Beyond the music

For Philly's The Roots, ‘What They Do’ now is way more than music

The Roots
To view Philadelphia “The Roots” solely as a collective of musicians would be unfair and based on the growth of their brand in-spite of COVID-19, it’d be flat out not true. | Image courtesy: @IAmSuede

When Jay-Z rapped the line “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man,” on his verse for Kanye West’s “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” he didn’t just define his future life as an entrepreneur.

With sports teams, management agencies, clubs, clothing, liquors and connections to the NFL and beyond, Hova solidified rap and hip hop’s multiculturalism as an all-out moneyed enterprise to be savored and spent – a Monopoly board with cold, hard cash and a willing audience who appreciated his brand.

Puff Daddy. Snoop Dogg. Pharrell Williams. 50 Cent. Each of these kings of hip hop have as many business opportunities and cash-cow offshoot enterprises as they do hits, with product lines far above and beyond the sales of usual suspects of streams, records, concerts and touring merch.

Now, you can add The Roots of Philadelphia, PA, to this list as, last week, the collective ensemble’s co-founders, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Tarik “Black Thought” Trotter and their production company, Two One Five Entertainment, signed a first-look, three-year deal with Universal Television’s new Alternative Studio and Universal Television for scripted and unscripted film, television and other video work, online and offline.  

This announcement, based on The Roots’ longtime affiliation with NBC-Universal’s “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” and its 11-year role as house band/musical direction – came mere days before Questlove – drummer, author, culinary entrepreneur, and philanthropist – declared that he would host May 28’s “Questlove’s Potluck for Food Network.” 

Designed to support America’s Food Fund, Leonardo DiCaprio and Laurene Powell Jobs (Steve’s wife) fundraising initiative, the broadcast spectacular finds Questlove “virtually” bringing friends cooking, dining and sharing their favorite dishes. Via Zoom, Quest will welcome Bun B., Hannibal Buress, Zooey Deschanel, Ashley Graham, Tiffany Haddish, Patti LaBelle, Eva Longoria, George Lopez, Amy Schumer, Kenan Thompson, Gabrielle Union, Olivia Wilde, Roy Wood Jr., and his longtime Roots pal and partner, Tarik Trotter, in the dining, drinking mix.

When it comes to the entrepreneurial food tip, Questlove has been part of the culinary world for a minute. He’s authored “Mixtape Potluck,” (the book on which this Food Network joint is based on), and the James Beard nominated, “somethingtofoodabout: Exploring Creativity With Innovative Chefs.”

Quest has hosted a series of Food Salons with renowned and innovative chefs in his NYC home (he no longer lives in Philly, folks). He’s got a popcorn collection, and a popcorn spice collection at Williams Sonoma. There’s his Questlove’s Cheesesteak™  made with Impossible™ 2.0 non-meat products. Long before that, Questlove and a Philly-NYC restauranteur had their own fried chicken stand, Hybird, served first at NYC’s Chelsea Market. 

Away from 30 Rock’s studio, he’s busy with his music history showcase, “Questlove Supreme,” and various spinning gigs – online during the pandemic and off – as well as being a New York Times-best-selling author with a handful of published books, including “Mo Beta Blues: The World According to Questlove,” the historical “Soul Train: The Music, Dance, and Style of a Generation,” and an Audible Audiobook co-“written” with comedian/drummer Fred Armisen, “Creative Quest.” A Broadway musical based on that journey along the tracks of “Soul Train,” is also in the offing.

“That’s how my brain works,” Questlove told me last year in regard to the multiple methods to his madness, his mindsets and his wealth of creativity and business savvy that has led to collaborations with major networks and niche brands alike. But natural talent is nothing without a fierce work ethic, and his was honed in the City of Brotherly Love. “I remember lugging three heavy record bags in the cold from West Philly to Silk City just to play for 45 minutes. I loved it.”

Though he came a little later to the business and artistic world outside of music that’s beyond one’s usual purview than Thompson, Tarik Trotter has certainly caught up to Quest in the last two years. Along with finally releasing a handful of solo EPs and  stretching his role as comic foil to Jimmy Fallon during a series of nightly “Tonight Show” bits, Trotter has continued his humorous reach into to the world of stand-up comedy  with national club slots (including Philly’s Punch Line Comedy Club) with “Black Thought Presents … Delirious.”

