How did your gig on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon first come about?
We’re pretty cool with Neil Brennan, the co-creator of Chappelle’s Show. We did the music on the show for the second and third season. Ahmir was originally going to be one of the writers for Jimmy’s show so when they was just brainstorming, as far as how the shit was going to be put together, Neil kind of, in jest, suggested that he try us as the house band and Jimmy kind of accepted the challenge to do this and made us an offer at a point in our career where we were ready, we were definitely ready, for some sort of graduation to the next level and this type of opportunity, back when it was just an offer, just an idea or a pitch, it was forseeably that kind of graduation.
Yeah, it was something that we entertained even though Jimmy and Ahmir, I don’t think that they necessarily thought that we would want to do it but they proposed it to us and we started entertaining the idea and then they kind of reiterated that they wanted us to do the shit. I had a chance to meet Jimmy and his wife and the producer of the show Michael Schumacher and we had some drinks and kicked it and our relationship was kind of forged. This was like, last May when Jimmy came to UCLA. I would say four to six months had gone by and then they were ready to kind of move and take it to the next level so we sat down and had a series of meetings with Jimmy and Mike and Lorne Michaels and NBC and the shit ended up working itself out.
How does the schedule with the show affect your tours?
We’re going to still tour. This upcoming week that we’re going into, it’s going to be the second week of hiatus since the season began in March. We get quite a bit of vacation time and hiatus time and we’re utilizing all of that time to do what we do otherwise and shit to kind of handle the rest of the work that’s on our plate. We have an album that we’re finishing up now that’s coming out June 23. I mean, I’m working on a bunch of films and we have jam sessions that Questlove does in New York. There’s a bunch of shit that we do other than the Fallon show. The only thing that the Fallon show is kind of slowing up is our international touring. Where we would be going to Europe for an extended period of time in June and then probably around August or October, we’re not able to do that. We have a show on June 13 in London but it’s a one-off where we have to go, do the show and then we leave on the red eye after Fallon on Friday night, ride to London and do the show Saturday night and fly back Sunday. It’s that kind of thing as opposed to going to fucking Beijing for three weeks.
Do you think you caught some fans off-guard with your singing when you slow jam’d the news on your first Late Night appearance?
I mean, yeah. I don’t perform in that same vocal capacity in the Roots. It’s not what people are necessarily familiar with. I felt like it maybe caught some people off-guard or it was as surprise to some people but so what? (laughs) I mean, I think they were surprised in a good way.
How come you haven’t sung more with the Roots?
I sang the chorus for “Silent Treatment,” which is our first major single with a video and I used a vocoder like T-Pain and all these motherfuckers use now. I did that in 1993 but it went unnoticed. I sing on a bunch of shit, people just don’t realize that it’s me singing because my singing voice is different from Black Thought the MC. But I always…I’m a vocalist all around so it’s kind of whatever capacity I’m needed in or I what I feel best befits the track is how I address it. But on this upcoming Roots album, our first video is a song called “Walk Alone” featuring me, Truck North and PORN where I’m just kind of rocking, like regular rapping, and Dice Raw is actually singing the chorus. But the second video is a song called “The Streets” where I don’t rap at all. It’s all singing over the beat and shit.
How do you think your ninth Roots record, How I Got Over, will catch fans?
I feel like it’s going to be well-received, just as well-received as our last few endeavors. The only difference now is we have a larger…We have an opportunity to promote this record to a larger mass market because of the tool that is Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The album comes out the 23rd and I think maybe the 24th or 25th we’re actually going to be the musical guests, for maybe the first week or two the album is out. We’ll get to say we have a record out every night we’re on the show and I feel that’s reaching a different demographic than we would normally reach. The late night TV-viewing demographic isn’t necessarily the typical Roots fans.
How far along are you guys on How I Got Over?
We’re completing it. It comes out June 23rd and we’re in May right now. The album is very close to being done. We have two videos done. The shit’s coming out. (laughs)
You’ve always done a great job of showcasing up-and-coming talent on Roots albums. What new artists are you working with on How I Got Over?
Guests that we’ve worked with so far for this record are Chrisette Michelle, Beanie Sigel and Young Chris. Beans and Chris are the Philly love connection. Chrisette Michelle is not necessarily an up-and-coming but she’s a new mainstay in the Roots family kind of thing. We’ve been working together since the last album. We have Blu, who’s from Los Angeles and he’s super-dope. He’s not necessarily up-and-coming either, but the Roots core audience isn’t necessarily as familiar with a Blu. Blu is kind of filling in the Wale slot, the slot that Wale was in on the last record and Phonte from Little Brother is on this record and Pharoahe Monch and Cody ChesnuTT. We have a cover of his song “Serve This Royalty.”
