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The Roots' Questlove on 'Game Theory'

ED GORDON, host:

Rap groups are often accused of emphasizing beat over message. The Roots have largely escaped that kind of criticism. At the same time, they've managed to maintain a creative musical edge. Some hardcore fans are concerned that the group's new record deal may make them too commercial.

But if the group's latest CD, Game Theory, is any indication, that concern is unfounded. Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson is the cofounder of the group. We started by talking about the new project. After breaking with their old label, they hunted for a new place to record. Ahmir and the group headed the south.

Mr. AHMIR ?UESTLOVE THOMPSON (Drummer, Cofounder; The Roots): We had chosen New Orleans back in May because we found this brass band, the To Be Continued Brass Band, who pretty much was the closest thing to the Roots that we have seen. This brass band, they're like a 15 piece outfit, and we were going to incorporate them into the group. And then when we Katrina happened we kind of lost them. They got separated, none of them could be reached. And so, you know, we're in a situation, which the time is ticking.

We don't have a label. This is the time that we chose to record the record. We have no budget. We have no brass band. What do we do? And not to mention one of Tariq's(ph) children lives in New Orleans so that really put us on panic alert and out comes this record.

(Soundbite of music by The Roots)

THE ROOTS (Hip Hop group): (Singing) It's been a long, long time since I been back around the way. It's been a long time since I been back around your place.

GORDON: Let me ask this about a number of the songs. I mean some of the things that I noted and the three songs that took me immediately - Don't Feel Right and Take It There and False Media - all really putting a lot of what the world likes to turn away from, likes to kind of with a wink and a nod not talk about.

Do you often feel - the group as a collective - the need to do that? Do you see yourselves as advocates to a great degree?

MR. THOMPSON: Yes and no. I mean it's really hard to ignore. And the thing that you really have to understand is that because we tour in Europe a lot - I mean it's one of the reasons why I love, like, NPR so much is because, you know, a lot of people get their information from corporate sponsor news organizations. You know, even if the talk is about being fair and balanced and whatnot, like, it's really not.

And it wasn't until I got to Europe in which, you know, we happened to be in Portugal for a week when Katrina went down. And over in Europe, you get a whole ‘nother view of what the United States is up to. Like things I didn't even know about. And once we realized, you know, there are a lot of things that have occurred, that a talk of a war could just overshadow or any type of tragedy.

And, you know, there are issues locally, especially in the city of Philadelphia. Like, Philadelphia has single-handedly went from 11 to like near number one, two, second or first, as in the most violent city in America. You know, I felt it's our responsibility to sort of bring this up, but in a way that it's not melodramatic or bandwagony.

(Soundbite of music by The Roots)

THE ROOTS: (Singing) …a lot of nothing because (Unintelligible) 50 Cent (Unintelligible) where I come from. It's just a natural reaction - crack that make it happen (Unintelligible) back when I was younger…

MR. THOMPSON: It is our most political heavy album but I didn't want it to the point where it's just, you know, melodramatic.

GORDON: Let me ask you this as a closing question. You talk about it being very political, and it is. I mean you talk about the war, you talk about the United Nations and the scandals they've been involved in. But you also talk about the repercussions of not dealing with what individuals have to deal with. What the black community needs to deal with.

How much do you understand, particularly among young people, that this is something that isn't always talked about, that they don't always hear. But if they're going to hear it, they're going to hear it from people like the Roots.

MR. THOMPSON: That, to me, is probably the most important part of this whole agenda. Whatever you feel about, you know, in George Bush or the administration. Like that is easy, you know. But it's even hard to point to the conflict that you feel within yourself. And that is where we really wanted to touch down upon.

I think every artist should know that they have some sort of power. Whether or not, you know, we are the chosen ones to deliver that message, that remains to be seen. I still have hopes and dreams of there actually being a political leader that can sort of raise us out of the rut. But as far as the responsibility, yeah, I mean I personally feel one. But I still see it as, you know, parents should raise their children and, you know, there should actually be community leaders that bring up a generation.

(Soundbite of music)

THE ROOTS: (Singing) It's just a natural reaction - crack that make it happen (Unintelligible).

GORDON: That was ?uestlove of the hip-hop group The Roots. Their new CD is called Game Theory, and it hits stores next week.

(Soundbite of music)

THE ROOTS: (Singing) Gangster on my streets, you look familiar, I feel ya, a long time no see - it's been a long, long time since I been back around the way…

GORDON: That's our program for today. Thanks for joining us. To listen to the show, visit NPR.org. And if you'd like to give us a comment, call 202-408-3330.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.