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
We have a
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.
Albums The Roots - How I Got Over
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