Questlove: “I Want You To Investigate And Determine What It Is That You Believe In And What You Want For Your Country”

A conversation with the leader of The Roots on Obama, American politics, self-awareness, longevity, connecting with indie kids and playing Sónar

After 25 years, more than a dozen albums and a (shelf-warping) stack of awards, you would forgive Questlove a drop in pace. Ahmir Thompson, however, would not. We speak to Questlove ahead of The Roots’ performance at Sonar, on Saturday 16th June, about politics, music and … “Toy Story”.

After 25 years, more than a dozen albums and a (shelf-warping) stack of awards, you would forgive Questlove a drop in pace. Ahmir Thompson, however, would not. In addition to his The Roots responsibilities, Questlove has achieved notable success as a producer, DJ and music journalist. Furthermore, alongside Roots co-founder Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, he curates an annual music festival and promotes emerging artists through the legendary ‘Jam Sessions’. The band also plays five nights a week on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Astoundingly however, he indicates “a lot of speculation” that taking the Fallon gig is “lazy”. Questlove is quick to quash the naysayers; arguing that the rigorous practice it requires has developed his craft as a drummer , whilst its stability allows him to experiment musically, “travelling into unchartered territory”.

In addition to his musical career, Questlove is ferociously politically aware, urging others to be equally politically active. Although his arguments are sometimes astutely tempered – “I want you to investigate and determine what it is that you believe in and what you want for your country” – he is still more than capable of wreaking havoc with his actions. Last year, The Roots caused controversy by playing Fishbone’s “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” as Michelle Bachmann (at the time a Republican candidate for President) entered the stage on the Jimmy Fallon show. His twitter picture, incidentally, shows him proudly standing with his arm around the shoulder of Obama.

Over the course of our interview, Questlove talks passionately – through a melodic, Philly drawl – his words punctuated by percussive laughs and deep breaths. It’s the kind of voice you could listen to for hours, effortlessly engaging, regardless of its content. Happily, however, the substance of his speech is equally absorbing.

We speak to Questlove ahead of The Roots’ performance at Sonar on Saturday 16th June.

Your most recent album, “Undun”, tells the story of the semi-fictional character Redford Stephens as he struggles for survival in an urban landscape, full of drugs and crime. Would you consider it a concept album? What is the message behind it?

Oh yeah, I do believe we wanted to make a concept album. Basically, we just never had the freedom to do it before. I mean, we wanted to do it, but in general hip hop artists – or black artists in general – aren’t really given the freedom to do such an outlandish idea, because survival is the name of the game for most of us. When I say survival I’m talking about the idea of not risking your political fan-base – or your sales or you critics – by travelling into unchartered territory. So that said, yeah, we wanted to tell the story of a teenager who is not a bad person, but makes the wrong decisions and goes through the consequences of that decision. But we tell that story backwards. We tell the last 24 hours of his life.

"We did it basically because we weren’t scared to get dropped from the label. We have other means of revenue. We have a hit television show"

And what do you think has given you the freedom to take that leap into unchartered territory?

Well, you know, one it hasn’t been done before. Like some people made the argument ‘well jazz artists have that freedom’. Alright: you look at the most experimental move ever made in jazz music – which most people can agree was Miles Davies doing “Bitches Brew” in 1967, 68 [ed. note: “Bitches Brew” was recorded in 1969 and released in 1970]. It was a very crucial statement in the world of jazz. But even then, you know Miles Davis was kind of … there is speculation that Davis was actually trying to cash-in. Instead of it being an artistic statement, his thing was – you know – ‘I’m trying to get some of that love generation, hippy, Woodstock money. So let me add electric guitars to my jazz and do more street grooves’. Now, of course, we see it as a beautiful piece of art. But even then commerce sort of takes reverence over art. And that’s always been the main conflict with most black performing artists: commerce vs. art.

We did it basically because we weren’t scared to get dropped from the label. We have other means of revenue. We have a hit television show. Making that record isn’t our sole means of survival financially, it really hasn’t been. Now I am in a place so secure that I don’t need a record deal. Even though we still have one and we still cherish it, we just decided to make a daring concept album.

Talking of your record label, I understand you are with Def Jam now, but previously you’ve been with DGC and Geffen.

