It’s been 12 years since Redford “Red” Stephens was shot to death in Virginia, but he says it feels like it was yesterday.
He remembers every detail of that afternoon in the fall of 1999, from waking up at 11:59 a.m. and running down the stairs when he heard someone in his house to taking his last breath three minutes later, lying on the cold streets as bullets ripped through his 25-year-old body. His murder never exactly made the papers, considering he’s a fictional composite of many young, black men. But the life and death of Redford Stephens is a tragedy that rings true and familiar as the narrative thread for The Roots’ latest and greatest studio album: undun is an existential opus that offers a brief glimpse through the barred windows of a hustler’s soul.
The legendary hip-hop band isn’t pointing the camera at a world that’s never been seen before (most notably in David Simon’s pitch-perfect sprawling HBO series The Wire). And we know these tales typically end the same way, with a bang. But this isn’t the sweeping panoramic profile of a real-life kingpin that was Jay-Z’s blueprint for American Gangster. This isn’t a cautionary parable that personifies The Street and The Game like in Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool.
A masterpiece of minimalism, undun focuses on the ills of America’s inner-city underbelly from a reverse close-up angle. This album is a cracked mirror to society seen backwards through the eyes of a regular black kid trapped by the drug trade. Arranged by the incomparable bandleader, ?uestlove, each track plays as a gray-shaded cinematic clip that bleeds into one another to form a bigger picture of hood noir. As an audio-biography, undun wavers on the fault line between hyper fact and historical fiction in the vein of Prince Paul’s hip-hop classic, A Prince Among Thieves, which came out the same year Stephens was killed.
When I sent out a request for an exclusive post-mortem interview with Stephens, I knew it was a long shot. I pitched the idea that I wanted to do a listening session and get his thoughts track-by-track. I almost didn’t believe it–he got back to me in no time. He said he could give me 40 minutes under three conditions:
1. No questions about life after death.
2. No cameras and no video or audio equipment.
3. No write-ups until after the fact.
I could write about our meeting if I chose to, he said, but for all intents and purposes, “it never happened.” I agreed to the terms, even though I knew few people would believe the story without hard evidence.
A few days later, he texted me some weird directions, which I followed. Somehow, I ended up in a grand library that was bright and empty save for spiraling rows of bookshelves rising higher than I could see. According to the directions, Stephens would meet me on the ground floor by the big window in the Circulation Section.
I found him there, lying on a couch with a book. He looked to be reading it but the pages were blank. He stood up when he heard me approach. Wearing a hoodie and jeans, he looked like he hadn’t aged at all. But something was different. I can’t really explain it except to say it looked like his old eyes had been swapped out for the eyes of an infant.
He put the book down and said he was working on a novel. He shook my hand, told me to call him Red. I tried to speak, but no words came out. He nodded as if to say that’s normal. Then motioned for me to follow him to an elevator, which we took down to the basement level. The doors opened, he switched on a light. We were now in a small studio with couches, speakers, a record player and a table with hoagies and jars of fresh lemonade.
“You can speak now,” Red said, then pointed to the food. “Feel free.”
I cleared my throat and said, “Thank you.”
He went to the record player with undun on vinyl, which I didn’t even know existed. I took a seat on the couch and tried to settle my mind. He lifted the needle, then looked at me. He said he didn’t want to dwell on his death as much as he wanted to examine the fact that he was dying while he was alive. After I nodded, he dropped the needle.
*This interview has been condensed and edited.
1. “Dun” – The instrumental opener sets the tone with a high-pitched ring that resonates like a flatline. In the background, a crying baby gets drowned out by funereal moans, a church organ and the curious case of a heart beating backwards.
RN: I know I don’t have much time, so I’m just gonna get right into it. How’d you feel when you first heard your life story retold on this new album from The Roots?
RED: You know I’m from Philly so I been rockin’ with The Legendary Roots Crew since the early ‘90s. So on one hand, it’s definitely an honor for me to be a part of anything they do. Granted, I wish it could’ve happened under different circumstances. But if the choices I made inspire other cats to make different choices, then I consider that a blessing.
