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The Roots, John Legend Refresh Sixties Protest Songs on 'Wake Up'

"I was trying to make something that was sample-able like a '70s soul record," ?uestlove says

May 11, 2010 9:23 AM ET

What started as a plan to reinvent one Arcade Fire song has become a full-blown covers project for John Legend and the Roots, who are "90 percent done" with a full album, ?uestlove tells Rolling Stone. "People tend to frown on the cover album," the Roots' drummer says, "so I wanted to choose cover songs that were so under the radar, so uniquely interpreted, that it would take you a second to realize that these are cover songs."

In the end, the Arcade Fire song that inspired it all didn't even make the final cut. Wake Up, due in September, will instead feature "songs from the '60s and '70s," Legend says, "like protest songs, songs about social uplift." Legend and ?uestlove didn't want to take on usual suspects like Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," so they selected "Wholy Holy." Other tracks off the beaten path include "Compared to What" (by Les McCann and Eddie Harris, recorded by Roberta Flack), "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" (by Billy Taylor and Richard Lamb, recorded by Nina Simone), "Love (The Way It Should Be)" (by Prince Lincoln and the Royal Rasses), and "Little Ghetto Boy" (by Donny Hathaway).

"I was trying to make something that was sample-able," ?uestlove says, "like a '70s soul record." As Legend points out, "Some of it has been sampled. Pete Rock and CL sampled 'Our Generation' years ago on 'Straighten It Out,' so we did a new version of 'Our Generation' with CL."

Common guests on the album's title track "Wake Up Everybody" (originally by Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes) and Black Thought takes the lead on "Hard Times" (by Baby Huey and the Babysitters).

"Everything is certainly inspired by the original," Legend says, "but we took our own creative license with it."

One notable difference is that Legend's voice doesn't have his usual polish, because ?uestlove urged him "to get dirty" this time around. "I wanted this to be his worst performance ever," ?uestlove explains. "The side I wanted to expose was very raw, so for every vocal take he did, I tried to choose the one with the cracks."

While the Roots were recording covers with Legend, they were also working on their own album, How I Got Over. Legend guests on two songs, "The Fire" — which ?uestlove calls "a modern-day Rocky-like sports anthem" — and "Again" from Legend's Once Again album. "We did 'Again' again," ?uestlove laughs.

?uestlove said that he thinks of the two albums as two sides of the same coin, with How I Got Over dealing with what he calls the "midlife crisis of America," and Wake Up representing the more hopeful, inspirational side, "the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down." How I Got Over is slated to come out first ("We're pushing for June," ?uestlove says) but is slightly less finished than Wake Up despite the earlier deadline.

"We play it very close to the edge," ?uestlove says. "I won't turn in any record before its time, before I get goose bumps and I get that feeling in my stomach. I definitely have it with both albums."

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