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The Roots ready for 'Late Night' life

Becoming the house band for Jimmy Fallon's ''Late Night'' show has ''enabled us to survive'' says the Roots' ?uestlove. Becoming the house band for Jimmy Fallon's ''Late Night'' show has ''enabled us to survive'' says the Roots' ?uestlove. (Charles sykes/associated press)
By Jake Coyle
Associated Press / February 24, 2009
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NEW YORK - The Roots are making sandwiches.

The band is holed-up in a Manhattan studio, preparing for its 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" - the intros and outros that will buffer each segment on the show.

"Right now, my whole life is this show," said drummer Ahmir Thompson, better known as ?uestlove.

Since forming in Philadelphia in the early 1990s, the Roots has been one of the best regarded bands in hip-hop. It was one of the first hip-hop bands to take up instruments, and it's 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.

Gawker.com wrote that the band's "opening up for Jimmy Fallon every night is the cultural equivalent of Miles Davis playing his horn on the subway platform."

?uestlove says 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 ?uestlove 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 said.

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

"Initially I was a little leery," said Roots's 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?' "

The idea gradually sunk in, though, Black Thought says. When the economy went into recession, ticket sales - their chief source of income - started to slow. And with album sales tanking, many music acts are considering different ways to make money.

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

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

Seeing hip-hop regularly on a late show will be revolutionary, but the Roots are more than a hip-hop band.

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

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