The Roots are, in many ways, an anomaly in hip hop culture. Not only are they an instrumental hip hop outfit, they're the only hip hop artists with a consistent international TV presence. Long before they were hired as the house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, The Roots were making their dues as one of the most interesting and talented acts of their time.
The Philly-based hip hop band caused a stir with their independent debut, Organix, which led them to sign with DGC, a subsidiary of Geffen Records. Their popular ascension was swift: their second official record, Illadelph Halflife, received critical acclaim on release. Despite this, it was 1999's Things Fall Apart that made the group a mainstream commercial success.
Nearly two decades later, the group are more famous for their roles as Jimmy Fallon's house band and comedic assistants. They humour guests with musical challenges, quip comfortably alongside the all-too-cheery host and participate in increasingly ridiculous viral minigames. Despite their seemingly unlikely relationship with Fallon, the group have been one of the most consistent hip hop acts of the century. Their tenth studio album, Undun, was facilitated and inspired by their first years as the house band on CBS's Late Night. How did TV's most inoffensive talkshow shape a concept album about drugs, dreams, death, betrayal and poverty?
We dive into The Roots' Undun, "an existential retelling of the short life of one Redford Stevens (1974-1999)."
The Roots who set out to record their tenth studio album in 2011 were a far cry from The Roots that had come together in 1987. The group retained only two founding members, emcee Black Thought and drummer Questlove. These mainstays were supplemented by keyboardist Kamal Grey, guitarist Kirk Douglas, percussionist Frank Walker, sousaphonist Damon Bryson and bassist Mark Kelly. One notable inclusion was that of keyboardist James Poyser, who had joined the group just two years earlier. A producer for artists such as Erykah Badu and Common, he would become one of the group's most recognisable faces.
Undun is a concept album based on the life of the fictional Redford Stevens, a man who turns to drug dealing to escape the urban poverty into which he was born. Stevens' name is derived from American artist Sufjan Stevens, whose track, "Redford," appears on the album. Though Black Thought had already written "the foundation of all [his] lyrics," he credits his manager with "coming up with the whole idea of basing it around one protagonist character."
Stevens' life is presented in reverse, the album opening with the dull tone of flatlining EKG. "Sleep" presents the final moments of Redford's life, whilst "Make My" races through the mind of a man who's just been shot. According to Questlove, "One Time" recounts the confrontation that ends in the fatal injury.
The subsequent sequence presents Stevens at his troubling peak: though life is good and income is assured, the reluctant drug dealer is "haunted by the actions that got [him] here." As we discover throughout "Stomp," "Lighthouse" and "I Remember," these actions include betrayal of a close friend. Stevens struggles with his conscience, contemplating suicide. "Tip The Scale," the final lyrical track on the record, outlines Stevens' desire to "[rise] outta this mess somehow."
The most unorthodox sequence on the album is undoubtedly the back end: a four song stretch of instrumental tracks, three by The Roots and one by Michigan-born musician Sufjan Stevens. "Redford (For Yia-Yia and Pappou)," taken from Stevens' Michigan, is simultaneously the protagonist's introduction and eulogy. It's followed by "Possibility (2nd Movement)," an orchestral redux of "Redford," which is in turn succeeded by "Will To Power (3rd Movement)," an unexpected moment of free jazz. "Finality (4th Movement)," the album's final track, is an uneasy mix of piano and strings that closes out the sketch of Stevens' sombre upbringing.
Undun's unique structure lends itself to the tragic story within. Redford Stevens is portrayed as a victim of circumstance, his hand forced by a desire to break from the urban poverty that dominated his life and robbed him of legitimate means. His death, at least a partially foregone conclusion, acts as our introduction to his character. As the album progresses, we come to understand the forces that shaped his life and prompted his death. Band manager Rich Nichols sums it up as such:
“It’s almost like he was undone upon birth. It has more to do with the possibilities that you’re born with, and the likelihood of things happening to you. You can grow up in a particular neighborhood and obviously you can be a doctor, lawyer, or whatever—but more than likely your life is gonna be a certain way. Not saying you’re gonna be a criminal, but your outcome of you life is definitely gonna be affected by your surroundings, statistically."
The Fallon Effect
The group joined Fallon in 2009, when the then-actor and SNL alumni inherited the Late Night throne from onetime legendary Simpsons writer Conan O'Brien. O'Brien would move to replace Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, though he was himself replaced after only nine months in one of late night television's most acrimonious disputes.
Up until their late night television debut, The Roots operated as a relatively standard outfit. Despite their instrumental approach to recording and performance, they suffered through the same trials as any professional musicians: constant touring and recording, unforgiving record contracts and a constant threat of financial insecurity. Their appointment as the house band on Jimmy Fallon's Late Night gave the group an unprecedented amount of creative control. No longer reliant on record sales and label contracts, the group found themselves with more freedom to take chances that would have otherwise threatened their livelihoods. What's more, The Late Show served to alleviate the stresses of touring, a force the band had contended with ever since achieving mainstream success. Questlove discussed the arrangement with TheBoomBox:
"Being a part of Jimmy Fallon has really marked the first time that I've given time to concentrate on just being a songwriter. The problem with us doing the 250 shows a year was the fact it took a lot of effort in crafting and building a show. You really don't get that much of a chance to hone your craft that got you there in the first place. When 'Things Fall Apart' came out, it took us two years to make that album. We put all our energy and effort into it and we were rewarded as such. We put out that record and the next thing you know we were on tour for three years. It got massive acclaim and our audience was building by the thousands. But when we got home, we had to start the process all over again. Next thing you know, it takes two years to make the next record."
Their new appointment also influenced their creative process: at CBS, the band was expected to write between 3 and 7 brief musical vignettes a day. Only a fraction of these compositions would make it into the show, where they'd be used as segues between segments and introductions for guests. This imposing benchmark pushed the group to create endlessly, crafting distinct instrumental jams. Questlove remembers finding that "just being in an environment of writing and being in that editing process, where you see them cut to the chase to get to a certain point quicker, has made [The Roots] better."
The group followed Fallon to The Tonight Show in 2014, where they furthered their status as household names by tapping into a larger viewership. Their roles and responsibilities at CBS have facilitated some of their best work: How I Got Over, Wake Up! and Undun, all released during their TV tenure, are often counted amongst their greatest records.
That's the allure of The Roots: their incredible consistency. Though they've undergone many personnel changes, the essence of The Roots is a shocking thirty-one years old. Questlove and Black Thought went from busking on Philly corners to permanently sitting in on one of television's most prestigious talk shows, all whilst honing their craft and releasing acclaimed albums. Some swear by Things Fall Apart, whilst others prefer Phrenology. Illadelph Halflife is an occasional favourite, but How I Got Over is another gem. There are grounds on which to argue for every Roots album as their best, the surefire mark of a great group.
In this authors opinion, Undun is their crowning achievement. Don't take my word for it: start exploring their treasure trove of a catalogue today.