When the Philly band The Roots takes the stage Saturday night at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami, don’t expect the same wise-cracking group of musicians that gives NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” its nightly edge.
Instead, the Grammy-winning, hip-hop/neo-soul/funk-rock band – led by drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas and MC Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter – will lay down some serious grooves, cultivated and perfected over 25 years and 11 albums.
The Roots – which was the first hip-hop group to perform at the Lincoln Center and was named one of the “Twenty Greatest Live Acts in the World” by Rolling Stone – is the closest thing to a jam band that the hip-hop world has to offer. Accordingly, fans can expect a dazzlingly unpredictable show, in which the virtuosic band members feed off their audience’s energy to determine what songs and styles to play.
Miami.com caught up with Black Thought before the show; he opened up about The Roots’ upcoming 12th studio album, how he and Questlove bonded all those years ago, how it feels to be best-known as Jimmy Fallon’s house band in recent years, and whether he’s planning any New Year’s resolutions.
What can we expect from your New Year’s Eve concert?
You can expect to see a regular Roots performance, what you can always expect from The Roots brand. We kinda raise the bar with every performance – every performance is tailored to the audience in attendance, and on New Year’s Eve, you should expect no less.
Will we hear anything from “End Game,” the new album?
Ummm, possibly. But maybe not. We have a couple songs that are close to completion, but I’m not sure we’ll be performing any of those. With our set list, we never know what we’re gonna play until the day. We decide on the day. And we have a whole week’s worth of performances leading up to the Miami show, so we’ll probably work a couple different arrangements out.
How does the new album sound?
“End Game,” in essence, is a return to The Roots of old – more musicality, the same sort of social commentary that has become a mainstay in The Roots brand. But not as much concept-heavy songwriting that we’ve had in some of our recent records. Our last few albums have progressively become shorter. I think “End Game” will be longer, and it’s dense and a little more musical. I feel like this record is gonna cater to an element in music that is currently missing. We’re shooting for sometime during the summer for a release date.
You guys are Philly guys – why did you choose Miami for New Year’s Eve?
Miami chose us. We’re gonna be in Orlando a few days before New Year’s Eve, so we might hit Miami up a day in advance. And also, one of the main producers we’re working with on this new album is Salaam Remi, and he’s a legendary New York producer, but he’s based in Miami now. So it just works on a couple different levels: I could do the Orlando show, come to Miami early, work with Salaam, get some recording done for the album, do the New Year’s Eve show, and then probably go back to the studio that night.
What drew you and Ahmir together way back when?
In short, opposites attract. I was the peanut butter, he was the jelly. I was more street-savvy, I was more into the N.W.A. and Public Enemy and Ultra Magnetic MCs and Kool G rap and just more street hip-hop from the ’80s, and Questlove was into jazz and soul and classic rock and R&B, and lots of the music that I was listening to in the ’80s kind of originated from. So we were able to educate each other – it was like a mutual respect, and like a two-way learning process.
When you guys were performing together on the street, busking, did you feel that you were destined for greater things?
I’ve always felt like I was destined for greatness. Not to toot my own horn, but where I come from, it was pretty rough in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and it continues to be kinda rough now. So I’ve always felt on a core level that there must be something more than what the block sort of has to offer. That’s something that I’ve always been conscious of. I’ve always been an artist, but at a very young age I wasn’t sure what my medium would be, but as time went on, that became clear.
How did you discover your lyrical talent – is it something that came naturally?
Yeah, it kinda came naturally. I’ve always been witty and I’ve always been talkative and competitive. Hip-hop was born in August 1973, and I was born in October, so we evolved together, me and the culture. So it was always something that I was fond of and kind of gravitated toward. I was in art school, and in my mind, I was gonna become a visual artist, but the universe had different plans.
Can you just jump out of bed rhyming, or do you have to get in the mood and work up to it?
I can jump out of bed rhyming. I could always rhyme. But is it gonna be my best? Am I always at peak performance? No. It’s best for me when I have time to go through a couple drafts and work things out in my head before I have to commit.
Do you enjoy the pressure that comes with doing things like “Freestyling with The Roots” on the Jimmy Fallon show, where you have to make up raps on the spot?
Nope, nope. No, I do not. I do not enjoy that kind of pressure. Those are always my most stressful days at the office, and I’m always super-relieved once that business has come and gone. When I’m doing “Freestyling with The Roots,” I feel the way I feel when I’m auditioning for a role in a film, or something. One false move and anything could go wrong, and today could be the day that I just can’t think of it fast enough. It’s not as easy as it seems to come up with something funny that makes sense and rhymes and incorporates all that material.
Was it an easy decision to join Jimmy Fallon and his show?
It became clear over time that it was the only decision that made sense. In 2008 and 2009, when we first began entertaining the idea, the industry was changing, our career trajectory, we were left uncertain what the next step should be, could be, would be – and this made perfect sense, eventually. At first it sounded like a cockamamie idea.
Did it help you grow as musicians?
Yeah, it helps to rehearse as much as we do. It helps to interact with your bandmates as much as we have to in the “Tonight Show” capacity. And there’s something to be said about the regularity, the routineness, like coming to work and interacting with the band and then getting home and spending time with your family. It’s just a different lifestyle than that which we were used to at the time. Life is about balance, and The Roots is also about balance in that way.
What about Jimmy drew you guys in?
Jimmy proved himself to be sincere, and he felt like an honest-to-goodness team player, and made us feel like we would be able to grow together. And we’ve always been comedy nerds, “SNL” fans, and huge fans of Jimmy’s brand of comedy, which is a very unique brand of comedy, awkward very much in the way that The Roots is awkward. So he courted us, and it began to feel like a good fit.
And he’s got a lot of musical talent, too.
Yeah, as much as we’re comedy nerds, he’s a music nerd. He and Quest hit it off on that level. Questlove’s dad is a doo-wop legend – may he rest in peace; he passed away a year or so ago. His father is Lee Andrews, who was a doo-wop icon. And Jimmy’s dad, whose name is also Jimmy Fallon – he’s also a huge doo-wop fan. So that may have had something to do with it, too – Jimmy’s dad may have been saying, “You’d better do whatever you need to do to forge this relationship with Lee Andrews’ kid’s band.”
Does it ever get frustrating for the band to be mainly known for Jimmy Fallon’s show now?
Sometimes. I can only speak for myself, but yeah, sometimes it’s frustrating. But I mean, again, it’s welcome. If I’m gonna be mainly known for anything, the “Tonight Show” is not so bad. It gives you validity and credibility in certain circles, depending what I’m dealing with. You see the difference in the way folks interact with you when they realize you’re on a prime-time TV show – it’s always interesting.
Do you have any New Year’s resolutions?
Well, every year, I say I’m gonna live cleaner and eat cleaner and be more healthy. And it’s become a routine that I go from January to June or so without eating sugar and cut down on my caffeine and become a lot more active, and I wind up losing a lot more weight and become more fit for that first half of the year. And then by now, for the second half of the year, I drink more scotch whiskey and live a little harder – I rock and roll more like a Rolling Stone. And around now, I start to feel like maybe this is the year that I’ll go a full year.
If you go
What: New Year’s Eve with The Roots
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Knight Concert Hall, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
Info: 305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org; $50-$575