Cody ChesnuTT is back?
How did that go down?
He fell back and he did what he wanted to do and pursue what he wanted to pursue. He had a child and he wasn’t necessarily on the grid for a second and now he’s back. We’ve covered yet another one of his songs. “The Seed” was super-successful and we only did “The Seed” because we originally wanted to do “Serve This Royalty” and Cody objected to using that song at that point in time. This time around we’re using “Serve This Royalty” right and Cody’s back. That’s all I can say about it. I’ve been doing what I do.
What was it like getting back with Beanie Sigel, who you worked with previously on “Adrenaline” off Things Fall Apart?
It was the same. I’ve known Beans all my life since before either one of us was MCs and shit. The first show that we did as rappers was together. We were in a group together in elementary school. I think he was in 3rd grade and I was in 4th grade or something. He’s a familiar person who I know from the neighborhood and it really wasn’t about anything. It didn’t feel any sort of way.
You have a worldwide fanbase but consistently work with Philly artists. How important is it to maintain that hometown connection?
I mean, that’s super-important to me. That’s what I wish artists like Will Smith and some of the other artists who were popular representing Philly in the ‘80s and ‘90s had done because what it does is it’s good for morale. It’s just a good look for the city and I mean, it just opens doors for the next generation of artists coming from your hometown. When you’ve reached a level of popularity or fame where people are into you, they don’t necessarily know where you’re from. You have to remind them. Some people are under the impression that we’re from New York. Some people think we’re from Chicago sometimes.
We have to reinforce that we’re from Philadelphia and this is a Philly-based team. There is no animosity or cross-city beef. Sometimes artists who are on the incline, up-and-coming artists, have little minor beefs within the city. The Roots is a brand that’s above any of that and that’s what I want to stress. I feel like sometimes the fact that we work with a certain sort of artists or more street level artists or more hardcore hip-hop, just straight ahead hip-hop artists from Philadelphia, I feel like it’s not a problem and we send out a message that we’re all one in the same representing the same city.
And it breaks down a lot of barriers or apprehension that people might have about reaching out to a different sort of artist. Maybe the Beanie Sigels and Peedi Crakks will reach out to the Santogolds and the DJ Diplo’s but that just feel like it would be unwelcome. So we send out a positive signal with a positive vibe just by breaking genre barriers, so to speak, if that makes any sense.
How would you describe the overall vibe of How I Got Over?
The vibe of this record reflects the vibe of the Roots and the vibe of the world and the United States at this particular point in time. It’s relief that the Bush administration is over. Relief that we have a steady job and gainful employment during this recession and it’s a slightly more optimistic record than Rising Down. It’s slightly more optimistic times and we’re slightly less leery of the future. This record kind of reflects that. Everything that we put out is a sign of the times.
Even though we’re in tough economic times, a lot of big things have happened, like Barack Obama’s election. Do you think artists will start making more positive music, generally speaking?
I feel like art reflects the times whatever said artist is living in. I don’t know. Whether it’s visual art or music or theater or creative writing, yes, it all reflects what’s going on. That’s what inspires an artist to create so yeah. Yeah. I think the vibe is slightly different now and the art world, no matter the medium, is going to reflect that.
Are there any Sly and the Family Stone samples on How I Got Over?
No. You can’t expect any samples on this record. It’s almost all live except for one song. We also are probably covering “Meditate,” a song by Andy Bey (“Celestial Blues”) and we’re having him sing the chorus on it. That’s kind of one of the last things we kind of have to complete. There’s a song called “Celestial Blues.” Again, I don’t think that we’re going to sample it at all. It will probably just be recreated live. So there will be two covers, “Service Royalty” and “Celestial Blues” and everything else is just going to be live.
What does the title of the album How I Got Over mean to you?
We got the title from a gospel song that Mahalia Jackson performed. It’s a gospel standard. How I Got Over is about getting over and keeping your head above water and maintaining relevance in such a fickle game and such a fickle market. You know, The Roots have been here. We’ve been here since ’97 but professionally as major label artists since 1993 and there aren’t many artists from our class who are still around who can say they got over or can say they withstood the test of time and this record is a testament to how we’ve made it thus far and you know, it’s just about continual, constant, gradual incline and nothing is overnight. We haven’t received any accolades or awards that we didn’t break our back and work super-hard to get and that’s kind of the message that we’re trying to put out with this record. Nothing comes easy but if you work hard you can do whatever you want to do and be around forever doing it.
Will you be able to tour much for this record?
