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John Legend and The Roots 'Wake Up!'

By Denise Quan, CNN
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John Legend, The Roots team up on album
  • R&B star John Legend has linked with The Roots for a new project
  • "Wake Up!" features new renditions of socially conscious songs from the '60s and '70s
  • Legend and Roots drummer Questlove go way back to their days in Philadelphia
  • John Legend
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Los Angeles, California -- Ask John Legend and Questlove from The Roots how they met, and they erupt into peals of laughter. "He has a different memory of meeting me than I have of meeting him," says Legend.

"Dr. Revisionist over here," counters Questlove.

Back in Philly in the 1990s, both were better known by their real names -- Legend as John Stephens, and Questlove as Ahmir Thompson.

"I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in '99. I spent four years there in college, and also used to come back and forth to write with some of my collaborators after that," explains Legend.

"He claims he was around me," says Questlove.

"I was around," Legend argues. "I went to open mics. I knew some people that knew him. One time, I got to meet him and pass him my demo, but he probably never listened to it!"

"I had a John Stephens demo! I told you I had it!" Questlove insists.

A decade or so later, the two artists have released an album together.

"Wake Up!" is a collaboration between six-time Grammy winner Legend and The Roots, the respected hip-hop collective that boasts Questlove as its drummer and is featured nightly as the house band on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon."

The disc features new renditions of socially conscious songs from the '60s and '70s, including "Wholly Holy" by Marvin Gaye and "Little Ghetto Boy" by Donny Hathaway. The lead single, "Wake Up Everybody," is a contemporary twist on the Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes track from 1975.

CNN spoke with Questlove and Legend during sound check before a recent show at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, California.

CNN: The new album is called "Wake Up!" with an exclamation point at the end.

John Legend: We first thought about this project during the election in 2008, and it seemed like everyone was awake at that moment. The country is in a funk right now, and they need some funk from us to kind of wake them up a bit. I feel like this album feels really necessary and important right now. I think it'll really move some people and inspire some people.

CNN: You didn't go for the obvious songs (like Marvin Gaye's "What Going On"). Questlove, didn't you put together a list and say, "This is what we're NOT going to put on this album?"

Questlove: When you do a cover album, you always make yourself vulnerable to the sort of firing squad that looks a lot like me. I'm the music snob that I now fear, making the record that I thought that I would never make. It was really a labor of love. You have some songs that are spiritual, some songs that offer a taste of bitterness, some songs that offer hope.

Legend: We're in a long recession. We've had close to 10 percent unemployment for a long time. People are struggling, and people are frustrated.

CNN: Kind of a different feeling from when you guys first conceived of this project two years ago.

Legend: Well, even then, people were frustrated with the previous eight years. People were ready for change, and they had that feeling of hope and inspiration. But I think in the two years that have come between then and now, they've kind of tuned out a bit, or they focus on their lives and what's been going on with them. Watching the ins and outs of Washington isn't really exciting for a lot of people.

We see a lot of Americans kind of fighting over what it means to be a real American right now. You see some people thinking that Muslims are not included in that.

You see some people thinking only if you're in small towns, and you're middle-class Americans, are you the real America. You know Ms. Palin has her own definition of what the real America is. But it's funny, because those songs [on "Wake Up!"] were written like 40 or 50 years ago, but all of these issues are still things that are being discussed right now. We're living it now.

CNN: Do you think there isn't enough positivity in urban music right now?

Legend: A lot of popular music is kind of like a bubble gum version of positivity. It kind of tastes sweet, and it has no depth to it. But sometimes, as musicians, we want to make something that has more depth, that is more lasting. It feels more real. It has more passion.

CNN: John, you even sing differently on this album.

Legend: It was all live instruments, and it was vocals from me that were very gritty, and very raw -- more so than my previous recordings. This one's a little uglier in an intentional way.

CNN: Usually, you're Mr. Smooth.

Legend: You can't smooth your way through every situation, you know?