2. “Sleep” – A spare, spooky track with chords that descend like the autumn leaves Aaron Livingston sings about in the chorus. This is the end. Stephens–via straight-spitter Black Thought–watches his life vanish at point blank range: “Oh…there I go from a man to a memory”.
RN: On the classic Illmatic, Nas said “sleep is the cousin of death.” And on this chorus, the singer declares, “I’ve lost a lot of sleep to dreams.” Not to dwell on what happened that day, but would you say your dreams led to your downfall?
RED: Definitely, yeah I would say that. It’s tough though because when you young, you got all these big ideas. I mean, I was out there stackin’. I was trying to make major moves, man. Open a few businesses. Expand my enterprise. I’m talkin’ upward mobility. But that hustle…it’s like once you pass that point of no return, dreams fade out ‘cause you too busy living the nightmares.
RN: But wasn’t that your choice? If you have the power to dream, don’t you also have the power to wake yourself up, so to speak?
RED: The only problem with that is, most of the time you don’t even realize you sleep till it’s too late, you know what I mean? I’m layin’ puzzle at this point. And lyin’ here, seeing my life flash before my bloodshot eyes, I recognize that it’s all mythological.
RN: What do you mean by that?
RED: Yo, you not wastin’ no time, huh? Okay then, for instance, in Greek mythology, Sleep and Death ain’t cousins–they’re brothers, twins that nobody likes. And then, you see the same motif in the Talmud. You ever read that?
RN: No, I haven’t.
RED: There’s a story in there about the day King David died. It was on the Sabbath, which is the day of rest. The Angel of Death couldn’t slay dude at first ‘cause David was always studying the scriptures and whatnot, focused. But the angel shook up some trees in the garden to throw him off his grind. When David went downstairs to see what was up, he fell down. That was the end. His soul departed. And he was left there lyin’ in sun ‘cause, as Jewish law goes, you ain’t s’posed to touch a corpse on the Sabbath.
RN: What happened to the body then?
RED: His own dogs ate his body, yo. (Shakes his head.) Talk about déjà vu.
3. “Make My” – This track plays like a last confession as Black Thought and Big K.R.I.T. offer intro-retrospective raps over a smooth airborne groove. The end feels right around the corner for Red as K.R.I.T. spits “Addicted to the green if I don’t ball I get the shakes / I’d give it all for a peace of mind for heaven sakes”.
RN: By this time, were you convinced that you were too far gone to turn back?
RED: You ever seen that Swedish movie, The Seventh Seal?
RN: Yeah, yeah, old-school Ingmar Bergman. It’s been a minute since I saw it, though. What you know about that?
RED: Yo, that jawn was the truth. I tried to put my mans up on it, but they used to say, “Reading subtitles defeated the purpose of watching a movie.” But anyway, that’s how I felt every day on the block. Playing chess with Death. One wrong move and it would be a wrap for the kid. But that was the game.
RN: Why keep playing then?
RED: I didn’t see no other options, man. I had to do what made sense to me, you know what I mean? And I was thinkin’ that if I could finish the game, I could walk away from it for good. So I kept playin’. (Pauses.) But real talk, there were times when I felt like I was nothin’ but a pawn in a bigger game.
RN: A bigger game?
RED: Yeah. I thought about that a lot.
RN: How often?
RED: I mean, damn near every morning I woke up thinking my fate was sealed. Like free will was nothin’ but a mirage in the valley of death, you know what I mean? But at the same time, out in the streets, I thought I was the king. In the end, I realized I was only playing myself.
4. “One Time” – Pure aggression in the form of a pounding percussion and penetrating piano stabs that loop under the fire-breathing flows of Phonte, Black Thought and Dice Raw. This is Red on top of his castle built on sand, giving his “King Kong ain’t got shit on me” speech.
RN: This is a tough track right here.
