NEW YORK — The Roots aren't known for selling records. While the hip-hop band has released 14 albums — mostly to critical acclaim — only two have managed to crack gold status.
But even though bandleader Questlove might have enjoyed the money that comes along with multiplatinum records, he wouldn't trade the group's rarified position in the music world for it.
"Mostly for black artists, we're really not afforded — unless you're a jazz artist — you're really not afforded the luxury of making an art record, or a concept record, or a passion project," said Questlove, born Ahmir Thompson. "For some strange, odd reason, and I'm not ever going to argue it, The Roots have always (had that luxury)."
And The Roots, the house band for "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" since 2009, have had support from high places to maintain that luxury.
When Jay-Z was president of Def Jam, he signed The Roots to the label and told them to maintain their sound and integrity, even if it meant fewer sales.
"(Jay-Z) didn't want to be known as the bad guy that killed The Roots," Questlove said.
The Roots put out two CDs last year with the Betty Wright-assisted "Betty Wright: The Movie" and "undun," which debuted at No. 17 on the Billboard charts. Both landed on several critics' best-of-the-year lists.
In a recent interview, Questlove talked more about the band, his relationship with Amy Winehouse and life on "Late Night."
The Associated Press: Jay-Z gave you guys some good advice.
Questlove: I told Jay, "Like man, that would be nice to have all my records debut at No. 1 and stuff." But he's like, "Yeah, but you're just looking at that. I got to deal with beef with this cat and that cat. Every year some rapper's going to take a potshot and I got to take the gloves out the closet and start training." ... And (Jay-Z) sees me as an artist making my dream come true. Like, he wants to be seen as a true artist, not the richest guy in hip-hop. Meanwhile, I would like 13 zeros in my account.
AP: "Undun" is about the death of fictional drug dealer Redford Stevens, but the story is told from beginning to end. How did the concept come about?
Questlove: We wanted to tell his story because we've known a billion Redford Stevens in Philadelphia. Philadelphia has been sort of mired and drenched into a lot of random acts of crime, very un-brotherly like in the last decade or so, and we wanted to show the direct result.
AP: You recorded an album with Betty Wright at the same time. What was that like?
Questlove: I figured I wanted to dedicate the rest of my existence (to) creating source material so that someone else can have something to sample in 2040 once this becomes a dated record. I'm just trying to create the soulful records that will still be used. And it's funny because Betty never understood why I wanted to put a drum break at the beginning, she just start wanted to sing. I'm like, "No. No. No. Drum break. Trust me on this one. You'll thank me 30 years from now when you get your publishing checks."
AP: You were close to Amy Winehouse. What was your relationship like with her?
Questlove: She's such a jazz snob. I couldn't stand it, but I was obsessed with it because once we exchanged information, she would always be on her computer sending me MP3s (like), "Listen to this." ... We spent a lot of time on Skype talking about crazy ideas and she schooled me about Sarah Vaughan. I schooled her about J Dilla. And she was like, "All right, we're going to start a super group. You, me, Mos (Def) and Raphael Saadiq." I was like, "OK." And she assigned homework: "All right, study this record." ... I really miss not having her here to school me on jazz; I thought I was a music snob, and I thought I had my doctorate in jazz, but no. There's so much more I could have learned. She's a teacher.
AP: Before moving to New York, you used to travel daily from Philly to do Fallon's show?
Questlove: At first it seemed easy: Get up at 4, 5 a.m.; get on the tour bus, two hours to New York, tour bus, two hours back. It was really hard though. I'd get home at 10 p.m.; work out with my trainer and then 11 p.m., getting dinner. There's really not much you can do between the hours of 1 and 5 a.m. My social life was pretty much null and void, you know, because any self-respecting woman I see has a job the next morning that she has to be ready (for).
AP: How has the band grown from being on the show?
Questlove: Being on the Jimmy Fallon show has introduced a word that has never been in our vocabulary. We've never, ever rehearsed as a band. We never practiced. Shockers, I know. ...So once we come to Fallon, we're now confined to a very tight space, and it's just the eight of us looking at each other, and it's very awkward. ... It's like we didn't know how to play. ... Once we got in a groove, we just practiced a lot. And now we're better musicians, we're better songwriters, we're better engineers, we're better producers. We're just more focused on our songwriting than ever. I wish we had this type of discipline and preparation at the beginning of our career. So I feel like now we're just on our second album.
Mesfin Fekadu covers entertainment for The Associated Press. Follow him at http://www.twitter.com/musicmesfin