This article is from Issue 56: Mar/Apr 2012

The Roots

Their career spans the Grammy's and Late Night. Here's why this legendary group keeps making music that matters.

Hip-hop had a big year in 1993. Wu-Tang Clan and Snoop Dogg put out their iconic first albums, and A Tribe Called Quest unleashed the masterful Midnight Marauders. The Pharcyde and Cypress Hill had classic albums break out.

And a group called The Roots released their debut album.

Since then, a lot has changed. Most of the artists who made waves in ’93 have been relegated to bargain bins and reality shows, or have long since ceased making music. But in that span, The Roots have released 13 albums, toured the world, worked with everyone from Jay-Z to Joanna Newsom—and became the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

“Our story is definitely the tortoise and the hare,” says Roots drummer (and producer) Ahmir Thompson, better known as ?uestlove. “We first came out and we had to work a little harder to gain respect. A lot of times while you’re working so hard you see what other people have and you’re kind of like, ‘Man, I wish that was us.’ But you can’t even see half the time that you’re winning for the fact that you’re working so much. You’ve got to look back. There’s really only two to three acts from the class of ’92-’93 that are still here and making records. I couldn’t have called this in a million years.”

Thompson and his Roots compatriot, Tariq Trotter­—better known as Black Thought, the MC of the group—might be excused for taking a well-deserved victory lap. But the two seem to be working harder than most new bands, much less a 25-year-old group riding high on the recent release of a critically acclaimed concept album.

"It's probably more important to me than anything to show three-dimensional characters [in hip-hop]." —Amhir "?uestlove" Thompson

It’s an unseasonably warm winter day in New York City, and both Trotter and Thompson are clearly two people who don’t have a lot of spare time. They arrived—publicist and stylist in tow—in a hurry, barely pausing to eat a quick breakfast. They’re both busily texting gift-buying instructions to associates (Trotter) or tweeting that the photo shoot music sounds like 1970s avant garde rock group Can (Thompson). Thompson is annoyed—though bemusedly so—that he has to go to a Fallon rehearsal to play “one note” for the show’s guest that night. Both are in good spirits, eager to have a conversation, despite the screaming of schoolchildren on recess carrying over the wall from the neighboring lot.