The Roots: You Can’t Stop Us (Relix Revisited)
AND AWAY WE GO-GO
“Rising Up” is the concluding track on Rising Down, and in true Roots fashion, it’s a song that brims with blissful positivity amidst the heavier topical material that drives the album. It also marks the first time the band has taken a stab at go-go music, which makes sense considering how often The Roots have played in neighboring Washington D.C.—a straight shot down the road from Philly.
“We finally came up with a revelation a few years back,” Thompson says. “There’s a black jamband audience that the United States doesn’t know about, and that’s go-go music. Cats will play for 20 minutes before the vocals even start. I really think that if the Chuck Browns of the world—and all the top D.C. go-go bands like Rare Essence, The Junkyard Band, Trouble Funk, The Huck-A-Bucks—I think if they just had at least one night at Bonnaroo, that could change their lives. These guys do mammoth, four-hour shows, but they rarely get exposure outside of D.C.”
The Roots are hoping their own increased visibility in recent years will have an effect. Thompson in particular has built a solid reputation as a sought-after session musician and producer, having worked with everyone from D’Angelo to Jay-Z to Common to, most recently, the legendary Al Green, whose latest album Lay It Down recaptures the soulful glory of the right reverend’s tenure with Hi Records back in the ‘70s. Meanwhile, Black Thought has appeared on albums by DJ Krush, J Dilla, Soulive, Damian Marley, The Coup and Linkin Park (to name just a few), and continues to perfect his incomparable flow, which often draws comparison to Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap and other heavyweight hip-hop MCs.
“I feel like I’ve found my sound,” Trotter says, “and I’ve become more effective at using my voice. I mean, there was a time I didn’t even know if I was gonna be a vocalist. But once I decided where I was headed, I felt like I should take it seriously. Even in college—my major was radio, TV and film—I had a lot of voice classes and public speaking classes, just learning how to use the diaphragm and different breathing techniques. So I feel like, in my old age [laughs], I’ve become more effective at using what I learned.”
In fact, The Roots have learned a lot about themselves since they first busted out of Philly in 1993. Harking back to those leaner years, Rising Down’s opener, “The Pow Wow,” documents a 1994 phone confrontation with an irate record label exec. As executive producer Rich Nichols tells it, this was a time when the band’s future was entirely uncertain.
“Stakes were a lot higher then,” he says. “It’s a long way from where The Roots are now, where these guys are established and they can make a living doing what they do. The questions back then were a lot more existential—like, how are you gonna survive, and what are you gonna do with the rest of your life, not knowing if any of this was gonna work, you know what I mean?”
Thompson agrees, and looks to one of the monster jambands of all time as a yardstick for what’s ahead. For him, The Roots are beginning to reach a new level of recognition. “I’ve always liked the fact that Phish has a fanbase so loyal to them that they were able to play five nights at Madison Square Garden,” he says. “That’s excellent. And for us to sell out two nights at Radio City [in 2006], that was probably my favorite moment of my career. I usually don’t like that whole pat-myself-on-the-back thing, but to me that was a major accomplishment. I mean, Ed Bradley from _60 Minute_s was in the fifth row, and it kind of hit me at that moment that we were in a really good, fortunate position. Maybe for a night or so I celebrated, and then I went back to underdog status because the next night in Connecticut, the balcony wasn’t sold out [laughs]. But we’ve made some history, and for that reason I think there’s still much more to do.”
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