John Legend and the Roots ready their new album

John Legend and the Roots

"This album was conceived in the heat of the summer of 2008," says John Legend, "in the middle of a passionate election campaign that represented change and hope, and awakened a new generation of activists who had never been inspired before."

Faced with this moment of thrilling possibility, R&B singer Legend and hip-hop band The Roots felt a need to enter the action. "Our initial idea was to make something that was the cool, hip soundtrack to that spirit, that sense of restlessness and optimism," says Legend. A planned single became an EP, which turned into a full album project that's been given the appropriately fiery title WAKE UP! 

John Legend and the Roots

"This album was conceived in the heat of the summer of 2008," says John Legend, "in the middle of a passionate election campaign that represented change and hope, and awakened a new generation of activists who had never been inspired before."

Faced with this moment of thrilling possibility, R&B singer Legend and hip-hop band The Roots felt a need to enter the action. "Our initial idea was to make something that was the cool, hip soundtrack to that spirit, that sense of restlessness and optimism," says Legend. A planned single became an EP, which turned into a full album project that's been given the appropriately fiery title WAKE UP! 

The musicians also realized that if this project was really going to be significant, it had to address more than one moment in history. "A big part of the guiding spirit for this record was the days that led up to November of 2008," says Roots drummer/musical director Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, "but not wanting to jump the gun, we held off for a year to see if the songs could still stand no matter the political climate of Washington." 

As they got deeper into the concept, they opted to focus on songs representing the last time American youth were so politically aware, which Legend describes as "funky, soulful black music from the ‘60s and ‘70s-music that's been sampled by many rappers, but we wanted to put our spin on it."

Taking a cue from one of the first songs they attempted, "Wake Up Everybody" by Philly Soul masters Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, a theme began to emerge. Urban protest songs shared a concern for awareness, engagement, consciousness-they were telling listeners to WAKE UP! 

The eleven songs on the resulting album-shot through with gospel, rock, and reggae inflections, yet never losing a hip-hop attack-mix selections familiar ("Wholly Holy" by Marvin Gaye, "Little Ghetto Boy" by Donny Hathaway) and obscure (Baby Huey and the Babysitters' "Hard Times," "Hang on in There" by Mike James Kirkland). WAKE UP! blends Legend's expressive, thoughtful vocal interpretations with the  limber funk of The Roots, all filtered through Thompson's encyclopedic musical knowledge.

"The first thing I did was compile a list of songs that I didn't want John to sing," says Thompson. "I wanted to go under the radar, yet effectively kill a few birds with one stone. I wanted to catch the ear of the hip-hop generation that would've been familiar with the songs from their sample usage, just like I wanted to catch older fans that were fans of the original songs that got sampled."

Bringing Legend and The Roots together is an inspired pairing, so logical that it's a little surprising they haven't teamed up before. John Legend is a six-time Grammy winner whose three albums have all hit Number One on the Billboard R&B charts, and who has collaborated with such artists as Kanye West, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, and the Black Eyed Peas. The Roots-currently visible nightly as the stupendously versatile house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon-have released nine acclaimed studio albums (including the recent How I Got Over) and redefined the relationship between live instruments and hip-hop. Though the Roots were rising stars in Philadelphia when Legend was attending the University of Pennsylvania, the only time they have worked together was for one song on Al Green's 2008 album Lay It Down, which Thompson produced.

As WAKE UP! took shape, a style started to present itself, firmly based in the original recordings, but never purely an imitation. Some arrangements were more faithful to the sources and some less, but all crystallize the strengths of this specific group of musicians. "We were in no way trying to make it sound super-modern," says Legend. "There's an audience right now that's missing that feeling, because everything is so autotuned and produced and has so much of a sheen on it. We wanted to do something kinda dirty."

"My goal for the album was, number one, to give John his most grittiest, dirt-in-the-fingernails, terra firma presentation to date," says Thompson. "And number two, to ignite the palette of an audience craving an album created by real musicians, production, and engineering."

Legend notes that the biggest transformation came on the album's one original composition, his song "Shine," which is featured in Academy Award-winning director Davis Guggenheim's documentary film Waiting for Superman. He recalls his excitement as he watched the song develop from a piano-based ballad to a "Stevie-Wonder-meets-gospel" powerhouse.

The first track they cut, a hard-charging shuffle version of "Compared to What" (best known as a hit for Les McCann and Eddie Harris), set the tone for the rest of Wake Up! While they wanted to mix up the sound of the songs (a rap break from CL Smooth spikes the energy on the already-fever-pitch "Our Generation"), the lyrics remained as valid as ever.

"These songs sound so relevant now," Legend says. "On most of them, you wouldn't change a lyric. ‘Wake Up Everybody' (the album's first single, featuring contributions from Melanie Fiona and Common) has four verses-the first one is a general statement, the second is about education, third is about health care, and the fourth is about making a better environment. No editing needed."

In the two years that separate the genesis of this project and its completion, much has changed in America. After the excitement of the election, the realities of attempting to govern during difficult times became apparent. Rather than minimize the impact of the songs on Wake Up!, however, the artists believe that the crises we are currently facing only add meaning to these lyrics.

"When we originally thought we were going to put this album out before the election, we were very optimistic about our prospects," says Legend. "But even after we elected Obama and got someone who I think is a great leader in office, there's still a lot of unrest-even though things have gotten better, there's still a lot of the same problems."

The singer points out that songs like "Compared to What" or Nina Simone's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" offer tough words and strong protests, not naïve bromides. "A lot of the songs are complaining more than they're presenting solutions," he says. "We wanted to have a bit of that angst, because that's hip-hop-it wasn't all ‘Let's hold hands,' it was, ‘Man, this sucks.' And I think a lot of people feel that way right now."

For all of the focus given to the messages and the background of the selections on WAKE UP!, though, Legend emphasizes that this is music first and foremost, and if it didn't sound right, it wouldn't be worth doing. "Our first goal was to make a dope album, something that I would love to listen to and I hope a lot of fans would, too," he says. "The messages are all important, but if the music isn't dope, then I could just do an album of speeches about these issues."

For those listeners who know these songs and, maybe more important, for those who don't, WAKE UP!  stands as evidence of the power that music has had in the past, and can rise to once again. "When these songs were written, people were more spiritually in tune," says Thompson. "It was fresh from the civil rights era and there was a feeling of hope that maybe, yes, someday we will all be free. In 2010, not so much."

John Legend explains succinctly why this album is something that the world needs-now. "The intense brew of possibility and persistent poverty, optimism and despair, activism and unrest, global connectedness and intractable global conflicts, is the reason WAKE UP!  exists."

Go to JohnLegend.com for an exclusive look at John & The Roots' live, studio performance of "Hard Times" and for additional information about WAKE UP! 

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