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another great ?uestlove interview April 23, 2008

Posted by KG in arts/culture, comedy, design, hip-hop, interviews, legal, marketing, media, music, news, radio.
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With less than a week till the release of their 8th (!) masterpiece, Rising Down, OnSMASH linked up with The Roots mouthpiece and unofficial leader ?uestlove to talk about his legendary crew and the state of this art we call hip-hop.

I want to talk about Rising Down right now. From what I’ve been hearing, with the exception of one song [“Birthday Girl”], this record sounds very, very serious, very aggressive, and kind of dark. The last Roots record, I got that kind feeling from like that, was Illadelph Half Life. What was the intent behind this record?

Hip-hop is about as apolitical as it’s ever been. I guess there’s some sort of unsaid science to how we made this record. In order not to come off like we’re on our soapbox we knew that musically this album had to be bangin’. But of course the 2008 definition of bangin’ definitely varies from the 1996 definition of bangin’, but that’s the standard with which we feel most comfortable. So there’s this sort of boom bap element [on the album]. At the very most today when you get a hip-hop record you can only hope for that one cut that has that “boom bap element”, similar to how what the one radio cut was back in the day, like Brand Nubian’s “Tried To Do Me” or Diamond D “I’m So Confused” song. One token radio cut on a hip-hop record now turned into one Primo cut on a commercial record [in 2008].

Very true

We just wanted to put out an album of bangers because we kind of knew we had to sort of offset the heavy message. I guess if anything probably the hardest thing to do on this record was to put everything in first person perspective. Because normally whenever we did touch something political it was always from a very safe arm’s length third person perspective.

Like just observing shit.

Yeah, like the “project window” thing. Like: “I’m looking out my project window seeing what’s going on in the streets” and that kind of thing. But it’s a whole other ballgame when you’re rhyming from the point of view of a campus shooter or a Una-bomber. You got to be very careful with what you’re words are because you don’t want to appear insensitive to people who might’ve been victimized by these people. That was the main challenge, jumping in the first person account and showing it like it’s a movie but not showing it in terms of we condone this or we don’t condone this. Because pretty much every cut has some sort of violence in it.

Even “Birthday Girl?”

Statutory rape is violent! [laughs] No, I’m just playin’, it’s illegal! It’s funny because I kind of thought people would see the tongue-in-cheekness of it. My concern was because Game Theory—[which] was the intentionally melancholy record—left people sad. it was sort of a downer. What I didn’t want to do was leave people [like that this time around], because the thing that matters the most out of a record is the first fifteen minutes and the last fifteen minutes.

Explain that.

To me people only seem to remember the first fifteen minutes and the last fifteen minutes of any experience. Not necessarily fifteen minutes but the first bit and the last bit. With live shows people remember how a person came out and the first three songs and people are gonna remember how he left the stage. Like when I do a show or if I have to build someone’s show, I build it from the perspective of the first fifteen minutes and the last fifteen minutes. That’s the most important thing as far as records are concerned. To me the first bit and the last bit, how you come in and how you go out, is what’s most impressionable. And initially this record was the exact opposite in sequence order. “Rising Up” was going to open the record then “The Show Must Go On” was going to be the second cut. Then “Lost Desire” would’ve been the first record where you would see our dip into Hell, so to speak. Gettin’ lower and lower and lower. Then hearing it in that sequence sort of left us in almost a bitter taste because we kind of ended the record last time on a sad note. None of us wanted to be accused on being too serious ‘cause that was always a problem because we also faced this thing where “they think too much, they overthink a situation.” Anything that falls into the pretentious overthinking thing, I didn’t want to deal with. To me ending the record on “Birthday Girl” was like “oh ok these guys do have a sense of humor. They can be lighthearted.” Even though it is a serious subject, people really get the message confused.

What is the message?

It’s about an underage girl who sneaks into a club. I mean underage for a club. You have to be 21 to enter a club. 18 is not underage.

I like how you’re stressing that.

People are like, “Yo why are you sexin’ underage fans?” And I’m like nah, there’s two standards of underage. The protagonist clearly has an arms length distance to the subject of the song. It’s just that some people have already jumped the gun and been like “Ah, they’re on some R Kelly shit.” But really it was a tongue-in-cheek song only because it didn’t fit with the rest of the record. We were wise enough to be like “ok it’s not gonna work.” So we took it off.

And now it’s back on? Is it on or not?

No , it’s not on the American version. The Japanese and the European division of Universal insisted that they keep the record.

Wow, they felt that strongly?

Yeah, they felt that strong about it. iTunes said “under contract, you guys owe us an exclusive song.” And we were like “well, we don’t have any other songs.

Like, “It’s your birthday! Here!”

Yeah, so they were like, “We’ll take this one, thank you.”

So what’s up with the video? Did you have any input in that in terms of conceiving it.

The one with Sasha Grey in it?


