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This is the first single from undun, the eleventh studio album by American Hip-Hop/Neo Soul band, The Roots. The song features the Mississippi Hip-Hop musician and producer Big K.R.I.T. and was released November 1, 2011.
Undun is The Roots' first concept album, and it tells the story of a man called Redford Stephens who died in 1999 at the age of 25. We hear Redford retelling his life post-mortem and attempting to deconstruct what led to his undoing. "At this point in our career we'd like for our work to have a unifying theme, and an experiential quality," said drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson. "We've been intentionally making our albums shorter in length so that they can be experienced as a continuous work. The music is band-oriented with an eye on the moody cinematic. As a DJ, I am the King of playlists, but I don't want our albums to feel like a playlist or a mixtape for that matter. We want to tell stories that work within the album format and we want the stories to be nuanced and useful to people."
So who is Redford Stephens? Said ?uestlove: "undun is the story of this kid who becomes criminal, but he wasn't born criminal. He's not the nouveau exotic primitive bug-eyed gunrunner like Tupac's character Bishop in 'Juice'... he's actually thoughtful and is neither victim nor hero. Just some kid who begins to order his world in a way that makes the most sense to him at a given moment... At the end of the day... isn't that what we all do?"
Roots manager Rich Nichols explained during a listening session that the album title was partially inspired by The Guess Who song of the same name
?uestlove discussed the recording process for this song with The Boombox
: "Because of the nature of the song, you have to understand that we built this concept record as a means of somebody dying in the beginning of the record. So the very first song is this person at the end of his life at the moment he pretty much gets murdered. So when we were listening to the song I said, 'Well, I don't get the feeling that his spirit is leaving his body. I want to know that he is really dying.' So I put a coda at the end of the song so that you get this sort of weird feeling sort of like Mobb Deep's 'Shook Ones.' The way that Prodigy describes the burning sensation that you feel with a bullet goes through your body, it's almost like a beautiful description of such a violent act."
?uestlove admitted to Billboard magazine that he blew a fuse when an early version of his percussive work for his single was rejected by his fellow members. "I worked so hard on the drums alone for a month and I presented it and they just told me, 'Thumbs down,'" he recalled. "And I'm like, 'What?' I instantly said, 'I quit.' I left for three weeks. I didn't show up to the studio. I went to the movies. I went out on DJ gigs. I'm telling the guys in the band, 'I'm not coming back... F--k y'all.' But then I started to think, 'If [MC] Tariq ["Black Thought" Trotter] can write a verse 15 times in a row and not complain, I can do the same.'"
?uestlove told The Boombox
that the group decided to include Big K.R.I.T. on undun
after the group bonded with the Mississippi rapper/producer. He explained: "The process is always the same. There's a social interaction. It's not like we went and looked in the blogosphere to find the hottest mixtape MC. We just happened to be curating these Hennessy shows where we would perform with the likes of a new act like Big K.R.I.T. and also perform with the veteran likes of Chaka Khan or Bobby Brown or Ronald Isley. These were private shows that we did all last year and we did about six of them. Just on a social level we got real cool with K.R.I.T. He would tell us he was a huge fan of ours and that one of his favorite albums was Headphone Masterpiece
by Cody Chesnutt. He was like, 'Yeah, y'all definitely put me on to that when I was kid.'"
Questlove continued: "So when it was time to record undun
it was more like us calling our friend up rather than us calling someone that had some buzz on them. It's way easier for us to collaborate with people who we are in good social standing with."