With both relevant and obscure history buzzing through his afro, the Roots’ ?uestlove has been revising hip-hop’s rule book for 15 years. He’s also the genre’s go-to quote machine, dropping pearls like dimes. “Obama,” he says, “is the new De La Soul.”
Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson is pop music’s visionary B-boy auteur. And the fact that he isn’t a rapper or a flashy DJ or a producer with a signature sound makes his accomplishments even more striking. The son of Arthur Lee Andrew Thompson, leader of 1950s doo-wop group Lee Andrews & the Hearts (and grandson of a member of gospel legends the Dixie Hummingbirds), he was bandleading his dad’s revival act at age 13. As the Roots’ drummer and coleader with MC Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter since the early 1990s — and collaborator with D’Angelo, Common, Erykah Badu, N.E.R.D., TV on the Radio, and many others — the Philadelphia native has transformed hip-hop by incorporating live instrumentation, jazz, soul, and rock influences, and most presciently, the Internet (cofounding the Okayplayer website back in 1999).
Lounging on a sofa at Legacy Studios in Manhattan’s theater district, ?uestlove, 37, is groggy after a flight from Los Angeles, where he attended Quentin Tarantino’s birthday party. But he’s still full of voluble opinions on music, history, and politics, showing more insight and wit than most of the music journalists he faithfully follows and challenges. After we run out of time — the Roots crew file in to rehearse for a college tour promoting their just-released eighth album, Rising Down (Def Jam) — he calls two days later to chat some more.
You were in show business at an early age, and your dad was really strict and wanted you to go to Juilliard and play jazz. Did you ever have Jackson-family feelings of your childhood being stolen?
No, I don’t think I missed anything. Point blank, everyone on my block is either dead or in jail. No — one kid, Gregory, he made it. And the fact that I was surprised he was still alive is a sad commentary. I’m glad I didn’t go out on my block, ’cause I would’ve been a whole other person. I probably would’ve been the geek who got beaten up.
What street did you live on in Philly?
A street that became very famous and very political — Osage Avenue. It gained its notoriety on May 13, 1985, when there was a confrontation between this organization called MOVE, which was a radical political movement, and our mayor, W. Wilson Goode. His solution was to drop a bomb on top of their house; it spread and took out six blocks, and if they hadn’t gotten it under control, we probably would have been one of those blocks.
What were your days growing up like?
Okay, here’s a funny story that connects with the Jacksons. You remember the year Michael won all those awards for Thriller ? Well, that was really during the strictest practice period of my life. So if I wasn’t home from school by the weather-update mark of Oprah, it was my ass — one minute after, [my parents would] be like, “You went to the arcade, didn’t you?” From four to six was strictly homework, then seven was dinner and dishes, then eight until 11 was practice. I had to beg my dad to watch the Grammys, because that took two hours out of our very tight regimen. So he reluctantly agreed. I had to prepare a month in advance, just to make sure no grades were bad, I wasn’t talking in class, none of that. He started calling my teachers: “He’s doing all his work, right?” Now, this was also the year of Wynton Marsalis, but because Michael won those eight awards, people hardly celebrated that Wynton won a jazz award and a classical award. But when Wynton won, the first thing he said was, “You know, I just really want to thank my father, Ellis, for forcing me to practice my skills five hours a day.” And my dad heard that shit and was beside himself: “I knew it! Five hours! ”
You and Tariq went to a Fame-type school [Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts] where the musical emphasis was on playing and singing, not hip-hop — but then, the local hip-hop scene wasn’t really open to what you were doing with live instruments. Did you feel like you were left out on your own?
That’s how we ended up playing on the street.
This was on South Street in Philly?
