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The Roots of the Roots

Strict religious upbringings, family tragedy and the city's mean streets: How the Philly crew beat the odds to become the funkiest band in hip-hop history

May 15, 2008
The Roots
The Roots backstage in Chicago, Illinois in October of 2000.
Paul Natkin/WireImage

In September 1987, Ahmir Thompson was in the principal's office at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts sorting out an ID card. "It was my second day in public school – I was a junior," says Thompson. "I saw a guard pulling in a kid by the ear. The kid was like, 'You just jealous because you can't get no pussy!'" That kid was an incoming ninth-grader named Tariq Trotter who had just been busted getting some from a ballerina in the bathroom. "No freshman ever made a mark on the second day of any high school, anywhere," says Thompson. "But that set his legend." Twenty years later, drummer Thompson and rapper Trotter – better known as ?uestlove and Black Thought – are the core of the Roots, one of the most enduring partnerships in hip-hop history.

New Music Report: The Roots' 'Rising Down'

On a chilly April night at the University of Texas in Austin, the seven-piece outfit – including Kirk Douglas on guitar, Kamal Gray on keys, Frank Knuckles on percussion, Owen Biddle on bass and Damon "Tuba Gooding Jr." Bryson on the sousaphone – debut strong cuts from Rising Down, the band's 10th album. The Fela Kuti groove of "I Will Not Apologize" gets the crowd moving; later, Black Thought shows off on the marathon freestyle "75 Bars (Black's Reconstruction)," and throughout, the band busts out spot-on snippets from Justin Timberlake's "SexyBack," Jay-Z's "Roc Boys" and Biz Markie's "Just a Friend," and various Zeppelin riffs. For more than a decade, "the Legendary Roots Crew" have defined live performance in hip-hop – both at their own shows and as the killer backing group for artists ranging from Jay-Z to Erykah Badu. "The Roots shatter the perception that hip-hop has no musicality, that hip-hop can't tour and that hip-hop is one-dimensional," says Jay-Z, who signed the band to Def Jam in 2005.

?uestlove, 37, is a jovial, larger-than-life personality. Defying convention, the drummer – who hardly makes a peep onstage in Austin – is the spokesman for his band. Trotter calls Thompson's iconic Afro "the logo of the Roots," and the drummer is hounded for autographs and photos wherever he turns. An in-demand session drummer and producer – he just wrapped up work on Al Green's remarkable new Lay It Down – Thompson is also a walking musical encyclopedia. His cluttered studio, in Philly's hipster neighborhood of Fishtown, houses more than 50,000 LPs, and Thompson has his toes in so many different projects that it's hard to keep track. He's the musical director for Jay-Z's current Heart of the City Tour (even though he can't be on the road with him); he put together a band for N.E.R.D.'s current trek with Kanye West; he's curating a three-day festival in Philly; and he's arranging music for Jay's sister-in-law, Solange Knowles.

Album Preview: The Roots

Thompson got his first drum set, a miniature Liverpool kit, for Christmas when he was three. "I remember practicing a lot to Donny Hathaway's second album," he says. His musician father, Lee Andrews, rose to fame in the Fifties with his doo-wop group, Lee Andrews and the Hearts, and parlayed that success into the funk group Congress Alley, which sprang up in the Seventies. By first grade, Thompson was a touring member of the group. "I had a toy saxophone and was actually in the horn section," he says. Driving around Philly in his Toyota Scion (purchased partly for the ample headroom it provides his 'fro), Thompson reminisces about learning the horn spins on K.C. and the Sunshine Band tunes, and how spectators assumed he was "a midget." By the time he was 12, Thompson was the group's drummer. ("They were like the black Partridge Family," says Trotter.) Andrews kept his band airtight, fining members for slipups – even his son. Although Thompson credits his dad for providing him with a solid education, their relationship today is strained. "He saw rap as a dead-end street – it was noise," says Thompson.

Inspired by Stevie Wonder's appearance on The Cosby Show in 1986, Thompson saved up for a Casio SK-1, which included a primitive sampler. That tool, combined with his formidable drum skills, made Thompson the go-to drummer at CAPA, straddling the school's various cliques. His best friend was Christian McBride – now a top-tier jazz bassist – but he was equally loved by the budding hip-hop culture, which blew up in Philly after Public Enemy released It Takes a Nation of Millions . . . in 1988. "He was a nerd," says Trotter. "But what brought me and Ahmir together was that he was able to recreate all these breaks that were prevalent in the mid-Eighties. Any loop that Big Daddy Kane or Kool G Rap rapped over – which nine times out of 10 came from James Brown – Ahmir could just sit down and play."

'I grew up in the neighborhood where Rocky came from," says Trotter, referring to the hardscrabble streets of South Philly. Like the fictional fighter, Trotter has succeeded in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, including the murders of both of his parents – and the incarceration of an older brother, Keith, who Trotter estimates has spent 27 of his 42 years in prison. "If I go visit my brother, I'll see 20 guys I grew up with," he says. "Most of the rest are dead." Trotter now lives in a quiet community of well-appointed houses in suburban Philly with his girlfriend and their two-year-old daughter, Saaliha. In his home office – surrounded by photos of his other two kids, Ahmir and Benjamin – Trotter puffs on an endless succession of blunts, as his girlfriend supplies a steady stream of munchies. "I love Trader Joe's," he declares, chowing his way through a plate of chicken minitacos.

