The Roots

This article is about the hip hop group. For other uses, see Root (disambiguation).
The Roots

The Roots performing in Toronto, Ontario on March 24, 2007.
Background information
Also known as The Legendary Roots Crew, The Fifth Dynasty, The Square Roots
Origin Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Genres Hip hop, neo soul, jazz rap
Years active 1987 (1987)–present
Labels Def Jam, DGC, MCA, Interscope-Geffen-A&M
Associated acts Jimmy Fallon, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Soulquarians, J Dilla, Jill Scott, Martin Luther, Jaguar Wright, Amel Larrieux, John Legend, Dave Chappelle, BT, Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Jazzyfatnastees, Elvis Costello, Erykah Badu, Big K.R.I.T.
Past members

The Roots is an American hip hop group, formed in 1987 by Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter and Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States. The Roots are known for a jazzy and eclectic approach to hip-hop featuring live musical instruments.[1] Malik B., Leonard "Hub" Hubbard, and Josh Abrams were added to the band (formerly named "The Square Roots").

Since its first independent album-length release the band has released 10 studio albums, two EPs, two collaboration albums (with other artists), and also collaborated on recordings and in live shows with a wide variety of artists in many musical genres. The Roots served as the house band on NBC's Late Night with Jimmy Fallon from 2009 to 2014, and in the same role (and accompanying show guest artists) on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon since 2014. The Roots' work has consistently been met with critical acclaim. ranked the band #7 on its list of the 25 Best Hip-Hop Groups of All-Time, calling them "Hip-hop's first legitimate band."[2]

Band history

Early years

Rapper Black Thought is the lead vocalist of The Roots.

The Roots originated in Philadelphia with Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson and Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter while they were both attending the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.[3] They would busk out on the street corners with Questlove playing bucket drums and Tariq rapping over his rhythms. Their first organized gig was a talent show in 1989 at the school where they used the name Radio Activity, which began a series of name changes that progressed through Black to the Future and then The Square Roots.[4] In 1992, they dropped the "Square" because a local folk group had claim to the name.

Organix was the band's first album, released and sold independently in 1993. It drew offers from music labels, and the band signed with DGC/Geffen. The Roots' first album for DGC, Do You Want More?!!!??!, was released in 1994. It was a moderate hit among alternative music fans, boosted by the group's appearance at Lollapalooza. The band performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival that year. Touring guests, beatboxer Rahzel and producer Scott Storch, joined The Roots.[5]

The 1996 release Illadelph Halflife was the group's first album to break the Top 40 on the Billboard 200 chart,[5] spurred in part by MTV's airplay of the video for "What They Do" (a parody of rap video clichés)[6] and "Clones", which was their first single to reach the top five on the rap charts. "What They Do" was also the group's first single to hit the Top 40 of Billboard's charts, reaching a peak of #34. While continuing on the path of live instrumentation, the album's sound was somewhat darker.

Breakthrough with Things Fall Apart

The group released Things Fall Apart in 1999 (named after Things Fall Apart, a novel by Chinua Achebe, which in turn was named after a line from "The Second Coming" by W.B. Yeats). This was their breakthrough album, peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 charts and earning a gold record, signifying U.S. sales of at least 500,000 units.[7] The album was eventually certified platinum in April, 2013. Mos Def contributed to the track entitled "Double Trouble". The track "Act Two" features African-Belgian band Zap Mama and Common. The track "You Got Me", a duet with R&B singer Erykah Badu and Eve and Jill Scott intended by Black Thought for the "unconscious" population,[8] peaked at No. 39 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. At the 42nd Grammy Awards "You Got Me" won the award for Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group[9] and the album was nominated for Best Rap Album.[10]

Steve Huey of the website perceived "a strong affinity for the neo-soul movement" in the album.[11] First-time cameos on Things Fall Apart for Philadelphia natives Beanie Sigel and Eve helped to earn them major record deals later (with Roc-A-Fella and Ruff Ryders, respectively). After this album, Dice Raw left the collective to record his solo debut album Reclaiming the Dead. In the summer, the band performed at the Woodstock '99 concert in New York state.[12]


Several members, including longtime member Malik B., left the group. In December 2001 the Roots backed Jay-Z for his MTV Unplugged concert.[13] With heightened popularity came mounting pressure. The Roots released Phrenology (named after the pseudoscience of phrenology) in 2002. Despite not charting as high as Things Fall Apart, reaching a peak of No. 28 on the charts, Phrenology was commercially successful, being certified gold, and earning a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album. At the time, however, there came rumors that the Roots were losing interest in their signing with MCA.[5]

During this time, the band backed Jay-Z for his 2003 farewell concert in Madison Square Garden, and appeared in the accompanying Fade to Black concert film.

