By the time he started elementary school, Thompson had spent more time on the road with adults than in Philadelphia with kids his own age. When his first-grade class had to bring music to school, he chose “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, not understanding it wasn’t a contemporary choice. By his own account, he was an unusual child, not wild or temperamental but easily obsessed. As a baby, to soothe him, his parents would place him in front of something he liked — a spinning record or an episode of “Soul Train” — and he would be sedated for hours, almost in a trance. His father used to half-joke that the family worried whether he was OK. (“I don’t think ‘autistic’ was a common term back then, but I later found out that they had taken me to a doctor to see if something was really wrong,” he writes in his memoir, “Mo’ Meta Blues.”) That, combined with the violence of his neighborhood — the rise of crack cocaine, the state-sanctioned MOVE bombing — and his parents’ abrupt swerve to Christianity in the early 1980s, made for a sheltered childhood.
Luckily, music was enough of a distraction from the padlock on the front gate. As a teenager, Thompson venerated the reviews section in Rolling Stone, going to the library every Saturday to request microfilm reels of back issues and papering his bedroom with cutouts of the lead reviews. (Even now, to understand his own records, he will mock up fake Rolling Stone reviews — byline, cover image, full story — before they are released.) His parents welcomed his interest in music but hoped that he would find a more traditional, stable job within it. They wanted, he writes, to raise a “future ‘Jeopardy!’ contestant instead of a future ‘Jeopardy!’ clue.”
Still, when he got into the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, they let him transfer from the Christian school he had been attending. CAPA, as it’s called, was a hotbox of ingenuity and genuine success. Thompson played drums in a music video for a few guys in his class — Boyz II Men. He palled around with the bassist Christian McBride. He took the singer Amel Larrieux to prom. But the real prize was meeting Tariq Trotter, the rebel art kid who got caught making out with girls in the bathroom, who was somehow intrigued by Thompson and his geeky hippie jeans covered in acrylic paint. Trotter would ask Thompson to accompany his freestyles in the cafeteria, Thompson banging out rhythms on the lunch table, eventually playing in front of whomever wanted to listen.
The Roots’ career, while both commercially and critically successful, has been marked by a series of near hits. When they began, they hoped to follow in the footsteps of groups like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, cutting a sturdy place in the alternative hip-hop arena. But by the time they started casting about for record deals in 1993, the tides had changed: Dr. Dre had broken records with “The Chronic,” and all labels seemed to want were gangsta-rap artists who could sell huge numbers of records. After a brief stint in London to drum up a following, they signed with Geffen, released two albums and eventually landed a successful single, “You Got Me,” with Erykah Badu, from their 1999 album, “Things Fall Apart.”
By this point, they were hosting jam sessions at Thompson’s Philadelphia home, gathering like-minded musicians into a creative community that stood apart from the gritty coastal rap filling the airwaves. They called this community “the movement,” and their experiment 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, which he has called one of the crowning achievements of his life. “When I think about that time, the most amazing thing is how many of those artists made it,” he writes in his memoir. “There were at least 18 record contracts in the room, and at least nine of the people who became recording artists ended up bigger than us.”
Thompson began producing people’s records, becoming one of the architects of a hugely influential strain of soul music. He was the backbone of a collective of bohemian neo-soul and alternative hip-hop artists called the Soulquarians, named for the many members’ shared astrological sign, which included Badu, Common, Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Q-Tip. But eventually, the collective loosened: People left the game, or started filming movies, or made music with the new superproducer in town, Kanye West.