Interview: John Legend & The Roots on Blaxploitation Soundtracks, Soul and "Wake Up!"
Mon, 01 Nov 2010 11:29:13
John Legend and The Roots pay homage to soul classics like nobody's business on their collaboration album, Wake Up!.
In fact, Legend and co. add just the right dose of modern funk to tracks originally performed by Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye and many more. Legend's got one of the best voices in modern pop and R&B, and he infuses an elegant swagger into the songs, while The Roots do their thing and jam out masterfully. It's the ultimate 21st century soul album…
John Legend sat down with ARTISTdirect.com editor and Dolor author Rick Florino for an exclusive interview about making Wake Up!, the story behind "Shine," his favorite blaxploitation soundtracks and so much more.
Were you essentially trying to freshen up classic funk with Wake Up!?
Yeah! I think we certainly were going for a very classic, soulful feel that was fairly faithful to the originals or, at least, the original aesthetic that was prevalent in the '60s and '70s. However, we did update it, make it our own and add hip hop inflections to it as well. Obviously, I'm a different singer than any of those artists that we covered. My voice will automatically provide a different feel than the originals had. As a band, The Roots put their own flavor on every song. We tried to make something that was very much rooted in that era but also fresh and updated.
Is there one thread that ties the entire album together for you?
I feel like every artist should try to make albums that are like that anyway. Sometimes, you try and don't succeed as much as you'd like to. However, the goal is always to make an album you can listen to from front to back without a drop off in quality but also with a unity in feel. There are slower songs, and there are more upbeat songs, yet I feel like there's a feel throughout. This is the first album I've done with one band and one production outfit the entire time, so I think that fact certainly contributes to the cohesion. Clearly, it was a concept album with specific subject matter and a definitive time period we were covering. That lends to the unity of the album as well.
"Hang On" stands out. What's up with that track?
It's interesting because I've never really done jam-y kinds of songs on my albums. I'm more of a songwriter who's focused on "The Song." Obviously, in the constraints of radio, you don't have as much space to make your point. This is the first album where I really let the songs ride out so long, but it was fun doing that. As a listening experience, it's a nice journey for the audience.
It's easy to find something new on every listen to Wake Up!.
It's weird for me because I know the recordings backwards and forwards. I'm always curious to hear how other people react to it the first time, the fifth time and the tenth time. I feel like the album has a lot of dynamics and a lot of little gems in there musically and vocally.
Was "Shine" particularly special for you?
Well, that's an original song that I wrote for Waiting for Superman. The original recording I did that's on the film is quite different stylistically from this version. The one I did for the film is more of a straight piano ballad with the strings at the end in the vain of "Ordinary People." It was meant to be darker, more spare and contemplative. We wanted to make this version feel more unified with the rest of the album, so we listened to some Stevie Wonder as reference. We listened to "I Believe When I Fall in Love, It'll be Forever" from The Talking Book as our principal reference when we were thinking about how to arrange "Shine." I think we were able to really achieve what we were going for which was to have something that was a rousing hymn at the end of the album.
If Wake Up! was a movie or a combination of movies, what would it be?
A lot of the inspiration was from the Blaxploitation movies. A lot of this music was in those movies or it could've been—particularly some of the more up-tempo songs like "Hard Times," "Compared to What" and "Our Generation." You can hear a lot of these songs in those kinds of films and even movies from a later era like Malcolm X. A lot of these songs would surely fit in that genre of film.
What's your favorite Blaxploitation movie?
I watched some of them when I was young, but I haven't really revisited them recently. It's funny, I know the music from the films a lot better than I know the actual films. I love the Superfly soundtrack, the Shaft soundtrack and a lot of great soundtracks that some of my favorite artists have done.
Those movies where inherently very musical.
Historically, black films in general have had a very close relationship with the black music community. I think that remains the case now. You can think back to the '90s. Babyface did the soundtracks for Waiting to Exhale and Love Jones. Those are really influential soundtracks, even for people my age. The soundtrack is not as popular as it used to be. However, the music has been an integral part of black film.
Do you want to do more film work?
Yeah, I think it's great for a number of reasons. It's cool to have a specific goal and concept that you're writing for because sometimes my writing in general is whatever comes to me. When you're writing for a film, it's fun to have a narrative in mind and a theme that goes with the movie. That's a cool way to spur the writing the process. I'm a big fan of film, and I enjoy watching great movies. Having my music in films is incredible.
Have you heard Wake Up! yet?