The Tipping Point

After Phrenology, Ben Kenney and Scratch both left the group; Kenney joined the rock band Incubus.[14] This culminated with the release of 2004's The Tipping Point, the byproduct of several jam sessions.[5] The album earned two more Grammy nominations: one for Best Urban/Alternative Performance for the track "Star/Pointro" and another for Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group for the track "Don't Say Nuthin'."[15] The Tipping Point peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard album chart. In 2005, Home Grown! The Beginner's Guide To Understanding The Roots, Volumes 1 & 2, a two-disc compilation album, was released. The Roots were among several performers on the 2006 film Dave Chappelle's Block Party, whose event took place on September 18, 2004[16] and was released on film two years later.[17]

Game Theory

Game Theory was released August 29, 2006, on Def Jam records. Questlove describes the album as being very dark and reflective of the political state in America.[18] The first single from the album, "Don't Feel Right", appeared on the internet in May 2006, and is available for free download on several websites. The album's first video, titled "The Don't Feel Right Trilogy", premiered on August 21, 2006, and features three songs, "In the Music", "Here I Come" and "Don't Feel Right". It earned an 83 on Metacritic and 2 Grammy Nominations. The late J Dilla is honoured on different occasions throughout the album. Track 1 is credited to be "Supervised by J Dilla". Track 13 "Can't Stop This" is devoted to his persona, the first part being an edited version of a track ("Time: The Donut of the Heart") of his Donuts album, released three days before his death. This version comprises vocals by Black Thought. Secondly, a string of kindred artists reminisce about J Dilla in the form of answering machine messages.

Rising Down

The Roots' eighth studio album, Rising Down, was released on April 29, 2008, the 16-year anniversary of the Los Angeles riots of 1992.

In the weeks before the album's release, the original first single "Birthday Girl", a radio-friendly collaboration with Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump was removed from the album reportedly because it didn't fit in with the album's tone.[19] It remained as a digital download available from iTunes as a bonus track, as well as on international releases.

Picking up where Game Theory left off, the album maintains a dark and political tone, with Black Thought and several guests venting about the ills of society today. The album's guests include Chrisette Michele, Common, Mos Def, Saigon, Styles P, Talib Kweli, and Wale; it also features Philadelphia artists Dice Raw, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Peedi Crakk, Greg Porn, and Truck North, as well as former member Malik B. Rising Down features the Roots incorporating a more electronic and synth-heavy feel into their sound. Rising Down was released to critical acclaim, garnering an overall score of 80 on Metacritic.

The album's first single was "Rising Up" featuring Chrisette Michele and Wale.

How I Got Over

How I Got Over reflects the relief the band felt at the end of the Bush administration and the beginning of the Obama presidency. Guests include Blu, Phonte and Patty Crash. A cover of Cody Chesnutt's song "Serve This Royalty" was expected to be covered on the album, similar to the group's reworking of his single for The Seed 2.0 on Phrenology.[20] Rather than relying on samples, the album was recorded live, with covers (including Celestial Blues, featuring the song's original artist, Andy Bey) being reinterpreted by the band.[21] The album was released on June 22, 2010.

On June 24, 2009, the Roots debuted the first single and title track from the album live on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The song features longtime Roots collaborator Dice Raw.[22]

Wake Up!

The Roots collaborated with R&B singer John Legend on the album Wake Up!. The album was released on September 21, 2010, and was publicized two days later with a live concert at Terminal 5 in New York City with John Legend and Jennifer Hudson that was streamed on YouTube. On October 30, 2010 the Roots and John Legend played live at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington, D.C.

Betty Wright: The Movie

The Roots collaborated with R&B singer Betty Wright on the 2011 album Betty Wright: The Movie, credited to Betty Wright and the Roots. The album, co-produced by Wright and Questlove, was nominated for a 2012 Grammy in the "Best Traditional R&B Performance".