No because we have that five day a week job that we have to do but we’re going to tour some. You’ll get about 10 weeks a year. We’re probably going to tour 9-10 weeks out of the year. We tour on the weekends. I’m on my way to Baltimore and tomorrow I’ll be in Rhode Island. Just people overseas can expect to see less of the Roots but people stateside need not fear.
You also recorded “Reality Check” for the upcoming J Dilla tribute challenge where you namedrop reality shows. What makes a good reality show in your opinion?
Really what makes up a good reality show is conflict and sex appeal and, you know, the ability to make it seem unscripted even though almost all of it is scripted. Some of it just really feels super-scripted and like none of it is off-the-cuff. But yeah, I feel like that’s what makes for good TV – dynamics.
If a network were to make a reality show about Black Thought, how would it be?
I would want my reality show to be real, unscripted. It would be life-related. It would be fucking following me in my life as I do what I do. My life isn’t all Islam and it isn’t all music. It isn’t all work and shit but it’s a real-ass life. (laughs)
Speaking of seeing every side of an MC, new technology like Twitter is bringing fans even closer to artists today. Can the fans ever get too close?
Yes. But it’s up to the individual. I just feel like Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, all that shit allows, not necessarily the fan, but people other than yourself and your family and your loved ones, it makes them privy to too much information. I don’t want people knowing that much about me or what I do every fleeting moment. If there were cameras following me and I’m being paid to do it and it’s a reality show and I’m able to control the level of privacy and protect the privacy and the interests of my family and all that shit, then I’m all for it. But I mean, I’m actually busy living a life so I don’t have the time to Twit every five minutes about what I’m doing. I’m actually doing that shit.
Have you tried Twitter?
No. No. No. I’ve never tried it.
Do you see yourself ever trying it?
Nah. I mean, I have a Twitter account but I’ve never used the shit. I signed up so I could see what the shit looked like and I’m disinterested. I’m not interested in Twitter. I’m super-private. I like to keep those worlds separate, so to speak.
Going back to “Reality Check,” what are your favorite reality shows today?
I like The First 48. That may be my favorite. I like The First 48. I like The Interrogators. I like Locked Up. I liked Locked Up: Abroad. (laughs) I’m not that big of a fan of reality TV, which is why I kind of wrote that rhyme and shit. I feel like it’s all a little overwhelming and the market is oversaturated in that shit. But yeah, those are the kinds of shows I like. I like Doomsday TV. I like the show Life After People where they go into places like Chernobyl and they do fucking studies and they try to make predictions where they’re able to manipulate the images and show you what mankind is going to look like 60 years after the human race is no more and then 100 years and then 200 years, just to see how the world deteriorates and just to see how the earth reclaims everything and how wildlife kind of repopulates the urban areas. All that shit interests me.
The last time we spoke you mentioned you were working on a solo album. How’s that coming today?
It’s still underway but I’m not really dealing with that at the moment. It’s pushed to the side of my plate because I’m concentrating on the immediate, which is completing this record and maintaining this Fallon thing and these films. I have two films to do this summer. That’s kind of where my head is. I’m in a different space. My solo record, I don’t even have a title for it but I know it’s going to be more of a return to a harder lyricist than what I’ve branded in the Roots.
Is the Money Makin’ Jam Boys project also on hold?
Yes. I mean, it’s temporarily on hold but for all intents and purposes, the first video for the Roots album is the Jam Boys. It’s me, Truck, PORN and Dice. We’re the Jam Boys.
PORN had some bright spots on your last album Rising Down. What do you think of his growth as an artist?
PORN is dope. He’s been growing as an artist. His recorded material is getting better and better but at the same time, PORN hasn’t done very many shows and that’s an aspect of his craft that he is still yet to refine. PORN is probably the least experienced out of my whole crew as far as live performance.
Is the best way for artists to perfect the stage show through practice or is there something some MCs have that help them be naturally good onstage and others who will always be weak no matter how much practice they get?
No matter what you do, if you’re fucking whittling or knitting or whatever, if you spend 10,000 hours doing it, you’re going to be close to mastery of it. The same concept applies to concerts which is why my bar got set so much higher above where Malik B’s bar is for live performance because he stopped doing shows in ’94, maybe ’95. So I have a good 15, 16 years worth of stage experience over him and it shows. There’s no one who could be doing their first show and do a better show than me because I’ve done so many performances. It’s a science.
What film projects are you working on?
I got a film that I acted in last summer. There’s one thing that I did that was directed by Mark Webber, a fellow Philadelphian and a fellow actor and executive produced by Jim Jarmusch. It’s a film called Explicit Ills. It premiered in New York a month or so ago and then in Chile and then in L.A just on a small scale. It’s an indie film and it won a couple of awards on the festival circuit.
