This week, Jimmy Fallon took a page out of The Jeffersons handbook and moved on up — from Late Night to The Tonight Show. Fortunately for viewers, he brought his house band, The Roots, with him.
The Roots now join the ranks of The Tonight Show bands like Doc Severinsen, Kevin Eubanks, Max Weinberg and Rickey Minor who are beamed directly into millions of homes four times a week. That’s not a bad legacy for an outfit who got their start banging on plastic buckets, busking for change on the streets of Philadelphia.
Some background: The Roots started way back in 1987 when rapper Black Thought (Tariq Trotter) and drummer Questlove (Ahmir Khalib Thompson) met at the Philadelphia High School for Creative Performing Arts. They hit the talent show circuit and played on the streets before adding bassist Hub (Leon Hubbard) and rapper Malik B to their ranks under the name The Square Roots, which they later shortened to The Roots. Their live shows developed a devoted following; that following only grew with the release of their first album, Organix, which came out in 1993 on Remedy Records. As the buzz around them grew, the Roots signed with DGC that same year.
They released their first major label album Do You Want More?!!!??! in 1995 and earned new fans when the band played at the then-new Lollapalooza festival, introducing the crowd of largely alt-rock fans to their neo-soul hip-hop sound. Their 1996 release Illadelph Halflife was the group’s first album to break the Top 40 on the Billboard 200 chart on the strength of two songs: “Clones,” their first single to reach the Top 5 on the rap charts, and “What They Do,” whose rap parody video landed in solid rotation on MTV.
The Roots finally broke through to the mainstream in a big way with their 1999 album Things Fall Apart, which was their biggest commercial and critical success, hitting #4 on the Billboard charts, earning them a Best Rap Album Grammy nod and eventually going platinum. The album helped kick-start the careers of Philadelphia artists Beanie Seigel and Eve, who made cameos; the Roots’ collaboration with Erykah Badu, Eve and Jill Scott, “You Got Me,” won Best Rap Performance By A Duo or Group at the 42nd Grammy Awards.
On the heels of their well-received 2001 album Phrenology, the group was asked to be Jay Z’s back-up band at his 2003 farewell concert in Madison Square Garden. As their lineup continued to evolve, they released 2004’s Grammy-nominated The Tipping Point, an album comprised of ten tracks edited down from jam sessions. The Roots took a more pronounced political stance when they headed to Def Jam for 2006’s Game Theory, which paid homage to hip hop icon J Dilla, and Rising Down in 2008, which featured guest appearances by Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Wale and — naturally — Philly legend DJ Jazzy Jeff.
Jimmy Fallon came calling in 2009 as he was taking over The Late Show, inviting The Roots to be his house band. It was a good call: The current iteration of the group — bandleader Questlove (TIME’s Coolest Person of 2013), Black Thought, Kamal Gray, F. Knuckles, Captain Kirk Douglas, Damon “Tuba Gooding Jr.” Bryson, James Poyser and Mark Kelley — have proved themselves to be an impressively versatile, creative and fun addition to the set. Their increasingly ambitious takes on pop hits have included Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” as played on classroom instruments, Stephen Colbert singing “Friday,” Christina Aguilera’s “Your Body” performed on office equipment and a game-changing rendition of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas.”
While Fallon may have introduced a wider audience to The Roots, they introduced themselves to a whole new generation of future Roots-heads when they appeared on Yo Gabba Gabba in 2010:
Despite their jam-packed television schedules, the band managed to continue to pack in some jams. They released two albums in 2010: the sharp How I Got Over and Wake Up!, where they collaborated with John Legend. The next year, as they remained with Fallon, The Roots soundtracked Betty Wright: The Movie, about the soul legend, and followed it weeks later with their critically-acclaimed 13th studio album, Undun.
Then, in 2013, The Roots surprised everyone with an unexpected duet album with Elvis Costello called Wise Up Ghost.
As the band moves to The Tonight Show — their biggest platform to date — expect their profile to keep on rising.