The Roots released their thirteenth album Undun via Def Jam Records on December 6, 2011.[23] The first single "Make My" leaked on October 17, 2011. Undun tells the story of their semi-fictional character, Redford Stephens, who struggles unsuccessfully to avoid a life of crime and fast money. The album's name is inspired by The Guess Who's song "undun", and the character was named after the Sufjan Stevens song "Redford".[24] The album features artists including Aaron Livingston, Big K.R.I.T., Phonte, Dice Raw, Greg Porn, Truck North, Bilal, and Sufjan Stevens.

Wise Up Ghost and Other Songs

The Roots and Elvis Costello released Wise Up Ghost on September 17, 2013 via Blue Note Records.[25] On July 22, 2013, they released a music video for the first single, "Walk Us Uptown."[26]

...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin

The Roots released ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin on May 19, 2014. The first single, "When the People Cheer", was released on April 7, 2014.

Black Thought described the album as a satirical look at violence in hip-hop and American society overall.[27]

Upcoming work

In an interview with Fuse TV Questlove said he also had "...two or three secret, major musical projects that I'm working on that I can't really talk about."[28] In September 2016 The Roots backed up Usher at a Global Citizen benefit concert in Montreal, Canada, launching speculation of a major collaboration between the two acts.


The Roots' original lineup included Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter (MC) and Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson (drums), classmates at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts.[5] As they began to play at school and on local streets, they added bassist Josh "The Rubberband" Abrams, who went on to form the jazz group The Josh Abrams Quartet. They later added another MC, Malik Abdul Basit-Smart ("Malik B.") and Leonard Nelson "Hub" Hubbard (bass), and Scott Storch (keyboards). Kenyatta "Kid Crumbs" Warren (MC) was in the band for Organix, the Roots' first album release. Another MC, Dice Raw, joined the band in cameo appearances on later albums. The band filled Storch's position with Kamal Gray (keyboards), who continues in that capacity. Kamal Gray did not play with the Roots on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon between April or May and early September 2012. His absence was not publicly explained, however on the September 17th, 2012 (NBC's 'Late Night' 700th) episode, Gray returned to the group. Beatboxer Rahzel was a band member from 1995 to 1999. Alongside Rahzel was turntablist/vocalist Scratch, who also DJ'd in live concerts. However Scratch left abruptly in 2003. Malik B. left the group in 1999 due to personal reasons but continued to record, making occasional cameos on some albums. Guitarist Ben Kenney, had a brief stint with the group and contributed to the Phrenology album, but left to join Incubus as bassist. Percussionist Frank Knuckles joined the lineup in 2002 and guitarist Kirk "Captain Kirk" Douglas replaced Kenney. Vocalist Martin Luther toured with the Roots in 2003 and 2004 and contributed to the Tipping Point album. The group announced in August 2007 that its longtime bassist Leonard Hubbard was leaving. Owen Biddle was the band's bassist in 2007-2011.

The band announced on August 25, 2011 that Owen Biddle left the band, replaced by Mark Kelley.[29]

The Roots' current members are: Black Thought (MC, vocals), Questlove (drums), Cap'n Kirk (guitar, vocals), and Questlove protégé Frank Knuckles (percussion). Recent touring and Tonight Show lineups added Damon "Tuba Gooding Jr." Bryson (sousaphone) and Mark Kelley (electric bass).[30] On The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, James Poyser plays additional keyboards.

Because the band members hail from Philadelphia and its surrounding area, they showed their support for the Phillies during the 2009 World Series against the Yankees, displaying Phillies memorabilia when performing on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. On the episode which aired the day after the Yankees clinched the title, Questlove stated "No comment!" on the show's intro (when he usually states the episode number), and had a Yankees logo purposely displayed upside-down on his drumset. In 2010, the group showed support for the Flyers during their run to the Stanley Cup Final by having the team logo on their drumset, and again in 2014 when the Flyers faced the New York Rangers in the first round of the playoffs on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

Band lineup

Questlove in discussion during book signing.
Current members

As the Tonight Show Band, the Roots also include David Guy and Ian Hendrickson-Smith, two horn players previously known for their work with Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings.[31]

