John Legend remembers vividly the day that he and Roots drummer and bandleader Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson first met 10 years ago. Legend, then an aspiring singer, songwriter and keyboardist attending the University of Pennsylvania in the Roots’ hometown of Philadelphia, had been drawn to the buzzed-about series of public jam sessions the hip-hop group had been putting on at the Five Spot nightclub on Bank Street. “They were the heart of the Philadelphia music scene,” Legend remembers. “We saw a lot of acts come through at those jam sessions—they would have Erykah Badu up there, Bilal, Musiq Soulchild, Common, D’Angelo. They were working with a lot of great neo-soul and hip-hop artists. That made it exciting to be around Philadelphia at that time.” After one show, Legend—then going by his given name, John Stephens—approached the drummer, introduced himself and handed him a demo tape.

Questlove, on the other hand, remembers none of this. “He always says, ‘Yeah, you know, I gave him my demo and he rejected it,’” Questlove observes with a chuckle. “Which is not true! He just happened to be one of the thousands that would come to these jam sessions every week and not say anything.” Legend and the Roots finally worked together on a track for Al Green’s 2008 Lay It Down album, and when both men became heavily involved with Barack Obama’s presidential campaign that year the seeds of a friendship were sown. As the election approached, Legend got the notion to record an EP of socially conscious cover songs—and he asked the Roots to be his backing band. “But once we did a few songs, we loved what we were doing,” Legend says. “My manager loved it, my label loved it, and everyone was like, ‘This could be really cool and interesting. Let’s make it a full-length album.’”

That proved to be easier said than done. Legend spent the following year touring, and the always in-demand Roots—including rapper Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, guitarist “Captain” Kirk Douglas, keyboardists James Poyser and James “Kamal” Gray, bass player Owen Biddle, percussionist Franklin “F. Knuckles” Walker and sousaphonist Damon “Tuba Gooding Jr.” Bryson—were rarely available. But last year, the stars aligned. Legend finished up his tour and returned to New York City, where he had moved after college. In March 2009 the Roots began their current gig as the house band on TV’s Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Suddenly everyone was in the same city at the same time, and work on the album that would become Wake Up! went into overdrive. Legend and the Roots crew gathered nightly at MSR Studios, welcoming guests like Common, Melanie Fiona and CL Smooth while whipping up soulful new versions of vintage topical tunes like Curtis Mayfield’s “Hard Times,” Donny Hathaway’s “Little Ghetto Boy” and Bill Withers’ “I Can’t Write Left Handed.” That such songs retain their topicality in 2010 is a testament both to their timeless quality and to the sorry fact that we continue to grapple with many of the same social ills that America faced in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when they were written. “At first I was worried that we missed our window of opportunity,” Questlove says, “but it’s funny how the subject matters on the record are probably even more relevant than they would have been had we released them in November of 2008.”

The release of Wake Up! marks a powerful moment in the careers of its creators. Legend got his big break with a series of guest shots on tracks by artists like Jay-Z and Kanye West before launching a solo career that has seen him sell millions of albums and win six Grammys. The Roots formed in 1989, and also rose to national prominence through high-profile collaborations with rap acts—long before their role on Late Night, they were commonly referred to as “hip-hop’s house band.” Both acts have always made social activism a part of their music, but never as pointedly as on Wake Up! For Legend, the album represents a musical turning point as well. Questlove pushed the singer toward a much grittier vocal style than fans of his relatively smooth R&B might be accustomed to hearing. “This is really me going back to the way I sang growing up in church,” says Ohio native Legend, whose “Shine” is the lone original composition on Wake Up! “It’s very different from what’s on the radio right now. In some ways, it’s kind of risky to sing in a more soulful, gritty and raw style—but for this album it felt perfect.”

Each act has separate future projects in the making already. Legend is writing songs for his first solo album since 2008’s Evolver, which he plans to begin recording in the coming months. In addition to their ongoing late-night TV work, the Roots are contributing to upcoming albums by Duffy, Estelle and legendary soul organist Booker T. (“I guess we played the role of the MGs,” Questlove notes with a chuckle) and will eventually hit the studio for the followup to their own latest album, June’s How I Got Over. We caught up with Legend and Questlove to discuss both the musical and social aspects of their collaboration.


How did you pick the songs for the new album?

LEGEND: We picked most of the songs back in ’08. We started with Questlove digging through his massive record collection and narrowing it down to about 25 songs that we should consider. He thought we should make sure we didn’t cover the most obvious songs, which would put us at a disadvantage because we’d always be compared to the originals. We weren’t going to do “What’s Going On,” for instance, because everybody’s heard Marvin [Gaye]’s version so many times. We figured we’d pick some diamonds in the rough that hadn’t been covered so much, and that weren’t even necessarily hits back in their day.

QUESTLOVE: I know how cynical and fickle the audience and the critics are. They wouldn’t have given this record a chance if we came with something so familiar. I explained to John that there’s a wealth of information out there that’s under the radar. I’ve made a career living under the radar. I told him there was some really powerful material that we could bring to light.

Just how massive is that record collection?

