Earlier this week, Complex hit up the Captain Morgan Step Into the Black party in New York City. You know what was even tastier than the new Captain Morgan Black Spiced Rum? Questlove of The Roots bringing his talents to the 1s and 2s. Lucky for us, we also got to chop it up with the legendary drummer, DJ, and all-around music man to find out what's going on with The Roots.
With his pick lodged firmly in his trademark afro, Questo sat with us in his dressing room—while The Walkman were playing a set downstairs—to get the scoop on The Roots re-signing with Def Jam. He told us how constant touring has shaped The Roots sound, how he still hasn’t met the new president of his label, and what Complex list he was pissed he wasn’t on...
Interview by Insanul Ahmed (@Incilin)
On The Roots Re-Signing To Def Jam
“Well we just renegotiated our contract with Def Jam. I don’t think any label ever thinks like their artists will outlast the contract. You sign for like five records and [the label is] like "They’re gonna be gone. We’ll sign you for four more records—alright, seven more records."
“We just [sign for] two records at a time. We have the advantage because even if we don’t sell a gazillion records, there’s still a prestige left that we carry that makes them look good, which is important. I look at it like we’re a prestige artist. I’m sure Joni Mitchell doesn’t move millions and we’re in that plane now.
“We been without a label president for a second. I’ve yet to meet Joey IE though. In fact, I found out [Joey IE became the president of Def Jam] on Twitter. Barry Weiss has always been our [point person with Def Jam] so we’ve been negotiating that. It’s so ironic; for all the speculation that we’ve switched labels, we’ve always been on Universal.”
Signing With Def Jam In 2006
“Jay-Z was scared to sign us, but for the wrong reasons. The album that came before our first Def Jam album was The Tipping Point. [At that time] we didn’t have a relationship with Jimmy Iovine at Geffen. So we had to approximate what we thought he would like. So, we kind of stumbled. Jay was like, ‘I don’t want to look like the bad guy here. I don’t want to look like the guy that destroyed America’s rap group.’
Jay-Z said, ‘Nah man, if y’all do a record, I want y’all to do a real Roots record. Don’t like figure out what Jay-Z wants because then I’ma look like the bad guy that killed y’all.’ I never had a label president beg me for an art record before.
“So I had to beg him. I was like, ‘Yo, we’ll be cool.’ He said, ‘Nah man, if y’all do a record, I want y’all to do a real Roots record. Don’t like figure out what Jay-Z wants because then I’ma look like the bad guy that killed y’all.’ I never had a label president beg me for an art record before. Like, ‘Please, no radio singles. I don’t want no radio.’ So that’s what we did with Game Theory.
“Everyone has a different role in The Roots. A lot of the esoteric ideas and the left ideas come from me. Usually we’ll establish stuff together but then once it’s established, Black Thought takes it, rhymes over it, and it’s amazing. And then I just sit there and figure out this is what this needs. Like, we need orchestra here or or get someone playing harp here. I usually come with the crazy stuff.
“The difference between The Tipping Point and the other 14 records is that was the first album that I put no condiments on the burger. We just made a burger and just said 'Leave it.' What’s weird is that with a lot of our black fanbase, they like that record the best. And it’s like ‘What?!?’ Because it’s an easy digestible record. But my heart is more with the experimental ideas.”
The New Roots Album
“This album coming up, I definitely know that the whole the pressure factor and the whole mid-life crisis of How I Got Over and Undun [factor in]. I wouldn’t say How I Got Over was depressing, but it was a mid-life crisis record.
“But the thing is, we gotta be honest about where we are. I don’t wanna be 40 with my pants caught down trying to do something like ‘Throw your hands in the air. Shake your ass bitch.’ I said we need to make an honest-ass record and that’s what will determine what it is.
“I’ll say that at least four of the submissions [for the new album], they’re above 115 beats per minute. It’s very high energy. Not fist-pumping, but fast. This is just the music stage, not even the lyrical stage. We thought of a title two weeks ago but I am not allowed to say what it is just yet—but you’ll know soon.”
How Touring Affects Their Albums
“People always ask why we always switch our albums up so much. I think part of it is because we tour and do that album night after night. We tour more [than the average group]. An average group does three months—we were doing three years an album. So after the second year, we get tired and bored and we wanna do something else. That’s why our albums are night and day.
I wouldn’t say How I Got Over was depressing, but it was a mid-life crisis record.
“We [used to] do 200 to 300 shows a year. After playing ‘You Got Me’ for three years in a row—which is like 600 times—you want to do the exact opposite. After doing ‘The Seed 2.0’ a billion times in a row, you want you to do the exact opposite. It’s very yin and yang.
“We don’t tour as much anymore. I consider a tour doing five shows in a row. We’re not going back to the days of 14 shows in a row. But we do get 14 weeks off and then we work on weekends, so we totaled 14 weeks and the weekend—and we’re still doing 28 weeks a year, which is not exactly the 44 that we normally do. But it's enough. I’m actually busier now than I’ve ever been in my entire life.”
On Complex Lists
“Well, you know I’m kind of chagrined I didn’t make that The 50 Greatest Hip-Hop Album Covers list. We’ve won a lot of awards for our album covers. And I was like, 'Man—out of 15 album covers not one made it?' I can definitely tell if you look at all my album covers, I put a lot of work doing album covers. I want a recount! [Laughs.] But I love all your lists man, it’s a good form of debate—especially on my Twitter feed.”