Former members


Touring and other work

The Roots performing

The band tours extensively, and their live sets are frequently hailed as the best in the genre.[32] In 2006 the band played a concert in NYC's Radio City Music Hall with Common, Nas, Talib Kweli and Big Daddy Kane.[33] Also in 2006, they backed Jay-Z for his Reasonable Doubt Concert, a celebration of the 10-year anniversary of the release of his first album.[34][35]

In 1994 the Roots appeared on the Red Hot Organization's compilation album, Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool. The album, meant to raise awareness and funds in support of the AIDS epidemic in relation to the African American community, was heralded as "Album of the Year" by Time magazine. They have been highly involved in many other Red Hot Organization productions, including the 1998 album Red Hot + Rhapsody and the 2001 album Red Hot + Indigo, a tribute to Duke Ellington.

The Roots have been featured in four movies: Dave Chappelle's Block Party, both performing album songs and playing as a backing band for other artists; Spike Lee's Bamboozled; Marc Levin's Brooklyn Babylon, in which Black Thought plays the protagonist, Solomon, and former band member Rahzel narrates; and Chasing Liberty, starring Mandy Moore. Black Thought and Questlove were both featured in the movie Brown Sugar. Black Thought made an appearance in the film Love Rome as Tariq Trotter, and Questlove currently appears in the recent documentary movie about TBC Brass Band called From the Mouthpiece on Back, which lists the Roots as one of the executive producers of the movie.

The Roots were featured on the album True Love by Toots and the Maytals, which won the Grammy Award in 2004 for Best Reggae Album, and showcased many notable musicians including Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Trey Anastasio, Gwen Stefani / No Doubt, Ben Harper, Bonnie Raitt, Manu Chao, Ryan Adams, Keith Richards, Toots Hibbert, Paul Douglas, Jackie Jackson, Ken Boothe, and The Skatalites.[36]

The band guest-performed with the Dave Matthews Band during their 2007 summer tour. Members of the Roots played in various forms as well as a whole band on DMB's back to back concerts at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisconsin. In 2007 the band performed at an NAACP tribute to Bono, covering U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Pride (In the Name of Love)". Black Thought mixed in lines from the band's own "False Media".[37]

The group hosts a highly anticipated jam session every year the night before the Grammys.[38] The Roots jam session, produced by Okayplayer, Goodtime Girl Entertainment and Keldof, has been attended by celebrities ranging from Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Tom Cruise to Don Cheadle, Jeremy Piven and Prince with impromptu performances from Snoop Dogg and Corrine Bailey Rae to Queen Latifah, Matisyahu, Fall Out Boy and Dave Chappelle.

Billed as "The Roots", Questlove, Kirk, and Owen made an appearance on The Colbert Report on April 15, 2008 when Stephen Colbert spent a week in Philadelphia prior to the 2008 Pennsylvania Democratic primary. During the appearance, they performed the intro song to the show, and closed the episode with a rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner".[39]

The Roots are featured on the Men in Black Original Soundtrack (1997) with the song "The Notic" with neo-soul singer D'Angelo. The song "Here I Come" was featured in the films Superbad, Hancock and Step Up 3D. "Here I Come" is also featured in many video games including Project Gotham Racing 4. The song "The Seed 2.0" featuring Cody ChesnuTT was featured in the movies Collateral and I Think I Love My Wife, as well as the Without a Trace episode "Candy." The song "Don't Say Nuthin" was featured in the first-season episode, "Busey And The Beach" of HBO's Entourage. The song, "Guns Are Drawn", featuring Aaron Livingston, was featured in a season six episode of CBS' Cold Case.

