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Leonard Hubbard, a member of the Roots for 15 years, dies at 62

The virtuoso musician toured and recorded with the Philadelphia hip-hop band for 15 years.

Bass player Leonard Hubbard of the Roots at the Settlement Music School in 2007.
Bass player Leonard Hubbard of the Roots at the Settlement Music School in 2007.Read more

Leonard Hubbard, 62, the bass player who toured the world and recorded as a core member of the Philadelphia hip-hop band The Roots for 15 years, died Thursday, Dec. 16, at Lankenau Hospital.

Mr. Hubbard’s wife, Stephanie, confirmed her husband’s death. The cause of death was multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer, which he was first diagnosed with in 2007. He had been in remission until last month, his wife said. Mr. Hubbard lived in West Philadelphia.

Mr. Hubbard first joined The Roots in 1992, when the group was still called the Square Roots. He played on every one of the band’s album, from 1993′s Organix to 2006′s Game Theory. He left the group in 2007. Two years later, the band began its late-night TV association with Jimmy Fallon on NBC.

After his diagnosis with the disease, Mr. Hubbard wanted to work on his music as a composer, his wife said. In recent years, Mr. Hubbard had been putting together an album of recordings of songs under his own name that he wrote the music for with artists such as Jill Scott, Ben Harper, Vernon Reid, Jeff “Tain” Watts, and the Philadelphia singers Lady Alma and Jaguar Wright. The album, which is called The Awakening, was completed last week, Stephanie Hubbard said.

“He wanted to be known for the type of music he was composing,” his wife said. “And before he died, he was sitting there at night listening to the music, and he was so happy with it.”

On “Double Trouble” on The Roots’ 1999 album, Things Fall Apart, Black Thought rhymed: “Yo, me and Kamal and Leonard Hubbard, Questlove and Malik / We go back to dollar hoagies and Tahitian Treat.”

Mr. Hubbard first sat in with The Roots -- including rapper Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter and drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson -- at a gig at Old City Coffee in 1992.

“They didn’t know me from Adam,” Mr. Hubbard told The Inquirer in 2007. “Ahmir told me to take a solo,” he said, “and when he saw that I was a virtuoso, he was like, ‘Oh, man, keep playing, keep playing.’ "

Mr. Hubbard came to his musical virtuosity through long years of study and hard work.

He grew up in West Philly in the neighborhood around 53rd Street and Girard Avenue and began playing bass in the fourth grade. He learned from John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix albums owned by his older brother Robert and studied classical piano at Settlement Music School.

“It was a neighborhood full of musicians,” Mr Hubbard recalled. “Every Saturday, people would be outside with the congas and the drums on the front stoops.”

Among the musicians in the neighborhood was bassist Michael Kruse, who played a fretless bass, influencing Mr. Hubbard to use a pair of pliers to pull the frets out of his own bass. In 2007, both Cruse and Mr. Hubbard were named one of the Settlement 100 that the music school honored as part of its centenary.

While in a music magnet program at Overbrook High School, he studied after school at Settlement, taking private lessons with theory teacher Donald Rappaport and Eligio Rossi, who also taught jazz bassist Stanley Clarke. He studied classical music at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and played in jazz, Latin, funk, and R&B bands before joining The Roots.

In his years with The Roots, the musician known as “Hub” was known for appearing on stage in a sleeveless hooded sweatshirt with a trademark stick of licorice root in his mouth.

An extended solo segment on stage would mix graceful melody lines with thumb-picked, room-quaking rhythms before bringing the crowd to its feet with the bass line from Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.”

Outside of The Roots, he scored Bertha Bay-Sa Pan’s 2002 indie film Face, which mixed funk with traditional Chinese music, as well as the 2006 documentary Darfur Diaries: Message From Home.

In 2007, before he left the group, Mr. Hubbard spoke of how proud he was to play in “the premier hip-hop live band in the world.”

In 2016, Mr. Hubbard filed a lawsuit against Thompson, Trotter, and Roots manager Shawn Gee claiming he was owed money as a founding shareholder of The Roots. That lawsuit has not been settled, Stephanie Hubbard said.

The Roots tweeted: “It’s with the heaviest of hearts that we say goodbye to our brother Leonard Nelson Hubbard. May your transition bring peace to your family to your friends to your fans and all of those who loved you. Rest in Melody Hub.”

Mr. Hubbard is the second musician who was an early member of The Roots to die in recent years. Rapper Malik Abdul-Basit, known as Malik B., died last year.

Mr. Hubbard is survived by his wife and stepdaughters India Owens and Onita Owens and stepson Edward Owens. Funeral services are still being planned.