On December 6, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon house band, Philadelphia-bred hip-hop vets the Roots, will release undun, their 13th studio release and first concept album. We rang ?uestlove at 30 Rock, where he was hiding out in zoologist Jeff Musial's dressing room between rehearsals, to find out what the heck this album is actually about.
Tell us about undun. Why do a conceptual LP now?
It's funny: Back when SPIN chose the Top 20 records of 1999, there were only a few hip-hop entries and Goodie Mobb's World Party and Prince Paul's A Prince Among Thieves were among them. Being the obsessive quasi journalist that I am, I went out and listened to those records and dissected each one. I was pleasantly surprised by A Prince Among Thieves. It's a concept album with a narrative about a young man and his struggle in life. It has always sat in the back of my mind — I knew one day I would like to try that idea out. So, here we are 13 years later.
How does the story on undun unfold?
It's basically a tale about someone who makes one decision that completely undoes their entire life. And we tell the story backwards, so when you hear the record it starts at the very end of this character's life. We wanted to tell a cautionary tale but didn't want to do the cliché tale of a 'hood kid who does the wrong shit and then just dies.
So who, exactly, is the protagonist Redford Stephens?
Well, the album's name is inspired by the Guess Who song "undun." But we named the character after the Sufjan Stevens song "Redford" from his Michigan record. We imagined Redford as being like Avon Barksdale from The Wire. He's a good guy who could have just gone to college and been a great engineer or something. But he makes a bad decision and pays for it. We tell that story in 10 songs, under 44 minutes. Actually, Sufjan makes an appearance on the album, too.
We've always loved the song "Redford" from Michigan. So we close the new album with a cover of "Redford." We stretched it out into this four-part movement. Part 1 is Sufjan at the piano performing it. And then Part 2 is a string quartet that we had interpret it. Part 3 is myself and D.D. Jackson, who is an avant-garde piano player. He's probably one of the most dangerous pianists — I don't know how he doesn't have carpal tunnel now. But he just destroys, literally, destroys the piano. The final movement, which ends the record, is essentially the beginning of the story. But it's the last thing you hear. It's a very powerful piece of work. Dare I say that undun is probably as good as it's going to get for the Roots. Our songwriting can't get better. Our production can't get better. I hate to sound like Kanye, like "This is the best..." But as a music consumer, I always make records that I would like to purchase.
You've probably witnessed similar stories in real life many times.
Oh yeah. Redford is definitely compiled of five or six people that we've known from Philadelphia. [Rapper] Tariq's [Trotter, a.k.a. Black Thought] entire family, his cousin and brothers, have literally all been this guy. Tariq is the only one that has escaped the fate that most of his family have encountered. The narrative definitely hits home with him more than any other member of the band.
How has working on Late Night helped shape this record?
Being at 30 Rock enables us to do something that's never happened in the history of the Roots. It gives us a lot of down time to practice and hone our skills. That's what they pay us to do. They pay us to write short, concise songs, even if they don't get used on air. We have to create three to seven songs every day. It's like going to school all over again. You learn by dissecting the music — it's like, "Okay, let's get to the point right here and by the second line we should get to the chorus." We've never truly paid attention to the craft of songwriting until we came to 30 Rock. I consider all the records between Organix! and How I Got Over jam-based records. We wrote them on tour during the soundchecks. But until we got to 30 Rock we never worked on the song. Before we just worked on the jam. This is our 13th record, but I feel like it's our 2nd.
How does udun sound musically? It's more orchestral?
Yeah. And it has more of a community feel because in our heads undun is a play or a movie. Since it's a narrative we invited more outside musicians to contribute. I've been doing some orchestral work in Philadelphia. I got the chance to curate this program called Philly-Paris Lockdown, which essentially tells the story of when the Roots were trapped in Paris for like two weeks with no money. We had just started this European tour and a gig got cancelled, and then another gig got cancelled and we were trapped in Paris, living on very little money in prostitute hotels. I was asked to curate this impressionistic jazz-fusion concept piece in April of this year. It was me and members of Dirty Projects and avant-garde musicians like David Murray and D.D. Jackson, and a few orchestral string people. That's when we started undun and I definitely knew I wanted that feeling on the record. Maybe on next album we'll go all out and do a full-blown orchestra.
Has working on Late Night changed the way you view the music industry? Do you have any interest in working in the traditional business model again?
The other night I played the record for Harry Allen, Public Enemy's former media assassin and a very well respected writer. He said that undun was one of the boldest things he'd ever heard before. I was telling him how people always start off with the negative. I saw the Stereogum story, like, "Seeing the Roots play on Fallon is like seeing Miles Davis play in the subway for change." There's always two ways to see the situation. I knew people were going to underestimate us. I knew they'd instantly say it was uncool for incredible musicians to play on a late night comedy show. But I looked at the benefits.
There are probably many...
Yeah. The first was that we could finally follow all those crazy ideas that we've had without fear of being dropped by our label. Most people in hip-hop do what they do to survive. They're thinking about paying their bills. They don't really have any other options. If Joni Mitchell leaves her label she can go to the countryside and paint. Or Beck can do his photography stuff. But a lot of hip-hoppers don't have other options. If you get dropped, then it's a hurt piece. Now we have a safety net. Our Def Jam life is now an evening job. We now have the comfort and confidence to start making the albums we want to make. That's why undun feels like our second album. There's no pressure. It's like, "What if we get dropped?" Well, money's not a problem anymore. We make way more money now than before. We can treat music as a passion as opposed to a survival thing. You'll really hear the difference on undun.