August 17-23, 2006
Cover StoryTracing The Roots
1957-1958Lee Andrews and the Hearts: In the span of one year, Lee Andrews (born Arthur Lee Andrew Thompson) and the Hearts score three doo-wop hits. At age 9, Ahmir Khalib-Thompson starts working as a lighting technician for the band. Around age 13 he becomes drummer and musical director for the band, which includes his mother Jackie and sister Donn.
September 1987The Meeting: On the second day of school, Ahmir Thompson meets Tariq Trotter at the principal's office of Philadelphia's High School for the Performing Arts. Caught performing "extracurricular" activities with a ballerina, Trotter was about to get suspended. Thompson was there to pick up his school I.D. Together, they decide to form a band. "Getting suspended was how Tariq made his legend in the Performing Arts," says Thompson. "If he didn't he would have just been a faceless freshman."
February 1988The First Performance: At a High School for the Performing Arts Black History Month presentation, Thompson (with his "Frank Zappa" lineup) backs up Trotter under the name Radio Activity.
February 1989Squaring off Against Boyz II Men: Thompson and Trotter, now named The Square Roots, compete against Boyz II Men in a high school talent show. BIIM, in matching outfits and glitter, win over the audience. The Roots blame their loss on the glitter.
1989Schooling on South Street: The Square Roots take their case to the strollers of South Street, busking with a drum kit of pots and pans for an audience of change-poor hipsters. "It's there we learned how to rock crowds," Ahmir will later write in the liner notes for The Roots Come Alive. Thompson would show off by pulling someone out of the crowd and freestyling about their hair or clothes. When they got heckled, he rapped back, occasionally leading to tense standoffs with rival crews.
July 1991Tariq Meets Malik B. : While attending an early summer session at Millersville University, Trotter is told by a friend that there's another rapper on campus who can "eat him alive," Malik B. (Malik Abdul Basit-Smart). Tariq and Malik meet in a laundry room to battle. Eventually, they can't out-rhyme one another and decide to start working together.
November 1993Hub Joins: Rich Nichols, now manager for the band, brings in bassist Leonard "Hub" Hubbard to replace Steve Newman, who has to go to school. Hubbard studied upright bass at Carnegie Mellon University under Eligio Rossi, known for tutoring Stanley Clarke, amongst many others.
1993Scott Storch: In addition to working with Philly artists G. Love and Schoolly D, Storch starts playing keyboards for The Roots, unaware that it's a stepping stone to becoming a multimillionaire. "I think even if he weren't making so much money he would still be in his house working on tracks. That's just how he is," says Nichols.
1993Organix: The Roots record an independent album to sell at their live shows in Europe, titled Organix. The first pressing is only 5,000 records. About 4,000 of them are sold on the road and another 1,000 in Philly. Thompson estimates that given all of the re-pressings of the album, about 200,000 copies have been sold over the years. Rich Nichols acts as executive producer on the album, as he has on all of them. "Rich Nichols is the heavenly DJ who sits above and scratches the turntables," explains Roots co-producer James Poyser. "He's the voice of reason that puts it all together."
1995Going Major: Organix helps start a bidding war among six labels, and Geffen eventually offers a seven-figure contract. The agreement gives The Roots several opportunities to release an album and find success. "We were the last band that had a fair chance to prove itself," says Thompson, commenting on how new bands must now become popular quickly or be dropped from their label.
1995Do You Want More?!! !??!: The Roots' first release on a major label is a jazz-rap album with no samples featuring performances from Steve Coleman, Ursula Rucker, Dice Raw and Cassandra Wilson. Widely praised; less-widely purchased. (USA Today heralds the band as a "Best Bet for Stardom.") Beatboxer Rahzel the Godfather of Noyze also joins the group during this time.
November 1995Malik Stops Touring: During the first European tour for Do You Want More?!!!??! Malik gets off the bus in Düsseldorf, Germany, and says the touring life just isn't for him. "What my father said," acknowledges Thompson, "which I refused to believe until four years ago, was that he just didn't have access to the right narcotics."
September 1996Illadelph Halflife: The Roots embrace sampling on Illadelph Halflife and tighten the looser jazz jams of their previous effort with R&B hooks. Keyboardist Kamal joins the group, enabling Scott Storch to focus on producing. Common, D'Angelo, Bahamadia, the Jazzfatnastees, Amel Larrieux and Raphael Saadiq all make the guest list. "Illadelph Halflife was a combination of Native Tongues [influence] with old-school hip-hop and an Illmatic or Mobb Deep," says executive producer Nichols.
