Owen Biddle's unlikely path to Late Night
When rumors ricocheted around the blogosphere late last November that Philadelphia hip-hop legends the Roots were going to become the house band on the new show Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, some fans freaked out.
Barbs like “I thought it was a joke when I first heard it, what a waste of talent” and “This has to be a joke” peppered the Internet. A commenter on the message boards of Okayplayer.com, the online hip-hop forum founded by Roots drummer (and frequent spokesman) Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson in 1999, captured the dissent among the ranks: “It feels like the end of an era.”
Even Gawker’s signature vitriol masked a sort of confused sentimentality. “The Illadelph generals opening up for that stuttering mop-headed ball of suck, Jimmy Fallon? It’s kind of tragic.”
The negativity was something new for the Roots, who’ve spent most of their nearly 20 years as a group lauded by critics and worshipped by fans, existing in the rarefied domain of crossover success, their albums praised both by indie music websites and glossy hip-hop magazines.
When the Fallon rumors leaked, the Roots themselves seemed uncharacteristically self-conscious about the decision, and even a little defensive. In interviews, ?uestlove joked that maybe Mercury was in retrograde. Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter wondered aloud in an AP interview if taking the gig would give other MCs ammunition to dis him.
In that same AP article, ?uestlove was quoted explaining the benefits of the gig. “This would basically match or surpass what we would make touring 200-plus days out of the year. And, two, this allows us to be home.”
The member of the group best equipped to deal with the tsunami of criticism was the man with the shortest roots in the Roots, a guy who sometimes wasn’t even included in the stock band photos that accompanied articles about the Fallon announcement—new bassist Owen Biddle.
Owen Biddle sinks into the armchair of the new midtown Manhattan apartment he and musician girlfriend Adrien Reju share with a sweet, retired violist named Evelyn and their combined eight cats. He’s exhausted by a long day of rehearsal and taping at Studio 6B in 30 Rockefeller Plaza, where Fallon’s show is shot.
“Fans didn’t know what to make of it,” he recalls of his replacing longtime Roots’ bassist Leonard “Hub” Hubbard last September. Hub had departed the group to pursue writing scores for film and TV.
Born and raised in Philly, a descendent of one of Philadelphia’s prominent colonial families, with a Pennsylvania governor, a delegate to the Continental Congress and a judge who was at the Nuremberg trials in his lineage—31-year-old Biddle’s roots in Philadelphia’s rich music scene run deep, but not deep enough to keep the pecking birds at bay.
Though Biddle had earned high-profile writing and production credits (Al Green, Jazmine Sullivan), by the time he was asked to join the Roots full-time, he still flew under many fans’ radar.
One fan on Okayplayer joked, “with a white boy in the band, the Roots should rename themselves the Branches.” Another started a comment thread called “He looks like a Brady.” Others said a Patridge. One fan claimed to have caught Biddle’s Montreal live debut with the Roots, and said he had no rhythm.
“I think there were a lot of negative assumptions about me because people didn’t know what to think,” he says. “They would Google pictures of me and find this guy who didn’t … ”
“They called you a folk musician,” Reju cuts in, ending his pause.
“I think there was a lot of cynicism initially based on, ‘What’s this guy done related to this?” says Biddle, who watched as commenters swapped his MySpace, links to his power-pop band Trolleyvox and snippets of his music history, which they felt lacked the requisite amount of hip-hop to gain entry into one of the genre’s most illustrious groups.
?uestlove put the kibosh on the negativity in a missive on the site on Sept. 10, 2008.
“One has to understand off the bat to be a member of this group is to sacrifice your life. If you look at it … there is nothing ‘normal’ about our lives,” he wrote, defending Hub’s decision to leave. He went on to assure fans that their famously off-the-hook shows would still be just that.
Of course, ?uest knew something the disappointed and fickle fans would soon find out: Biddle is one whale of a bassist.
“He can bring what a lot of people would consider the feel of a black bass player, a black funk soul bass player, but that’s a whole Pandora’s box,” says Kevin Hanson, a local musician who’s worked with Biddle on the Roots and other projects, and shares a production credit with him on the track “In the Music” off the Roots’ 2006 album Game Theory.
Brian McTear, Philadelphia workhorse producer and co-owner of Miner Street Studios, says of Biddle, “Owen’s simply the best bass player I have ever worked with, and maybe ever will work with.”
The bassist from Down with Webster, the Canadian band that opened for the Roots on the Montreal date where Biddle made his debut, came to Biddle’s defense, writing that he had checked out Biddle’s bass playing that night, and that it was brilliant. Others wagged their finger: Biddle may not seem the most obvious new Roots member at first glance, but since when was ?uestlove not able to spot talent?
The tide began to turn as fans witnessed Biddle thump the low end live, and quickly got behind what one fan called Biddle’s “cool and quiet swagger.”
Philly musicians who have worked with Biddle in rock, pop and, yes, neo-folk collaborations have been gushing about Biddle’s playing for years. Phil D’Agostino—who played bass on Reju’s forthcoming album because Biddle was on the road with the Roots—muses, “I love his tone, his chops, his feel, his sensibility and his taste.”
“Owen’s the nastiest bass player,” says local musician Chris Kasper, who’s gigged with Biddle on Philly stages. “His playing is just out of this world. I can’t think of anything non-cliche. It’s just funny watching this goofy guy and just the amount of soul and pocket he’s got.”
“He takes risks as a musician but would never sacrifice the overall vibe for personal gain, musically,” says Hanson. “He’s not a show-off. He’s really supportive but also adventurous.”
“Owen likes to do more ’60s-style soul playing like James Jamerson [of Motown’s house band the Funk Brothers]— melodic but also really interesting syncopated riffs,” says Andrew Chalfen, Biddle’s bandmate in the Trolleyvox.
But skills don’t pay the bills. It’s been a bumpy road since Biddle dropped out of Berklee School of Music in Boston a few years ago. “It was hard for me to learn academically,” he says.
After leaving school, Biddle spent a disillusioned year in a hospital packing case carts for doctors. “I made my way back to Philly because in Boston I got into this rut of not playing music and just surviving, which is like death to me,” he says.
When he got back he founded a band called Pepper’s Ghost, which played what he calls “glammy-rock” for a few years.
Looking for a new challenge, Biddle joined the Trolleyvox, which is fronted by Chalfen, who led Philly’s late-’80s indie-rockers the Wishniaks. In some ways it was full circle, as a Wishniaks gig was the first rock show Biddle attended when he was 10 years old and dying to learn drums. He says it’s his frustrated love for drums that drew him to bass.
Then one day Brad Rubens, a lawyer who’d worked with Pepper’s Ghost, called Biddle and told him he had him in mind for some projects. One of them happened to be jamming with the Roots.
“I was like, ‘Uh, yeah, I’ll do that,’” laughs Biddle.
He recalls his first meeting with Roots manager Rich Nichols.
“I remember going to the studio at [legendary Sound of Philadelphia house band member] Larry Gold’s complex and going to the back room where they have a little recording studio—the Roots’ room,” he says. “[Nichols] had a lot of stuff programmed into a drum machine, so I started jamming with it. It was fun,” he smiles. “He wanted to see where I was coming from.”
The meeting lead to a regular gig with the Jazzyfatnastees—neo-soul vocal duo Tracey Moore and Mercedes Martinez—at Black Lily, the legendary Tuesday-night party at the old Five Spot on Bank Street in Old City.
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