April 28, 2008 / 5:50 AM / 9 years ago

Cult hip-hop band the Roots struggle at new label

<p>The Roots arrives at the VH1 Hip Hop Honors event at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York October 7, 2006.Eric Thayer</p>

NEW YORK (Billboard) - Philadelphia's hip-hop collective the Roots are off to a rough start at their new label.

After seven studio albums with MCA and Geffen, they signed to Def Jam in 2006 at the behest of then-label president Jay-Z. However, since Jay-Z's departure last December, things have been a bit more difficult.

In an effort to please Def Jam executives with a radio single, drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson says the group presented the pop-leaning "Birthday Girl" featuring Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump. Label staffers praised the track, but fans panned it, and the tune was stripped from the U.S. version of their new album, "Rising Down."

The set is book-ended by a 1994 conversation where the members vent their frustration about not garnering the attention they expected from MCA. Thompson says the snippets show that their Def Jam predicament isn't the first time the Roots have "been mired in some sort of label battle."

He says the group operates far below the radar of Island Def Jam chairman Antonio "L.A." Reid.

"He has no idea that 'Birthday Girl' isn't even on the album," Thompson says. "They don't know we shot the 'Rising Down' video. They just know they approved an (electronic press kit) budget."

Reid had no comment. However, Def Jam marketing director Erica Holley says plenty of initiatives are in the pipeline to promote "Rising Down."

Despite a decade of critical acclaim, the Roots have never sold more than 906,000 units of any album (with 1999's "Things Fall Apart"), according to Nielsen SoundScan. Their last album, 2006's "Game Theory," stalled at 204,000 copies.

"At a time, it was safe to be the Roots," Thpmpson says. "Now as each album goes by, the risk of annihilation becomes closer and closer. That's why this album is almost our defining moment."

While he describes "Birthday Girl" as "clever," ultimately the single doesn't sync with the album's dark chords. Tracks like "The Show" featuring Common and "I Will Not Apologize" featuring Talib Kweli, Porn and Dice Raw convey the group's sober tone via organ melodies, snaking drums and indignant lyrics.

Long revered as one of the most accomplished live hip-hop acts, the Roots will hit the road May 4 with Erykah Badu for a 22-date North American tour. While on the road, Thompson will hold listening sessions in each city to maintain the marketplace presence of "Rising Down."

The group has already graced Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" and the Jon Stewart-hosted "A Night of Too Many Stars," and will perform "Rising Up" Monday with Chrisette Michele and new rapper Wale on "Late Show With David Letterman." An appearance on Nickelodeon's "Gabba Gabba" is penciled in for May 26.

"The luxury we have with the Roots is that they already have an established fan base," Holley says. "Marketing opportunities like Jon Stewart come to us."

And while the group may have dropped its best chance for a crossover hit in "Birthday Girl," Thompson says the Roots' history still counts for something. "If someone asked me, 'Do you want to release two albums and sell over 2 million copies, or do you want a 20-year career but none of your records will sell over 500,000 units?,' that's a tough question. But, looking back, I wouldn't change a thing."

Reuters/Billboard

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