Rik Cordero is just his own universe. I see video as the one area in our career [where we aren’t as heavily involved]. It’s kind of ironic being that we are very detail-obsessed with absolutely every aspect of our career from the fonts of the record, to the art design, to how it’s engineered, to the shows to the lights and all that stuff. But this is one area which we’re absolutely hands off, which is video. I really wish I was Kanye-obsessed with visuals as he is. With Rik Cordero, for all these videos that he’s shot—and we’re gonna do about five more with him—he’s just trustworthy to where I believe in his vision for the song to the point where he basically telling me what’s going down. My only insistence on “Birthday Girl” was that we pull an Aerosmith which was basically, I don’t think we should be in the video because it would be distracting. Make this video more or less a narrative so he brought up the whole “To Catch A Predator” theme.

There’s kind of like an implied gang bang going on . . .

Well, it’s Sasha Grey! So obviously we’re going to have some double entendre reference. If people aren’t familiar with who Sasha Grey is…

Was Sasha your selection? Are you familiar with her work?

I’m very familiar with her work. And her story if there’s anyone in the adult film world that could sort of fit in to the narrative of the song, it’s her. Her manager is Dave Navarro’s manager. I’m actually getting’ with this thing tomorrow with Navarro in Miami with Skribble. I met him when I did the Jay-Z thing for BET. We did “99 Problems” with I guess this all-star rock band thing at the BET awards in 2005 if I believe. Anyways, I’ve known Sasha I guess for a year now, for about a year.

Now you’ve mentioned that there are going to be five more videos. How many videos are out now, there’s “75 Bars” , there’s “Birthday Girl”, “Get Busy”, those are the three videos out right now.

Well we just shot “Rising Up” with Wale and Chrisette Michele last, we shot it on Monday. I just got it back. Rik is dangerously quick. He’s almost like the Swizz Beats of video turnaround. He shoots some shit and it’s ready in less than 24 hours.

Tell me about the strategy of doing all these videos because people don’t get to do all these videos. You know the era where people had huge video budgets? Like here’s five videos on an album that shit is kinda over.

The big video budget is for [us to do] small videos. Like when Beck did it for his last record I was like “Fuck! Why didn’t I think of that shit?!” Like do a video for every song on a record. Like do cheap videos. For starters the standard medium for which you watch videos doesn’t even exist anymore. You go on MTV or BET and you see reality shows.

I watch my videos on OnSMASH.

Right, exactly. Besides you guys and YouTube and basically online stuff. That’s how I even heard of Rik until the crackhead joint.] I didn’t even know he existed, well I knew about the “Blue Magic” trailer and all of that stuff. But I didn’t even know about him until I saw his stuff on you guys’ site. So at that he executes and turns around in record time and he actually does quality work. And it’s affordable. We basically took the video budget for one video and we’re trying to turn it into 10 Rik Cordero videos. The idea is catching on now but in three to four years the internet will be the medium for which music videos get promoted. I just want to get a head start on it now before the whole world realizes who he is.

I think you guys are really on top of that strategy. I think a lot of people aren’t as forward thinking as The Roots.

Which is risky because your ego wants you to be on 106 & Park. Y’know but I clearly see the internet now being the Noah’s Ark for this upcoming tsunami. People are going to have to learn how to communicate with their fans on the internet. People are going to have to learn how to sell their records and their product on the internet. And people are going to have to learn how to promote on the internet.

On some other shit, it’s funny because a lot of artists who are strictly album-based are shittin’ bricks because of downloading and file-sharing. The Roots are a performance-based group whose bread and butter has always been performing. How do you feel in this digital era? Are you guys shook or are you guys happy as hell?

Just because of the perception that “their live show is 12 times better than their record.” The live show should always be better than your record, but that doesn’t mean we don’t put meticulous detail behind the work that we do. I’m actually very, extremely, 100%, and I’m knockin on wood [pause] shocked, that the album has not leaked on the internet and I know there’s at least 200 copies of it floatin’ out there. Either all the recipients think that the album absolutely sucks or they’re absolutely loyal to us begging them “please don’t leak this shit on the internet.” It’s a bittersweet thing. My survival depends on us being on a major label and receiving major label funding. ‘Cause even in this sort of low-level room that we’re in, you still need somewhere between half-a-million to a million dollars to even do low-level work, for promotion, for recording, you know there’s a lot of people on this record. We still need funding. It’s not like the “friends and family discount” is in effect. But I’m bittersweet about it. I got friends in college who have gotten subpoenas from the RIAA, talkin’ ‘bout: “For every song you have downloaded off of Limewire they gotta pay 750 bucks.” I don’t know. I think there should be some sort of medium in which the industry actually acknowledges the internet and uses it in an effective way. Like the radio’s legal but the internet’s not legal? I don’t think that having cassettes and taping them off the radio damaged any artist’s career. If anything it’s helped sustain it. So a lot of these executives are just crying because they might not be able to pay off their fourth summer home. But the real power might go back to the people so we’ll see.

One thing that’s great about the net as a venue or a place for videos is that you can get videos on there that wouldn’t meet standards for MTV etc., etc. You can get stuff like “75 bars” . . .

I’m counting the days until the government and the FCC get their hands on the internet because you know it’s going to happen any day now. I give it 2 years before the FCC starts doing standards and practices on the internet.

I should hope not [laughs]!

Or a year [laughs].

Just for the record, exactly how many times does Tariq say “nigga” on “75 Bars?”

I believe there was a count of 39.


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