After 25 years, a dozen records and multiple awards, the Roots are trying something new — a full-length concept album. Already known for pushing the boundaries of hip-hop, the Roots’ “undun” tells the story of the short life of Redford Stephens, a fictional character from Philadelphia who gets caught up in the drug trade and meets an early yet inevitable demise.
Told in a reverse narrative, each track on the album deconstructs pivotal moments in Stephens’ life as he becomes “undun.”
“At this point in our career we’d like for our work to have a unifying theme, and an experiential quality,” said drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, who arranged the album and is the Roots’ bandleader and producer. “I just knew for a fact that this album was going to be almost impossible. The reason why we haven’t done anything of this level [before] is because I just knew it’s easier said than done,” he added.
“undun” officially comes out Tuesday, Dec. 6, but is available to stream in its entirety for a limited time at NPR. Here’s the music video for the song, “Sleep”:
Art Beat talked with ?uestlove about the making of the album, the inspiration for Redford Stephens, growing up on tour with his musician father, his latest tennis shoe design and how he got into hip-hop.
How did “undun” evolve and what makes this project unique from all of the previous albums?
Well, Redford Stevens. That’s basically a combination of maybe four to five people that we know in Philadelphia. I don’t know how familiar you are with the HBO series, “The Wire”? There is a character, Avon Barksdale, who was a low-level drug dealer. It’s easy when you are reading statistics to be dismissive. “Oh they are all scum, the scum of the earth! They are drug dealers, let them die!” That type of thing. It’s easy to sort of take it to that level, [but] once you humanize the situation, then it becomes more complex.
Avon’s character was believable enough to me to the effect that he could actually have gone either way. Like if you’d have put Avon Barksdale in a college situation, I could have easily saw him there, I could have easily saw that same person as an engineer student in college. So in my head he always felt like out of all the street-corner guys, his life could have easily turned around within a matter of seconds.
When hip-hop approaches stuff like life on the streets and crime, of course they always imagine the Don Corleone figure of it all. So we made sure that we didn’t concentrate on, “We’re going to tell the cautionary tale of the Don downfall.” It would have been easier, but for me I think it’s more common than to imagine this particular person.
So long story short, in my head I always had Avon Barksdale as kind of the prototype for what Redford was built on: a person that wasn’t born a criminal. But I didn’t want him to be the hero nor the pitied upon subject. He was neither of those things. This is literally 24 hours in his life, and he could make any decision that he wanted to and this is the path he chose and what happens happened. It sounds simple, but it was hard to do. You are starting with his death and you are telling the story backwards. It’s probably one of the hardest things not to make it overdramatic. Overdramatic in terms of I took all the gun stuff off the record, we took all of just anything that would lead to this as a drug dealer’s story. This is more or less a person who happens to be a drug dealer that had complex thoughts, and we sort of just made it into the record. And that was a hard thing.
The Roots have been together for 25 years. How has the band evolved since 1987?
Well, the Roots in terms of Black Thought [Tariq Trotter] being Mick Jagger and me being Keith Richards minus the narcotics, yeah! Tariq and I met and started a group, the Square Roots, in ’87. The Roots and the concept that you know it as today really came to life in 1992.
It’s kind of funny because you learn something every day. I’ll say that one of the strangest lessons as far as our maturity is concerned [was] making the “undun” record, because it’s narrative specific and requires very strict concentration. I just knew for a fact that this album was going to be almost impossible. The reason why we haven’t done anything of this level [before] is because I just knew it’s easier said than done. You have to think it out almost like a screenplay. You’ve got to write an outline and then you’ve got to figure out how to divide the storyline from A to Z. One of the most amazing things is that every verse in this record has taken at least eight to 10 rewrites. Tariq was ready to kill somebody after the fifth rewrite of a particular verse! Now imagine having to rewrite something three times for a full song. And we are just talking about one verse. Every verse on this record has at least 10 to 15 rewrites, so that takes a major amount of concentration.
