The Roots

Aug 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Chris J. Walker


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As one of the few actual performing groups in hip hop, The Roots have been enormously influential and successful during their 12 years on the scene. Not only do they break the mold by actually playing instruments rather than relying on tapes, but they have also demonstrated a flair for the experimental: taking part in adventurous crossover collaborations and not limiting themselves to any particular genre, but thriving because of their sonic diversity.

However, success did not come early or easily for the Philadelphia-based group, which was strongly influenced by the pioneering use of live instrumentation in hip hop by Pharcyde and the Brand New Heavies. Initially, founding members Ahmir Khalib “?uestlove” Thompson, an extraordinary drummer, and vocalist/rapper Black Thought (Tariq Trotter) didn't even have the money for standard rap/hip hop gear, such as a sound system, turntables and microphones. So they formed a real band, adding bassist Leonard (“Hub) Hubbard and rapper Malik B. The present lineup also includes keyboardist Kamel Gray, DJ Scratch, guitarist Ben Kenney and human beatbox, Rahzel. Their first four albums drew critical acclaim and respect from peers, but sales were not stellar and, during that period, The Roots were thought of primarily as an underground act.

Their 2000 release, Things Fall Apart, dramatically changed that preconception. The CD went Platinum, and for the past two years, the band has vitually lived on the road, with minute blocks of free time in between marathon tours. It's a testament to their eclecticism and diverse following that they've toured with the likes of Dave Matthews, Nelly Furtado, Jay-Z, Musiq, Jill Scott and Moby, to name a few. On the other hand, the heavy schedule of appearances, along with the demands of individual side projects, has afforded them little time to record Phrenology, the much-anticipated follow-up to their breakout album.

“It was about us being meticulous,” stresses Thompson during a soundcheck at the House of Blues in Anaheim, Calif. The backstage area at the club is filled with a discordant mix of musicians tuning up and trams for the Disneyland concourse whizzing by. “The song ‘Rolling With Heat’ took about nine days for me to get the drums right. Every note and cranny on that record was thought out, even the maracas on ‘Quills.’”

Thompson doesn't consider himself just a musician, producer and engineer, but rather a sound designer. He is also something of a music historian, with a mind-boggling collection of more than 30,000 records on vinyl alone. In conversation, he cites a variety of discs — from landmark to esoteric — as influences and references with which to navigate The Roots' musical philosophy. “Prince's Dirty Minds had eight songs; Thriller by Michael Jackson, 10 songs; and Innervisions by Stevie Wonder was only eight or nine songs,” he notes. “It hit me that every classic record is about a half-hour or 33 minutes at the most. That's not even song number five on my records. Here we are bashing ourselves over the heads, trying to balance these gargantuan 16-song statements. So in the beginning [of Phrenology], our statement as a group was going to be a simple record, but not in the center. It's definitely left [experimentation] and right [pop mainstream]. Our interpretation of right is the Nelly Furtado song ‘Sacrifice,’ which is still unlike anything on radio today.

“Basically, we wanted to appeal to the public and sort of push the envelope, too,” he continues. “We felt we had an audience waiting for the next move, and instead of offering them what they expected, we sort of sucker-punched them. You don't want to be too overambitious and be accused of being pretentious and too artsy. Then again, you're expected to make a statement. But the one you make, you're not sure the world is ready for.”

After years of working at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia, where they were tutored by legendary engineer Joe Tarsia and others, The Roots have gone in a different direction with Phrenology. It was primarily mixed by Bob Power (Sony Music Studios, N.Y.) and Russ Elevado (Electric Lady, New York City): “The two greatest sets of hands and ears ever to mix music,” Thompson crows, “and doing the most progressive work in black music in the '90s and beyond.” Additionally, Jon Smeltz did much of the original tracking and preliminary mixing at The Studio in Philadelphia.

Smeltz and Power have worked with the group often through the years and have encouraged their sometimes unorthodox methods. Elevado, on the other hand, became acquainted with Thompson through projects that the drummer produced for Common, Erykah Badu and D'Angelo. “He's one more key element that wasn't in the past five records,” Thompson says. “He works in another place that's very anal about keeping stock of their recording equipment. He introduced us to Eddie Kramer, who was Jimi Hendrix's recording engineer [Hendrix was a major influence on The Roots], and from him, we got a lot of stories, methods of mixing and recording techniques.”