Yeah, at first it was just Tariq freestyling and me banging on buckets, New York style, but I was also attending Settlement Music School [a local community arts institution] with this guy Josh Abrams, who became the Roots’ first bass player. He suggested that we bring our real instruments out there, and he had a station wagon to help us haul everything down. For black musicians at that time [in the early ’90s], the only social infrastructure you had was the church or jam sessions in jazz clubs. These hip-hop guys would have demos, but that was just for rappers, not for bands. We were still part band, part rapper. We never saw it as a novelty or an angle; I just knew how to drum better than I knew how to program. I was trying to sample stuff, but just for shits and giggles, because the records in my father’s collection were all over the hip-hop records I was listening to — the Headhunters’ “God Make Me Funky,” [the Honeydrippers’] “Impeach the President,” Mandrill and the Meters albums.
Did you have any real recording equipment?
I had my dad’s broken-down four-track machine and a little Casio SK-1 sampler. After The Cosby Show, when Stevie Wonder was on [in 1986], everybody had to have one of those. Bill Cosby really jump-started hip-hop culture. That one Cosby episode, every well-known producer I know, that’s the event that changed their lives, but everybody is just ashamed to say it. That was the first time America got to see a sampler.
That’s wild, considering how Cosby has made it his mission to blame hip-hop for destroying black youth.
It’s his own fault. He never should’ve had Stevie on.
So anyway, the Roots built up a following from performing on the street, and before long, you were recording and playing in Europe and, in 1993, cutting a deal with Geffen. What was the climate when you signed?
We signed in the year of [Dr. Dre’s] The Chronic, which absolutely changed the whole hip-hop landscape, because that was the first time an album of that nature had done such incredibly big business. And here we come arriving on the platform about three minutes late, and the train just left us sitting there until, like, 1999, when a new train came.
Bill Cosby really jump-started hip-hop culture. That one episode was the first time America got to see a sampler.
So once gangsta rap went pop, you felt the alternative/bohemian hip-hop guys like Arrested Development and the Roots were an endangered species.
Really, the alternative movement — I always joke that [Vibe editor-in-chief] Danyel Smith killed it all. She did the most scathing story I’ve ever seen. I have nightmares about this, and it’s not even my group. She did what started out as merely a profile of Arrested Development for Vibe and it turned into an investigative dissection. This was when their second album, Zingalamaduni, came out, after they’d won the Grammy for Best New Artist. That one article actually broke the group up. She just exposed it all.
Any cynical questions you ever had about left-leaning or alternative music. She did this interview with [group leader] Speech first, and something inside her wasn’t believing nothing he was saying, so she decided to interview the other seven members of the group, and she just got it out of them. It was locked up like Fort Knox in the beginning, but before long, people were crying: “We haven’t even got a per diem. We don’t have health insurance. He talks about revolution, but he gets all the money.” I read it, and I was like, “Yo, we don’t have a future.” This whole idea of us, the left-of-center band, being hypocrites, it’s out there.
A lot of people are ready to believe that anyway.
Well, the pendulum swings back and forth. That’s why Obama is the new De La Soul.
What do you mean? That Obama’s getting elected is gonna be like 3 Feet High and Rising and bring all the liberal white and black people together? And then we’ll get bored and turn on him?
Nah, man, I said enough. All I’ll say is that everybody’s already waiting there in the wings, ready to nail him.
It’s taken awhile for hip-hoppers to come around to Obama. The initial reaction was to be suspicious or cynical or feel like it doesn’t matter who’s president.
But there’s a hopeless romantic in everybody, and what Barack says is beautiful, and it’s executed in such a way that you just believe. And people need something to believe in — bad. Faith is the evidence of things not seen and sorta hoped for. And because we’ve been let down so much, I guess it’s better to protect yourself. But I don’t think people can survive without something to believe in. We’re all not atheists.
The hip-hop stance generally seems atheistic.
I think we’re more nihilistic. I think to be an atheist is to be indifferent, to the point where you just don’t care. If you’re nihilistic, there’s still some passionate anger in there. I still consider anger an offspring cousin of love. The opposite of love is indifference, and that’s where you really just don’t give a fuck, you truly don’t. And even though rappers say, “I don’t give a fuck!” that’s used more as an expression of passionate anger to show that they really do care.
Going back to the success of The Chronic, did the record company’s opinion of you really change that quickly?