Out of your extensive discography — studio albums, live album, compilation albums, singles, videos — what’s your favorite?
Ok, someone asked me to do this on my website. We had to put all 13 records in a row from favorite to least favorite. I couldn’t do that, but I did the opposite, in which I did the album with the most cringe worthy moments versus the album with the least cringe worthy moments.
“Organix” is a great way to start as far as it’s a nice entry into the world, but [has] far too many amateur, juvenile faux pas on that record for me to ever not listen to it without cringing. So “Organix” falls at 13. The album I always recommend to people, like if I had to choose one body of work that I feel represents [the Roots]. And the thing is people always say, “Well, it’s unfair because it’s really not a record.” There’s nothing that’s on the market that bears the Roots’ name [that] I don’t feel is at least a real experience. So in this case we did a two CD compilation called “Home Grown” in 2005, which on sight it would look like, “Oh, that’s the Roots’ greatest hits.” Actually, there are alternatives, out-takes. There are some regular versions on there, but for the most part I tried to put the live versions of particular songs, alternative mixes of particular songs. If I had to sum up my thirteen-album history in just two-and-a-half hours, I’d think that could best do it justice.
When did you first fall in love with hip-hop?
It’s kind of a double-edged sword, because I really got involved with hip-hop without knowing that it was hip-hop. I knew it was hip-hop once I was in fourth grade in 1979, when I first heard “Rappers Delight” on the radio. That really became a “War of the Worlds” moment for my generation. I was getting prepared for hip-hop since I was 2. I grew up in a house full of three very distinct record collectors.
Record collector number one was my father, and he basically was all oldies doo-wop music, the Beatles, Beach Boys, vocal groups and vocalists like Nat King Cole and Johnnie Mathis, and he liked easy listening pop like James Taylor and Carol King.
Collector number two is my mother. She was more very eclectic jazz and funk stuff. All of her records had a common theme. Usually it seemed like very weird quirky covers, so Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” and Herby Hancock “Like Headhunters.” Anything that looked funky on the album covers she took it that the music had to be just great, too.
Then third distinctive collector was my sister Dawn. Now in order for her to have kind of a mass, social acceptance in school, she had to adapt to the tastes and the style of what her girlfriends were into at the time. So that’s how I knew about Led Zeppelin and more rock-oriented stuff.
Between those three record collectors pouring all that information in my head between the ages of 2 and 9, by the time hip-hop comes along and I’m collecting that, so I have a vast array, I have massive variety in my system. I’ll say the album that really pushed me over the edge was Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation to Hold Us Back,” because that was the first time that I heard my entire record collection contextualized in one project. You heard that album and then you are like, “Wait a minute, that’s David Bowie, and that’s James Brown and that’s Funkadelic, and it’s just Parliament, and that’s Marvin Gaye and that’s Sly and the Family Stone!”
The way that Public Enemy used samples was basically the best parts of the family record collection. That’s when I realized I wanted to do something in music. I mean, I already was a musician and in a musical family, but that album gave me direction.
You grew up touring with your father’s group Lee Andrews & the Hearts. Have you always wanted to be a musician?
Yes, according to my parents I was beating up on furniture when I was 2. By the time I was born, the oldies doo-wop revival had already started. Dick Clark, from “American Bandstand,” would throw these oldies doo-wop shows at Madison Square Garden or Radio City Music Hall. It would be 15 acts on the bill — Lee Andrews & the Hearts, Dion and the Belmonts, Johnny Maestro & the Brooklyn Bridge and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes — all these acts from the 50s that were now experiencing doo-wop nostalgia, so I kind of grew up thinking that music was contemporary. My father kind of fooled me because he played it so much I just thought it was new music. That’s the environment I grew up in, and eventually I became my father’s band leader when I was 13 years old.
How influential was your tenure at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts to your career?
