On late-night TV talk shows, there's one person responsible for unspooling the hippest soundtrack to the coolest party on the planet: the bandleader.
It's a gig some of the most accomplished names in jazz and pop music have held before, including Branford Marsalis, Doc Severinsen and Sheila E., to name a few.
So how is a scruffy, 30-something hip-hop drummer and DJ with a question mark in his name going to revolutionize a tradition that's more than 50 years old?
"They said we would never do this, and since this is the age of irony, that's exactly what I did," said Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, leader of pioneering Philadelphia-based rap band the Roots. Monday night, he'll make history by backing NBC's latest effort to dominate television in the wee hours, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.
Not only will the Roots be the first rap band to hold the musical chair in a network TV late-night show (what must Severinsen be thinking from whatever Las Vegas showroom he's residing in now?), but ?uestlove (pronounced, QUEST-love) has grand ambitions: no cover tunes, except for the songs they play when guests walk out, and a theme song adapted from one of the band's most aggressive singles, Here I Come.
"People underestimate us; we're always doing things that we shouldn't do," said the famously Afroed drummer, producer and talent scout. "We wanted to get into the hip-hop game; do we do it the traditional way or do we stick out like a sore thumb and play instruments? Do we capitalize on our Grammy? No, let's make an art record . . . alienate them, you know? And then they get it about a year and a half later."
So when former Chappelle's Show producer Neal Brennan recommended that Fallon hire the Roots as his house band — noting a moment later, "they'll never say yes," according to the host — a history-making collaboration was set in motion.
Like many artists, the Roots are balancing practical need and creative ambition. Higher-profile late shows might pay up to $60,000 for the privilege of playing a Beatles tune. Using original Roots material keeps costs low while giving the band a little extra income.
And the need for a sudden influx of new, late-night-worthy tunes — Thompson estimates the band has been writing up to 15 new songs a day, aiming for nearly 200 by the show's Monday debut — sparks a creative test most late-night bandleaders would envy.
Thompson's friend Marsalis famously quit as bandleader on Jay Leno's Tonight Show after just three years in 1995, frustrated that producers wouldn't allow more challenging music on the show while demanding he clown around with the host.
"I know the idea of a late-night band is sort of a story of neutered musical experience . . . to hear Branford tell it, anyway," said Thompson, 38. "But I see the endless possibilities. There's two monsters we're dealing with: 20 million people watching at home, who only see eight seconds of the songs, and the 300 people that come in the studio every night. It's a new challenge for us."
Ready from the start
Critics expect little from blandly nice guy Fallon at first — predecessor Conan O'Brien drowned in negative reviews while taking nearly three years to find his voice. So the Roots may be the only part of the new Late Night everyone anticipates will work from Day One.
"The band alone will freak your bean; they are going to give you a heart attack," Fallon told journalists days ago, admitting he initially thought the band blew him off when they took two weeks to respond to his initial offer. But when they finally met, Thompson had just one question.
"He asked me, 'What if somebody like Herbie Hancock comes into town; can he play with us?' " said Fallon, laughing. "I thought he was going to ask 'Can we only work Wednesday and Fridays?' or something. He wanted to give back to the artists who are talented but not the easiest booking."
If Fallon had done his homework, he'd know; the Roots' story has always been rooted in contradiction.
The band's nucleus came together in the late '80s, when Thompson and rapper Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter met at Philadelphia's famous High School for Creative and Performing Arts, alongside soon-to-be-famous classmates such as jazz bassist Christian McBride and members of the pop group Boyz II Men.
Their first album, recorded without any of rap music's traditional digital samples or drum machines, was so dope that some critics refused to believe it came from live musicians. Over the years, the group amassed a string of Grammy nominations, worked with artists such as Jay-Z and Erykah Badu, and created records skirting the edge of jazz and rap, named after books by brainiacs such as Malcolm Gladwell (2004's The Tipping Point).
And while some might think it heresy that rap's best band is backing the star of Fever Pitch, Thompson said the gig came just in time to save a band fraying at the edges after years of near-constant touring. "The fact that we can actually make a little better living playing 300 seconds a week instead of 200 shows a year, it is baffling to me," he added.
The final tune-ups
Fans have already gotten a sneak preview courtesy of the show's Flickr account, which distributed pictures of the band's two-level space, with a gleaming set of aluminum drums center stage and enough scaffolding to fill the Batcave.
Thompson dishes that the band is learning the theme from the film King of Comedy to introduce Fallon's first guest, Robert De Niro. And the bandleader, who admits a serious crush on Fallon's second-night guest Tina Fey, is still pondering possible tunes for the 30 Rock star's appearance.
"You wanna do Hot for Teacher or Prince's Sexy M-F,” said Thompson, laughing. "The hardest thing now, is there's nobody left from our era in rap that's still making viable records. . . . OutKast is acting and Tribe Called Quest kinda broke up. There's nobody to fire me up, and that's why you need a new challenge like this."
Eric Deggans can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.