RED: Yeah, this is right after my man got shot. They killed him for no reason. (His voice drops.) He was a stand-up dude. That’s why I kept him in my circle. So yeah, I had to regroup after that.
RN: That’s when you moved down to VA?
RED: It was a strategic move, you know what I mean? Machiavelli said, “a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous.” And that was our reality. Everybody was out to get theirs. At the same time, I knew if I retaliated, I’d only be adding to the problem. It was a lose-lose situation, point blank. Or “verse blank,” as Black Thought succinctly put it.
RN: And Black Thought is you.
RED: Every emcee on this album represents a different voice in my head at a different point in my life. But Black Thought is the main me, if that makes sense. The loudest voice. Think of Thought as the ego.
RN: I’ve read that some say Black Thought’s matter-of-fact delivery fails to bring your character to life, quote-unquote…
RED: (Shakes his head.) They don’t know me. You can tell by the word choices. To them, I’m a character. They think I was made to amuse them. They’re fiends for that urban phantasy ‘cause they’re too afraid to confront the shadows in themselves. Like I’m s’posed to sound like the clowns they hear on the radio. That’s not real. That’s role-playin’. And they get off on the minstrel show. But this ain’t that. Grim as it may be, this a true story of a young, black man tryin’ to make sense of this crazy world. Thought is tellin‘ it like it is, straight up. No bells and whistles. No “tale-spinnin’,” like Phonte said. Thought’s delivery works exactly because it is so matter-of-fact. These are facts of life.
5. “Kool On” – A funky, soul-tinged track with ‘70s guitar riffs sampled from D.J. Rogers’ “Where There’s a Will.” Greg Porn and Truck North make lyrical toasts with Black Thought in a celebratory manner reminiscent of Jay-Z’s “Roc Boys”. “Stars are made to shine,” goes the chorus.
RED: Yo, this record takes me back.
RN: Sounds like good times. What’s going on?
RED: I just got a huge connect, basically. So things were lookin’ up. You gotta remember, nobody taught me how to survive. My moms was sick. I didn’t have no father figure to set me down and say, “Son, you need to do this and that.” But I studied hard, laid low. I put 100 percent into everythin’ I did ‘cause I didn’t want to see my peoples suffering. Growing up like I did, you believe the hustle will set you free. So to me, this connect was like that bridge to the promised land, you know what I mean?
RN: So it’s a celebration?
RED: Not exactly. Like Thought says, “I’m never sleeping like I’m on Methamphetamines / Move like my enemy ten steps ahead of me.” It felt good to be comin’ up. But I couldn’t let my guard down. I still had to move in silence, deal in shadows. I was never one of them cats who felt the need to floss all like that. That wasn’t me. Show me the limelight and I’ll show you a laser sight.
6. “The OtherSide” – A hard drum transition melts into a somber piece of gospel rock with Bilal howling on the chorus, “But when I make it to the other side…that’s when we’ll settle up the score.” Here, Red is standing at the crossroads between his desires and his sanity.
RN: Is this that point of no return you spoke about?
RED: I had just turned 21. So, you know, technically I’m a man or whatever. But I ain’t feel that way. I was still in the same one-bedroom spot, pushin’ the same used whip, dealin’ with the same bullshit. I was just tired. I thought I would’ve made it out by now…
RN: I thought you said you were saving up.
RED: I had dough, but not enough. It kept me from starvin’, yeah, but I needed more. I was supposed to be the big businessman. With somethin’ solid to fall back on, you know what I mean? I was tryin’ to be the master of my own image, but yet I felt like a slave to my standards. So I was stuck. All I knew to do was to deal the hand I got dealt…(Sips lemonade.)
RN: That sounds fatalistic to me. Like you’ve already given up the fight. Or at least your will to get beyond your situation. Was that the case?
