Frank Knuckles: Riding The Roots To The Top

Before Jimmy Fallon steps onto the stage of Studio 6B at 30 Rockefeller Center; before the cameras come on; before the audience files in; hell, before anyone in the building that day was born … there was The Drum. Frank Knuckles, percussionist for The Roots, knows this.

“This is where the music starts,” says Knuckles. “The beat is the lifeline. My mentors stressed upon me how important it is to play drums – to not only be loud, but be distinct in playing, because drums are the heartbeat of the music.”

Born in Jamaica but a longtime resident of Philadelphia, Knuckles, 31, has always had drums in his head, if not at his fingertips. A relative latecomer to percussion, stemming from a start on drum kit at 16 years of age, he’s moved fast and gone far. Now he’s in the national TV spotlight each weekday night as percussionist for the house band of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, sharing the rhythmic duties with his legendary drumming bandmate ?uestlove. Not a bad career track at all.

But while learned technique is critical for such a speedy rise, true talent may be the driving force here. “I could honestly say it’s the blessings of God, and to have a trained ear and a trained eye,” Knuckles says of his quick move into the musical stratosphere. “Because of this keen sense of hearing, and being able to observe things very well, it’s been a blessing to be able to play everything I focus on right back. That’s been my gift as a musician: being able to learn music really fast, then play it immediately in the same fashion.”

Planting The Seed

Prior to getting implanted in The Roots, Knuckles was a Philly-based drummer laying it down from behind the kit. Word of his great ear started getting around, and his ability to play nice with the group – especially the bassist – was getting him into some desirable inner circles. “In addition to holding a beat down and being precise in what I’m playing or programming, is to be sure I have that lifeline to the guitar, and especially bass players,” notes Knuckles. “I’ve learned that drummers and bass players have that marriage. The bass is the low end, and the kick drum has that. That’s where they’re joined. They’re married.”

It was in 2001 when Knuckles’ path would become intertwined with The Roots. ?uestlove was in the studio recording drums for the Erykah Badu album Mama’s Gun, and Knuckles, already an acquaintance of ?uestlove’s, was awarded a “front row seat” for the experience.

A Roots tour with D’Angelo was in the offing, and ?uestlove had apparently absorbed enough of Knuckles’ cool demeanor and relaxed/accurate chops to make him an irresistible offer. “After they recorded the Erykah Badu album, it was easy for ?uest to say, ’I’ve already got The Roots. Why don’t you come in?’” Knuckles recalls. “It was a piece of cake for him to invite me into the group at the time. I had a drummer’s mentality like his, but at the same time I was able to grasp the music, and get an education and knowledge from him. In return, I was able to manifest that into playing percussion.

“I can also fill in for him in an emergency situation. He was able to not have a worry that the show might have to stop. He knows that he can call on me to hold it down and keep things moving exactly as if he were still there.”

?uest Vision

?uestlove’s reputation for being a musical perfectionist would be intimidating enough to many musicians invited to jam alongside him, much less join up with his band. But his acknowledged standing as one of the foremost purveyors of pure rhythmic groove makes the prospect even more daunting to all but the most confident of players. That ?uestlove would offer Knuckles the chance to be his percussionist says worlds about Knuckles’ skill level. And seeing the pair pull it off so effortlessly night after night on Late Night tells you the whole story.

“When ?uestlove and I perform together, I’ll hone in to the heart of the music – that’s the drum,” Knuckles says. “If it’s a particular genre of music that we’re playing, I like to use the word ’chameleon’ to describe what we do: I ’chameleonize’ the music that we’re going to play. Doing that over the years gives us the comfort to do it, so the other musicians can come together the 100 percent best that we can. That’s the easy part of playing with ?uestlove: It allows the other musicians to learn their parts really easily. So it becomes comfortable not only to [?uestlove and I], but everyone else in the group.”

Knuckles goes to air every night along with The Roots’ MC, Black Thought, keyboardists Kamal and James Poyser, guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas, and bassist Owen Biddle. He points out that they are not so much in service of their highly visible bandleader, however, as they are the widely varied rock, hip-hop, pop, and world music they dispense on a daily basis.

“?uestlove prides himself on not only being the musical genius that he is, but also being able to bring six guys – six musical personalities – together on one musical platform on one concept that he’s set,” Knuckles says. “He wants to be able to do that in a fast, timely fashion, so it doesn’t feel like you’re taking kids back to the drawing board and teaching them the ABCs all over again. He in return knows that he doesn’t have to pull the two or three day rehearsals he’d hold in the past in order for us to play with someone. Now we can do it in an hour and half before the set, and still give them our best work and the complete idea that he had.”

The Roots In The House!