In addition to a collective of solo projects and his role on NBC’s The Tonight Show, Roots’ musician Tarik “Black Thought” Trotter, is also trying his skills as a standup comedian. | Image courtesy: Christopher Hoffman

Trotter told me a minute ago that, although “I don’t seem like a funny guy,” he had a funny family growing up in Germantown (“unknowingly, unintentionally”), but laughed a lot – more to keep from crying than anything else. “That’s comedy as therapy, an escape from the hard, sad truth around us and the beautiful imperfection of society, a narrative you need to make light of,” he says. And that vibe definitely carries into his extended family, The Roots.

Trotter is also stretching himself dramatically with the March, 2020  announcement – just days before Broadway and Off Broadway shuttered due to the coronavirus – that he was writing music and words for the theatrical stage adaptation of George S. Schuyler’s novel, “Black No More.” The theatrical version of Schuyler’s Harlem Renaissance-era novel was set to premiere this October during the New Group Company’s 2020 to 2021 theatrical season. The musical play has, as its director, Scott Elliott, iconic choreographer Bill T. Jones and Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”), who will adapt Schuyler’s novel for the stage.

Along with writing, Black Thought will make his dramatic stage acting debut during “Black No More”’s examination of race, identity and love, alongside serious chop-having actors such as co-stars Jennifer Damiano, Brandon Victor Dixon, Tamika Lawrence and Theo Stockman.

All this, and Trotter, Thompson and Two One Five Entertainment have already been down the film and television route before. Along with having scored and added music to everything from “Roots” (the mini-series’ 2016 version) to “Hamilton’s America,” and the platinum-plated soundtrack to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway musical, the pair involved themselves with the online behemoth Amazon for a series of animated and live action showcases, as well as 2019’s AMC Network series “Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America.” 

Executive produced by Thompson, Trotter, their manager, Shawn Gee, and documentarian, Alex Gibney, each episode focused on a groundbreaking song pivotal to the evolution of hip hop with shows focusing on Queen Latifah’s 1989 track “Ladies First,” 1984’s “The Bridge” by Marley Marl and MC Shan, 2004’s “Jesus Walks” from Kanye West and more. Add to that the fact that Questlove is making his directorial feature film-length debut with the documentary about 1969’s famed “Black Woodstock” –  the Harlem Cultural Festival meant to celebrate black pride with Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, B.B. King, the Staple Singers, the 5th Dimension, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Nina Simone and Jesse Jackson – is one more notch in The Roots’ broad belt.

The new deal with Universal, however, gives The Roots the sort of control over their destiny that Jay-Z and Diddy could envy, as it covers development on scripted, unscripted and specials programming across television and digital content platforms.

“This deal has been a couple of years in the works,” said Gee, The Roots’ manager and friend who took over the gig after the legendary Rich Nichols passed away in 2014. 

“We have been at “The Tonight Show” for 11 years now, and one of the blessings that we have been able to get from that longtime relationship is that we have been able to build businesses around the guys’ interests,” Gee stated. “We haven’t had to, quote-unquote, ‘chase a dollar’ because we had that financial security with NBC and ‘The Tonight Show.’”

Gee said he first realized the power of financial security teamed to the band’s desires and business acumen when Questlove showed a genuine interest in DJing. 

“Our team built that out into a real business. It went from a hobby to an enterprise. When Quest expressed an interest in the culinary world, and from a literary perspective, we made that happen. The same thing with Tariq with his writing and further expressing his art. And now, Tariq’s co-writing a Broadway play with John Ridley,” said Gee, proudly of Black Thought being paired with an author and screenwriter who won an Academy Award for 2014’s Best Adapted Screenplay for “12 Years a Slave.”

Gee reminded me that before the good fortune of the NBC-Universal connection, that The Roots – like most bands working in an economy where record sales are naught, and streaming numbers mean little in regard to cash – had to “chase the next show.”

“Two-hundred dates a year we had to make sure that the engine kept running.”