Honestly, the thing that probably affected us most directly was Kurt Cobain’s passing. When we had negotiations with Geffen in early ’93, they were still just riding the crest of the wave of ’91, between the business that [Nirvana’s] Nevermind did, both Guns N’ Roses Use Your Illusion albums, not to mention Aerosmith. I mean, Geffen itself was probably making more money than its parent company [MCA], which allowed them to toy with the idea of starting an “urban” department. So they signed all these artists, ten of us, of which the only survivors, at that point, were the GZA and us. Then, there was talk of there not being another Guns N’ Roses album until 1995! [Laughs] Aerosmith was going back to Columbia, and Cobain was gone. Then they actually dropped four acts a week later. So we were like, “Sheee-iiiit. This is really bad.”
But didn’t you sign for a ton of money?
What the fuck was that group, Helmet? There was such a hoopla over Helmet, they signed this astronomical deal.
They supposedly signed to Interscope for a million-dollars-plus after Nirvana blew up.
I never heard their music, but I knew they signed for a crazy high amount. And I knew rap labels weren’t even trying to give you a budget so you could compete on a bigger scale — the average deal was under $100,000. The label we were gonna roll with was Mercury, and everything was all gravy. [The label offered $150,000.] Then, at the eleventh hour, Geffen wanted to sign us, and we thought it was a joke. But as a bluff, we were like, “We want this, that, this, that, this, and five of these, and three of these.” We had a Christmas list bigger than Helmet could ever think of. And what was even crazier, they took it!
What did you end up getting?
I think, ultimately, our entire budget for Do You Want More?!!!??!, recording, promotion, touring, was, like, $2 million.
Yeah, I know, it was unheard of. And believe it or not, we basically controlled our own budget. But from Cobain’s suicide on, within a two-week period, that was the light-a-fire-under-your-ass period. We completed the entire album, did the artwork, mastered it, turned it in, shot the videos. Then three days later, bye-bye, we took our money and ran away and got a four-bedroom flat in London. We got another agent and told him to book us everywhere in town he could.
The acid jazz scene was still going on, which you fit into.
Yeah, mixing hip-hop and jazz and soul with live instruments, that idea. The Amy Winehouse sound isn’t all that surprising. That’s how cats were playing in London for the longest time. Anyway, it was like us working out at the gym, until we were looking like Mr. Universe when we came back to the States.
But when you got back, things went badly?
The argument [between Black Thought, manager Rich Nichols, ?uestlove, and label execs] that opens and ends Rising Down is based on that eight-month waiting period, after we turned in the record, when our initial June 28, 1994, release date got pushed back to January ’95. That was just the frustration of waiting in limbo, of not having a future. All the promises and all the excitement of ’93 became a thing of the past, because the label had to scale down because their golden boys weren’t generating the money, so we saw the ugly side. We were supposedly hiring street teams to do promotion, but we’d go to record stores and radio stations that didn’t know we were coming. We’d drive five hours to clubs, and they didn’t know why we were there.
Still, Do You Want More?!!!??! was critically acclaimed, as was the next album, Illadelph Halflife. And the sales weren’t terrible.
By 1996, ’97, some hip-hop gatekeepers were like, “Okay, we’ll let you play some of our reindeer games.” And at that point, an underground hip-hop scene had formed, inspired by the Stretch Armstrong & Bobbito [radio] show at Columbia University. That’s sort of when Rich Nichols said the only way that our music was really going to make sense was if it was contextualized and compared to something else — we basically got to do some Moses/Noah-type shit. So we made this list of everybody in hip-hop we needed to associate ourselves with. We went to our A&R and said, “Look, in order for us to work, we have to have a movement. This is more than just a single and the right song.” So we spent all of 1997 and all of 1998 building. That meant us going to Common, saying, “Yo, don’t you wanna be on a real major, where they spend money on you?” And he’s like, “Oh yeah.” So our first priority was getting Common off [indie label] Relativity, bringing him over by any means — that was number one. Then [Geffen] signed Black Star, plus Mos Def and Talib Kweli separately. And D’Angelo and I had cemented our relationship, so it was starting to look like a movement. Then, the second wave of the alternative hip-hop thing arrived in 1999. A lot of it was the commercial backlash to Puffy, a lot of it was the promise of something new. Erykah Badu comes through, Jill Scott. Suddenly, we make sense.
