By the time he started elementary school, Thompson had spent more time on the road with adults than in Philadelphia with children his age. When his freshman class had to bring music to school, he chose “Why Fools Fall In Love,” by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, not realizing that it wasn’t a contemporary choice. By his own account, he was an unusual child, not wild or temperamental but easily obsessed. When he was a baby, to calm him down, his parents put him in front of something he liked – a spinning record or an episode of “Soul Train” – and he was sedated for hours, almost in a trance. His dad was half joking that the family worried if he was okay. (“I don’t think ‘autistic’ was a common term at the time, but I found out later that they took me to a doctor to see if something was really wrong,” he in his memoir, “Mo ‘Meta Blues.”) That, combined with the violence in his neighborhood – the rise of crack cocaine, the state-sanctioned MOVE bombing – and the abrupt turn of its parents towards Christianity in the early 1980s, contributed to a protected childhood.
Fortunately, the music was enough distraction for the lock on the front gate. As a teenager, Thompson revered the reviews section of Rolling Stone, went to the library every Saturday to request microfilm reels of back issues, and lined his room with cutouts from major reviews. (Even now, to figure out his own records, he’ll fake Rolling Stone reviews – signature, cover image, full story – before they’re released.) His parents praised his interest in music but hoped that he would find a more traditional style, stable employment within it. They wanted, he wrote, to lift a ‘future’ Jeopardy! ‘ candidate instead of a future “Jeopardy!” ” index.”
Yet when he entered Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, they let him drop out of the Christian school he attended. CAPA, as it is called, was a concentrate of ingenuity and real success. Thompson played drums in a music video for a few guys in his class – Boyz II Men. He paled with bassist Christian McBride. He took singer Amel Larrieux to the prom. But the real prize was meeting Tariq Trotter, the rebellious art kid who got caught having sex with girls in the bathroom, who was sort of intrigued by Thompson and his geeky hippie jeans covered of acrylic paint. Trotter would ask Thompson to accompany his freestyles to the cafeteria, with Thompson hitting beats on the lunch table, ultimately playing in front of whoever would listen.
The Roots’ career, while a success both commercially and critically, has been marked by a series of near misses. In their early days, they hoped to follow in the footsteps of bands like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, carving out a solid place in the alternative hip-hop arena. But by the time they started looking for recording deals in 1993, the tides had changed: Dr. Dre had broken records with “The Chronic,” and all labels seemed to want gangsta-rap artists who could sell. a large number of disks. After a brief stint in London to attract an audience, they signed with Geffen, released two albums and eventually landed a hit single, “You Got Me”, with Erykah Badu, from their 1999 album, “Things Fall Apart. “.
At this point, they were hosting jam sessions at Thompson’s home in Philadelphia, bringing together like-minded musicians in a creative community that stood out from the gritty coastal rap that filled the airwaves. They called this community “the movement”, and their experience worked almost too well: Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, Bilal, Eve, India. Arie, Jazmine Sullivan and Common were all regulars. Thompson also began working with D’Angelo, whom he called one of the crownings of his life. “When I think back to that time, the most amazing thing is how many of these artists did it,” he wrote in his memoir. “There were at least 18 recording contracts in the hall, and at least nine of the people who became recording artists ended up being bigger than us.”
Thompson began producing popular records, becoming one of the architects of a hugely influential soul music strain. He was the backbone of a collective of neo-soul bohemian and alternative hip-hop artists called the Soulquarians, named after the astrological sign shared by many members, which included Badu, Common, Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Q -Tip. But eventually the collective slackened: people quit the game, or started shooting movies, or made music with the city’s new blockbuster, Kanye West.