The Roots go viral

'Late Night' house band popular with 'iPod generation'

Musical performances have long been a staple of latenight TV, but Jimmy Fallon’s house band the Roots on NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” appears to be rewriting the book on how to convert smallscreen exposure into widespread cyber awareness.

The Grammy-winning hip-hop band joined forces with the comedian when he replaced Conan O’Brien as the show’s host last March, and has been turning out distinctive musical collaborations ever since that consistently go viral on the Web.

“We look to line up with things people are talking about online,” says the show’s music supervisor, Jonathan Cohen. “That’s totally Jimmy’s vision. Before the show was on, he was interacting with fans on his website and on Twitter. We try to incorporate things that we know are going to get passed around on Twitter the next day.”

Paul Simon jamming with Steve Martin, and the Roots backing Christopher Cross and Michael McDonald as well as the Beastie Boys are just a few examples of musical segments that have exploded online. “The Roots are so open to collaborations that give the show something that no other show has,” says Cohen. “Some artists have even wanted to ditch their own bands and play with the Roots. They’ve played with everyone from Tom Jones to Elvis Costello, which was at his request. The fact that they can back such an array of artists gives (the show) such unique elements. It may not be a ratings hit when it airs but it could be all over the Internet the next day. It’s a win in that way.”

Fallon, a lifelong music lover, admits that his musical vision for the show was inspired by watching programs such as “American Bandstand” and “Solid Gold” as a kid, as well as being a part of the “iPod generation.” “We have thousands of songs on our iPod from all different genres, and people’s musical tastes have expanded,” he says. “That’s what I want the show to be.”

When Fallon approached the Roots about taking up the post as his house band, drummer and bandleader Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson initially thought it was a joke. “We were like, ‘Hahaha, that’s funny,’ because we were on tour about 300 days a year. Then I started thinking about the fact that we’d been on the road for four months straight and we’d missed Obama’s inauguration and my bandmates were missing their kids’ football games and ballet recitals.”

The Roots ultimately viewed the job as a great “retirement plan” that would allow them to slow down while maintaining their touring income level. “We should’ve known better,” Thompson laughs. “We never realized it would expose us to millions more people and get us a lot of work. This totally turned our world upside down to the point where we’re probably working five times harder.”

The Roots take pains writing the walk-on music played as guests enter. “You want to be descriptive of each artist,” Thompson says. “When Sarah Jessica Parker was here, she really appreciated that we referenced her first comedy, ‘Square Pegs,’ by playing that theme song instead of the more obvious ‘Sex and the City’ theme.”

Fallon, Thompson and Cohen bring unique ideas to the table, such as unexpected reunions of bands including Public Enemy and Jawbox.

Although many of their musical guests fall left of center, Fallon says he has no qualms for broad appeal: “If you can get the Jonas Brothers when they’re the hottest, why not?”

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