When Jimmy Fallon was tapped to host NBC’s legendary Late Night talk show nearly five years ago, he made the rather surprising choice to have the Roots as the program’s house band.
There was never a question about the band’s talents — the Roots have been critically acclaimed since releasing their 1993 debut album Organix, and they’ve been lauded by everyone from Rolling Stone to the Boston Globe for their amazing live performances. Furthermore, the Philly-based group has proved very influential in the use of live instrumentation in hip-hop, a genre that typically relies on samples and drum machines.
The Roots are part of a storied tradition, one that includes keyboardist Paul Shaffer, longtime band leader for David Letterman; Kevin Eubanks, whose band served under Jay Leno; G.E. Smith, who led the Saturday Night Live band during the ’80s; and Arsenio Hall’s Posse, which featured members from funk band Cameo.
Still, the Roots managed to eclipse their predecessors, bringing with them to Late Night, and late-night TV in general, a hipness and cultural cache that undoubtedly helped Fallon reign supreme and remain popular with young viewers.
Here are five reasons the Roots is the best late-night TV band ever.
The Roots and Fallon have crafted numerous inventive musical numbers over the past five years, but the “classroom instruments” performances seem to be the most fun. They’ve had guests ranging from the Sesame Street gang to Mariah Carey to Christina Aguilera (with whom they used office supplies — awesome!). Above, however, has got to be their best one: “Call Me Maybe,” featuring Carly Rae Jepsen.
Slow Jam the News
Let’s face it. The news is depressing. War and terror, economic struggles, zombiefied bees. It’s all enough to make one leap from the Verrazano. However, one of the more popular Late Night sketches adds just the right amount of sugar to help the medicine go down.
“Slow Jam the News” is the show’s longest running musical sketch, one in which Fallon joins the Roots in serenading the audience — slow jam style, natch — on important newsworthy topics. The sketch has also featured a host of special guests, including news anchor Brian Williams, former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, embattled New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and President Barack Obama himself.
No, seriously. Just look at it.
They Performed “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” for Michele Bachmann’s Entrance Music
Back in 2011, in the run-up to the presidential election, then-potential candidate Michele Bachmann appeared on Late Night. To the unhinged glee of Questlove, the band played Fishbone’s “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” as she walked onstage:
Though the stunt cost them some autonomy — the band must now clear intro music with no less than three members of NBC brass beforehand — it was still a deliciously subversive television moment.
Simply Put, They Are Just Dope
Here’s something you should remember: The Roots are a real, for real band. These gentlemen are musicians, yes, but they were a cohesive group long before joining Late Night. In fact, the Roots are the first actual, established band to ever become a house band. That, in itself, is pretty damn awesome.
Yet it’s their camaraderie and effortless cool that allow them to share in the late-night spotlight. The bandmates — drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, MC Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, bassist Owen Biddle, keyboardist James “Kamal” Gray, percussionist Frank “Knuckles” Walker, guitarist Kirk “Captain Kirk” Douglas, and saxophonist Damen “Tuba Gooding Jr.” Bryson — not only work well with each other, but they’ve shown time and again that they are quite capable of collaborating with Late Night’s many guests. They can go from Tony Bennett to Tony Yayo without breaking a sweat.
“And that’s what you need in a late-night band,” Fallon said in an interview about the Roots. “That range.”
When it was announced that Fallon was taking over The Tonight Show, succeeding Leno as host, many wondered what would become of the Roots. Was this the end of their late-night run, or would they, too, move into the earlier time slot? Thankfully, the Roots will follow Fallon when he makes his Tonight Show debut on Feb. 17 on NBC.
“I can’t imagine doing the show without them,” Fallon said.
Neither can we.