The Roots: What Rises Down Must Come Up

posted May 05, 2008 12:00:00 AM CDT | 28 comments

Dreary, dark, moody, these are just some of the adjectives that have been used in recent reviews to describe The Roots 10th offering, Rising Down.

But while some have panned the Bush-era inspired apocalypitc-sounding album, there are those that know Roots releases arent always best judged upon initial listen and that Rising Down joins Things Fall Apart nine years ago for its acquired taste and timeless relevance [click to read].

An album devoted to addressing the ills of contemporary American society will always appeal to some while simultaneously alienating others, but the unofficial leader of The Roots crew, ?uestlove, believes the time is now for Hip Hops most acclaimed live band to get their Public Enemy on.

Along with sharing his thoughts on issues of the day, including the Sean Bell verdict [click to read], in a recent conversation with HipHopDX, ?uest also offered up his theory on why 80s babies seem indifferent to socially conscious content in Hip Hop, and explained why he knocks on doors for Barack Obama.

When not discussing the heavier stuff, ?uest took time to praise intelligent porn stars, explain why Wayne just cant compare to Kane, and reveal that Mariah Carey controls The Roots destiny and may actually decide whether the group will ever rise again on a major-label.

HipHopDX: Your good friend Byron Crawford wrote of Rising Down, A strong contender, along with Game Theory, for worst Roots album to dateThey might just consider finally hanging it up. Would you like to use this interview as an opportunity to formally challenge him to a fair one?
[Laughs]. Oh no dude, like I know Byron. I already pulled his card. The more he insults us, thats his trick ya know. Actually Id be disappointed if he liked the record.

DX: [Laughs]. Well his chief complaint seems to be that the album is too dark, which is a complaint Ive heard from others, who also ironically think Birthday Girl was an abortion. You cant fuckin win ?uest, youre damned if you do and damned if you dont.
Its like, have they looked outside the window? Hip Hop as an apolitical tool, that just doesnt make sense to me.

DX: You dont wanna Get Silly and just scream Yahhh!?
Im a grown man. Yahhh! is cool for a 19-year-old, but theres too much going on in the world right now for people not to be informed of [it].

Im asking [people], Yo, did you vote today? [During Pennsylvanias presidential primary] Im asking them like, Did you even bother to vote? Its like, Nah man, aint shit gonna happen different than the past. Voting dont matter. I understand the indifference [and why] people dont wanna hear the message. Theyre coming from a place where theyre just so bogged down with the seriousness of the world that it gets too depressing to even focus on. And I can understand that! No one wants to look at a pile of shit everyday. But then again, I complain a lot about the state of the world, and the state of Philadelphia, and for us to complain about it and absolutely not do anything about it, then that makes us just as guilty as the government that we say were against.

DX: Well I think the darker tone of the album is definitely a barrier for some people. Is it selfish of me to just want a whole Roots album of up-tempo "Clones-esque, Next Movement-like tracks that Black Thought just spits shit over?
But thats exactly what this record is. [Laughs].

DX: Well, yeahI guess.
Assuming you heard the record.

DX: Thats not what I took away from it, but
You didnt think Get Busy [click to listen] sounds as hard as Clones?

DX: I mean, its just I guess the more melancholy moodiness [of the album that was a turn off].
You think Get Busy doesnt sound like Clones?

DX: Oh yeah, thats hard, but Im saying the whole album
It cant be a whole album of nut busts. Like, you gotta work your way up to the climax. Thats like just getting with a girl and being done in like three minutes.

To me, Rising Down is full of bangers. Rising Down bangs to me. 75 Bars bangs to me. Get Busy bangs to me. I definitely feel as though Rising Up bangs as hard [as those tracks]. Lost Desire bangs. Like, I could name seven or eight bangers. I dont think the album should be 100% bangers. It has to have some moments of reflection. I dunno dude, to each his own. I think you gotta live with [the album] a little bit more.

DX: No Rhodes this time out, you think that element is kind of [missing]? Cause I noticed that [missing]. That was kind of a shock to the senses a little bit.
Why was it a shock?

DX: I dont know, Im just so used to it.
Well you know, change is good. I think were in a damned if you do, damned if you dont situation. And I think that because theres absolutely no precedent or standard for a group still being here 10 albums after they first came out I mean, we could've definitely made the follow-up [to] Things Fall Apart, and then people woulda said these cats are on some derivative shit, trying to re-live their Hip Hop past.

I think the whole resistance to [the] political content [on the album] really has a lot to do with the fact that people actually thought that life was better in general in [the 90s]. I like where my life personally is right now in 2008, but not too many people are as lucky as to have a career or a job [like] I do that allows me to do the stuff that I do. The years get better [for me].