Trotter and Thompson derived an interest in being before and behind the camera during their time with “The Tonight Show” and its five nights a week schedule. 

“We started to get a really good sense of the process, to tell OUR stories,” said Gee. “So we went out and sold a couple of our shows to AMC, and to Amazon. Then, during this COVID-19 time, when everyone else got busy doing their Instagram Live performances and things where artists were looking for new ways to be creative, we developed our own mini-network on YouTube.”

So, while having extra alone time – the one that comes with social distance – The Roots Crew managed to be, still, a nightly part of “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” doing its intro music from home, in boxes, “Brady Bunch” style, while crafting an every-weekday list of streaming content, new and old, on their YouTube channel.

For The Roots, the goal for continued growth will be to build a variety of content for fans in addition to how to grow its relationship with NBC beyond being the house band for Jimmy Fallon. | Image courtesy: Christopher Hoffman

“Our goal is to build a variety of content across our channel, curated through our lens, initially focused on the members of the band, but eventually opening it up to the larger creative community,” said Gee. “During this time, we have produced at least 60 to 70 self-produced, self-distributed pieces of content. Plus, we have spent the time of the pandemic seriously speaking to NBC about how we could further the relationship – we showed them the level of what we could do with the YouTube channel. This wasn’t some celebrity looking to just rubber-stamp something and say they have a production deal. We’re directing. We’re producing. Tariq WROTE a Broadway musical. Quest DIRECTED his debut film. We’re fully engaged, now and with this upcoming deal.”

“The Roots are innovators and cultural tastemakers whose breadth of musical knowledge is unparalleled,” wrote Meredith Ahr, president, NBC Alternative and Reality Group in an email release. “The band has been a cornerstone of NBC’s late-night programming for over a decade, and we are excited to extend our collaboration across a diverse slate of projects to bring even more compelling storytelling to our audience.”

Though as yet to be specified, the new Universal deal covers development on scripted, unscripted and specials programming across television and digital content platforms.

“This deal is very important to us as we’ve been content producers and storytellers for our entire career,” wrote Thompson. “A significant investment from Universal Television Alternative Studio and Universal Television in our vision allows us to share these stories on a much larger scale. Tarik and I see this as the next chapter to our careers, and we are very involved in the entire process. I’m directing, Tarik is writing and we both are producing.”

Trotter additionally wrote in a release to state that, “Many of our initial projects have been music-centric content, and one of our goals is to become the premier hub for music storytelling – a safe space for these stories to be shared across a variety of platforms,” Trotter said. “Eventually we will expand outside of music with our stories. However, as we all know, every story has a rhythm and Two One Five Entertainment will harness that rhythm and create well-produced, compelling content.”

Gee can’t give dates for either “Black No More,” or “Black Woodstock,” as he, The Roots and the world-at-large are at the whim of the intersection of “science and government,” he says with a laugh. With that, Gee even extends real life’s on-hold COVID-19 scenario to The Roots Picnic. 

By all rights, this story should have been previewing the band’s second run at its new, grassy knoll of a home, the bucolic setting of The Mann Center in West Philly with Meek Mill for the first week of June. Instead, The Roots have had to move the Live Nation-promoted soiree in the park to Aug. 1. Optimistically. “That’s one of the dates,” he laughs. “Obviously, other outdoor festivals have had to move their dates into October and November. We can’t do that – it’s a summertime thing. It’s not a cold weather vibe.

“We were due to open “Black No More,” in October Off Broadway, do a three-month run, take it back in, make adjustments. Obviously that time frame has had to be adjusted. The world has be re-adjusted itself before we can do so to our schedule.” 

Given that Questlove still has to finish rounds of filmed interviews with older members of the Harlem Fest’s participants, that too is on hold until the planet re-opens. 

And yes, you could always include The Roots’ long-awaited new album “End Game” – a sprawling record six years in the making since their last album, “…And Then You Shoot Your Cousin” appeared. But, that’s a drama for another story.

  • A.D. Amarosi's Headshot

    A.D. Amorosi is a Philadelphia-based journalist who, along with Philadelphia Weekly, writes for numerous local, national and international publications including Variety and the Philadelphia Inquirer.