When the Roots joined "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" last year, fans cried foul.
What would they be doing in the tacky Siberia that late night can be? Slumming with "Stump the Band" skits? The gig smacked of selling out. Most alarmingly, it would at least spell reduced touring for a group that was accustomed to being on the road 42 weeks a year.
"I definitely felt the heat," said band leader and drummer Ahmed "Questlove" Thompson.
But in that time, Thompson hasn't turned into Doc Severinsen. If anything, he said, the group has tightened its set. For starters, Fallon has meant daily rehearsal, something Thompson hadn't done since he was in his teens. The band's new home at 30 Rockefeller Center has also become an incubator of ideas. It's now recording there and trying out new material with the show's live audiences between commercials.
"I was determined to prove this wouldn't slow us down," Thompson said. "We're more productive than we've ever been."
When the band stops at Rams Head Live Friday, promoting their new album, "How I Got Over," Thompson said fans will see a more cohesive group. It might be a first in music history — a band that improved its game by going on network television. The band and R&B singer John Legend also released an album of covers of '60s protest songs this year called "Wake Up."
It's not hard to see why fans protested the Fallon job though. If anything, it underscored something that must have been galling for them to recognize: that a band as famously cool as a Coltrane riff was finally, shockingly, aging.
With "How I Got Over," Thompson wanted to take on the age issue. After 20 years together, they had reached elder-statesmen status, and they had to decide on a new direction. He calls it their "boys to men" album.
"Each song poses the question, 'Do I take the easy road, or do I do what I need to do because I'm not the same 20-year-old I was?' " he said.
But by tackling middle age, the album is something of a risk. Age is as taboo a topic in hip-hop as homosexuality. And urban music has become more escapist, Thompson said. Two examples are Jason Derulo and Usher, who are abandoning their traditional sound in favor of more commercial European dance.
"It was scary at the beginning because hip-hop is such a young man's game," said Thompson, who is turning 40 next year. "Dare we mention middle age? But it's true. We've got kids, we've got wives. We're soccer pops. Thursdays are meatloaf days."
While for many years the Roots toured so much that it could afford to bypass rehearsals, age was beginning to take on their performances.
"As 40 is inching closer, I have to exercise and rehearse more just to do things I could do in my sleep when I was 24," Thompson said.
In that respect, Fallon's show has reinvigorated them. The nightly performances and daily three-hour blocks of rehearsal have smoothed out the musical kinks.
"As a unit, we read each other way better, just in terms of knowing where one musician goes, and the other one follows," he said.
And when it became the house band, the Roots tore down the walls between three dressing rooms, soundproofed them and built mini-recording booths for each member of the band, creating a fully working studio.
"Even when the show is over, I'm still here until 3 in the morning making stuff," Thompson said.
The show's live audience also means the band gets to see an immediate reaction to work in progress. "It's the best focus group we have," he said. In a year, Thompson said, the group has accumulated some 2,000 tracks. For fans, the TV show's drawback is still that it has cut into the band's touring.
While before Fallon the Roots might have played Rams Head Live three times a year, now the band is likely to make it here only once. Touring has been cut back to just 12 weeks a year, done on weekends or during the show's hiatus. But Thompson said this might work to their benefit, too.
"Absence makes the heart grow fonder," he said.
If you go
The Roots perform tonight at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place in Power Plant Live. Doors open at 9 p.m. Tickets start at $45. Call 410-244-1131 or go to ramsheadlive.com