DX: So youre saying there wasnt like a particular catalyst for the more biting subject matter, it just kinda happened organically over time?
Um, no. Like you have to understand that the standard of Hip Hop that got you those early Roots records was based on a whole battle emcee style of thing. I mean, thats why we put that @ 15 skit on right before 75 Bars [click to listen] to show you how close to Big Daddy Kane Tariq [Black Thought] really was. Were sort of the last and the only people that sort of hold that flag up in 2008. I dont hear Lil Wayne sounding like Kane. Or Soulja Boy sounding like Kane, or Lil Webbieor anybody thats pretty much in the ringtone game right now. And its just like, theres moments of that type of [raw] rhyming on the record. I mean, thats what 75 Bars is about. Its lyrical murder. But I also think that the thing that sort of justifies the fact that were able to still release records is that theres some sort of evolution. And I think that the truth hurts, and people really need to know whats going on in the world today.

DX: Hip Hoppers today [dont seem to] feel a need to regain that socially-conscious backbone. You said that theyre just indifferent, [but] do you think though that maybe they just understand the difference between rhetoric and reality? That they understand Chuck was just [saying] Fight The Power, that didnt necessarily in and of itself lead to any change?
That did lead to change. If it werent for Public Enemy I definitely wouldnt have any type of knowledge of self, or sought to figure out the importance of African-American society. Public Enemy made that exciting and made you wanna search for your history.

I think a lot of the [current indifference] has a lot to do with the fact that [if] you [were] born in the 80s you [were] really born in the first legally free decade in the history of the United States of America. I would say the 70s, but that [was] sort of like the ending ofThe late 1800s was Reconstruction, the early 1900s [was the] Jim Crow period, the mid-[1900s was the] [Civil Rights Era] The 70s were sort of like the let down of [100] years. And the 80s kind of represents the beginning of the next phase of I guess the whole social standing of the United States. If you were born in [the 80s] you really arent that closely connected to any of those struggles. Theres no sense of struggle or sense of fight [within your generation]. If you were born in the 80s you pretty much [just] want 75 cents for a Slurpee and [are asking], Wheres the remote control at?

I dont think that you have to go through life feeling like your lifes gonna be threatened if you sit on a certain seat on the bus or if you have a turkey sandwich at Woolworth's. But I also feel as though if you forget [that struggle] you get comfortable. Now, itd be one thing if you could forget it and you get comfortable and you on the same level playing field, but clearly economically, socially, education-wise, blacks are not on the same level playing field. And so its like you cant forget.

There are people I know right now in their twenties [who are] like, Well man, racisms over. That shits in the past. And they dont understand the institutionalized racism. They dont understand why most of the inner cities classrooms look like theyre on the set of The Wire as opposed to the suburban schools or the higher echelon charter schools. Theres a whole double standard difference in entertainment and education, in jobs, social standing, [and] in housing that hasnt changed. But theres sort of this false pretense that everythings better and things are better than they were. But until everyones on a level playing field I fail to see that.

DX: I think that theres some hope that change will happen [this] November. Kind of a bad segue, but do you care to let us know who The Roots are formally endorsing for president?
I work for the Obama campaign. I call. I go door-to-door. I do pamphlets. If Im needed to entertain, I do that. If Im needed to talk to people, I do that. I pretty much been [actively involved] in his campaign since last December.

DX: Why him; why Obama?
Because I actually feel like hes talking to me, not at me. As opposed to most politicians that do that sort of obligatory inner-city visit, shake your hand, have some collard greens at the local soul food restaurant and then you dont hear from them again.

Theres actually hard evidence that proves that he walks it like he talks it. It really disturbs me that it took him and his campaign to get 200 plus prisoners out of Chicago jails that were falsely imprisoned because of him forcing the government to instill D.N.A. testing. Not to mention, his constant speaking out against the whole idea of industrializing prison, where private companies are allowed to come in and only pay prisoners 60 cents an hour [to make goods]. He [also] speaks on racial profiling, as far as driving while black, especially on the New Jersey Turnpike, where that happens a lot. He speaks on what we talk about in the song Criminal, about the whole idea of the double standard [of the] Rockefeller Laws, where certain people will get caught with crack cocaine and given harsher sentences, like five to 10 years, and certain individuals will do high-end [drugs] and get probation or rehab, a slap on the wrist. Theres a whole slew of [issues that Obama has addressed].

