Dark, brooding album has deep meaning for the Roots
July 30, 2006
BY KELLEY L. CARTER
FREE PRESS MUSIC WRITER
Forgive the Roots for creating what their drummer, Questlove, considers to be the group's darkest album.
It's been a tumultuous year for the hip-hop collective that's best known for its live instrumental approach. The past year has seen them lose three good friends, be devastated by Hurricane Katrina and switch with great uncertainty to a new record label.
The new disc, "Game Theory," which hits stores Aug. 29, is merely a reflection of the Philadelphia-born group: real people who experience life in a real way who also happen to have something to say -- and a nice sized forum to do so.
The album, says Ahmir (Questlove) Thompson, isn't dark just to be dark. Not only is the group's seventh studio album its most focused effort, but he also considers it to be its best work.
"To me, it's like a mood. I'm a guy that really is into the scenery of the whole album and making sure that texture is cohesive from beginning to end. And a lot of times in hip-hop records, you get a beat from this guy and a beat from this guy ... the whole idea is that ... you really don't get a natural feeling for some sort of cohesive texture," he says. "And for us, the time here that we created this record, sonically it just lends itself this sound and once we were in the midst of recording, we sort of had a steady linear color, if you will. And that color happens to be very dark. This is not an album for party jams and love songs. It's a very murky-sounding record. But I think it's perfectly executed. It doesn't want to make you slit your wrists, but it makes a point."
The Roots are in town this week, performing on Thursday at the State Theatre, as part of the Kool New Jazz Philosophy Tour. Like-minded acts Talib Kweli and the Pharcyde are also scheduled to perform. The visit to Detroit won't necessarily be a respite from the past year's difficulties. The Roots considered recently deceased Detroit hip-hop stars Jay Dee (a.k.a. J. Dilla) and Proof close friends.
Founded in 1987 by jazz-reared Questlove and rapper Tariq (Black Thought) Trotter, the band has long been a critical favorite, if not a smash commercial success -- perhaps more recognized for its fierce live shows than its studio output. That may change with the release of the new album, which is already generating plenty of buzz in hip-hop circles. It takes on modern-day issues, including troops at war, violence in music and government monitoring. As the group was finishing the disc, Hurricane Katrina struck. Black Thought's children live in New Orleans and, like many others, were displaced for a while -- no school, no home -- which caused lots of stress.
The group, whose current lineup also includes Kamal (keyboards); Hub (bass); F. Knuckles (percussion) and Capt. Kirk (guitar), was in the process of getting out of its contract with Geffen Records during the recording of the album. The members were worried it wouldn't get the promotion and support they felt it deserved, and signed with a new label, Def Jam. It took a while for all of the paperwork to exchange hands, and Questlove says that by the time all of the ink was dry, the group had completed 70% of the album on its own.
On the disc, the Roots pay homage to former Detroit producer and rapper James (Jay Dee) Yancey, their friend and collaborator who died earlier this year of complications from a rare blood disease. Another friend, 34-year-old Mpozi Tolbert, a photographer at the Indianapolis Star, died earlier this summer after collapsing in the newsroom.
The group also was good friends with D12 member Proof, who was killed in April in a gunfight at an after-hours club in Detroit.
"Detroit is going to be very, very weird and painful coming back there without Dilla and Proof. Because pretty much the bulk of my work and my catalogue, the stuff I did ... on the Bilal record and on Erykah Badu's albums and Common's stuff, I did a lot of that stuff out in Studio A out in Dearborn and on the east side of Detroit in Dilla's basement," Questlove says. "So this will be the first time I'll be in the city and he's not taking me somewhere.
And Proof would always be playing tour guide if he was in town. This will be a very, very surreal return to that city. But we're gonna do a good job just for them."
The deaths, Questlove says, were reflected in the dark texture of the album.
Still, after reviewing the master, they ended up cutting about 13 minutes, worried that it was too much.
The centerpiece is an audio montage of phone conversations and audio snippets, honoring Jay Dee's life. He produced a song on the disc -- the work done during a long stay at a Los Angeles hospital.
"It was hard to do," Questlove says. "There were times when my engineer and myself were on the verge ... because it was just really a hard thing to do. But somebody had to do it and we wanted to go in there and get it as beautiful as we could."