THE ROOTS with ZAKI IBRAHIM at the Kool Haus (1 Jarvis), Saturday (March 24). $35.75. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
?uestlove doesn't leave me in suspense for too long about why he's breathing heavily into the phone.
"I'm on a treadmill right now," the legendary Roots crew's drummer and founder reveals between gasps over a cellphone from a Detroit YMCA. When he steps off the machine, someone who recognizes him but can't quite place him suddenly starts talking to him.
"You ever heard of the Roots?" ?uestlove asks. "That's the name of my group. Google the Roots."
Then, to me: "That happens a lot. There's a whole bunch of people who just think I'm a comedian on Chappelle's Show."
He appeared on the series a few times, jamming on the Diff'rent Strokes theme with the comedian and John Mayer in season one and spinning that creepy 2pac Still Alive record in last year's Lost Episodes.
"And then there's 'You're in that Madonna commercial, right?'," referring to the Motorola ad where he and a bunch of pop stars squeeze into a phone booth.
"That's the nature of my job. The Roots is, like, the last thing people think about."
Well, a lot of people thought about his 20-year-old band last year when they signed with Def Jam. Many expected the band's follow-up to Phrenology and The Tipping Point to be watered-down radio fare as a consequence of being on a Jay-Z-run label.
Instead, the Roots delivered Game Theory, an album with all the sonic darkness of 96's Illadelph Halflife and the social concern of 99's Things Fall Apart.
Radiating soulful urgency and an ominous glow, the band's seventh studio LP reflects a frenzied society. A sharp Black Thought, reinstated Roots Malik B and Dice Raw, and Peedi Peedi (formerly Roc-A-Fella hopeful Peedi Crack) flip on freedom, the police, hiphop feeling off and mass misinformation.
Game Theory is also saturated with urgent flows, paranoid beats and sub-surface nods to KRS-One, Biggie, Ol' Dirty Bastard and Public Enemy.
Asked if they were ever worried about president Carter wanting to smooth out their record, ?uestlove says, "I mean, we had concerns, but our albums are more cohesive-sounding than most rap records, which are like, 'Lemme get the radio hit from Pharrell, lemme get the cameo from Kanye, lemme get the Southern beat from Jazze Pha and lemme get my third single from Just Blaze.'
"These albums sound disjointed. Sometimes it takes one person to really glue everything together."
As with all Roots albums, ?uestlove, who's also produced for Erykah Badu, D'Angelo and Common, guided Game Theory from beginning to end.
"This is probably the first album that we didn't execute plan A," says ?uest. "Every album: talk about plan A, execute plan A. This album's damn near plan B."
After he explains the record's concept, which shifted from a Jon Brion production to a "Graceland project" recorded in Africa and then South America to a New Orleans-set album (a plan capsized by Hurricane Katrina), Game Theory sounds damn near plan D or E. Finally, says ?uestlove, he just recorded most of the music on his home computer.
"What wound up happening was that the murky darkness and cheap quality of it actually sounded better to me than something I would have done if I put it in a real studio. So a lot of what you hear on Game Theory the album is a result of some of the demos we recorded.
"With the exception of all Tariq's (Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought) vocals - we recorded those in a high-quality studio - everything else was the result of home studios. So it was very foreign. The other albums were recorded in some of the best studios money can buy, with the best engineers."
Speaking of production, incredibly, working with Eminem, of all people, influenced the direction of Game Theory more than anything else. ?uestlove's drum work at Slim's studio last year for Shady/Aftermath signee Stat Quo proved very instructional for the beatmaker.
"Em has probably the best equipment and engineers, so when you go to his studio it's almost like a dim sum restaurant. So when I went there, they were, like, 'What kind of sound do you want to go for with the drum?'
"I said, 'Let me see if I can go for a Motown sound.' And with his geek-o-matic crew of engineers, it was almost like watching them solve a math equation. They were like, 'Uh, okay, we know.' They went to the closet, came back with all these Beyer Ribbon microphones. I was like, 'Huh? What's this?' And the guy said, 'Just play drums.'
"I started playing drums and I thought, 'Goddamn! This is the best my drums have ever sounded!' I took a lot of notes from his engineers."
Quickly, he adds: "I just came in at 8 in the morning and worked on a bunch of beats. I'm sure by now it's taken on a life of its own."
The recording tips he picked up have no doubt been instrumental on the soon-to-come Roots album, whose production is now at the midway point. ?uest says it's shaping up to be a personal-sounding album with "a lot more synth patches on it than previous Roots albums." Five or six names are in the running, but "I'm gonna fight hard for my title, which is And This Too Shall Pass. So we'll see."
If they can summon back that Game Theory magic as they finish the new record on days off from this, the most far-reaching tour of their careers (Prague, Poland, all over Africa, Greece), they'll have nothing to worry about.
Plus, like Game Theory, the new shit will not possess the signature of former Roots member Scott Storch, who mutated from lowly keyboardist to Dr. Dre associate to unstoppable mega-mass-producer, working with anyone and everyone: Paris Hilton, Fat Joe, Christina Aguilera, Jurassic 5, Brooke Hogan.
The mere mention of Storch, who's currently embroiled in a hilarious on-record war of words with producer Timbaland, gets ?uestlove chuckling. What does he think of his prolific ex-bandmate and his Maybach-habit-supporting success?
"I dunno.... It's the age of irony," ?uestlove says. "If Scott is really happy, then I know Scott's struggle, so it's not really my place to be like, 'Oh, man, what the hell's he doing?' Scott is the most tireless, hardest-working machine I've ever known in my life. He's the one who taught me my work ethic. A typical workday for Scott is to do 17 songs - full-fledged songs, not just four-bar grooves. He can write a song in a half-hour.
"He would sleep on the floor. It'd be 5 am, and I'd be ready to go home. He'd be like, 'Hah, I'm gonna sleep on the floor. I'll be energized at 9 in the morning. I'm knockin' out some more songs. '"
Additional Interview Audio Clips
To offset the doom and gloom of their darkest album in a decade, forthis tour they've put together a Motown revue-style show -- when theycome to town, the Philly crew will show you their lighter side,?uestlove promises.
One of the profoundest tracks on Game Theory is False Media, whereBlack Thought rhymes gloomily: "America's lost somewhere inside ofLittleton / Eleven million children are on Ritalin / That's whay Idon't rhyme for the sake of riddlin' / False media / We don't need itdo we?" ?uestlove doesn't think so.
Mainstream hip-hop's gotten so monotonous in the last few years.?uestlove blames BET for dumbed-down rap, and discusses theconsequences from a DJ's perspective.
Additional Video Clips
Here I Come from The Roots's Don't Feel Right Trilogyvideo, and the album Game Theory