Well, technically – I don’t know how you guys get it in Europe – but technically we are just on the same label. We’ve actually out-lasted the label. I don’t know if that makes sense. In other words: I’ve always been in 1755 Broadway. That building, since the beginning of my career. It’s just that a label will implode or merge with another label and then you get transferred. So yeah, it’s still Universal. I know there is speculation like ‘oh, you guys have just label hopped all over your careers’. No. It’s just like representing Coca-Cola and they are like ‘ok this is called ‘Coke 1, With Lime’’ and then next year it’s ‘Coke Energy’... you know? It’s still Coca-Cola! Even though they have many other products under their umbrella.

You were talking before about the TV show, Jimmy Fallon –

Yeah! Do you guys get that over there?

You can watch it on the Internet

Really? So it’s not like... [laughs]... so people are walking around scratching their heads like ‘wow, whatever happened to The Roots?’, they don’t know that we... [laughs, a lot] that’s cool!

Well, we all saw the clip with you and Obama that went viral [note: Obama famously “slow-jammed” the news on the show recently].

Ah, ok, so that’s how you guys saw it, I see what you mean.

How has that affected you musically – playing live every week on the TV?

There is a lot of speculation that us taking this television show would have actually slowed down our progress. There is a term that American’s use called ‘phoning it in from home’. I don’t know if you guys know what it means. ‘Phoning it in from home’ just basically means being lazy: “I don’t feel like working, I’ll just phone it in from home”. That was the speculation that a lot of people had about The Roots when we first joined this television show. But actually the opposite has happened. For one, as a group, we have rehearsed more in these last three years than we have ever rehearsed in our entire existence as The Roots. So that’s one thing. We’ve never rehearsed as a group and pre-planned stuff. And now we are so tight as a unit because we play music together. A lot. You know what I mean?

Number two: just days of rigorous practising as individual musicians. Developing my own craft as a drummer. I really haven’t truly done practicing marathons since my High School days, when I was living with my parents, right when the Roots were beginning. Once I turned 19, 20, I stopped practicing 5 hours a day. By that point I was Questlove and I was sorting shows, but being in this environment I am now given the chance to practice all the time. I have to say that we are all better musicians now than we have ever been in our whole history.

Going back to Obama – and the appearance he made on Jimmy Fallon with you – what are your opinions on him at the moment politically, with the up-coming election?

I am linking Obama’s presidency to that of a person assigned to clean an entire building all by themselves, that has been completely ravished and damaged by the people that were in it before. I know there a lot of expectations and a lot of miracle prayers that people are having that are a little unrealistic. I am campaigning for Obama, but I don’t want to be a person who says ‘I am voting for Obama so I you should vote for Obama’. I want people to come to their own decisions. My whole statement is: yes, I am politically aware and I am politically active and all I want you to do as a human being, is to also be politically active. I want you to investigate and determine what it is that you believe in and what you want for your country; and then make a decision based on that.

Right now we are getting into dangerous territory, where you have side companies who want to buy their way into The White House. This is actually very possible. There is someone that gave Obama’s opponent a secret, anonymous, 35 million dollar cheque. And the primary use of this money was to be for a whole bunch of propaganda; anti-Obama campaign commercials. A lot of these things are filled with lies. If I said a lie about you to your entire office, if I say it with a straight face and I’m convincing enough … sure, not everyone will believe me, I am sure there are some people that know you well that would say ‘wait a minute I know her like that, that’s not like her, let me investigate’. But there are some people that are just willing to believe anything they hear. So, you know, that’s the problematic factor that we are dealing with. I say it now and I’d say it again: the United States was literally six months away from being Greece. And we all know about the financial turmoil that Greece is in. We were 5 months away from being bankrupt and just being really, really down the toilet. He managed to save it, and really without tooting his own horn. He managed to save our economy and slowly turn it around. So yes: I would like to see him do four more years. So that he can complete the mission.

"There are politicians whose goal it is to ruin Obama’s legacy. Even if that means our country has to go down with it"

So what will happen if he isn’t re-elected?