Since Late Night With Jimmy Fallon debuted on March 2, 2009, there was a strong sense that this show would be different. Some attribute it to the colorful host, a Saturday Night Live alum who picks up nicely where his NBC Late Night forebears, Conan O’Brien and David Letterman, left off.

But the most striking red flag separating this late show from the pack is the fact that The Roots are the house band. Instead of assembling your standard squad of session cats, Fallon’s masterstroke (or whoever actually had the idea) was to bring in a bona fide cultural icon, one that had risen from the underground and conquered the world on its own terms. Enter The Roots.

With 23 years together and counting, The Roots founders, ?uestlove and Black Thought, brought instant street cred to Late Night With Jimmy Fallon before the first show even aired. Along with their artistic chemistry, the deep experience allowed The Roots to bring some unique workflow and logistic solutions to their TV gig.

Hence the tour bus. Philly through and through, there was no way The Roots were going to stay holed up in a midtown Manhattan hotel five nights a week just so they could say “Hi” to Jimmy Fallon every day. Instead, the band starts off every morning in the Keystone state, meeting in a parking lot at 9 A.M. to hop on a tour bus and take the approximately 90-minute ride into Gotham. Following the conclusion of the 5:30 P.M. live taping, they jump back on the bus for the journey home.

“That was an important solution because we have six members in the group, and the majority lives in Philly,” points out Knuckles. “The question was, ’How do we get those six members to NYC every day?’ We knew there was going to be a problem some days with having six guys individually travel each day to NYC: Some guy is going to get in a traffic jam, be late – a million and one problems can happen. They went back to the drawing board, and NBC provided us with a tour bus so everyone can have an easier commute. That’s especially helpful because sometimes we have to be up there early to do comedy bits, rehearse with a musical guest, or do music for the walk-ons or walk-overs on the show.”

Once on the set, The Roots are one of dozens of moving parts needed to put a successful TV show together. “The great part of being here is to be able to work with great people,” Knuckles stresses. “I’m a b-ball guy, so I really tie basketball and music together in a lot of different ways. In b-ball you need great people to work with. The work becomes easier, and everyone can have a sense of satisfaction that they played an individual role in the progress of this big thing.

“So not only the band, but the crew, the assistants, the wardrobe, the people in the office on clearance, the mixing board, the guy that sweeps the floor after a pound of popcorn has been dumped there – their jobs are all very important. That’s what allows the show to be the success that it is right now.”

…aaaaand Action!

When the lights are on and its action time on the set, Knuckles has sticks in hand to play bongos, congas, a table of percussion toys, a Roland HandSonic and SPD-S. When he’s not focusing on nailing the song, he’s focused on remembering where he is: in front of a live studio audience with numerous roving lenses nearby. “The big thing I’ve learned is that the camera is always watching,” he says. “Even when the red light is not on, the camera is always recording. The number two thing is simplicity – keeping it simple in what we play. You want to be precise and dynamic, but simplicity is always the best thing as far as live TV. Not doing too much, not doing too little, but just enough. Pay attention, and know that the camera is always on.”

The nonstop parade of top musical guests ensures that The Roots always have plenty to keep them occupied. For Knuckles, highlights have included performances with Paul Simon, Mos Def, Rick Ross, and – possibly best of all – Snoop Dogg. “That was a lot of fun, and Snoop has so many hits,” Knuckles laughs. “Before we go live-to-tape at 5:30, The Roots come out and play a song or two live to warm up the audience. Snoop came out with us to do a medley, and the crowd was ecstatic. I was thrilled to play the music I knew from him, straight through to Malice In Wonderland.”

The Knuckles Wrap

Jimmy Fallon takes a one or two-week break from time to time, and when he does The Roots hit the road for real. When they get the opportunity, they spread out on a real live stage anywhere from Japan to Los Angeles to Vancouver for a gig at the Olympics. “Going from playing live on TV to tours is a totally different dynamic,” Knuckles explains. “Back on tour, you have the whole audience. You’re on a stage that’s bigger than you, with monitors and a mixing guy, and you’re able to pull energy from the crowd. It feels explosive coming back to the live stage.”

It sounds a lot like Frank Knuckles is leading some kind of dream life, and he acknowledges that he is, but it’s one that he believes is available to drummers and percussionists everywhere. “First and foremost, have belief in God and belief in yourself — if you don’t believe it, then no one else will,” he says. “Believe that you can do it, and you can reach this level.

“Second, practice makes perfect. That’s always been the saying – that if you practice practice practice, that allows you to be perfect in what you want to do, and to meet the opportunity when it comes. As musicians, you never know when you’re going to get that call for that big gig and be ready to play. Practice prepares you for that opportunity, so when it arrives you can be your best. Really, that’s one-two-three for me. If you can do that, you can not only be like a Frank Knuckles or a ?uestlove, but be greater.”