As Jay Leno, David Letterman and Conan O’Brien battle for late-night supremacy, one thing has become clear: Jimmy Fallon has the hottest house band. In their eight months on the air, the Roots have played with everybody from Paul Simon to Christopher Cross to Weird Al Yankovic, and have been hilarious in skits. As the group preps for a show featuring Hulk Hogan and Edward Norton, ?uestlove reveals that the network was initially skittish about bringing them onboard. “All they knew of us was ‘rap group,’ ” the drummer says. “They were a tad bit worried if we had range or not. In the beginning they were throwing a lot of debris and Hanna Barbara-style Acme TNT obstacles at us to see if we could obstacle the course. On a whim, four hours before the show they said to us once, ‘We’re going to do a Broadway song. Can you learn it? Here’s the sheet music.’ I was like, ‘Wait a minute, you guys are trying to get rid of us. You think we cant do this.’ “
In those early days, NBC also put the group on 13-week contracts. “Once we did [the sketch] ‘Freestyling With The Roots’ for the first time, they knew we were there for life. At this point they have complete faith in us.” (For even more on the Roots’ Fallon gig, grab the current issue of RS.)
As ?uestlove sits behind his drum kit in the group’s tiny rehearsal space, he is simultaneously writing texts on his cell phone, eating yogurt, jamming with his band (sometimes playing with one hand) and conducting an interview. Their current problem is figuring out what song to play as Hulk Hogan walks out. Their initial idea to play “Staying Alive” is deemed too mean because the wrestler’s new memoir reveals he contemplated suicide. “I like snark,” he says. “But I don’t like a sucker punch.” They settle on the theme to the Incredible Hulk TV show, which the group nails after hearing it just once on YouTube.
“If Barack Obama goes on Letterman or Leno, they are definitely going to do ‘Hail To The Chief,’ ” says ?uestlove. “If Barack Obama goes on this show, we’re going to do ‘Funky President’ by James Brown.” The group has also been writing countless original songs to avoid exorbitant licensing fees. “It kills me that in order to play 10 seconds of ‘Cry Me A River’ for Joan Rivers, that would cost me $20,000,” ?uestlove says. “And Justin is the cheaper of the expensive people.”
Nightly TV exposure has helped the hip-hop group raise their profile. “In the beginning, some bloggers were making it look like I took my Park Place and my Boardwalk and Penn Avenue and traded it all in for one house on Oriental Avenue,” says ?uestlove. “They actually thought that we were household superstars. TMZ is never chasing me or wondering what girlfriend I’m dating this week. To the majority of the world they think every record we put out is our second record. Not us being on our 11th. I started to notice at shows that we’d start playing bigger halls based on us getting more exposure on the show. Then I was like, ‘Oh shit. This can actually benefit us.’ “