RED: That ain’t what I meant. I mean, that’s partly true, but I wasn’t aware…how do I put this? There’s a quote by Sun Tzu that goes, “If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.” I used to quote those words to everyone in my circle. (Pauses.) It wasn’t until after everythin’ went down that I understood I was my own worst enemy. I didn’t know myself.
7. “Stomp” – Militant drums. Throbbing like an amplified heartbeat. A pounding piano that echoes Dr. Dre’s “Still D.R.E.” An electric guitar brings a hard rock edge as Just Blaze hollers like a Baptist preacher, “We gon’ fight till we can’t fight no more.”
RED: The Hitmen murdered this beat. (Smirks.) No pun intended.
RN: It’s got a West Coast feel, don’t it? Where are you here?
RED: Still in the city. About 18, maybe 19. I had my own one-bedroom spot at this point. I was done with school, so I was puttin’ in extra work. Tryin’ to apply all my knowledge, you know what I mean? Nobody was on my level.
RN: On Greg Porn’s verse, he says, “Put the knife in ya back cut down to the red meat / Daddy should’ve let me be a stain on the bedsheets.” What do you say to those people who might call this glorification of violence?
RED: I say those people ain’t really listenin’. I say it’s real easy for somebody to speak on a situation they’ve never been in. Ain’t nothin’ to glorify when you’re tryin’ to get food the only way you know how. Ain’t nothin’ glamourous about survival in a concrete jungle. I’m staring at my reflection in the knife in my hand. I’m askin’, “Who’s the fittest one of all?” I’m lookin’ for a soul behind that “eye of the tiger,” as my man would say.
RN: Did you feel like that “eye of the tiger” was somethin’ you were born with or was it bred into you?
RED: You know, man, that question is why I got into philosophy. I didn’t know my pops so I couldn’t tell you what traits came from him, but I wanted to know what made me who I was. There’s no humanity in a statistic. And the media’s quick to label us this and that. Helps them sleep easy. But how are we s’posed to sleep when this country’s government will sell crack to black communities to pay for a war in Central America? Where can we find rest in this so-called “land of the free” where there’s more black men in prison, on probation or on parole than there were enslaved in 1850? This is that bigger game I was talkin’ ‘bout earlier, but…man, I forgot what your question was.
RN: The eye of the tiger–
RED: Right, right. I said all that to say the born or bred question ain’t so black and white. For instance, it’s like all the kids in the schools who gotta take drugs that deaden their senses ‘cause of this so-called ADHD epidemic. Do they really have short-attention spans or is the standardized test obsolete in the digital age?
RN: I’d say B.
RED: Close. The answer is C, all of the above. Without gettin’ too technical, let me just say somebody got it twisted when they stuck a “versus” between nature vs. nurture. But see, I understood that back when I was a teenager.
RN: How so?
RED: Around this same time, I found out my cousin got robbed. And, you know that’s fam, so we rode out to get at dude. Long story short, I realized we were all cogs of the same crooked machine. We couldn’t change who we came from or where we grew up. Both of these elements influenced who we were. But we can choose to come together and make our environment work for us, rather than being products of it.
8. “Lighthouse” – The melody creeps up on you, slowly, hazily. Dice Raw spits a cynical prologue, then the uptempo beat kicks in. Lyrics of desperation and desolation rise and fall on floating piano notes, high hats and a distorted keyboard loop.
RN: So I wanted to go back and ask you–
RED: Hol’ up. Let this jawn ride for a minute.
(Dice Raw sings the chorus: “And no one’s in the lighthouse / You’re face down in the ocean / And no one’s in the lighthouse / And it seems like you just screamed / It’s no one there to hear the sound / And it may feel like there’s no one there / that cares if you drown / Face down in the ocean”)
RED: A’ight, sorry to interrupt, my man. This track is just so tight to me. It captures exactly what I was going through.
RN: What were you going through?
