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Even After 25 Years, The Roots Are Still Pushing Boundaries.

May 29, 2012

Kevin Stairiker speaks with Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, who founded The Roots in 1987 with Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. Images by G.W. Miller III.

So The Roots Picnic this year is gonna be the first time the festival is two days. Is it making its natural evolution into a full-weekend festival?

Ever since we started doing it, there’s been a larger audience and it’s only logical for it to be spread over two days this year. And very possibly in the near future it could grow into a full weekend event with more stages and we’ll be able to implement a wider variety of artists.

How much of a hand do you have in picking the artists for the Picnic?

The artists that play The Roots Picnic are hand-selected by Questlove, myself, our management, Richard Nichols, Sean G. from Sports and Financial Group, and that’s how we put it together. It’s based on artists we desire to see and work with, and artists we’re fans of, things like that.

When you’re seeking out an “old school” act to bring up, like De La and Rakim this year, are you thinking about what names will bring people there or is it all purely personal preference? Like, to pull a random name out of the air, could you see someone like Kool Moe Dee in that spot?

The reason you see Rakim and De La and everyone you see in that spot at The Roots Picnic – like Public Enemy, Wu Tang, Nas – those are the people that are either our peers, that we’re major fans of, or people that came a generation before The Roots and were super, super influential as far as what it is we do.

As far as Kool Moe Dee? Kool Moe Dee is dope and I have an uber appreciation for Kool Moe Dee as one of the first freestyle/battle artists and just as gritty and intelligent as he was coming off the top. But no, I don’t think we’d put Kool Moe Dee on the bill. I don’t think he’d be as well received by the audience at the Picnic as some of the artists we’ve had at that spot before.

Do you see the Picnic growing out of the Festival Pier, like maybe encompassing a bigger area or maybe moving to another area in Philly?

I don’t know cause like, where else could we have it? I think at one point, we had considered having it at Fairmount Park, like around the Plateau or a more open, grassy traditional picnic area. But yeah, if it turns into something like a Friday-Saturday-Sunday thing, then it could very possibly be something that gets moved out to the park. But that’s the only other place I can see it happening in Philadelphia. I wouldn’t wanna do the Roots Picnic on the Parkway AND the Fourth of July at the Parkway, you know?

Truth. Switching gears to Undun, who was the first to come forth with the general outline of the album? Was it sort of a group thing or did someone come in and say “Hey! I got this idea for a concept album about death told in reverse!”

Sonically, it was a group thing. I’d written lyrics before I knew they were going to be on Undun that became the foundation of all my lyrics on Undun. But the actual concept for Undun was the brainchild of our manager. He came up with the whole idea of basing it around one protagonist character – “Redford.”

It seems like a real “for the fans” type of album as opposed to one reaching for people who have just been introduced to The Roots through Late Night. Would you agree with that?

Absolutely. Our concern with doing this Late Night gig and taking on all the other stuff that we’ve taken on in the past two or three years is that people that have been supporting The Roots forever don’t feel as if we’ve abandoned them, you know what I’m saying? But we definitely take that into consideration.

In a way, is it like there are two different Roots operating?

Man, there are so many more than two Roots operating! There’s like 10 different Roots operating.

I was talking to Patty Crash a couple months ago and she was talking pretty vividly about how she had been invited on your tour bus and freestyled a bit and suddenly she was singing “The Day” on How I Got Over. Do you think that you guys are more willing to put on younger or more unknown artists because of how you were treated at the beginning of your careers?

You know, I don’t know what it is but I just don’t front. If it’s something that I can’t front on, then I won’t front. So if there’s any artist that I come into contact with or interact with on the road, if they prove themselves as a credible musician or a worthy writer or a dope lyricist or singer, I’m gonna try to figure out a way to implement what it is they do and fuse it with what it is we do so that we can both become better from the collaboration. That’s what happened in Patty’s case. I just invited her on the bus to spit, thinking that it wouldn’t go any further than that. But she was dope and she wanted to go on for hours and she and I exchanged verses on the bus and that’s what sparked an interest in hearing what else she had to offer.

Do you think there is a connection between when you started and now?

I think the connection is that The Roots haven’t changed, you know? We’re the same. We have the same ideals and fundamentals that we had starting out. Had it not been for A.J. Shine and Richard Nichols and King Britt and the countless people who let us come rock on their radio shows and play at those small Philadelphia venues, then there would be no Roots. Sometimes I’m in a position to put someone on. Sometimes I’m not. But if I am and someone’s worthy, then I’m not gonna not put them on, you know? Someone had a belief in The Roots and if you can convince me or if you’re dope enough to make me believe in you, then I’m gonna try and rock with you.

One last thing. It seems that The Roots came up at the same time as some of the acts that you play with at the Picnic. Do you see yourself more as an elder statesmen or someone that’s still pushing the boundaries?

I feel like we’re both. I think we’re elder statesmen simply based on a time perspective, you know? The Roots, we’re a black band. Like, a band of African-American men who play live instruments and rap and sing, and we’ve been around since 1987. We’re elder statesmen whether we want to be or not. The challenge is to continue to push the envelope with the records that we put out. And if we reach a point where we’re not pushing the envelope, then maybe we won’t put out any more records. Right now, we still have a lot of stuff to put out because the envelope has to be pushed.

I mean, I remember when I was introduced to The Roots through Phrenology and I was pretty astounded that the first album, Organix, came out in ‘92.

I don’t know how much of a feat that is, but there aren’t many people from our graduating class who are still working on that level or higher.

It’s a pretty select group. You’ve got Nas, Common…

Yeah, Nas, Com, Wu Tang, Mobb Deep, Redman and a bunch of other guys who just didn‘t last as long, for whatever reason. But that’s who we’re trying to do this for. We represent all of these dudes. It’s a blessing to be here and making music and not feeling like we’re compromising our integrity. I feel like I don’t say anything that I don’t stand for, you know what I’m saying? I don’t feel like I have to tone down my lyrics, ever, you know? And I don’t know if it’s that people don’t hear what I’m saying or something but my lyrics really haven’t changed from the jump. It’s a little bit political. It’s a little bit street. It’s a little bit advisory. And it’s always been that way. It’s just a blessing to still be able to do what we love to do and get paid to do it.

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