Trotter – known to his friends as 'Riq – was born into a devout Muslim household. His father, Tom Trotter, was a central figure in a crew associated with the Nation of Islam known as Black Brothers Inc. The elder Trotter prayed five times a day at Malcolm X's Mosque No. 12 but, according to his son, all was not on the up-and-up. "Some people would have just called him a mob leader – there was a whole lot of criminal activity in the name of Islam," says Trotter, noting that his father may have been involved in extortion, grand-theft auto, credit scams, drug dealing and murder. One night in 1974, when Tariq was one, his father left the house and never came back. "Sometimes it comes back to bite you in the ass," says Trotter. "He was executed: tied to a chair in an empty lot, shot in the neck, the chest, the groin, all over."

Trotter began spending weekends with his maternal grandmother, a leader in her Christian church. His dual religious existence – his mother continued to maintain a Muslim household – fueled his rapping, leading him to meditate on "black thoughts": race relations, politics and violence, and how they affected him, his band and the black community. Trotter forged his freestyling skills through years of battle-rapping with his cousin, Sean G, and in the Crash Crew with a young Beanie Siegel. But shortly after Trotter and Thompson became best friends – cementing their musical bond while playing as Black to the Future – Trotter was delivered another shocking personal blow. "In the summer between 11th and 12th grades, my mom was murdered," he says. "It was one of those random acts of violence you read about in the newspaper. Some mentally unstable dude snatched my mom up one night and killed her." Trotter tells the story matter-of-factly but, without his glasses on, the pain in his eyes is visible. "My mom's death was even more brutal than my father's," he says. "He was killed instantaneously. But my mother was raped, strangled and stabbed 30 or 40 times. She was identified through her dental records."

The new album's title, Rising Down, comes from a 3,300-page, seven-volume treatise called Rising Up and Rising Down, by William T. Vollmann, that ponders the causes and the effects of violence. ("We flipped through it," says Trotter. "It's such a big-ass book.") "The code to the album is: Is there any justification for all of the violence that's taking place in the world today, and if so, what is it?" says Trotter. A standout track, "Singing Man" – featuring up-and-coming rappers P.O.R.N. and Truck North – is told from three distinct points of view. "What happened during the year leading up to the day that the suicide bomber steps on the bus?" he adds. "Why is the child soldier in Liberia out of his mind? Why would a child kill his own family? What could bring someone to do that?"

Rising is also a celebration of how far the Roots have come since their humble beginnings in South Philly: Back to back on the disc are "@15," an a cappella freestyle Trotter crudely recorded when he was 15, and "75 Bars (Black's Reconstruction)," the exhilarating, rapid-fire rhyming assault that Trotter captured in one take, 20 years later. "He's an undeniable wordsmith," says Thompson.

"At this point, in 2008, if you put out a book, a movie, or write a verse, paint a painting, it should have some sort of social value," adds Trotter. "Art is the polar opposite of the current communication saturation – the elimination of the art of storytelling, the lack of passing traditions on from generation to generation, when two men would just sit down and talk. A return to art that has some meaning, some deeper political value, might be part of the answer."

The Roots' leaders have a complicated relationship. Though they say they're as close as brothers, they record in separate studios and travel between tour stops in separate buses (Thompson calls their rides Gryffindor and Slytherin, from Harry Potter). Before their gig in Austin, Thompson spends his time at Stubb's Bar-B-Q and checking out a country band at the Continental Club, while Trotter is hunkered down in his hotel room. "There was definitely a time when we were inseparably close, like Cockroach and Theo [on The Cosby Show], but things changed when his morn died," says Thompson. "There was a Dark Ages period. This marks the first album we didn't have an argument or some sort of conflict." Trotter pinpoints the cooling of their friendship to a fist fight in '94. "That's the shocker of all shockers, that he even remembers that," Thompson says later. "I just thought that was a normal day in the life for Tariq!" Now, both parties say that their explosive, competitive tension is a thing of the past. "This is as close as we've been since high school," says Thompson.

Instead of fining his bandmates, like his dad did, Thompson keeps an extra drum to the left of his snare that produces an unmistakable dudlike sound. He calls it the "bloounmp" drum and will hit it whenever one of his bandmates fucks up during a show. Anyone in the audience would have called the Roots' two-hour Austin set a seamless performance, but Thompson hits the "bloounmp" on at least 75 separate occasions. As Tuba Gooding Jr. dances across the stage, clicking heels with Kirk Douglas, Thompson repeatedly pounds on his "bloounmp" drum, making the whole band crack up – these days, even Trotter. After the show, while autographing a press photo, Trotter defaces Thompson's image with glasses and a goatee, writing "Cornell QWest" next to it. Later, the band hits a club, where Thompson will DJ past 3 a.m.

Aside from surrounding himself with music, Thompson is content bowling at North Bowl, near his apartment in Philly, expanding his massive shoe collection and playing board games. He says that if he were ever to leave his hometown, the Texas capital would be number nine on the list of places he'd relocate to. "Portland would top it," he says. "Because of its record stores – plus it has the most strip clubs in America per capita." Despite his enthusiasm for strippers, Thompson plans to get married by the time he's 40, adding, "If you were to say to me 15 years ago, 'OK, one of you is going to have a suburban dad/Stepford Wife-house existence, and one of you is going to live in the hip part of Philadelphia with 900 pairs of sneakers, which would it be?' I'd say it would easily be me doing the suburb thing. But family life has given Tariq something to live for. And he deserves a break."

This story is from the May 15th, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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