RED: Man, what wasn’t I going through. The situation at my mom’s house wasn’t workin’ out, so I was out on the streets. In the rain. Sleepin’ on benches. Cooler Ranch Doritos for dinner. I was 16. On my own. (Staring off.) Like, I had peoples I used to roll with, but I never felt like I fit in, you know what I mean? (Black Thought’s verse begins.) On top of that, I caught one of my boys lyin’ to me about some things. Yo, that’s one thing I did not tolerate. ‘Cause I always kept my word. I was straight up with everybody. “By a lie, a man throws away and, as it were, annihilates his dignity as a man.” Those are the immortal words of Immanuel Kant. That was my code.
RN: But is that true? I mean, didn’t Nietzsche say, “The lie is a condition of life”?
RED: Yeah, you right. That’s the paradox I was dealin’ with. And then, check this part…(Black Thought rapping.)…you heard that? Thought said, “If I stop thinking and lie / now that’s freedom.” That’s such an ill line.
RN: Lies can go both ways.
RED: Either way, you end up in the same position.
9. “I Remember” – Cascading notes begin this melancholy montage. A snare drum shoulders the beat as the chorus drips with sorrow, courtesy of neo-soul duo Jazzyfatnastees. This is a song about innocence lost, a track haunted by the ghosts of future past.
RED: (His voice drops.) I remember reading about this neurosurgeon from the early 1900s. I forget his name, but he theorized that if you stimulate a certain part of the brain, you could recreate memories artificially.
RN: Penfield, I think.
RED: Right, right. Wilder Penfield. I don’t know much about the hippocampus, but every time I listen to this record, it’s like I’m really reliving my past life. I can see it. Vividly. Like here on this track, this is the day I moved out of my mom’s spot.
RN: Why’d you move out?
RED: I had no choice ‘cause she kept…yo, I just couldn’t stay there. So I’m packin’ up what little stuff I have. My kicks, my Walkman, my Bible, my Qur’an. In the closet, I had a shoebox with my stash and some old pictures. Cats I knew from grade school. Most of them were gone. (Pauses.) It’s a trip ‘cause you always hear people sayin’ they wish they could hold onto memories. I wanted to get rid of mine. Stuff ‘em all up in my shoebox and throw ‘em from the train.
RN: You didn’t have any good memories from childhood?
RED: (After a long pause, he shakes his head.) Not that I can recall.
10. “Tip the Scale” – Nihilism reaches its apex on this bluesy downbeat track. Black Thought and Dice Raw paint a dystopian landscape littered with the walking dead. It’s grim. It’s bleak. And for Red, it’s only the beginning.
RED: Yo, you were gonna ask me somethin’ earlier and I cut you off…
RN: Oh right, I wanted to go back to your Machiavelli quote, about the many who are not virtuous.
RED: Yeah. (Takes a bite of his hoagie.)
RN: Now, from what I understand, Machiavelli believed you had to deceive to win honor.
RED: He called men “wretched creatures.” Of course that word comes up again in Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.
RN: You told me you stuck to the code of keeping your word. Does that mean you never deceived anyone to get ahead?
RED: (Pauses.) Everybody was out to get theirs, like I said. That’s just what it was. My scope of vision was wider than that. I had to make certain moves to gain leverage, you know what I mean? I know cats used to call me a master manipulator or whatever. But I was puttin’ people on. I was tryin’ to teach them how to think long term. To invest in our futures. To stand for something, like Malcolm X said.
RN: But how can you get people to look past what’s going on in from of them? I mean, how it is even possible to invest in your future if you’re broke in the present?
RED: (Shrugs.) I wish I could tell you. It’s hard to escape a one-track mind when the light at the end of the tunnel is flashing red and blue. But that was the game. And since we all kept playin’, we all stayed losin’.
11. “Redford (For Yia-Yia and Pappou)” – The album draws to a close with a magnificent four-part suite beginning with “Redford,” a stunning piano solo by Sufjan Stevens. The arrangement is both beautiful and heartbreaking, a paradox that truly resonates here at the outset of this young man’s life.
RN: This suite takes the album to a whole ‘nother level. An abridged symphony, so to speak.
RED: My life.
