Interview: How Questlove Stays Occupied

The Roots’ drummer on signing with Jimmy Fallon, stumping for Obama, and cooking up Philly’s neo-soul scene.

Photo: Def Jam Recordings

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Ahmir Thompson, a.k.a. Questlove, is due onstage in a few hours, but right now he can barely suppress a yawn. When Thompson, 40, isn’t drumming with the Roots—the influential hip-hop, funk, and neo-soul group he cofounded with high-school classmate Tariq Trotter in the early 1990s—he’s producing, arranging, scoring films, DJing, and pulling all-nighters contributing to R&B star D’Angelo’s upcoming album. Not to mention being “Occupy Wall Street’s Paul Revere” on November 15, tweeting out early warnings of the impending police raid on Zuccotti park. (Check out our dispatch from the raid’s front lines.)

Thompson was born to music. His father, Lee Andrews, fronted one of the great 1950s doo-wop groups, Lee Andrews & the Hearts, and Ahmir often accompanied them on tour as a young kid. He later attended the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, where classmates included members of Boyz II Men and the bassist/composer Christian McBride. The Roots’ debut, Organix, hit the streets in 1993, and the band is now an American pop music staple, with more than a dozen albums to date. In 2008, they shocked die-hard fans by signing on as house band for Jimmy Fallon’s late-night talk show. But in the end, the move merely raised their stature.

The band’s latest album, Undun, comes out on December 6. Sporting cornrows, a black-and-white checkerboard shirt, and black jeans, Questlove settled into a plush red sofa at his San Francisco hotel to talk about his first gig, tea party politics, and the benefits of his band’s Harry Potter-themed tour buses. (As we were chatting, incidentally, a bellboy showed up to deliver a glass bowl containing a goldfish.)

Mother Jones: It seems you’re a highly prolific tweeter; I counted 68 tweets on Wednesday alone.

Ahmir Thompson: That’s what I’m bitching about now—I left both of my phones in New York! Me tweeting is just a stream of consciousness, and there’s a computer everywhere I work. [He points to his MacBook.] I own eight of these. At home to the left of my bed there’s a computer, at my office at Fallon, on the actual set of the show, in the hair room, everywhere I go.

MJ: You tweet during the show?

AT: That’s where I do the majority of my tweeting!

“One night the drummer didn’t make it…My first gig was at Radio City Music Hall when I was 13.”

MJ: So, tell us about Undun, the Roots’ new album.

AT: Shit, you’re the first person I’m talking to about this. I’ll put it this way: It’s our first ongoing-narrative album. In other words, it’s like listening to an audio storybook or a movie. The hardest thing about sticking to a narrative is the Tarantino-esque way that we’re gonna break the structure. We’re trying to figure out, “Well, what if we told the end first, and the beginning, and then the middle?”

MJ: And what’s the story about?

AT: That part I’m keeping secret. Where I see How I Got Over kind of introducing the idea of a midlife crisis, like, “What do you do as 40-year-old into hip-hop?” and Rising Down as kind of the American’s anger at his government, and Game Theory as a mournful kind of reflection on loss, this story will basically be like the best of those three outlines. And whereas those albums were about us, this album is told in character form.

MJ: You seem like a natural entertainer. Has that always been part of your personality?

AT: It’s more that that’s all I knew. My parents didn’t trust babysitters back in the early ’70s, so I had to play bongos on stage with them ’cause “No stranger’s gonna watch my son in Muncie, Indiana!” [Laughs.] According to my parents, I just started drumming when I was two. I traveled with them from five to seven on the road, playing percussion. Between 8 and 12, my dad sort of prepared me by teaching me every aspect of road life. So I knew Rand McNally map routes like I was a human GPS. I had to cut gels, place mikes, place lights. Then I became the sound guy and tech guy. One night the drummer didn’t make it, and then I was his drummer. My first gig was at Radio City Music Hall when I was 13.

“When you say, ‘Free food at Ahmir’s house,’ blammo! All of sudden Mos is here, Common’s here, Jill Scott’s here.”

MJ: In what sense do you consider yourself a product of the Philly music scene?

AT: It’s kind of weird being seen as the inventor of a style—or whatever you want to say our contribution was to neo-soul. I don’t think there’s anything that special about Philly—or Detroit, or Memphis, or Muscle Shoals, Alabama, or New Orleans—except for that it took one person to gather. It’s the Noah theory: You gather two of every animal and you create a scene. The first thing we did when we took a label is we took that money and we hired a chef. Chef cooked his ass off, and when you say, “Free food at Ahmir’s house,” blammo! All of sudden Mos is here, Common’s here, Jill Scott’s here. And then five hours a night we’d just jam. People are still benefiting: A core 17 of the musicians who would come every week are now bandleaders.

MJ: You’re known for changing up styles. What do you say to Roots purists always clamoring for the old stuff?

AT: It’s so funny, because the thing I’ve come to expect from Roots supporters is, “Oh, I like the last record, but I don’t know what you’ve all done with this record!” I know people hold Things Fall Apart as holy, but when it came out—oh my God!—the Do You Want More fans were rolling over in their graves, saying, “What is this shit?”

