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Making sandwiches with music

THE Roots are making sandwiches. The band is holed-up in a Manhattan studio, preparing for their new gig as the house band on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," the NBC show that will take Conan O'Brien's place when O'Brien moves to "The Tonight Show."

They're working long days to create 200 "sandwiches" or "beds" - the intro and outros that buffer each segment on the show.

"Right now, my whole life is this show," says drummer Ahmir Thompson, better known as Questlove.

Since forming in Philadelphia in the early 1990s, the Roots have been one of the best regarded bands. They were one of the first hip-hop bands to take up instruments and under the steady pounding of Thompson they've been an acclaimed act for nearly two decades, with respectable (though not huge) album sales.

So when word got out that the Roots would be following in the tradition of Paul Shaffer and Kevin Eubanks, the blogosphere and much of the music world erupted in say-it-ain't-so shock.

Echoing the comments of many, wrote that the band "opening up for Jimmy Fallon every night is the cultural equivalent of Miles Davis playing his horn on the subway platform."

Questlove has heard the warnings about the Roots becoming a late-show band. He says his friend, saxophonist Branford Marsalis - who abruptly quit his gig as Jay Leno's musical foil in the early 1990s - cautioned against the move: "You'll be neutered!"

But Questlove says the band's new job has "enabled us to survive.

"This would basically match or surpass what we would make touring 200-plus days out of the year. And, two, this allows us to be home," he says.

It's a welcome respite from the road for a band that has always toured extensively. The band - most in their late 30s - are looking forward to living like "normal men," as Questlove says.

"Initially I was a little leery," says the Roots' MC, Tariq Trotter, or Black Thought. "I initially was thinking, 'Is this just going to be ammo for some other rapper to try to dis me for?' Like, 'Your career is so over now ... You're a house band for ...' You have to be that many steps ahead of whatever move you're going to make."

The idea gradually sunk in, though, Black Thought says, "the further we were sinking into economic disaster." When the economy went into recession, ticket sales - their chief source of income - started to slow.

And with album sales tanking and the industry in tatters, acts throughout music are considering different ways to make money.

"It was just sounding better and better as the months went on," says Black Thought. "The pros outweighed the cons."

Major challenge

But the job is already more than the Roots bargained for. NBC isn't paying for publishing rights - not even for the Roots own material - so the band is left having to create a new television-ready repertoire.

"It's going to be a major challenge," says Questlove. "Right now, we're writing about 25 a day. I'm surprised we're not running on fumes."

Fallon, the former "Saturday Night Live" cast member, has repeatedly touted having "the best band in late-night." The idea came from Fallon's friend Neal Brennan, who had worked with Questlove when Questlove was music director of "Chappelle's Show" on Comedy Central.

Fallon described pitching the band while they gathered in the office of Lorne Michaels, the executive producer of "Late Night:"

"No. 1, you will raise the bar of what a house band is, because you're the Roots and you're amazing ... No. 2, I don't know who to compare you to. You can play with Tony Bennett and on a separate occasion play with Jay-Z and it works ... Third, you live in Philly, so it's an hour on the Acela train."

There are other upsides, too. The Roots will certainly raise their profile and attract new audiences. They will hold a residency at New York's Highline Ballroom playing weekly shows and will continue working on a new album.

They'll still have ten weeks off to tour further afield than the New York metro area. And being based in New York will help Questlove, a frequent producer of acts like Al Green, D'Angelo and Common, get back in the studio.

Seeing hip-hop regularly on a late show will be revolutionary in itself, but the Roots are more than a hip-hop band. Their debut "Do You Want More?!!!??!" had an obvious jazz influence. The group may be best known for their Grammy-winning collaboration with Erykah Badu, "You Got Me." Their hit off their 2002 disc "Phrenology," performed with Cody Chesnutt - "The Seed (2.0)" - is one of the best rock songs of the decade.

They've toured with the Dave Matthews Band, joined "The Colbert Report" in Philadelphia and played backing band for the concert film "Dave Chappelle's Block Party."

"We're going to cover every genre, though I doubt we'll do bluegrass," says Questlove. "This is a chance to really show people how diverse we are."

The gig is most awkward for Black Thought, the band's frontman. He'll mostly spit a quick rhyme or sing a couple lines, but that will be it. And anything that he sings or raps on air - as well as any music played - will immediately be owned by NBC Universal.

"I didn't realize how difficult it was going to be until yesterday," says Black Thought. "It's not the blind cakewalk that I originally foresaw this gig being."


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