Legend, Roots Fine With Taking Risks On ‘Wake Up!’

When a top music executive found out that John Legend was working with the Roots on an album dedicated to social change and activism, he didn’t give Legend words of encouragement.

“What the hell are you doing?” is what Legend recalls that executive saying.

“He’s not directly responsible for my career but he’s quite a popular record executive, whose name I won’t mention,” Legend said, laughing. “(And) he was not approving of this.”

Photo: Steve Jennings
Wells Fargo Center For The Arts, Santa Rosa, Calif.

Fortunately for Legend, the executives at his own label, Columbia Records, had his back. Now the joint collaboration, Wake Up! is one of the best reviewed albums of the year.

The CD, released last month, finds Legend and the hip-hop band covering 1960s and 1970s soul songs from iconic acts like Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, Nina Simone and Bill Withers, among others (the CD also has one original song).

“It is a covers record but it really doesn’t feel like a covers record at all,” said Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, the Roots leader who co-produced the album. “I guess certain music connoisseurs will know the cuts … they weren’t like, Billboard-charted hits. They were chosen for their message.”

The sound is somewhat of a departure for Legend. Though he’s a soul singer, “Wake Up!” features less crooning and more grit. He’s singing songs about war, politics and race in a different tone than he’s done in the past.

That was accomplished thanks to ?uestlove, Legend said.

“Ahmir was really steering the ship,” he added, acknowledging not knowing some of the songs before recording them. “I really leaned on him for his expertise.”

The Grammy winner agrees that he took a risk with Wake Up! – but he didn’t think twice about creating the project.

“The thing is the industry as a whole is risk-averse because people are losing jobs, the business of selling records is contracting, and so people are very dependent on ‘You gotta get that radio hit, you gotta sell these singles, you gotta sell these ring tones,'” Legend explained. “And we made the anti-that album basically, and I think it’s going to work.”

“You know it’s a shame when in 2010 making an album of music is now a risky thing to do,” chimed in ?uestlove.

Work on Wake Up! started two years ago, but then Legend went on a tour to promote his last album, 2008’s Evolver, while the Roots recorded their ninth CD, How I Got Over, and worked as the house band for “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.”

Legend said coming back to finish the CD allowed them “to live with music, live with the arrangements and really develop them.”

While Legend and the Philadelphia-based Roots hadn’t worked together in the past, Legend says he remembers passing off his demo to ?uestlove when he attended the University of Pennsylvania in the 1990s.

Photo: Doug Seymour
WXPN Non-Comm, World Cafe Live, Philadelphia, Pa.

It wasn’t an instant musical connection.

“He missed out is all I’m saying!” Legend said with a smile as ?uestlove pulled up his shirt to hide his face.

“He thinks I tea-coastered his demo, like it’s somewhere under my chocolate mug,” ?uestlove said.