The Roots gear up for 'Late Night'

Album and tour planned in addition to TV gig

Fans of the Roots can rest easy: the Philadelphia-based band has started work on a new album and still plans to tour. But the Grammy Award-winning group's primary focus right now is its new gig as the house band for "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." The show debuts March 2 on NBC.

During a telephone press conference Tuesday, original Roots members Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson (drums) and Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter (vocals) said the group is looking forward to this mainstream career step.

Having logged 17 years on the road touring, Thompson said, "This isn't the end of a sentence. It's just another step; time for another challenge. This will show that there is absolutely no challenge or obstacle we can't master. It's just part of the ongoing, linear voyage of the Roots."

Armed with advice from several corners, including Conan O'Brien's drummer Max Weinberg, the Roots have been pulling long days (up between 6 a.m.-7 a.m. and back home at midnight) as they rehearse for the show. So far, they have worked up a wide range of songs, encompassing rock, disco, soul, hip-hop and what Thompson describes as "cheesy '80s pop. We're probably the most over-prepared group in hip-hop. We just like to make certain we're well covered."

The Roots' late-night move follows the group's stint as musical supervisors for a couple of seasons on "Chappelle's Show." It was "Chappelle's Show" co-creator Neal Brennan who recommended the Roots as Fallon's house band.

The entire seven-piece band -- including Owen Biddle (bass), Kamal Gray (keyboards), Frank "Frankie Knuckles" Walker (percussion), Kirk "Captain Kirk" Douglas (guitar) and Damen "Tuba Gooding Jr." Bryson (saxophone) will perform on the show. For the time being, the Philadelphia-based group is commuting back and forth to New York on a tour bus, about a 90-minute ride.

In addition to playing walk-on and bumper music, the group will back the show's musical guests. The first week's music lineup includes rapper Ludacris. The Roots is also planning to feature guest players with the band, including Blue Note pianist Robert Glasper and Heads Up International bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding. "We're pretty much open to the idea of having artists on who wouldn't necessarily be put on a late-night talk show," said Thompson.

As for the group's participation in various skits and routines, Trotter says, "There are a few things we're trying to work out now that might be established as recurring bits. None of the Roots members object to taking part in any of that. We're totally open to working our new routines and establishing things on our own."

Recording for the next Roots album began a couple of weeks ago. But Thompson and Trotter both say they probably won't get knee-deep into the recording process until a month or two from now. Plans are to release the album this year.

Debuting in 1993 with "Organix," the Roots have sold 4 million albums in the U.S. per Nielsen SoundScan. The group's biggest seller: 1999's "Things Fall Apart" (915,000 units).

In the meantime, the group will continue to tour and perform weekend shows. Thompson and Trotter say the band is already booked for the six weeks it will have off from the show. On the heels of Fallon's late-night debut, the Roots are set to perform at Power Shift '09, the national youth summit in Washington, D.C. (Feb. 27-March 2).