[Long, slow inhalation of breath] That remains to be seen. The person whom he is running against isn’t even liked that much by his own party. The only reason this person is getting any kind of support from the opponent is because of the sheer madness and the sheer spiteful nature of politics in the United States. People would rather see … right now we are not even dealing with ‘now, who could make the country be better?’. No. There are politicians whose goal it is to ruin Obama’s legacy. Even if that means our country has to go down with it. If you were to ask half the politicians in Washington right now ‘ok, we can let the economy go about 75% lower than it is in Barcelona right now – but what we guarantee is that Obama would not serve another 4 years in 2012 – would you accept that? Even if it meant destroying the country? As opposed to him helping the country?’, they would actually vote to destroy the country. Anything to get him out and a lot of it is because he’s an honest politician. A lot of American politicians are corrupted by letting people buy their way into politics. I can donate 500 million dollars to Obama’s opposition and get Political Tax Favours in return for getting him into The White House. That corruption has to stop. That’s one thing I really wish that the Government could fix; the fact that we allow outside corporations to contribute money. If we take that away then we are just dealing with the truth, but not many people can handle the truth. So … this is going to be a very hard election because a lot of lies are coming out and people aren’t privy to the truth vs. propaganda here. They believe anything they hear.

Going back to music, I understand that you hold jam sessions and a festival in Philadelphia every year. Is supporting new artists something that is very important to you?

Absolutely. I would say that having really started my career in Europe as far as moving there in 1993 and staying there for three years one thing that I observed was festivals. The United States is just getting used to the concept of Festivals. It’s something that we weren’t used to before. Back then it was always our dream to bring festivals to the United States, so that people could see what we learned. So yeah, this very Saturday – Saturday and Sunday – coming up, we throw out fifth annual Roots Picnic. With St. Vincent, with Kid Cudi, with De La Soul, with Rakim, with Diplo and Major Lazer – you know, a vast array of artists. I am extremely excited about the prospect of what we have coming up. I just want to promote more festivals and curate more musical experiments.

It’s interesting the artists you listed – it’s quite a broad range – featuring various genres from indie to hip hop …

Anything from indie, to popular hip hop, to throw back hip hop. The people that have done The Roots Picnic before have always been from the thin line between indie favourites and hip hop favourites. I mean we’ve had TV On The Radio and we’ve had The Black Keys; but we’ve also had Nas and Public Enemy. I tend to think that our audience likes a little bit of indie music and a little bit of electronic music and a little bit of hip hop, so that’s what we feature at the festivals.

So do you see the door between hip hop and indie as an open one, to be walked through?

It might be a hard pill to swallow, but I always get good feedback the next day. Last year there were indie fans that were like ‘wow, I didn’t think that I would like Esperanza Spalding and it turns out I am fan of hers’. Then there were people that were like ‘wow, I didn’t think Vampire Weekend would be a natural for The Roots Picnic but it turns out I’m a fan of theirs now’. There is a trust factor that our fan-base has with us. This year I am really in love with St. Vincent, so I can’t wait until our audience get to see her play in her element. That’s what I am really excited about.

And have you noticed a change in your audience over the albums, or have you had a pretty consistent audience the whole way through?

I’ll say this much: when we first started, we kind of knew at the beginning that we were going to have to open up. The thing is, we knew that The Roots we were going to be the group that other artists would like; but we weren’t sure that other artists’ fanbases would like us. It’s like ‘well the Beastie Boys really like you guys’, now we gotta make the Beastie Boys’ audience like us. We spent the first five years opening up for everybody – from Crash Test Dummies, to Beck, to the Bestie Boys, to Soundgarden to Pearl Jam to you name it – Marilyn Manson!

Pretty diverse …

[Laughs] Right! It’s almost like we’ve spent so music time preparing for the alternative audience – and I don’t mean alternative as in the genre, I mean like the opposite of who you expect The Roots to be in front of – that I’ll say this: the audience that is the hardest to please is actually the audience that is built for The Roots. You know what I mean? So it’s like 20 years of having a plan B, or a plan C. ‘OK well you guys know that we are opening for Kid Rock next weekend so maybe we should adjust the show a little bit’, you know? That’s easy. But then it’s like ‘hey we have a show with Erykah Badu and Jill Scott’, oh God, that’s so hard. That’s like the hardest thing ever. I mean we built both of those artists. You know what I mean? I feel kinda like the Pixar film “Toy Story”; it’s like we have gathered all the broken toys of life and kinda assembled them in one room. So yeah, we’ve always had a wide-array of people in our audiences – old people, young people, white people, black people, Asian people – all walks of life.

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