1997Baduizm Ahmir and longtime Roots songwriter James Poyser help produce Erykah Badu's Baduizm , which earns them both Grammys.
August 1998The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill: Poyser kicks the keyboards all over The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which later sweeps the Grammy awards.
September 1998Black Lily Music Salons: Ahmir starts hosting jam sessions in the band's Harlem loft, but after a couple of shows "the landlord wasn't having it," says Thompson. He quickly moves the location to his Philly home, and they eventually get so popular he even calls the cops on himself to clear out the joint. The sessions lead to the foundation of Black Lily nights at Philadelphia's Five Spot, New York's Wetlands, L.A.'s El Cid and London's Cargo. The Jazzfatnastees, Jaguar Wright, Macy Gray, Beanie Sigel, Bilal and Musiq are just a few of the artists to rock the mic. Over the years, P. Diddy and Babyface are spotted in the crowd at a couple of sessions, scouting talent. At least two artists, Jag and Kindred, score record deals as a result of their appearances.
September 1998Great Day in Hip-Hop: The Roots take part in the "Great Day in Hip-Hop" photo shoot for XXL magazine, standing alongside rap luminaries Run-DMC, Kool Moe Dee and De La Soul as well as seminal Philly artists Schoolly D, King Britt and Jazzy Jeff.
February 1999Okayplayer.com: The Roots create a Web site that becomes home for a generation of conscious hip-hop artists, including India Arie, Talib Kweli, Jean Grae, Blackalicious and Meshell N'degeocello. Thompson often drops into the forums, which cover issues of music, politics and race.
February 1999Things Fall Apart: The group is lauded for its seminal part in creating the neo-soul scene, which includes D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill and many others. The single "You Got Me" (featuring a hook written by Jill Scott and sung by Badu) gives the group its first national hit, and the album's 900,000 plus sales soar precipitously close to platinum status. Mos Def and Eve guest on the album.
August 1999Woodstock '99: While the 30th anniversary of the peace, love and music festival is deemed a giant shitstorm of bonfires, impromptu orgies and muddy mosh pits, the ill-town crew, the lone black rap act on the bill, "killed," according to Rolling Stone.
1999Scott Storch appears all over Dr. Dre's 2001.
November 1999The Roots Come Alive: For all those diehard fans who think The Roots are at their best in front of an audience (which they are, over 200 nights a year), the group releases the concert album The Roots Come Alive.
2000Jail Time: Rapper Malik B. lands in jail for nine months as a result of forgery charges and probation violation, which is purportedly one of the reasons he doesn't appear on the album Phrenology. During his stay he writes verses that will later appear on his 2006 release Psychological.
January 2000Voodoo: D'Angelo releases Voodoo, which debuts at No. 1 (and features Ahmir on most of the neo-soul tracks). A few years later, Ahmir will recount D'Angelo's theory of a Star Wars-style rebel soul alliance in which D'Angelo is Luke Skywalker, Q-Tip is Han Solo, Erykah Badu is Queen Amidala, Lauryn Hill is Princess Leia and Ahmir gets to be, um, Chewbacca.
February 2000Grammy Time: The Roots win the best rap performance by a group Grammy for "You Got Me."
October 2000Spiked: The Roots appear as a minstrel band, the Alabama Porch Monkeys, in Spike Lee's satire on the stereotypes perpetuated by corporate media, Bamboozled.
August 2001Brooklyn Babylon: Tariq appears as Sol, a member of the rap group The Lions (which is more or less The Roots) in the movie Brooklyn Babylon, a modern retelling of the biblical tale of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheeba set in the racially divided Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights. In this update, the rapper falls in love with a girl from the sheltered Lubavitch community. Rahzel provides narration.
October 2001Label Troubles: Ahmir and Tariq tell City Paper that they never wanted Erykah Badu to sing on the released version of "You Got Me" because an alternative take featuring co-author Jill Scott was far superior. However, reps at the band's label, MCA, disagreed, wanting to bank on Badu's star power. Ahmir complains that he felt like a "slave" bending under the record company's pressure, and hoped MCA would drop The Roots. MCA records President Jay Boberg says The Roots' preference was never communicated to him. The tension between label and band is blamed for the holdup of the next record.