That film is out now and there’s a film I shot in Pittsburgh by D.W. Brown, who is a brilliant actor and director and he’s a friend of mine. It’s called In NorthWood. It’s an ensemble cast. There’s a bunch of actors you’d be super-familiar with, as with Explicit Ill, like Rosario Dawson. There are so many people who are super-dope and are always working and they’re in the films that I’m doing and it’s a blessing to be a part of it.
In In NorthWood, I play a corrections officer at an institution for the criminally insane and there’s an outbreak and some crazy shit goes down in the crazy house, so to speak. There’s a film that I’m starting in Philadelphia on June 8th. It’s called Stringbean and Marcus and Mos Def is attached to it and a few other actors that you’d be familiar with. It’s a post-Black Panther era film. It’s late ‘70s, right after the Panthers were super-active in Philly, when they were kind of becoming less active towards the end of the movement. I play the brother of one of these Black Panther-kind of guys and it’s about a lot of things. It’s about the relationship between two brothers who have a rivalry because one’s dealing in dope and their father loves him more. It’s the classic sibling rivalry thing and then there’s also the story of a person who’s active in the movement who sold a lot of Panthers out or who’s believed to have sold a bunch of Panthers out and he comes back to town and it’s the story of what happens then.
There’s another film I’m doing called Yelling to the Sky, which is going to start production probably in July. And that stars myself and Zoe Kravitz and Don Cheadle. That movie is set in New York and it’s actually about Zoe and Don. Zoe plays Don Cheadle’s daughter and it’s about she’s in an abusive relationship at home and it’s about how she turns to the streets and drug dealers. I’m like an elder neighborhood drug dealer who she kind of starts out running errands for and then she kind of gets her own business popping. Those are four films that I’m involved in, two that are done and two that are going to be done by summer’s end and shit. I’m just trying to stay busy.
I might also be playing Fela in a Broadway play in the fall. If so it’ll only be two nights a week. The dude who played him off Broadway is amazing but says it takes too much out of him to channel Fela seven nights a week. I’m auditioning.
That’s great. How seriously are you taking your acting career?
I studied. I think it’s foolish to take on any acting job no matter what level you’re on as an actor without being coached. Your Al Pacinos, your DeNiros, all these people, your Phillip Seymour Hoffmans, all these people who are super-dope in the world of acting, it all comes down to practice. It’s about practice. You can’t master anything that you don’t practice. It’s impossible. That’s how you become a master, to rehearse, to practice, to be coached. You can never get too big for your britches and think you’re a natural and it’s all you and you’re going to go in and do a stellar performance. That’s not going to happen. That’s the premise under which I operate. Once I get an acting job I find out who’s gonna coach me for the job.
How far do think you can take your acting career?
I want to go as far as God wants me to go, man. I’m a vehicle in this. I mean, I do what I do and I do it as best as I can and it’s going to take me as far as I’m able to go.
Joell Ortiz is one of the latest artists to say that he was inspired by you as an MC and the Roots in general. What does praise from artists mean to you?
It’s dope. It’s flattering, I guess, but what it ultimately does is reinforces within me a certain level of confidence. It lets me know that what I am doing is not necessarily going unappreciated or misunderstood. I feel like what I’m doing is being well-received and it makes it all worthwhile.
Do you think the Roots will go independent once you’re out of your Def Jam contract?
I don’t know. I feel like a major label in the past has afforded you a certain level of elitism and a certain, maybe higher, level of distribution but who knows? Moving forward, I’m just going to do what’s best in the interest of the brand. If it’s more lucrative to be independent, then we’re going to be independent. If it’s more lucrative to remain with a major label distribution and if that still makes any sense as things shape out in the future, then that’s how we’re going to do it. I think the fact that we’ve been around this long with this experience and that we are a self-contained unit affords us the opportunity to choose. We could do either if we want to just because of who we are.
How I Got Over is coming out on Def Jam and you haven’t always been complimentary of their promotion and marketing. Do you think they hold that against you and maybe they won’t go as hard with promoting your future projects?
No. I don’t think so but if they are I don’t give a fuck. I’m not necessarily dependent upon record sales to feed my children. It is what it is. If there’s a vendetta, then you know, have a vendetta. But it’s all good. We don’t have anything against Def Jam and Def Jam doesn’t have anything against us, as far as I know.
Are there any albums or new artists that you’re looking forward to coming out?
No. Not particularly. I don’t have time. I’m just doing what I do, man. I don’t even know what other artists there are. (laughs)
How do you stay in top form with all of your various projects pulling you in every direction?
I don’t know, man. I go to the gym and shit. In the past I would light up but I don’t smoke or drink anymore so I go work out.