some people] are basically saying that if we let him in power, could this be the revenge black people have been waiting for over four hundred years? I'm not saying the bat figure could be Obama, just the idea of the fear behind that poster- that the fear of freeing someone could be your death, which is preposterous in my head. But does that fear still trickle on four or five hundred years later?
Livewire: Do you think racism still exists within the music industry to any degree?
?uestlove: There's definitely unspoken institutionalized racism and it happens so much we really start to believe it's normal. My career could be part of that. I could name you about seven other groups we've outsold, but they've gotten better [press] coverage because they're a rock band or they, quote, "fit the format." And then we say "but wait, we're just as talented" and they say "oh yeah, but you guys are a rap group!" Sometimes we're so numb we just accept it. I accept fact that I've never going to be a musical guest on "Saturday Night Live" unless twelve other acts cancel and I get that call or if I obtain a level of celebrity that's undeniable.