The Roots - Biography

By David Downs


Masters of live Hip Hop, The Roots arose from the streets of Philadelphia and embarked on an extensive, uncompromising career beginning with Organix (1993-Remedy Records), and going on to release eight more albums through 2008's Rising Down (2008-Def Jam). At their core: jazz-trained drumming genius ?uestlove (Ahmir Khalib Thompson) and literate, political, lyrical MC Black Thought (Tariq Trotter), friends from Philadelphia High School for Creative Performing Arts. Raised on the first generation of East Coast rap, the duo busked and won local battles, finding bassist Leon Hubbard and later at college, rapper Malik B. A German Hip Hop show resulted in an extended residency in London and Organix, and in turn a major label bidding war. The Roots signed to Geffen, releasing: Do You Want More?!!!??! (1994-DGC) Illadelph Halflife (1996-DGC); gold record Things Fall Apart (1999-DGC) with Grammy-winning single "You Got Me"; The Roots Come Alive (1999-MCA); Grammy nominee Phrenology (2002-Geffen); and The Tipping Point (2004-Geffen). Grammy nominee Game Theory (2006-Def Jam) placed the veterans in Jay-Z's circle and Rising Down (Def Jam-2008) showcases a new synthesis for the band. Framed as an independent, underrated act in the marketplace, The Roots have actually hit number four twice on the Billboard 200 with Things Fall Apart and The Tipping Point. Rising Down clawed to number six and Game Theory hit nine. The band witnessed the implosion of the compact disc market due to the internet, and the band says it hurt their sales. Lineup changes have been extensive, and The Roots collective features numerous collaborators including Mos Def, Jill Scott, Eve, Beanie Sigel, and Erykah Badu. Notable exits include bassist Leonard Hubbard and early keyboardist Scott Storch, who left for a hit production career. MC Malik B left due to a reported drug problem. The band's unparalleled live shows earned them the title of one of the twenty greatest live acts in the world by Rolling Stone in 2003 and they've performed with Common, Nas, Talib Kweli, Jay-Z, and Dave Matthews Band. Dave Chappelle and Spike Lee are but two film and TV makers who've tapped their talents over almost two decades of music.


In 1987, Ahmir Thompson met freshman Tariq Trotter in the principle's office of their high school, where Trotter was in trouble for making out with a ballerina in the ladies bathroom. The jazz drummer and aspiring MC rented a drum kit and called themselves The Square Roots, with Thompson taking the name ?uestlove and Trotter Black Thought. Their first show in 1999 featured a battle against classmates Boyz II Men who had matching gear and glitter in their hands and won the contest. The duo busked South Street, Philadelphia -- akin to Greenwich Village or Haight Ashbury -- using using buckets, pots and pans, and were eventually offered indoor shows.


By 1991, Black Thought was attending Millersville University, outside of Philadelphia with performing ambitions. He befriended student and rapper Malik B as well as bassist Leonard "Hub" Hubbard, changing their name to the The Roots and adding keyboardist Scott Storch. Two year later, the journeymen won a ticket to Germany for a concert and record an album to sell at live shows. Released by indie label Remedy Records Organix precedes a year-long residency in a small London flat, which broadened the boys' horizons.


Organix came out on double-sided vinyl full of their stripped down, busking vibe. Notable tracks "Popcorn", and "Essawhamah?" recorded live at Soulshack helped it sell 150,000 copies.


Major label debut  Do You Want More?!!!??! (1994-DGC) foreshadowed the band's obstinate choice of art over commerce. The album used no samples or previously recorded material in an age enthralled by electronic music. Strong tracks like single "Distortion To Static", "Proceed", "Mellow My Man", and "Do You Want More?!!??!" propelled them onto the second stage at Lollapalooza -- indicative of the band's alternative fan-base. The record made number two on the Billboard Heatseekers chart and twenty-two on the Top R&B/Hip Hop Albums chart. Human beatbox Rahzel, the Godfather of Noyze also joined the band.


Follow-up Illadelph Halflife (1996-DGC) and hits "Respond/React", "What They Do", and "Clones" took the album to twenty-one on the Billboard 200 and four on the R&B/Hip Hop, yet the band complained of being underserviced at Geffen. The band also added Kamal Gray and human turntablist Scratch, as Scott Storch cycled out.


