April 8th, 2009 5:33 pm | by Sara Moskovitz Music | Posted In: Columns, Columns

Q&A: Questlove of the Roots Talks Public Enemy, Vitamin Water


[Hip-Hop] Band leader, drummer and vocal front man for The Roots, one of hip-hop's most respected national treasures, Ahmir “Questlove” (or, sometimes, ?uestlove) Thompson has long been enamored by a wide spectrum of music fans for his untamed afro, playful personality and uncompromising musical talent. In the 1980's, when Thompson met MC Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter at the performing arts high school they attended together in Philadelphia, PA, the two created The Roots, a hip-hop band whose equal has yet to be seen. 21 years, 10 albums, a billion live shows and countless trips around the globe have seemingly only strengthened Questlove's infamous energizer work ethic, thirst for good music and penchant for staying ahead of technological advances like Twitter to keep in touch with his band's fan base.

Last month, The Roots shocked fans by signing a NBC contract to be comedian Jimmy Fallon's house band for the comedian's new late-night talk show. Several weeks into the gig (with re-runs already rearing their ugly heads), blog approval ratings have been mixed, but late-night and hip-hop have never married quite like this and the results have been fascinating to watch. Whisper opinions contend that "Late-night with The Roots, featuring Jimmy Fallon" seems the more appropriate title, but it's still early in the season, with room for improvement.

The Fallon move may have signified a slow-down period for the heavily touring band, so when the Roots come to the Roseland this Friday, it could be one of the last chances Portlanders have to be assaulted with the kind of live hip-hop that reverberates boom bap on a cellular level.

In the midst of a 19-hour work day that included a commute from Philadelphia to New York and back again, performing before a live studio audience and various late night club appearances as a DJ, Thompson still managed to find 45 minutes for a leisurely chat with me (and Kenny Fresh on the assist) from a hotel room somewhere in middle-America. Discussed: Public Enemy, hot sauce and Elmo.

WW: In a 2003 interview, you said that when Republicans are in office and any type of national depression is occurring, that's when the best black music is made. With Obama in office and a deep economic depression taking place, what does this mean for hip-hop?

Ahmir Thompson: Actually, it's kind of funny because the Bush era was such a depressing time that I was actually proven wrong. Artistically, I felt like a lot of the music that came out of the second half of the Bush era produced some of the most artistic diminished returns that I've ever heard—not to say that it was totally 100% all for loss but I'll say that I was more or less shocked that nobody was being vocal. I guess it's easier for [The Roots] to make these statements in our records because we're still under the radar. Our product is under the radar but our personalities are over the radar.

After 20-plus years of making music, you still feel you're under the radar?

We're still ubiquitous, but we're still unknown at the same time.

What will the music industry will look like in 10 years?

I think it's just getting redefined. A lot of the bigger artists are doing these one-off deals with companies. I think that once the record label is dismantled—it looks like the record label is going by the way of the 8-track so probably in the next five to 10 years—companies will just start licensing artists on their own so you'll see the Cool Kids strike up a three year deal with Mountain Dew, Asher Roth might strike up a deal with IHOP. I'm certain that most companies will use artists to draw their product. Music will be more ubiquitous. It'll be like how you treat your electric or phone bill: It'll be a service that you pay for, you'll have unlimited usage of it. That's where I see it going, I just need to figure out which side of the fence I want to be on.

If you could produce an advertising jingle for any product, which product would it be and why?

It's weird because I get asked to do that every day for the Fallon show. All music that you hear, it's pretty much produced by us. We arrive at [the] 30 Rock [sound stage in New York city] at eight in the morning and people start their menu order like, ‘Okay, I need a 3-second jingle for this Metallica rip-off and we need a 12-second "Flight Of The Bumblebee" sound-alike and we need this da da da da….so I'm kind of numb to, not jingles and commercials per se but it's the same process. Yesterday for instance, their instructions were a polka song in the mode of the "Flight Of The Bumblebee," a Soundgarden or maybe a Metallica-esque song and a '60s Motown type song. That's pretty much the average for them.

