When the Roots’ lead MC, Black Thought, pens a love song, it invariably doubles as sexually charged commentary on the band’s relationship with hip-hop. "Act Too (Love of My Life)," off 1999’s Things Fall Apart, remains a reverential classic of the art-as-mistress conceit, but a throwaway line from that album’s Grammy-winning single might have been more revealing. Trotter simply rapped "now she[‘s] in my world like hip-hop," on transcontinental love duet "You Got Me," and you knew he was in deep.
On the forthcoming Game Theory, the Roots express outrage at the political manipulation of tragedy, from Columbine to Katrina, and pay melancholic homage to hardscrabble Philly streets and deceased former Roots’ collaborator Jay Dee. Yet Trotter affords himself a smirk before the first verse of "Baby" zooms in on unraveling affairs and stray lovers pleading for forgiveness. It’s as if he already knows that hip-hop will, and damn well should, take him back.
Trotter is the Roots’ primary vocalist, but offstage, drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson is the group’s most voluble member. Recently he expounded on how his work with the Roots and on projects like D’Angelo’s Voodoo convinced him of the perils of sexual objectification.
— Hastings Cameron
You put together Babies Makin’ Babies, soul compilations with baby-makin’ and break-up themes. Could you do something similar with hip-hop? Can it be background music for sex?
I’m gonna tell you some hilarious shit. For at least six weeks on a tour, I was staying next to a particular act, and every night he would play the first Wu-Tang album. Backstage, I was like, "Yo, you sure love that Wu-Tang record, man. Do you need more music?" He said, "No-no-no. That’s what they like. There’s a whole ‘nother energy when you’re doin’ it to the first Wu record than you are to Luther Vandross." That was the first and only time somebody totally schooled me to the fact that more aggressive music is somehow the background of choice.
What about for the breakup record?
Hip-hop is too misogynistic to make brokenhearted breakup music.
What would it take for that to change?
For starters, hip-hop has to be seen in a three-dimensional light. You can grab a Stevie Wonder record and use it as background music for breakfast in the morning, for driving your kids to school, or if you’re with your lady, because Stevie Wonder’s seen as a living, breathing person with emotion. I don’t know if, during those same scenarios, you can say, "Okay, I’m gonna play this Lil’ Jon record." He’s not seen as a three-dimensional figure. People don’t even know Lil’ Jon has his master’s degree.
Do you think when artists try to make something that’s more sensitive, it’s hard to take seriously? Like Dead Prez’s "Mind Sex"?
Hip-hop has let this image of the primitive, oversexed horndog get out of hand. When I first heard "Mind Sex," I thought it was really dope that someone had the balls to say, "I’m not trying to fuck you on first sight." When I meet a lady, I don’t hit her over the head and drag her to my cave like, "Hah! You woman. Me man. Pow!" Unfortunately, hip-hop has tattooed that image into our psyche. When really humanized shit comes into play — i.e. "let’s just sit and talk, I wanna know what I’m getting into" — that’s one of the realest things said on record.
But "Mind Sex" is so bohemian — it cites incense, herbal tea and poetry as agents of seduction.
Not even. I didn’t see "Mind Sex" as soft. I said, "That’s me." I’ve definitely been in situations where a girl’s like, "Yo, don’t think you gon’ be hittin’ the first night you see me," and I’ll be on some sincere shit, like, "I’m just tryin’ to talk to you — ain’t no need to ring the alarm just yet." Because of the Mandingo image that hip-hop has given off, people actually think, "Oh, that’s really us." If you put on Yung Joc’s "It’s Goin’ Down," I know cats who suddenly feel like they some punk-ass crack dealer who’s about to go to the trap,to get up his lil’ scrap,to holla at his shorty — and all that. The vicarious fantasy is nice, but people are forgetting it’s a fantasy. I’m a quasi-hip-hop celebrity, but I don’t have any Bewitched powers that enable me to snap my fingers and have five women at my beck and call.
You’ve said D’Angelo was sexually objectified because of the video for "Untitled (How Does it Feel)". Do you think that pushed him into —
Seclusion? Absolutely. We were very naïve. We thought "Okay, when we release this record, the audience is gonna know what these dissonant chords are, and they’re gonna know this Curtis Mayfield reference." Voodoo was one giant inside joke that only me and D’Angelo and a few others knew about. It was frustrating as shit to present this three-hour show and watch people have absolutely zero reaction until he has to take off his shirt and sing "Untitled (How Does It Feel)." At shows there would be eight women deep: four on one side, four on the other side. They knew we only had two or three security guards. One’s gonna run across the stage, and those three security guards will be on her. When she’s doing that — it was like a football play — the others are gonna attack him. They don’t care if they knock over this $3,000 keyboard, or if they put their marks in his back. The challenge became not how to give a kickass show, but "How can we get to ‘Untitled’ before they start makin’ me bleed?"
Do you think the hip-hop-as-woman metaphor is overused?
I tend to use movies, not women. But it’s easy to see hip-hop as a woman, only because I think women have to endure more pain and strife than men in this life. Hip-hop was most fun in its early years. For most five-, six-, seven-year-olds, fun is their priority. There’s no payin’ taxes, no "how am I gonna make ends meet," no adult worries until you experience puberty and start noticing yourself. It’s no wonder that hip-hop went through puberty, discovered itself, went through experiences — that of a human being. Hip-hop got paid, hip-hop got pregnant.
Why aren’t there more prominent female MCs? You’ve worked with Jean Grae, Bahamadia —
‘Cause the world’s not fair, and men run the world. Women don’t even get half their just desserts. I know from experience that women are, beyond what you can imagine, more effective than men. I try to do what I can. We created the Black Lily series after a lot of women complained that guys were hogging the mic and not giving them a chance to be heard. So we reconfigured the jam-session system that we had at my house to make it more womancentric. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that [women comprise] sixty percent of our staff. But then again, I think we’re the only hip-hop entity that lives on the road and is in constant, twenty-four-hour operation. I could throw a billion Black Lilys, or make sure that my staff quota is eight women to one man, but in most other circles I go to, men are always running and ruining the show.