For some reason, when ?uestlove announced in November that The Roots would cease touring and become the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, there was minor outrage. "Black Thought opening for Jimmy Fallon every night is the cultural equivalent of Miles Davis playing his horn on the subway platform to back up a semi-trained dancing spider monkey," wrote Gawker, while the Huffington Post reported that saxophonist and former Tonight Show bandleader Branford Marsalis advised the group against the move. "You'll be neutered!" he said.
Still, with ticket sales slumping, the Philadelphia trailblazers--hip hop's official Best. Live. Band. Ever.--signed on for the gig, and the result has been, essentially, the reintroduction of rap music to network television. The show has been able to pull everyone from Ludacris, N.E.R.D. and Rick Ross to Beastie Boys, Mos Def and Wale. You might see the more famous of these artists once in a while on Letterman, Conan, or Kimmel but you certainly don't see them sandwiched in with such regularity--and between such A-list indie rock acts as Grizzly Bear and Dinosaur Jr. at that.
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Say what you will about Fallon; I found his inability to keep a straight face on Saturday Night Live hilarious and think Fever Pitch is way underrated, but understand how many find him whiny and schtick-y. (Gawker prefers "stuttering mop-headed ball of suck.") But there's no doubt the man has good taste in music, and has clearly dreamed of being an emcee since he was a kid. Even if his rapped opening bars of "It's Tricky" last month weren't your thing, it segued flawlessly into Mos Def's performance of the Run-DMC classic. Mos sat in with the band all night for that show, which makes sense, considering he's buddies with The Roots. That band's thick Rolodex, after all, is what ensures they get such quality acts with such consistency.
But it's not an easy gig. The group spends all day, every day, putting together intros and outros, and has chosen some hilarious lead-in songs for guests, including "Fuck tha Police" for Reno 911's Thomas Lennon, "Brooklyn's Finest" for Zachary Quinto & Leonard Nimoy, etc. (You can see some more funny ones here.) More importantly, they make it all look easy. The Beastie Boys' recent "So What'cha Want" performance began when the guys were still sitting on the couch, and they sounded better live than on their recent Check Your Head reissue.
The best part is how thrilled Fallon seems to be at these shows. Though he's made a living out of being irrepressibly giddy, nowadays he can barely stay in his chair. Then again, you probably wouldn't be able to, either, if you got front row seats to see The Roots every night.
Jimmy Fallon performs Saturday, July 18 at the Grove Of Anaheim.