They performed on the popular kids' show Yo Gabba Gabba, performing "Lovely, Love My Family" in 2008. They also did a secret jam session at the Oulipo Ballroom in Kentucky in 2009. In 2012 they played during the NHL Winter Classic at Citizen's Bank Park in Philadelphia[40] and at Austin City Limits Music Festival (ACL) in Austin, Texas.[41] In 2013 they performed at the Gathering of the Vibes Music Festival at Seaside Park in Bridgeport, Connecticut.[42]

The Roots host the Roots Picnic, an annual all-day music festival in Philadelphia, every June.[43]

Late Night and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

In March 2009, the Roots became the new official house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, with "Here I Come" as the show's theme.[44] When Jimmy Fallon became the host of The Tonight Show in February 2014, the Roots became the house band for that show.[45]

The Roots feature heavily throughout the show, providing the bumper music in and out of commercials, as well as the opening song "Here I Come" and playing the show off the air. Fallon frequently interacts with the band during the course of the show, and they occasionally provide snippets of music for some monologue running jokes (such as Funkin GoNuts). They also provide music and drum rolls for the games with show guests, along with theme songs for the games and segments (like Darts of Insanity, Wheel of Carpet Samples, or Christmas Sweaters).

On November 22, 2011, US Congresswoman and presidential candidate Michele Bachmann was a guest on Late Night. For her entrance, the Roots controversially played a snippet from Fishbone's 1985 song, "Lying Ass Bitch"[46] resulting in apologies from Fallon,[47] Questlove for The Roots,[48] and NBC.[49] The incident nearly resulted in the Roots being dismissed from the show, but the timing of the Thanksgiving holiday and a national security gaffe[50] by Bachmann shortly after helped defuse the situation in the media.[51] As a result of the incident, NBC approves all walk on songs prior to filming each show.[51]


Awards and nominations

Year Nominee/work Award Result
2000 "You Got Me" (with Erykah Badu)[71] Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group Won
Things Fall Apart Best Rap Album Nominated
2004 Phrenology Nominated
2005 "Star" Best Urban/Alternative Performance Nominated
"Don't Say Nuthin'" Best Rap Performance By a Duo/Group Nominated
2007 "Don't Feel Right" (featuring Maimouna Youssef) Nominated
Game Theory Best Rap Album Nominated
2011 "Hang On in There" (with John Legend) Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance Won
Wake Up! (with John Legend) Best R&B Album Won
"Shine" (with John Legend) Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals Nominated
"Wake Up Everybody" (with John Legend, Melanie Fiona & Common) Best Rap/Sung Collaboration Nominated
How I Got Over Best Rap Album Nominated
2012 "Surrender" (with Betty Wright) Best Traditional R&B Performance Nominated
2013 Undun Best Rap Album Nominated
Year Nominee/work Award Result
2003 The Seed 2.0 MTV2 Award Nominated
Year Nominee/work Award Result
2004 The Roots Road Woodie Nominated
Welcome Back Woodie Nominated[72]
Year Nominee/work Award Result
2005 The Roots Best Group Nominated
2009 The Roots Best Group Nominated
Year Nominee/work Award Result
2005 The Roots Outstanding Duo or Group Nominated
2007 The Roots Outstanding Duo or Group Won[73]
2011 Wake Up! Outstanding Collaboration Won[74]
Outstanding Album Won[74]


Main article: The Roots discography
Studio albums
Collaborative albums

Track numbering

A distinctive feature of the Roots albums is the way tracks are numbered. With the exception of their collaboration albums, the Roots have used continuous track numbering beginning with their first studio album Organix through all following albums:[77]

Questlove references this numbering system in his book Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove (specifically to the release of Illadelph Halflife), and explains it was "...our way of saying that it was a continuation of the work we had started on Organix and Do You Want More?!!!??!."[78]


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  2. "25 Greatest Hip-Hop Groups - Best Rap Groups of All Time". 2013-03-01. Retrieved 2013-04-17.
  3. "The roots of Questlove's success". CBS News. September 14, 2014.
  4. Thompson, Ahmir 'Questlove'; Greenman, Ben (2013). "Chapter 9". Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove. Hachette Book Group. p. 88.
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  12. "Elvis Costello, Roots, Megadeth, Others Added To Woodstock Lineup". MTV News. 12 July 1999. Retrieved 2009-03-03.
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  21. "Exclusive Hip Hop News, Audio, Lyrics, Videos, Honeys, Wear, Sneakers, Download Mixtapes". Retrieved 2011-07-03.
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  31. Mervis, Scott (April 10, 2014). "Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings get back on the road". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved 2014-08-23. The band also has been dealing with the usual revolving personnel changes, as horn player[s] Ian Hendrickson-Smith and David Guy went off to join the Roots for The Tonight Show,...
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