The Roots might be best known today as the house band on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. But the group has been making boundary-pushing hip-hop for more than two decades, and has just released its latest album, undun.
More than just a collection of songs, undun is a kind of ultra-modern opera about a drug runner named Redford Stephens, who comes to ruin after a brief, violent life. The group's MC, Tariq Trotter — better known by his stage name, Black Thought — says that although Stephens isn't real, the character's story hits close to home.
"Where I'm from, the life expectancy is about 25 or 26. My father was murdered at 26. I remember when I was 15 or 16 years old, I couldn't imagine what life would be like past the age of 30, just because I didn't know that many men who had lived beyond their 20s," Trotter says. "It's not specifically my story, or my father's story, or my older brother's story. But it could be any of those."
"We wanted to tell the story in a reverse-linear mode, so the album pretty much starts with his death," says drummer and bandleader Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, who cofounded The Roots with Trotter in 1987. "We thought it was important to show that when you choose this path, it's a dead end."
Drugs and crime are are common themes in hip-hop, but Thompson says they're often described in the past tense — e.g., Jay-Z's early raps about his old life as a cocaine dealer.
"It's always a grandiose vision of this particular character," Thompson says. "We wanted to show the minion — the guy who's lowest on the food chain.
"I wanted to present it in a way that wasn't exaggerated or cartoonish," Trotter adds. "I wanted to make it easier to understand how people wind up in the situations they wind up in — how easy it is."
Telling the story right meant giving careful consideration to the lyrics. Trotter says that, more that any other Roots album, undun came together via a slow and deliberate process of revision.
"Everything you hear me saying on this record is at least the fourth or fifth draft," he says. "I would write a verse and then rewrite it and rewrite it. I don't sit down and write a song, and then slam down the phone like, 'We got another one!' and pop some champagne. It's like if someone's writing a novel: You write a series of drafts."