Take Five: The Roots Talk Nipsey Hussle's Leadership And The DNA Of Timeless Music
If it weren’t for oscillating spray fans dispersing cool mist across the dense crowd, the inside of the Heineken House would feel like a sweatbox. While bodies entranced by the boom and bass of old school hip-hop swayed from side to side, mouths rapped along to clever couplets floating along soulful melodies. Cold Heinekens sloshed around and splashed on beat-up shoes down below, but everyone was too busy jumping around to the transition of each song, broad smiles abound, to notice. That’s exactly how The Roots like it.
To say that Coachella Weekend 1 attendees were in for a treat is an understatement. Not only did they get to bask in the sounds of De La Soul during the 30-year celebration of their debut album 3 Feet High & Rising, but they were also able to bookend the experience with a two-hour, body-shaking headlining set by the legendary Roots Crew. “I've been feeling like we have really yet to throw a good dance party set,” Questlove says from his artist trailer with Black Thought looking on, “like a set that just makes people jam out.” Consider that mission accomplished.
After catching a quick breather post-show, both the iconic drummer and storied wordsmith chopped it up about the intended messages of their typically three-hour sets and after the untimely passing of Nipsey Hussle, what it means to be an active leader in one’s community.
VIBE: During your set, you all went through a medley of songs that people—no matter who they are, where they come from or their age—will say, "this is a great song." What do you think is the DNA of that, and what can musicians now do to make sure that their songs can have a timeless feel like the hits you played today?
Questlove: I think the plan for us now, is—no pun intended—is to return to our roots. In our first five years, our show was heavy on doing hip-hop classics, soul classics, and Roots songs mixed at the same time. We're up to 17 albums now, so we sort of phased that out and just concentrated on our catalogue. But I don't know, lately, I've been feeling like we have really yet to throw a good dance party set, like a set that just makes people jam out. Normally it’s just about the virtuoso acrobatics of what The Roots can do, a lot of soul and that stuff. This is probably our most groove-oriented set that we've done, really paying homage to a lot of original, classic great beats that are the foundation of hip-hop. Important covers of Donald Byrd songs and James Brown songs, Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers. Going through all the genres, doing go-go and doing all that. For us it was just about turning Heineken House into a two-hour dance party.
Black Thought: I think for emerging artists, the key to creating those timeless classics is to revisit and re-acknowledge the timeless classics. You're into electronic dance music, you're into hip-hop, you're into whatever's the modern take on the culture. You have to revisit the foundations and the songs from which you came. The joints that were sampled, those are the songs that the configuration may evolve or may change, but those elements are always going to stand the test of time. Our foundation initially was to educate the audience. We would always sort of do Hip-Hop 101, and that sort of became a part of the Roots brand. And yeah, I guess we abandoned it for awhile and just focused on a more conceptual set. It was more Roots-oriented, and now this most recent set that we've been doing is back to the Hip-Hop 101. Not even Hip-Hop 101 but just Good Music 101. If you can incorporate at least one or a part of some of those elements of those songs that are tried and true, then you're well on your way.
And there's so much room to play. Like you said, there are so many different genres now that you can't even pull them apart from each other.
BT: Absolutely, the lines have been blurred. And that's something else to consider. You want to be as inclusive as possible with your set without it feeling contrived, you know what I mean? As artists you do a performance that is basically the music that inspires you to do what it is that you do, then it looks and feels and reads a lot more personal. Than if it’s like, "oh this is my new album."
Black Thought, you are a proud and true lyricist. Is there any new school lyricist that you’d like to go toe-to-toe with on wax?
BT: I could go toe-to-toe with anybody, anywhere, on the Planet Earth. But I mean, do I have the desire? I don't know, man. I'm getting so old, you know. I definitely enjoy performing on stage with The Roots. It's when I’m most at home. But I've done lots of the stage and studio collaborations that I've always sort of dreamed of. We've done it. I've been blessed enough to have the opportunity to do that. I mean it's still lots of people that I would like to work with. Rappers? I don't know. I'm down to work with anyone as long as it's an organic collaboration. Anyone that I've ever worked with, it's not like I just meet you or someone throws us together for the sole purpose of coming up with a song that's gonna be a hit. I have to have some sort of relationship, or we had to have interacted on some other sort of level and that's when it feels most natural. But I'm down to work with whoever.
Lastly, Nipsey Hussle’s passing really stirred people into thinking a lot more about action, intention, purpose and what it means to be a leader. What, to you, is leadership, and how do you put leadership in what you do?
QL: It's really insane that it took his death to really make people realize what they can do to better themselves as human beings. I'm really glad he was a brother that definitely put his money where his mouth is and there's nothing pretentious about him, nothing performative woke, because that's also a dangerous thing in 2019—to just preach it and tweet it but not really put it in motion. I feel as though the best thing that can come from this will be the enlightenment. Even if it's just four people affected, the enlightenment of someone realizing they can invest in businesses and property and their neighborhood. That's a start. It's really a shame that it took this to bring that to life, but nevertheless it's been brought to life.
BT: To me I think leadership is activism. It's giving back to your community, it's investing in oneself, and you know women and children. It's giving back when the cameras aren't there. When it's going to be anonymous. When you're not necessarily going to get the credit for what you're doing right away. And I feel like that's the sort of activist that Nipsey was. It's building up and empowering the people around you to be their best selves and not just for the headline or the glory.