The string quartet has gone through at least a dozen takes by the time Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson arrives at the Soho studio where the Roots are recording final overdubs for their 11th album. Standing still in the center of the room, the drummer-producer listens closely as an engineer cues up the sweeping, mournful chamber-music suite that will close the disc. He keeps a poker face until it’s over, then grins and delivers his verdict: “Awesome.”
When the Roots were hired as Late Night With Jimmy Fallon‘s house band in 2009, few would have blamed them for taking it easy after 14 years on the road. Instead, the Fallon gig has coincided with an unlikely spike in productivity: Their dark new concept album, undun (due out December 6th), is their third full-length LP in just 18 months. “I don’t want to jinx it,” Thompson says, relaxing in the studio after the string section clears out. “But I feel like this is our most realized work.”
To the Roots’ surprise, the Fallon gig has given the eight-man band tons of downtime to generate grooves and riffs in a studio space NBC provides them in 30 Rockefeller Center. “On average, we’ll create between three and 11 songs every day,” Thompson says.
About a year ago, Thompson and rapper Tariq Trotter (a.k.a. Black Thought) began fitting the best material from those sessions into a story line about a character named Redford Stephens, shot dead at age 25. Stephens is fictional, but his struggle feels authentic – in part because Trotter, who lost both parents to violence by 18, drew on real-life sorrows. “Redford’s story isn’t uncommon in Philadelphia,” the MC says a few days later, while a barber gives him a last-minute shape-up backstage at Late Night. “I remember not being able to imagine being alive as a 30-year-old. I didn’t know many people who had lived to 30.”
In fact, Thompson and Trotter, who formed the band in high school, both turned 40 this year. Now 25 years into their creative partnership, the pair lead thoroughly distinct lives outside of their day job – even recording much of undun at separate sessions. “He has his shit that he likes in the studio, and so do I – totally different sights and sounds and aromas, different engineers,” Trotter says. “I found myself in the studio with Ahmir last Sunday, and it was weird. ‘What are we both doing here right now?’ But accepting what works is what has kept the Roots together.”
At the studio, Thompson calls up a rough mix of the LP. Dissonant pianos, hard-knock drums, choral arrangements and urgent verses spill from the monitors, creating a paranoid funk vibe somewhere between There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Kid A. The bleak, experimental disc would be a gamble for most bands, but the Roots – who can count on a steady paycheck from NBC and a hands-off attitude from label Def Jam – are in a unique position. “If our only job were being the Roots,” Thompson says, “I don’t know if we would be bold enough to make this record.”
Now they just have to figure out how to bring undun to the stage. “The real challenge will be, are our balls big enough to deliver this with a straight face?” says Thompson, citing recent Radiohead and Portishead shows as inspiration. “That’s what I’m thinking about now.”
• Photos: The Roots in the Studio
• Video: Watch the Roots and John Legend Talk Soul LP ‘Wake Up’
• Video: John Legend and the Roots Rock the ‘Rolling Stone’ Playlist Issue Party
• Video: ?uestlove Shares his DJing Philosophy
• Video: ?uestlove and Graham Elliott Tour Lolla’s Gourmet Food Court
This story is from the November 24, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.