Jazz Aspen Labor Day: The Roots
If You Go …
Who: The Roots
Where: Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Experience, Snowmass Town Park
When: Sunday, Sept. 3, 5 p.m.
Tickets: Sold out
More info: The Revivalists will play at 3 p.m. Maroon 5 performs at 7:30 p.m.; www.jazzaspensnowmass.org.
The Roots never had the supposedly glorious “Bentley moment” that many hip-hop acts strive for. Drummer and bandleader Questlove is glad they didn’t.
The legendary Roots crew’s rise was slow — very slow — for a long while after its founders Questlove and Black Thought started making music together 30 years ago, back when they were students at Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.
“I’d compare it to the fable of the tortoise and the hare,” Questlove said earlier this year at an Aspen Institute event for Philadelphia high school students enrolled in the Aspen Challenge (full disclosure: my wife was the Challenge’s program manager). “Usually in the music business and especially in hip-hop, it’s such a fast rise to the top and a diminished-return drop to the bottom. Whereas, (for The Roots) it’s been a slow and steady pace moving forward, going up, and a lot of life lessons that I’m grateful for.”
The group blossomed gradually, from streetcorner busking in Philly to the cult following of its early records, starting with 1993’s “Organix,” then becoming critical darlings and hip-hop superstars with 1999’s “Thing’s Fall Apart” and eventually, improbably, emerging as one of the most recognizable acts on Earth as the house band for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” That slow and steady pace saved Questlove and his bandmates from what their manager has dubbed “your Bentley moment.” Without overnight success, in other words, they steered clear of the self-destructive and soul-less rock star lifestyle.
“There was a point in the late ’90s when rap videos were just out of control with the gaudy idea of the rich 1-percent lifestyle — the money, the cars, the clothes and hedonistic associations of ‘the life,’” Questlove said. “We’ve always been the blue collar workers in hip-hop.”
It’s rare for a hip-hop group to hang onto artistic integrity and humility as The Roots have over these three decades. Hip-hop as a whole, Questlove argued, tends to reject blue collar stories — he pointed to the “Started from the Bottom” narrative of Drake and the hyper-capitalism cheerleading by Jay-Z as prime examples.
“It will champion the businessman but not the plumber or the trash guy or the bus driver — that sort of thing,” he said. “If anything, our journey has been more of a common person’s journey. We’re behind the scenes working on things that not many people are aware of.”
That approach, he suggested, has driven The Roots’ unusual longevity.
“We’re all wiser for it,” he said. “We started back in 1992. To still be a thing some 20-plus years later is a rarity. You can count maybe three or four people from that era that are still active.”
The band also was able to hone its eclectic, jazz- and soul-inflected rap sound by working in obscurity through its early years based in London.
“We spent at least 30,000 hours playing nightclubs that were empty,” Questlove explained of The Roots’ time overseas. “It seemed hopeless, but eventually it started to catch on and put us in the position that we’re in right now.”
But Questlove was born to be a musician. He started drumming at age 2 and grew up as a show business kid — tagging along with his father’s oldies revue. His first gig, in fact, came at Radio City Music Hall in New York when he was just 12.
As he told the story at the Institute event, he’d been working backstage since he was five — shining the band’s shoes, steaming their suits, reading maps and navigating the bus on the road, stage managing. His father’s drummer injured his arm in a motorcycle accident before the big Radio City performance.
“My dad didn’t even sweat it,” he recalled. “He looked at me and said, ‘You know the show. You do it.’ He told someone to go to Macy’s and get me a suit jacket and I did my first gig at Radio City Music Hall.”
Ironically, Questlove had to keep The Roots secret from his father early-on, he said. Out of high school, Questlove was accepted to the Juilliard School. But The Roots were offered their first record deal at the same time. He opted for the record deal. But he hesitated to tell his parents that he was pursuing the music life over college.
“I was afraid to tell my dad that I was going to follow my dreams,” he said. “My dad didn’t find out about The Roots until our second album. He’s like, ‘Somebody showed me a newspaper article of a record review!’ And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I had a dream and I followed it.”
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