I'm Who The Roots Call When They Need Singers
Getting Kanye West a children's choir for his Fallon performance, and other behind-the-scenes tales of how The Roots are revolutionizing late-night TV.
Stevvi Alexander is a professional singer and contractor to The Roots. Below, some of her stories from behind the scenes of the band's residency at The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, as told to Hunter Schwarz.
I've known The Roots for years. One of my best friends used to be in the Jazzyfatnastees, which was their girl group, and I'm really good friends with James Poyser, who's the unofficial fifth Beatle to The Roots. He's in the band and we're like the oldest of friends.
When I was living in New York, James brought me in to do the John Legend-Roots shows in 2010 including the Earth Day Rally with Sting and Joss Stone at the National Mall in D.C. I called in a great group of girls and we had a pretty serious blend, so I think The Roots were like, you're on. They basically told me I was a " Root" and whenever they needed singers, I would perform with them and find others who can round out the unit.
Because I've been in this business for so long, and because I left L.A. and lived in New York, I know people on both coasts. I call people I've worked with and who I know can do the job.
Finding A Choir For Kanye
I got a call last September while I was here in Los Angeles. It was a very relaxing Sunday, six in the evening, and I was shopping with my best friend. Questlove, who is the drummer and face of The Roots, called and said, "I have an assignment for you. Kanye wants a choir, a 12-voice choir of boys between the ages of 13 to 17, by tomorrow morning at 10," which is the most ridiculous request in the whole universe because the very next day was the first day of school in New York City.
I didn't sleep that entire night. It's already 9 p.m. in New York City, and they wanted these kids on set in 11 hours. I called Harlem Boys Choir, I called churches in Manhattan, I called my old neighbors in Brooklyn and asked them if they could get some kids from their church. I reached out to people I don't even know, like, "Hey, I
heard you have a son. Can he sing? Can he look good on camera?"
I made new friends that night because there were women who were up with me helping me find kids. One woman said, "I've got this friend, she's got two boys, let's call her," and I was like, "Great!"
It's like, Kanye West, I'm sure you are not aware this is the first day of school in New York City? You can't decide you want a choir of boys a few hours before the performance! It was extremely challenging, but as soon as everyone got on set and had rehearsed I closed my computer and finally went to bed. Amazingly, I had pulled together a choir.
The song was "Bound 2" with Charlie Wilson, Kanye, and the six boys. They killed.
The "History Of..." That Never Was
Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake were going to do the the "History of... Michael Jackson" the week Justin he dropped his 20/20 Experience album. We were so excited.
They asked me to hire 12 people. I was in L.A. at the time, so I flew back to New York on a Monday to do the show and run the day. We were there all day, we camera blocked and rehearsed it and were waiting for showtime when the producers told us Justin wasn't feeling well, so we couldn't do it that day. We were like, are you kidding? There's a 12-person choir here just to do this and they were like, "No, we're going to reschedule. He's under the weather." So I sent everyone home with the hope that the sketch would still happen.
They finally called on a Wednesday and said, "We're back on for Friday, it's
going to happen after all." I got everybody back together, cleared their schedules and flew back out to New York to run the day. I get off the plane and am greeted by a call from the producers: "It's back off... again! Justin doesn't want to take the chance of blowing it and having MJ fans all over the world possibly hate on him right
before he drops his album," they said. "It's too much of a risk. The sketch is not going to happen. Please call the singers."
It would have been the biggest thing ever. Justin Timberlake and Jimmy
Fallon and The Roots doing Michael Jackson? Straight viral. It would have been amazing. We called it the best "History Of..." that never happened.
Working with M.I.A.
Before M.I.A. performed on Fallon I had worked with her previously doing some promo shows. I actually was her voice for a show she did on Ellis Island one summer in New York. She was losing her speaking voice, she couldn't even talk, so they were like, "Can you just do all her parts while she's doing them," so I sat offstage, staring at her mouth while also reading all of the lyrics and did the whole show with her allowing her to perform that night. I had never seen so many hipsters in one place together and none were the wiser.
She came on Fallon in November and was performing "Come Walk With Me," the first single from her latest album, and right before she was set to walk onstage, her kid had cut himself with scissors in the dressing room backstage. She was a mess, and if you look at her during her performance, you can see how badly shaken she is.
After we got offstage with The Roots, I heard her management turn to her in amazement, "That's the best that song has ever sounded! Wow!" So even though she gave a distracted performance it was still light years ahead of where it normally is, thanks to The Roots. I didn't get the feeling she took it as a compliment.
It occurred to me when we did that gig with M.I.A. that The Roots are not just playing on and off bumpers, like, "...and now back to Jimmy Fallon." They're actually playing with the artists that come on the show and they're playing totally different styles every night while injecting their own personality into it. It's a lot of work and I don't think people realize how great they are.
What The Roots have done for late-night TV, or any variety-show format, is unprecedented. There's no other musical unit that's done what the've done. They've taken a brand, merged it with the television personality brand, and to me it makes the show so much better. It's great to see a hip-hop collective graduating into this mainstream format. It brings a lot of acceptance into the normal household for hip-hop.