Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson has a lot on his mind. Then again, given his trademark skyscraping afro, he has a lot above his mind as well. But the most pressing issue facing The Roots drummer is how to squeeze 15 years of innovative hip-hop into a single, bite-sized set.
“Already, our [headlining] show's three hours as it is,” Thompson tells CityBeat. “So, yeah, turning a three-hour show into a 45-minute show is not fun.”
That's the price you pay when you're touring with Erykah Badu on one of the best R&B/hip-hop package tours of the year. But, given the depth and breadth of The Roots' catalog, it doesn't make the task any easier.
The seed for The Roots was planted in Philadelphia back in 1987, but the group didn't release a proper album until 1993's Organix, before making its first big impression on 1995's Do You Want More?!. Turns out, we did. Things Fall Apart (1999) and Phrenology (2002) cemented the group's reputation as one of the most inventive hip-hop acts around. The group took a critical step back with The Tipping Point (2004) before a 2006 return-to-form with Game Theory.
That album marked a tumultuous time in the growth of The Roots. The group butted heads with Geffen Records until eventually signing with Def Jam. The label headaches were compounded by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The devastation of New Orleans hit The Roots hard, given that several friends (and the children of lead lyricist Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter) were living in the city when Katrina hit.
“Game Theory was coming from a very sad place,” Thompson says. “It dealt a lot with death. It dealt a lot with confusion.”
The grief and frustration manifested itself into pure musical aggression on the group's furious new album, Rising Down, which stands in stark contrast to the sadness of Game Theory.
“This is the sound of anger,” Thompson says, pointedly.
Thompson considers it to be the most political album of The Roots' career. The title track talks of a world “spinning out of control” while “Criminal” rails against unjust persecution. “I Can't Help It” tackles the ravages of addiction, and “I Will Not Apologize” acidly assesses integrity (or lack thereof) in the music industry.
Thompson says Rising Down voices the frustration of people who've been beaten down by the policies and attitudes of the Bush administration to the point where the last eight years have “rendered them numb.”
On the album, incisive lyrics meld with assertive vocals, ear-grabbing hooks and pummeling beats. The group has long been known for being one of the most adventurous acts in hip-hop, and it's a trend that Thompson says carried over to Rising Down.
“Every album, we have to reinvent ourselves,” he says. “This particular sound competes with the melancholy Roots of the Game Theory period, which competes with the free jazz of Phrenology, which is competing with the neo-soul of Things Fall Apart, which competes against the organic hip-hop of Do You Want More?!”
The Roots' live instrumentation has long given them claim to the title of best live hip-hop act around, with their extended, often improvisational sets seeming revolutionary compared with the often staid stage productions frequently associated with the genre.
“We kind of win technically and by default at the same time,” Thompson chuckles.
But the success of The Roots as a live act has upped the ante for artists like Kanye West, whose tour with Lupe Fiasco, Rihanna and N.E.R.D. is marked with live instruments, flashy production and dynamic performances.
“For now, I hear that's the tour to beat,” Thompson says. “Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco stepped their game up. And it's not just enough to get a band—anybody can get a band—you have to be good.”
The Roots needn't worry about that on their tour with Badu, a frequent collaborator. Thompson says he'll likely be “invading her show every night” with guest appearances, encouraged by Badu herself. And even though sharing the stage with Badu will require The Roots to truncate their material, Thompson welcomes the challenge.
“She plays edgy, and she constantly wants to push the envelope right to the edge,” Thompson says. “I welcome that.” The Roots play at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 10, with Eryka Badu at Humphrey's Concerts by the Bay, on Shelter Island. 619-224-3577.