NEW YORK — It’s lunchtime at Studio 6-B at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, but the Roots are not ready to take a break.
On the day of the release of their superb and serious-minded 11th album, “How I Got Over,” the long-standing Philadelphia hip-hop group has a long to-do list in its capacity as the house band on NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.”
Later on, the members will crowd into their tiny rehearsal space with Herbie Hancock to work up versions of the jazz great’s “Rockit” and “Watermelon Man” — and, at the suggestion of drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, the rarely played “Hidden Shadows.” They’ll play those with Hancock for warm-ups and commercial breaks during the show that night.
And they’ll find time for a second musical guest — Eminem. Slim Shady came to 30 Rock to push his own album, “Recovery,” and to be backed up on his single “Won’t Back Down” by the Roots, whose reputation as the band that can play anything (and play it well) has only grown in the 15 months they’ve had a nightly platform on TV. That joint performance will be sprung on a deliriously surprised audience, and taped to be aired later in the week.
Right now, though, the Roots are busy working up a regular routine with Fallon and NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams called “Slow Jam the News.”
The shtick is this: The Roots lay down a Quiet Storm boudoir groove. Williams reads the headlines straight, in this case about the Gulf oil spill. Fallon puts a sexualized, Barry White-style spin on them, then Roots rapper Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter faux-earnestly sings lines such as, “The oil is leaking out of control / Obama said stop drilling in those holes.”
The routine is coming together nicely after two run-throughs. But Thompson — a workaholic who can usually be found deejaying somewhere on rare weekends off when the Roots aren’t squeezing in a couple of gigs (“He needs to learn to stay home,” his personal assistant says) — suggests they do it one more time.
“Practice makes perfect,” says the gentle-giant bandleader and producer behind the drum kit.
“It’s OK,” Williams replies drily. “It’s not like I have another job.”
On the Fallon show, “How I Got Over,” originally planned for release a year ago, is hardly treated as an afterthought. It was highlighted in a weeklong countdown that culminated with the band’s performance of the soul-searching “Dear God 2.0” with celestial-voiced guest Jim James, who sang the original version with the Monsters of Folk.
The album, whose title track borrows its name from a gospel standard, is a touch brighter in outlook than the band’s last two, the hard-hitting “Game Theory” (2006) and the combative “Rising Down” (2008).
NBC has been “overly supportive of the Roots,” says Trotter, sipping a second triple-cappuccino as his bandmates hash out “Won’t Back Down” with Eminem. Trotter is recovering from a “How I Got Over” celebration jam at the Highline Ballroom in Manhattan that went past 2 the night before.
Still, the rapper says, this long-awaited release day essentially feels “like another day in the office.”
Roots manager Richard Nichols says the Fallon gig has been “life-stabilizing, not life-changing.” Rather than play 150 shows a year, the band — whose roots go back to the ‘80s, when Thompson, 39, and Trotter, 38, were students at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts — has cut down to about 70.
Those include the annual Roots Picnic at the Festival Pier, which this month was headlined by Vampire Weekend. The Roots will also play at the July Fourth Welcome America show, preceding pop act the Goo Goo Dolls.
That pecking order has peeved many Philadelphia-proud Roots supporters, but it doesn’t irk Thompson.
“The real headline position is the person that goes on right before the headliner,” he says, getting his Afro blown out before going onstage. “We insist on never headlining our own festival.”
Guitarist Kirk Douglas and bassist Owen Biddle live in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Trotter resides in South Orange, N.J. But Thompson, keyboard players Kamal Gray and James Poyser, percussionist Frank Knuckles, and sousaphonist Damon “Tuba Gooding Jr.” Bryson take a tour bus to New York daily from Philadelphia.
The Fallon show gives the Roots a high-profile home when the music industry is in flux, if not outright collapse. And their comedy bits “show people another side of the group they don’t normally see,” says Trotter.
Working on a TV show has also changed the band’s music. “We get a lot of rehearsal time in,” Trotter says. The Roots can switch from Stevie Wonder to Guns N’ Roses in the blink of an eye, and the daily discipline “has made us tighter,” the front man says.
Soul singer John Legend appears on two songs on “How I Got Over” and joins the Roots for an album of covers called “Wake Up!” due in September. That teaming probably would have happened anyway, Trotter says, but other guest stars, such as harpist Joanna Newsom, came through Fallon.
“There’s no other job where I would be able to work with this many artists of this caliber,” says Trotter. “From Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock to Ice Cube and Snoop and 50 Cent. Blues Traveler. Anyone. The other day Tony Allen, who was Fela’s drummer, sat in with us. ... There’s no range you have to be in to fit with the Roots.”
The Fallon gig has also given the Roots something to prove.
“We had to prove it wasn’t a bad decision for us to take this job,” says Trotter, whose growing resume as an actor includes the forthcoming drama “Night Catches Us,” starring Kerry Washington and Anthony Mackie. “And that the quality of the music isn’t going to suffer because we’re doing this 9-to-5 thing every day.”
For Thompson, the title “How I Got Over” represents “this invisible mountain we all have to climb over,” and fits in nicely with “Dear God 2.0,” which “asks hard questions in a meek way.”
That “How I Got Over” is the title to a gospel song “speaks to the spirituality of the group,” says Trotter. “But it also speaks to two decades of endurance. It could just as easily been called ‘Why We’re Still Here.’ Or ‘Why the Roots Matter.’ ...
“It’s hard to keep consistently putting out music and have the quality keep being on an incline, for you to feel like you’re growing every time you put a record out. To be able to make a mark, and not become obsolete — that’s what it’s an affirmation of.”
// Notes from the Road
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