Those pearls of wisdom resonated with Thompson, who admits that he's obsessed with every nuance of engineering that goes into a Roots record. It even helped him warm up to Pro Tools, which he'd previously avoided. His change of heart came about when he was at Electric Lady and got into a conversation with Lenny Kravitz. Thompson recalls, “Lenny told me, ‘Hey, man, I got tired of keeping up with the analog game. I'm totally digital.’ I said, ‘What?!’ He said, ‘Dude, if Jimi Hendrix were alive today, he'd be using Pro Tools.’ I said, ‘That's a lie and you know it!’ So a couple of weeks later, I was talking with Kramer while he was working on the Jimi Hendrix BBC Live album. I said, ‘Isn't that funny what Lenny said about Hendrix and Pro Tools?’ He paused for a second and said, ‘Yeah, I could see that.’ Then he went on to tell me that the classic Hendrix recordings amounted to three engineers being human Pro Tools.”

Nevertheless, Elevado remains a staunch analog advocate. At Electric Lady, he has a wealth of vintage equipment in tip-top condition to call upon and he only uses Pro Tools sparingly. For his part, Thompson likes the sound of analog and loves to experiment with old equipment.

“Often, artists will mix a whole album and then they'll say, ‘I have these five songs for you,’” Elevado says. “Those usually are the artsy ones, which I can really get creative with. [Clients] will tell me, ‘Just do whatever you want, and if you hear something, go for it.’ That plays a big part in the relationship I have with Ahmir. He looks for me to push the envelope.”

At Electric Lady, Elevado worked on an SSL 9K console — his favorite — along with a wide assortment of analog outboard effects, including Mutron Biphase, various flanges and envelope filters, Leslie cabinets, MXR phasers, Neve 1081 and 1093 EQs, Helios mic preamps, Fairchild compressors and gates. “People don't realize how big a difference analog can make over digital,” Elevado says. “It's definitely in the mixing process, because I'm going through all kinds of old tube compressors and EQs. That's a huge part of my sound.”

Bob Power, by contrast, likes to blend the old with the new, employing Logic Audio and Pro Tools TDM for recording and then mixing on an SSL 9000 J, but also favoring occasional enhancements from older Neve outboard equipment. “It's really nice to have MIDI and audio in one place, and with the TDM running, I'm afforded a lot of things I wouldn't ordinarily be able to do,” he says.

The veteran engineer/producer has been regularly relied upon by The Roots to mix their more straightforward tracks and singles. “They use me for what I'm good at, and working with them is different than anyone else,” he notes, “primarily because their music synthesizes so many different styles.

“For example, having a strong jazzy element in the chord changes over a really nasty hip hop beat. From a mix standpoint, the combination of elements they happen to use, which are all part of modern soul but normally not in the same song, makes it very challenging. Fortunately, all of the stuff they brought in [analog and digital source material], particularly for this last project, was recorded really well. Jon Smeltz did a lot of it. He's a real serious pro, and the stuff he records sounds great.”

Smeltz works mainly out of The Studio, a facility he and arranger John Gold founded about seven years ago. The Philadelphia studio features two SSL rooms; most of their work with The Roots was done in the room with E Series board using George Augspurger mains. Initial tracking was done on a Studer 827 2-inch analog deck. In the later stages of the sessions, during the second year, everything was recorded on Pro Tools.

“I've been recording music for over 20-something years,” states Smeltz from his home in Philadelphia. “I've worked with everyone from Whitney to Mariah, and I guess I just learned from the very beginning of my career how to mike live instruments. I used to be a [Sennheiser] 421 guy on the kick drums,” Thompson notes, “but shifted to the D-112 when it came out. Everything has just evolved, and I was even around when the RE-20 ruled for the kick drums. But with hip hop music and such, I always find that the 47 always gives me a nice solid bottom that I roll the top off of. Sometimes, I'll even take a Moogerfooger as a stand-alone unit, not the plug-in, which is a nice way to shape the bottom. Often, I'll print that on a separate track. Believe it or not, the drums were done after the fact, 80 to 90 percent of the time.

“I'm about the sound and feel of the CD, that's all I care about at the end of the day,” he concludes. “People don't recognize The Roots for having what I feel are some of the best-engineered hip hop albums around. But then again, I'm the kind of cat that cares about that type of stuff.”

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