The Roots’ state of the union address

Legendary hip-hop drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson could easily win an award for multitasking. The man with the biggest Afro in hip-hop has an excess of talent, working as an executive producer (for Common, Slum Village, and, most recently, Al Green), as well as a photographer, DJ, and the head honcho behind www.okayplayer.com, a hip-hop and neo-soul Web site that's ground zero for discovering talented underground artists.

But the 37-year-old is best known as a mainstay in the Roots, which he's been a member of since the group formed in the late '80s. The Roots clock more than 250 days on the road a year, and if you want an idea of how dizzying that makes ?uest's schedule, just ask the guy what city he's in at that moment.

"Uhhhh. ... (long pause) Ooh, this is bad," he says with a laugh, sincerely trying to remember. "Every day I wake up, I don't know where I am. It's like freaking Groundhog Day."

The Roots: Street-corner soapboxing.
The Roots: Street-corner soapboxing.

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Anyone who has followed the Roots over the years knows that ?uest has ample reason to be confused. The group's blistering tour schedule is surpassed only by the frenetic energy it gives off from the stage. (The Roots pride themselves on using as many live instruments as possible — from snare drums to a sousaphone — which sets them apart from other rap artists, who typically have little more than a DJ and a hype man onstage.) But ?uest expends extra energy on the road. While everyone else in the seven-member unit gets to rest after their 90-minute set, he typically DJs the afterparties.

The Roots are currently on tour to promote their latest disc, Rising Down, which shows the band's increasingly darker tone. Over the last three years, personal issues among the Roots crew, record-label strife, and the death of their longtime producer and friend J. Dilla have all weighed heavy on the hearts of the band members. The group's highly lyrical frontman, Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter, once known for penning some of the best battle raps and witty punch lines in the business, has turned his microphone prowess into a therapy session in which anger, venting, and frustration are the new norm.

"It's a personal record," ?uest says with a sigh. "For rock music, this shit is normal. People go through things. But it's almost like hip-hoppers aren't allowed to show that three-dimensional type of emotion in their music. That's where we're at right now."

The album's title comes from Rising Up and Rising Down, William T. Vollmann's seven-volume study on the history of violence. The disc was released on April 29 to coincide with the 16th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, which ?uest says was a deliberate decision. "Look at the beating that happened in Philly [last month] with those cops who just beat the shit out of three kids," he says. "It was like Rodney King times 40. So what's changed? I understand the frozenness and the indifference, but you can't get scared."

In that sense, the Roots are still a voice for the underclass — that voice being the reason hip-hop first got started 30 years ago. Given the current state of the world, ?uest says, the Roots couldn't imagine making a happier record. In fact, only a few weeks before Rising Down was scheduled to drop, the group cut its radio-friendly single "Birthday Girl" (featuring Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy), from the album because it didn't mesh.

But that's not to say the Roots have lost sight of what earned them fans in the first place. "Even though we're talking about some heavy shit on the album, we knew that the music would have to be banging," ?uest says. "The music is as abrasive as ever. People want that chiropractic, break-ya-back, head-nod shit, so when people come and see us, they'll get plenty of that as well."

 
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