Can you talk about the project the Roots have been recording with John Legend?
It’s called Wake Up. At first it was just a John Legend record, but now it’s being billed as John Legend & The Roots. I won’t hesitate to say that this album will be John’s most loved record. Sonically, he let me go there as the producer. And the subject matter has to do with struggling. It’s a real political album.
When the news first came out about the Roots collaborating with Legend it seemed like an odd pairing given that you guys come off as much more stripped down and loose while John seems more polished.
Well, it was a battle. I told John, “Look, when we embark on this mission please, without sounding arrogant, don’t question my judgment on the mixes.” Because I know that he’s a stickler for perfection. Technically, John is a perfect singer. His voice is velvety smooth…it’s beautiful. But after listening to all three of his records, I decided to take on this mission. I obviously had to take him to a place he’s never been before. So I was choosing, in his eyes, all the bad takes. There was a lot of debate. John would say, “My voice is cracking…this is not my normal mic.” I took him out of his element. I wanted him to sound dirty. I wanted him to sound human. You are really going to believe in the lyrics that he’s singing because it really sounds like a man of struggle. Again, it’s a political album. So you are really not going to believe in the music if John’s voice is coming out velvety smooth. This is his first gutbucket project. This is probably the most fun that I’ve had working on a non hip-hop album since [D’Angelo’s] Voodoo.
Then I’m working on another project with Booker T, formerly of Booker T & The MG’s. He won best instrumental record at the Grammy’s this year. And we saw each other and he was like, “Maybe I can work with you guys one day. [The Roots] can be the MG’s.” And I took him on that. The Roots fans have always wanted to see if we could cut it just as an instrumental group without lyrics. They wanted to see if we were indeed break-beatable. Could we make that funky instrumental? Well, pretty much with Booker T’s record, we achieved that. One of the masterstrokes we both agreed upon was that Gabriel Roth, the bass player and engineer of the Dap Kings, would engineer the album. Pretty much, this record is an instrumental album that puts us in that 1960’s Dap Kings, Amy Winehouse, and Raphael Saadiq’s last record sort of light, with Booker T at the helm. It’s almost like a Meters album. And of course, I almost forgot about the Duffy album.
When do you find time to breathe?
[Laughs] I worked on the Duffy album so long ago that I totally forgot that I produced it. We are doing the strings on her record right now.
As a hip-hop fan what is your take on the hype surrounding Drake?
I’m excited about anybody really just keeping the flame of hip-hop alive. It’s really weird because Drake tells me, “Yo, when I was 12-years-old I snuck into the Opera House to see y’all.” And I remember the exact show he was talking about when Rahzel first started doing his solos. I was like Wow. Who would know that 20 years ago hip-hop’s future was in the audience watching a show that he snuck into see without paying [laughs]. And that show would have some sort of affect on his life? And I know jokingly brothers are like Drake represents the light-skin revenge movement that Al B. Sure fans have been waiting for. But I’m really excited about the kid. One, he has range. He sings and he rhymes and no one questions his lyrical dexterity.
But of course there are folks who say that Drake singing isn’t true hip-hop.