RN: Weren’t you named after this song?
RED: In short, yeah. This is off Stevens’ concept album called Michigan, which dropped in ‘03.
RN: But wait, how were you–
RED: Don’t ask.
RN: I got you.
RED: Let’s just let this one ride.
12. “Possibility (2nd Movement)” – Strings weep beside a mournful piano. The notes are falling and falling, like autumn leaves again, until finally the string quartet arrives back at their own interpretation of “Redford”.
RN: Are these movements all still part of your story?
RED: Yeah and what’s tight to me is that each one is a different interpretation of “Redford”. These are all the different ways I see myself. I’m a young boy at this point. I can choose which route I want to take, you know what I mean? Either I define who I want to be or society will define me, and we all know what happens when that happens. But check this, the word “interpretation” also relates to dreams and our unconscious… (His voice trails off.)
RED: (Staring off.) You asked me earlier if I had any good childhood memories. I just remembered one. I’m about 10 years old here. Livin’ with my aunt. My aunt was the coolest ‘cause she never treated me like a kid. And I remember she took me to see my first R-rated movie: The Terminator.
RED: Yeah, but as a boy, that movie had me buggin’ out. I couldn’t sleep that night ‘cause I was thinkin’ about my moms. I was afraid she was gon’ die. And I couldn’t save her. When my aunt came in the room, she didn’t know what to say. But just her being there helped me go to sleep. I don’t know what made me think of that.
13. “Will To Power (3rd Movement)” – The penultimate track puts ?uestlove in the ring with D.D. Jackson, an avant-garde piano player, who terrorizes the keys in an erratic rampage. The track builds and builds on starts-and-stops and crashing cymbals, reaching its zenith, then tumbling down, down, down.
RN: I know you dig the title of this one.
RED: You already know. “I assess the power of a will by how much resistance, pain, torture it endures and knows how to turn to its advantage.” One of my teachers in high school wrote that on the chalkboard one day and ever since then, I read every word Nietzsche wrote.
RN: Even after they say he went crazy?
RED: Dude didn’t go crazy, per se. He was just misunderstood ‘cause he didn’t fit into the box people tried to put him in.
RN: Didn’t he play piano, too?
RED: (Nodding.) At least 70 known compositions. Nothin’ like this piano here, though. This is somethin’ else. Sounds like deterministic chaos, don’t it?
RN: The butterfly effect? I don’t feel you.
RED: (Smiles.) I been thinkin’ about this idea for a minute. So these instrumentals come at the end, which you could say represents the beginning of my life. And you know how we were just sayin’ each movement offers a different interpretation?
RED: To me, this movement is all about chaos theory, meaning extreme sensitivity to initial conditions. Because that’s how my life begins, right? I was born into a crazy world. This goes back to nature and nurture, fate and free will and all that. In my case, my life is already predetermined. But this makes me wonder how things can change for cats like me with one small difference introduced early on, you know what I mean? If we took advantage of our environment and used the power we have to influence the youth, yo the possibilities could be infinite.
14. “Finality (4th Movement)” – And then, as the curtain slowly falls in the final movement, we return once again to “Redford” in strings. Then it ends on heavy note. Followed by a 30-second moment of silence.
RED: So this is it.
RN: Kind of reminds me of that final scene in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour.
RED: “This life came so close to never happening.”
RN: Exactly. Except in reverse. Which reminds me, I never asked what you thought about the decision to tell your life story backwards.
RED: (A long pause.) You know what? I know that’s how it looks on the surface, but I don’t see it going just one way. To me, it’s all mythological. This album can be seen spinnin’ forward or backwards. For instance, this track could mark the beginning, me takin’ my first breath in 1974. But it’s called “Finality”. And then, on the opener, called “Dun”, the first sound you hear is a baby crying, which could symbolize birth. So I think undun represents the snake eating its own tail. By that, I mean this is about the ongoing cycle of life and death. And the urgent call for transcendence. (Shrugs.) But who am I to say?