Being Jay-Z’s backup band for MTV Unplugged and various events has helped give you a new level of fame. Has he treated you well?
Of everyone, he’s probably the most professional, the most open-minded. He’s Jay-motherfuckin’-Z, and he’s still asking me, “What can we do to make this better?” He’s the only one who’s ever asked questions. Anyone else I’ve worked with, we’ve come to near pugilism over every idea. Shit, Al Green cursed me out. [?uestlove coproduced Green’s new album, Lay It Down.] The reverend said, and I quote: “Why are there motherfuckin’ computers everywhere? I’m gonna sing it the way I wanna sing it, goddamn it!”
The Reverend Al Green, ladies and gentlemen.
The Roots got a lot of criticism for the song “Birthday Girl,” featuring Patrick Stump from Fall Out Boy, which was later dropped from the new album.
The one thing about that I’m head-scratching the most is these white bloggers who embrace minstrel culture and also hate being white. Like, I’m always hearing an apology from a white Roots fan about there being too many white fans at our shows, like from a place of shame. It’s like all these other white people don’t know the real, but here’s the one who does. These same people who doubt us, then they co-sign something else — like they’re going nuts for [Lil Wayne’s] “Duffle Bag Boy” — and it reeks of a double standard.
So you don’t think people are criticizing the song but the perception of you working with this white rock guy who’s not cool enough?
I don’t know the politics of the hipster music world. Usually when black people fuck with anybody [on a collaboration], the first thing they’re thinking about is commerce: How can I turn their audience into my audience? I just thought people would see the campiness and ironic humor in the song. [Suddenly, there’s a rustling noise on the line, followed by a long pause] Hang on a second. [Another long pause] Oh God, welcome to my life. Okay, so my manager’s telling me that apparently Wal-Mart won’t stock our album unless we drop the song “75 Bars.”
Why? The lyrics?
They feel that 43 “niggas” is a little too over the top. I gotta fight them on this one. This is bullshit.
I guess that kinda puts the so-called controversy over “Birthday Girl” into perspective.
Yeah, don’t it?
Discography: The Roots
Do You Want More?!!!??!
No samples — drums, keys, bass, horns, beatbox, and two MCs create a hermetic yet free-swinging flow that boasts a sunny openness unlike any other hip-hop record (or other Roots record). With a Lou Brock–smooth demeanor, the Philly kids were the obvious heirs to A Tribe Called Quest.
Things Fall Apart
A subtly focused manifesto that further foregrounded hip-hop soul power over jazzy groove, and social critique over battle rhyming. It also swelled the Roots clique into a movement-style posse, while the nuanced love song “You Got Me” (featuring Erykah Badu) won a Grammy.
The breakthrough of Things Fall Apart emboldened the group to push their songwriting, playing, and production to exhilarating and, at times, bewildering extremes. “Water” is a ten-minute meditation on MC Malik B’s drug troubles, and “The Seed (2.0)” gives singer/songwriter Cody Chesnutt a rock spotlight.
After Do You Want More?!!!??! got lost in deep major-label doo-doo, the group toughened and broadened their sound, with ?uestlove integrating programmed drums, and jazz diva Cassandra Wilson (among others) chipping in. The rap-cliché indictment “What They Do” scratched the Top 40.
The Roots Come Alive
The greatest live act in hip-hop history (there is literally no competition), ?uestlove and Co. document the tumbling hurly-burly of a Roots show with this patch of live recordings from New York and Paris. The dynamic interplay between Black Thought and bandmates is stunning.
Def Jam, 2006
Flexing skull-snap percussion and discordant melodic snatches, the Roots’ seventh studio album shakes its fist with invigorating purpose. Paranoia and despair get a fresh airing but never overwhelm Black Thought’s pointed screeds about Katrina, oil-for-food scams, and the drug gauntlet.