Roots’ ?uestlove Gives Backstage Access To Jay-Z Unplugged

MC dug deep into catalog, showed artistic side for TV special, album.

Even though the Roots have a Grammy Award under their collective belts, the band’s drummer, ?uestlove, finds it “a little ironic” that it’s their work on Jay-Z’s latest, Jay-Z Unplugged, that may earn them their first platinum plaques.

“It’s sort of like the Mafia,” ?uestlove joked. ” ‘If you wanna join this club, you have to come through me.’ ”

?uestlove said the two sides always wanted to work together, but scheduling prevented the collaboration until Jay signed up to appear on MTV2′s “Unplugged” series. The Roots performed as the MC’s band on the show and its companion album, which dropped Tuesday (December 18) (see “Jay-Z Plugs New Studio Track Into Unplugged LP” ).

“Once the opportunity presented itself, we took advantage of it,” ?uestlove said. “Not ringing my own chimes … I don’t want to say we were the sole candidates, but we’re definitely the prime candidates to handle such a job. We, as a unit and as a band, we’re kinda in the zone as far as having a hip-hop aesthetic and having everything down tight.”

The Philly native divulged he and his collective prepared on and off for a little under two months with the Jiggaman. “He’s a consummate professional,” ?uestlove said. “People have this preconceived image of Jay-Z: ‘What was it like working with a jiggy rapper?’ Usually I work with some artist and they’re like, ‘Yo, it has to be the way it is on the album.’ He wanted to experiment. He wanted to show himself in a serious light, in a respectable light. I think it was very important to him to add another notch on his bedpost to show different sides of his music.”

Jay-Z revisited some of his older works to expose his artistic side, ?uestlove said.

“Everybody has their favorite Jay-Z song,” the drummer began. “I always loved the combination of Jay-Z and DJ Premier. I wanted to do “So Ghetto” from Vol. 3 … Life and Times of S. Carter, and ‘A Million and One Questions’ [from In My Lifetime, Vol. 1]. At the end of the day, MTV was like, ‘[We want] “Can I Get A …,” We want “Big Pimpin’.” ‘ They had to argue Jay down to do ‘Hard Knock Life.’ He didn’t want to do none of that. He was worse than me. … I didn’t think he would touch Reasonable Doubt, but he was like, ‘Let’s do “Feelin’ It,” “Can I Live.” ‘ ”

Once the playlist was decided, the biggest hurdle was tracking down a flutist the day before the show for “Big Pimpin’.” Everything else was a breeze.

 
“None of the songs were really difficult,” ?uestlove said. “I really wanted to present the oomph factor of ‘Takeover.’ I didn’t want that to sound one ounce wimpy. We had to surpass the original. The Mobb Deep and Nas thing (see “Mobb Deep Strike Back At Jay-Z On Infamy,“, “Feud Between Jay-Z, Nas Gets ‘Super Ugly’ ) were sort of like adrenaline shots. That caught people off guard. What you actually see on TV were reshoots. There was a problem with his mic line when we did the first three songs, ‘Izzo (H.O.V.A.),’ ‘Takeover’ and ‘Girls, Girls, Girls.’

“I really regret [that viewers won't get to see] the first pass of ‘Takeover,’ ” he continued, “because when they first heard the beat for [Mobb Deep's] ‘Shook Ones’ come in, the audience almost caused a riot. They were told to be very cordial and sit in their place. When they heard ‘Shook Ones’ come in, their energy was so crazy, it was almost on some Beatles sh–.”

The party continued after the TV cameras stopped rolling. Jay and the Roots engaged in a jam session, where he performed his verses off of “Renegade” and his new song “U Don’t Know” over the beat for Beanie Sigel’s “Beanie (Mack B****).”

The Roots’ next album, Phrenology, is slated to drop in June, ?uestlove said (see “The Roots Write Their Own Rumours For Next LP” ). The group has reached out to Nelly Furtado and Project Pat to guest on the record.