Third album, Things Fall Apart (1999-MCA) proved a commercial breakthrough, selling more than 500,000 copies on the strength of Erykah Badu-sung pop single "You Got Me", as well as "Next Movement", and "Adrenaline!" The album hit number four on the Billboard 200 and and number two on the R&B/Hip Hop chart, bumping up the profile of Philly natives Beanie Sigel and Eve, who got record deals with Roc-A-Fella and Ruff Ryders. Dice Raw soon left the collective to record his solo debut album, Reclaiming the Dead (2000-MCA) while the band doubled down with live album The Roots Come Alive (1999-MCA). That year, the band performed an extended set at the now infamous "Woodstock '99" and Black Thought, Common, Dice Raw, and Mos Def  released single "Hurricane". In 2000, The Roots won the Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group Grammy for "You Got Me", later backing Jay-Z on his MTV Unplugged special. In 2001, The Roots supported mainstream electronic musician Moby on his Area One Tour.


Phrenology (2002-MCA) became a portrait of a band in turmoil. "Water" addresses Malik B's drug abuse, which led to his exit. Stellar work like "Break You Off", and "The Seed (2.0)" drove Phrenology to number 28 on the Billboard 200. Eventually it went gold, and got a Grammy nomination for Best Album. Ben Kenney and Scratch both left the group and in 2003, the band backed Jay-Z at his farewell concert in Madison Square Garden, appearing in the DVD Fade to Black and later backing Eminem.


The Roots' seventh album would equal the success of Things Fall Apart, just as they soured on their relationship with Geffen. A series of jam sessions included Brooklyn-based guitarist Captain Kirk (Kirk Douglas) and percussionist Frank Knuckles and was later developed by producer Storch, fresh off work with Dr. Dre, Christina Aguilera and Beyonce. The band named the record The Tipping Point, a reference to the Malcolm Gladwell book of the same name. The album also features Jean Grae, and Dave Chappelle. Driven by single "Don't Say Nuthin" and its electronic beats are light years from its rootsy days -- toppings numerous charts and nabbing Grammy nominations for Best Urban/ Alternative Performance for the track "Star" and another for Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group for the track "Don't Say Nuthin'. The group left the label, releasing a two-disc compilation album Home Grown! The Beginner's Guide To Understanding The Roots, Volumes 1 & 2 (2005-TK), as a parting volley.


Now on Jay-Z's Def Jam with direct orders from Hove to make an uncompromising Roots record or he'd personally fire them, Black Thought took Game Theory (2006-Def Jam) to new depths. Already a cogent, political observer -- the Hurricane Katrina disaster and the onset of the Iraq War personally affected him and his family. Tariq also addresses the murder of his parents. Famed drum production impresario J Dilla makes a pre-thumous appearance on "Dilltastic Vol Won(derful)" and "Can't Stop This". "Game Theory", "Long Time" and single "Don't Feel Right" hurled the album to number nine on the Billboard 200 and five on the Top R&B/Hip Hop Albums chart.


Rising Down (Def Jam-2008) became a more striking musical achievement, balancing their analog roots and digital environment through executive producer Richard Nicholsalong with Thompson, Khari Mateen and Tahir Jamal. Black Thought, Dice Raw, and Porn handled vocals augmented by Mos Def on "Rising Down" and Talib Kweli on "I Will Not Apologize". "Birthday Girl" features Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump, and stands in stark contrast to the confrontational "Criminal". Released on the 16-year anniversary of the Rodney King riots of 1992, Rising Down hit six on the Billboard 200. In 2009 The Roots became the official house band for The Jimmy Fallon Show. In 2010 the band released How I Got Over, followed by Undun in 2011. 2013 will see them them release a new record, titled & Then Shoot Your Cousin.


Relentless collaborators and activists, The Roots created record label Okayplayer in 2004 and released Okayplayer - True Notes Vol. 1 (2004-Okayplayer) with Madlib, Dilated Peoples, Jean Grae, Chief Xcel, and RJD2. ?uestlove has produced for D'Angelo, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, Macy Gray and Joss Stone. The band appeared on NBA 2K6: The Tracks (2005-Decon) "Set 'Em On Fire" In April 2008, The Colbert Report featured a performance of the show intro, and a cover of the Star Spangled Banner. The song 'Here I Come' appears in Superbad and Hancock. The Roots have also won "Heroes Award" from the Philadelphia chapter of the Recording Academy in 2004. In 2010 the band collaborated with John Legend, to release the LP Wake Up!, and in 2011 collaborated with Betty Wright for Betty Wright: The Movie. The band is presently recording an album with Elvis Costello, to be released in 2014.


In closing, The Roots became the most literate, talented Hip Hop collective to emerge from the early '90s and survive to present by being artistically obstinate in very pliant times. From the streets of Philly forward, their singularity pitted them against their labels, their country, and sometimes the consumers downloading their songs for free. Despite their major label status and gold records - the Roots retain a reputation for commercial independence and its attendant strife. The Roots has always been in a certain sense, a victim, and that victimhood connotes authenticity -- the rarest of commodities in mainstream anything.

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