It was crucial to it, because without it I wouldn’t have met Tariq Trotter, Black Thought, who was an art major. I was an instrumental music major. I don’t know if my particular outcome would have occurred at any other time period, but that time period specifically. Even though it was a performing arts school, that was my first public school. And just like any TV movie of the week, the first thing that you try to avoid is any conflicts with the wrong cliques! Some high schools would call them gangs, but my clique was a little bit different because you had Joey DeFrancesco and Christian McBride. They were the “jazz snob” clique. You couldn’t get their respect unless you spoke and totally understood what jazz was.
The thing that made those two unique was that even at a young age — they were in 10th and 11th grade — those were the cats that when Kenny Kirkland wasn’t available to play for Miles Davis, Davis pulled DeFrancesco out of school for six weeks to tour with him. When Wynton Marsalis needed percussion done, he was calling up Christie McBride to be his bass player for a gig or something. You know these guys were 16, but they were clearly going to be the geniuses of the jazz world, and that’s their role now. These guys are now the living lions of the jazz world.
So you had that crew, and then on the other hand there is another guy named Kurt Rosenwinkel. Kurt is telling me, “Man, later for those guys, those guys they’re old! They listen to a bunch of ’40s, ’50s jazz. You need to be progressive, you need to think ahead.” So he gave me a Frank Zappa cassette and said, “You study it, and listen to this Miles Davis electric period of the ’70s and you study that, and then when you are done with that listen to this Captain Beefheart, and then when you are done with that listen to this orchestra!”
The jazz snobs would try to work with only the progressive jazz snobs, and then both of them looked down upon hip-hop because they didn’t see it as a work of art. I’m beating on the tables with Tariq in the lunchroom and the whole while I’m trying not to get caught by either side! The traditional side better not see me with those spaced out hippies listening to that electric junk. And the electric cats are like, “Don’t let me find out that you’re a suit and tie listening to that old jazz.” And both of them were basically like, “That rap music is horrible!” So I’m serving three gods in high school and trying not to let each gang find out about my association with the other. For a long time that’s how it was. I was just creeping and hanging with each clique trying to get what I could from it. And as a result I took all that experience and just brought it to the Roots.
You were also at that school at the same time with members of Boyz II Men and singer Amel Larrieux, who you went to senior prom with?
That’s my prom date, yep. It’s funny now, because before “Glee” came along, I’m trying to convince people that there is such a place in which you walk down the hallway and then people start breaking out in full production number songs and having jam sessions. But that’s exactly how it was! Boyz II Men would constantly be serenading girls in the hallway and Amel was part of the school choir, and those guys were always trying to put some sort of soul in their numbers and stuff like that. We were cutting third period to have jazz jam sessions in the basement. That’s just how it was. All the actors were getting work. Half of “The Cosby Show” extras were in the school. It’s really weird that I didn’t make that much noise in the school. There were some bonafide superstars in that environment. Boyz II Men had a record contract. I was the last person to make any noise from that school. I didn’t get to make my mark until seven years after high school was done. The environment, the education and all the things I learned I’m still applying now to my career and to myself. I definitely, definitely wouldn’t have done half as much if I didn’t go to Performing Arts.
Finally, you’ve branched into fashion designing and have two sneakers for Nike. Where did the inspiration for this project evolve?
I don’t see it as fashion designing, but it’s probably one of the hardest ventures I’ve done. Easier said than done! When you are like, “Oh, I want to design my own Nikes!” But then you are sitting there and you have to proof everything! Every thread, every color, every font, every swoosh design. What texture does the sole have? What type of thread count do you want for the shoe strings? Even the padding inside of your sole. It’s every aspect and it takes a long time. Right now I’m on my third shoe and I have to turn it in in a couple of months and I’m still racking my brain over it. How am I going to top my last sneaker? How will I outdo whatever I did before? It’s honestly my favorite things to do. I’m probably going to shoot for Valentines 2013 release. Come up with a sort of love theme for it.