Nov./Dec. 2001Jay-Z "Unplugged": The Roots back up Jay-Z for his MTV Unplugged performance, which is released as an album a month later. Upon release, the New York Times deems it "Album of the Week" and Ben Ratliff writes: "The show has an easy-flowing, jam-session aspect to it, which is the last thing you'd expect of hip-hop."
20011st Born Second: The Soulquarians (Ahmir Thompson, James Poyser and J Dilla) lend their production efforts to Bilal's 1st Born Second.
2001M!ssundaztood: Scott Storch helps produce Pink's M!ssundaztood.
2002Phrenology: Nichols says Phrenology was an attempt to get more of the rock world interested in The Roots. "We saw the way hip-hop was going and thought, "How are we going to make it out of there if the whole shit is character-driven?" The Roots take a stab at various genres on Phrenology and add activist-poet Amiri Baraka, pop chanteuse Nelly Furtado and underground soul crooner Cody Chestnut to the mix. The single "The Seed" helps propel the album to sales of 600,000.
2002Brown Sugar: Thompson and Trotter make cameos in Brown Sugar, a formulaic romantic comedy featuring Taye Diggs, Queen Latifah, Mos Def and Sanaa Lathan. Trotter was focusing on acting at the time but has stepped away from the pursuit recently.
2003Fade to Black: Ahmir heads up the backing band for Jay-Z's Fade to Black retirement party at Madison Square Garden, featuring guest appearances from Beyoncé, P. Diddy, R. Kelly, Foxy Brown, Mary J. Blige, Pharrell and Kanye West.
2003Scott's Stellar Year: Scott Storch contributes to records by Lil' Kim, Beyoncé, Memphis Bleek, G-Unit, Sean Paul and many others.
2004The Tipping Point: The Roots name their new album after Malcolm Gladwell's book, and make a more overt attempt at commercial hip-hop. "I think people saw the title as our version of Get Rich or Die Tryin' this is going to be our moment of arrival," says Thompson.
August 2004Rahzel Beats Bjork: The Icelandic avant-torch singer had decided against using a human beatbox for her all-vocals album Medulla until she heard him freestyle a whole Kraftwerk track. A few days later he came to lay down a few tracks and wound up on the whole album. "Every time he tried to leave I'd beg him, "Just one more, just one more!'" she told Britain's Uncut magazine.
September 2004Dave Chappelle's Block Party: Ahmir heads up the house band (The Illadelphonics) for Dave Chappelle's Block Party, a live concert that seems almost like an Okayplayer family reunion, featuring performances by Talib Kweli, John Legend, Dead Prez, Erykah Badu, Common, Jill Scott, The Roots and the Fugees. The movie is released in March 2006. King Britt, former member of Arrested Development, says the Block Party was a "bold move" to bring back the tradition of social and political commentary started by groups such as Public Enemy and Arrested Development.
November 2004Lil' Kim splits with Scott Storch after a tumultuous two-month relationship. According to the New York Daily News he became too "controlling" and "possessive" of her. A gossip-page snitch said Storch made an ultimatum: Move down to Miami and marry him or it's over. She chose door number two.
April 2005The Emancipation of Mimi: Mariah Carey releases her comeback album including plenty of contribution from James Poyser on "Mine Again," which she deems the power ballad of the album, the kind of song that will make you want to get back together with your ex. Mimi goes on to be the top seller for 2005.
September 2005Scott Storch and Paris Hilton hit the gossip pages: Radar magazine online suggests Scott Storch and Paris Hilton may be doing more than just making beautiful music together, as he works with the Internet starlet on classy titles like "Screwed." Also this year, The Roots release two collections of rarities and B-sides, titled Home Grown Vols. 1 & 2.
June 2006Scott Storch, Rich and Pissed: The super producer, responsible for hits like 50 Cent's "Candy Shop" and Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me A River," and worth $70 million, complains to Rolling Stone about those artists he's made hits for, but don't call him back, like Beyoncé and Christina Aguilera.
June 2006Malik B. goes solo: Malik B. releases his independent solo EP Psychological, a gritty, lo-fi venture with rhymes about nightmares and addiction. He tells City Paper that he used drugs for creative purposes, but never had a problem with them.
August 2006Game Theory: The Roots release a response to the commercial tracks on The Tipping Point. Malik B. reappears on a few songs, even though Thompson says he has seen him about three times since the band released the song "Water" on Phrenology, which addresses the rapper's problem with abusing cough syrup. Malik showed up at the studio when other members weren't there and then instructed the engineer to put up the mic. "It was like the tooth fairy effect," says Thompson, who later decided to include the raps on Game Theory.