Anything to do with private companies owning prisons, that scares me more than anything because that basically tells me that America plans on having prisons [become] so comfortable [that you dont want to leave]. Mumia Abu-Jamal [click to read] to this day, refuses to have a television inside of his cell. This is probably the most disturbing thing about being on death row in Pennsylvania, its the fact that death row inmates actually have it more comfortable than general population prisoners. You get like a little kitchen area, you get a television, [and] theyre now introducing the idea of having computers inside the cells. [Mumia] says its almost like theyre trying to pacify you, sort of complace you, so that youre comfortable in accepting the fact that theyre definitely gonna kill you. One guy that I actually knew that was in the prison was like, Yeah man, that new prison was better than this old project I lived in. And that was just fucking with me. I was like, The hell? And even Tariqs brother, [whos] been in prison since weve been out, since Do You Want More?!!!??!, hes gotten out and straight up told Tariq like, Yo, Im going back in, man. I cant take this shit. I dont know what to do with myself. He wont go see his P.O. so he can purposefully get arrested so he can get another year-and-a-half. To him, its free rent. Its free utilities. All of his boys are in there. He was about to play on this ball team [before] he got let out. Being outside was like being in prison to him. If [hes] thinking like that, then you know theres a gazillion Americans thinking like that.

DX: How do I switch gears to this much more important topic, pornography [Laughs]. You have Sasha Grey in the Birthday Girl video [click to view], and you even have a rapper named P.O.R.N. featured on the new album, so are there any plans for Okayplayer to launch like a porn sister site?
You know its funny you say that, Sinnamon Love [click to read] is probably the ?uestlove of the porn starlets. Even though shes a porn actress, shes really on some geek shit. I had her come on Okayplayer back when the porn industry was rocked by this incident in which one of their new starlets happened to catch the HIV virus from a black actor. For which, there was a total blackout of the industry. It was like a civil war going on [with] all the white actresses saying, See, thats why we dont work with black men. And the black [porn stars] was like, Yo, what the fuck? What the hell [were they] doing shooting a scene without testing him first? So I had her come on the site so she could kinda educate people about the porn industry cause shes really eloquent in the way that she explains the business. And after about a week or so of doing that I was like, Whoa, we should really start something. There are people that have a genuine curiosity of that world, much more than just its inhabitants but sort of like what a day [in their life] is like. I just happen to know probably the [more] intelligent portion of the porn world, to the point where I almost understand it. Im still head-scratching [at times], especially where Sashas concerned cause I swear that girl has like an I.Q. of 160 almost.

DX: Now I mentioned P.O.R.N. the rapper, and theres another new cat on the album named Truck North, there were a lot of guests on this album period, but were there any collabos that you wanted but didnt happen or happened but didnt make the final cut?
Too many. I didnt have time to get Phonte on the record. Q-Tip had a death in the family when he was supposed to do his verse. Q-Tip was supposed to be on Criminal, [click to listen] as was Lupe.

Time is our biggest enemy. We started recording the record in August of 2007, and with our touring schedule we only had bits and pieces of time to really get focused and get down to business. [With] our tour schedule, [we dont] really have time to do a proper album. Not a proper album, but just how we normally did it [in the past]. Most people dont tour while theyre recording, but we have to survive still. We have to do both. And we had to turn the record in in February. And so I wanted to get Blu on the record, and Jay Electronica as well [but couldnt]. But theres always album #11.

DX: Speaking of, whats The Roots future at Def Jam now that the man who brought you guys there is gone?
I think a better question would be whats the future of Def Jam? At the rate where theyre expecting to sell one million Mariah units [in the first week] and only got 463,000 Right now our future at Def Jam is in the hands of Mariah Carey. So I hope she goes diamond. Heads are gonna fly if this album flops. So right now Im praying that Mariah Carey outdoes Thriller.

DX: Is there any contemplation at all though that your guys major-label days may be coming to an end, just with the way that the business is going now?
Were absolutely prepared for it. If it is gonna come to that, were ready.

DX: And I guess just [with] the final question I wanna tie everything back together, Byron Crawford thinks you guys should call it a day, so how long before The Roots pull a Toni Braxton and head off to Vegas to play out those remaining years?
Weve gotten offers already. Atlantic Citys offered us like eight months residencies. Hard Rock Caf was like, Yeah man, itd be great [for] the first resident Hip Hop show [to be] you guys. But you know, thats like

DX: Whats the barrier to just ya know
Whats holding us back from doing that?

DX: I mean, just maybe doing a shorter stint, setting that precedent of being the first Hip Hop act to do that.
Because we enjoy being the first Hip Hop act everywhere else in the world that [no other acts] go to. Were trying to make Antarctica this year. We hit some spots over in Southeast Asia that Hip Hops never gone to before. Were gonna hit Russia, and a lot of places in the Czech Republic that havent been touched before. Theres a whole slew of [places] that havent been touched yet.

DX: But you dont have a timetable on when you just wanna slow it down and limit it to just that one gig?
When the demand for The Roots actually stops, thats when well stop. But contrary to what [Byron] says, my tax [bracket] goes up every year.

Additional Reporting by Aliya Ewing.

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