MJ: You guys took some flak for becoming Fallon’s house band. Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan called it “the cultural equivalent of…”

Working on the Obama campaign, “I learned that 80 percent of Americans think the political process is a hierarchy: ‘Why won’t he just wave his magic wand and make it happen?'”

AT: [Laughs.] “Miles Davis playing on the subway platform.” I know that dude. That’s so funny!

MJ: What’s your response to fans who say you sold out?

AT: I can only equate this to how I DJ: The reason why I spin a downer song is so that the next time I bring the upper in, it’s like, “Oh my god! He’s playing this shit!” So when we did Fallon, the first thing I said to my manager was, “You realize that this [next] album is going to have to be so undeniably great.” And he says: “You don’t have to worry about that, because you guys have got a get-out-of-jail-free card. Everyone’s expectations are so low because of Fallon. They’re expecting you guys to go so below the abyss level of wackness.” ‘Cause it’s like, who’s going to make an interesting record if they’re also doing a hot-dog-in-a-hole sketch?

MJ: You volunteered for Obama’s 2008 campaign. Are you feeling disillusioned these days?

AT: I’m not surprised. He told us this was gonna happen. The one thing that I learned on the campaign trail was that 80 percent of Americans think the political process is a hierarchy: “Why won’t he just wave his magic wand and make it happen?” I’m like, “Are you going to vote in the midterm election?” and they’re like, “Nah.” And I’m like, “You do understand that the only way those ideas are going to come to fruition is through the Congress?”

MJ: What’s your take on the tea party?

AT: I personally believe that this is a classic situation of fooling people while they’re asleep. And I believe that the only people who really, truly benefit from any of the policies of Republicans are the wealthy. I’m in that 1 percent tax bracket, but I’m not a man of wealth. My mother has a crib, my father has a crib, and I’m satisfied, but I just feel that all of us are severely misinformed. There was an article in Rolling Stone about the head of Fox [News], and there was basically something he said about using people’s ignorance and their sort of indifferent, sleepy, unaware nature to get them fired up. Like, these people will be your fuel. But none of them are benefiting.

“We’ve got two tour buses: Slytherin and Gryffindor. Without that, we would’ve killed each other.”

MJ: What can a pop icon do to fight that?

AT: When I was brought on board the campaign in 2008, I was amazed at the trust they put in us. They were like, “Here are your talking points, and we want you to give a speech in San Francisco.” I’m like, “Whoa, start me on the ground floor. I want to do basic shit like driving a white van and making sure old women can get to the polls on time. Let me get sandwiches. Maybe I’ll do some phone calls.”

MJ: But you have star power.

AT: Yeah, but I don’t want be that person who says, “Hey, I’m Questlove. I love Obama, and you should too.” I think that’s wrong, even if it’s for the right reasons. I told them, “I’ll do all the free shows you want me to.” And I did a lot of telephone calls, too, which really scared the shit out of me because I didn’t use my name, and I got a lot of, “Well, I don’t know if I’m going to vote for him because I think he’s a Muslim.”

MJ: How long do you figure the Roots can stay together?

AT: We’ve only had one career-threatening fistfight in the entire 19-year history of the group, and that was back in ’94. We have the one element that A Tribe Called Quest didn’t: two tour buses, Slytherin and Gryffindor. Slytherin people on one side, Gryffindor people on the other. Without that, we would’ve killed each other. With one bus, it’s two TVs for a nine-hour trip. I don’t want to watch Faces of Death. I don’t want to watch ESPN 24/7. Can you all shut the fuck up, please? I think a little separation goes a long way. I don’t want to be that guy to say we broke up because someone stole my Frosted Flakes.

MJ: But might there be a point at which it just doesn’t make sense to continue?

AT: This is kind of the first time that my Questlove activity is borderline neck and neck with my Roots activity, at least financially. Before it was just like, “Okay, I might produce that song or DJ a gig for fun.” Now it’s like, “Shit, this is like a livelihood.” Tariq shot three movies. I scored four flicks. And there are a few other Broadway projects that I’m about to start working on. But why ruin the brand? I don’t think it’s a matter of the Roots. It’s just a matter of work versus normalcy. I do 20-hour workdays.

MJ: You don’t need much sleep, huh?

We definitely go through periods of watching other artists and being like, “Damn man! How come that shit never happens to us?”

AT: I’ll tell you this much. With D’Angelo, the four songs I’m not drumming on are the songs I’m jealous of. Bill Withers’ former drummer, James Gadson—71-year-old cat—is playing this rhythm and the final result was just, I’ve never been so jealous at not being part of the creative process. James Gadson is like my hero. I’m willing to risk lack of sleep just so I can be part of history. 

MJ: You were accepted to Juilliard after high school, but couldn’t afford it then. How might your career have been different if you’d gone that route?

AT: Classical music requires an immense amount of concentration, and I don’t know if I would’ve been that committed to that particular life. Everything happened for a reason, even once we became the Roots and sort of missed what you call the Bentley moment: Like, here’s your Bentley! Oh, shit I made it, I made it! Now that we’re here 20 years later, it’s like, “Oh, this is it.” We’re grateful. We definitely go through periods of watching other artists and being like, “Damn man! How come that shit never happens to us?” But then you look five years later at the same artist in the rear-view mirror and it’s like, “Okay. Well, you know, we got our own journey.”


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