QUESTLOVE: My record collection is up to about 70,000 records. People ask me, “How can you have not moved [from Philadelphia] to New York yet? How can you still be living in hotels?” Truth be told, I’ve put so much work into this record library. It’s pristine, it’s got sliding ladders, it’s catalogued beautifully—and it takes a lot to dismantle a 70,000-piece record library.

What was the vibe in the studio?

QUESTLOVE: I told John, “You’re gonna get dirty. I’m gonna put a lot of mud on your white linen suit. It’s gonna get ripped. You’re gonna sweat. It’s gonna sound nasty, but it’s gonna sound authentic.” That’s what I wanted.

LEGEND: When we started out we were just chilling in Questlove’s studio in Philadelphia, that’s where we were in ’08. It’s a dark studio, it wasn’t that big. We just sat there and listened to records, trying to decide which ones we wanted to cover. Then once we settled on the songs, we recorded everything in a very live way. We would sit together with the piano, the drums, the guitar and bass, and record as a rhythm section. In some genres that’s a normal thing, but in hip-hop and soul these days, most things are very drum-machine-driven and they’re built piece by piece. This was actual live interaction between live musicians, which shouldn’t be rare—but it is.

How did the album evolve?

QUESTLOVE: Once the Roots were steady in New York, that made it much easier. NBC turned our three dressing rooms into studios, which now afforded us the opportunity to rehearse and play this material over and over. Then John was like, “Well, I want the energy of the album to match what we’re doing in rehearsal,” so we did everything over again. Then we started doing little sneaky jam sessions around New York City, and those started sounding better than what we had on tape. So John said, “Let’s go one more time and bring it to the level of how we do it in concert.” So we did the album a third time. Every two months we would live with what we recorded and then use that as the template for the live shows, and the live shows would kick more ass. Then we’d listen to the live shows and say, “This is what the record should sound like!” Most of the tracks on the album are the fourth through sixth draft of each song.

Was it hard to merge your styles? 

LEGEND: Not at all, it was very natural. When you play music for a long time, it’s not hard to get into a groove with other musicians, even if you’ve never met them or never played with them before.

How did you develop your version of “I Can’t Write Left Handed”?

QUESTLOVE: It’s funny how a song that was mere filler in the beginning stages all of a sudden becomes the emotional centerpiece of the record. John said, “I want this to match the way we do it live.” I was like, “Are you sure about that? Why don’t we get to a happy medium and not give it so much energy?” We weren’t fighting about it, but in my world the show’s more important than the record. So sometimes I’ll purposely hold back on recorded material because I know that when we do it live it’s going to kick ass and it won’t compare. But John drew us into it. Truth be told, for the last two minutes of “Left Handed” he’s bawling. He’s crying his eyes out. That’s how emotional it was to him. It does hurt to play that song. I can only do that maybe once a week. There was one point where we were doing it twice a day for various promotional appearances when the album came out, and it was gut wrenching.

What’s the personal dynamic like?

LEGEND: It’s interesting, because we became friends during this process. We weren’t friends at the start. We weren’t enemies, of course, but we didn’t know each other well. It was about getting to know all the guys through working with them, improvising with them on stage, traveling. It’s definitely been fun.

No40-JohnLegendRoots-3Why was so much socially conscious music made in the ’60s and ’70s?

LEGEND: The conditions were very volatile in the country at the time, with the civil rights movement, the black power movement, the anti-war movement, the women’s rights movement. There was a lot of upheaval, socially and politically, and there was a real rebellion in that generation against the ’50s ethos. They wanted to express that frustration through the music. I particularly think the fact that kids could have gotten drafted for the war would have made them feel more connected to politics in a way that our kids don’t, because they don’t have to suffer the immediate consequences of a big foreign policy decision the country makes. Only if you volunteer for the military will you ever have to go and fight, whereas back then anybody could have gotten called up.

By contrast, why has so little protest music been made recently?

QUESTLOVE: The way Bush got into office, to me, was so gangsta that it was almost a step beyond Big Brother. Then you had Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks speaking her mind and suffering the repercussions of what she said about Bush. It’s crazy—even though America is now like, “She had a point there,” she still can’t recover from that hit. It’s the axe that knocked down the biggest tree—a 10-million-selling, unstoppable Teflon machine called the Dixie Chicks, and in one fell swoop they were gone. That rendered a lot of people silent. They didn’t want to risk that, not at all. The Disney set runs pop radio now, and in light of the times that we’re living in I don’t think it’s a coincidence. (sighs) So it is what it is.

Hip-hop in particular became apolitical. 

QUESTLOVE: Life is so depressing for black people that I think the way they found a solution was through escapism. So none of the music had a political reflection because that would have been just too depressing. Why were we partying all the time? Why was every song about going to the club? It’s simply because it’s too sad to think about how messed up your life is.

What are your hopes for this record? 

QUESTLOVE: I want people to recognize and know when something quality has been assembled. I want their undivided attention for 60 minutes. Absorb it and really listen to it and let it speak to you. That’s all I want.

LEGEND: Obviously the best situation would be that people love the music and the message, and it makes them want to do something. If they don’t love the music, then we’ve failed. It’s an album, it’s not just a collection of words where you’re trying to inspire people. It’s music, and you want people to enjoy listening to it. Hopefully that’s what people will feel.  M

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