Are you having fun with it? Is it what you and the band thought it would be like?

I'll be honest with you, we though that it was going to be less work because we thought that nobody's working as hard as we are already but this job has made me appreciate tour life like no other. I believe in that 10,000 hour Malcolm Gladwell rule. This is probably the most music I've ever made, produced or immersed myself in in my entire life. I wake up at 5 am and pretty much go to bed at 1 or 2 AM so every day is based on a 3-hour nap from 2 am to 5 am. I'll catch two hours in the bus on the way up [to New York] and on the way back [to Philadelphia] so it's like catching catnaps, but it's creating music. The sounds of How I Got Over, our 11th record (laughing)—this is when we put that 10,000 hour rule to the test because I don't think no album has ever produced 400 songs before we chose the best 14. We've been doing this since January, 40 songs created in a 5-day period—we're up to 400 plus right now and they're great songs.

Kenny Fresh: On the Fallon show, you're known for having subliminal fun with the walk-out music for different guests. What's been the most interesting reaction you've gotten from the crew or the audience?

When Kirk discovered I was planning, "Doing The Butt" for Serena Williams, he knew it was a joke. But actually, when we get back from Portland, I'm going to have the most fun I've ever had in my life because Ice T. and Elmo are going to be on the same show. I'm going to give those two the exact polar opposites (laughing).

What's the one Soul Train episode you want to be buried with?

My favorite Soul Train episode of all time is the 1973 Jackson 5 episode, when Michael Jackson debuted the Robot on Dancing Machine, which I guess was pretty much a precursor to his Moonwalk in '83. When people were doing the Moonwalk, older people were like, "Well, 10 years ago he did the Robot and that was better!" And it was better, believe it or not. I mean, the "Billie Jean" performance was life-changing but that Dancing Machine performance was what bought the Jackson 5 more time to grow up in the public eye. If they didn't have that Dancing Machine performance, they would've just been forgotten about.

What's the one album you want to be buried with?

Whenever I do my top 10 greatest albums of all time, number one still remains [Public Enemy's] It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back.

Kenny Fresh: The Roots are about to embark on a tour with Public Enemy performing that album, what effect did that album have on you the first time you heard it?

The immediate effect it had on me, that I noticed, was that it changed my walk. Nation Of Millions came out when I was in the 11th grade, in May, so pretty much, school was over and that was my first day of my new summer job—the one that I begged my parents to let me take so that I could have extra money.

What was the job?

I was a short-order cook for Big Al's Hamburgers, Big Al being the character from Happy Days. I purchased the [Public Enemy] cassette, and it was a 15-block walk, and all of a sudden my entire walk changed. I felt like I could flip a car over, that's how hard I was walking. By the time I got to work, I tried sneaking and listening in the ice closet—that was the only place that you got privacy without the manager watching you. So I would take little 40-second breaks, pretending I was cutting onions and then I would run into the ice closet with my walkman just to listen to another 40 seconds. It was so bad that I took a lunch break and I never came back. I went to 7-11, I got 10 double-A batteries and I sat in the park for four hours and I listened to this tape back and forth and I was like, "this is what I want to do with my life."

What's the hardest decision you've had to make in the past month?

I had to give up my California home because my manager will not let me own a New York property and a California property that I never stay in. That house is pretty balling but he made me give it up. It was melodramatic—one of those It's Not Easy Being Green melodramatics.

What are some items we'd find in your refrigerator?

If this were two weeks ago, my love for Vitamin Water and Smart Water would have overtaken the fridge but four days ago, I had to buy another refrigerator just so that I could have it for the Vitamin Water. Now my Vitamin Water refrigerator looks like that scene in "Nuthin' but a G Thang," you know, where they have nothing but 40-ounce bottles [of beer] in the refrigerator. That's always been a secret fantasy of mine, to have that one bachelor refrigerator with nothing but Vitamin Water. Some shit where if you ever get a wife, she'll never let you do that shit in your life so I'm doing it now before eventually I go to the alter. So refrigerator number one has nothing but the ultimate Vitamin Water supply. Refrigerator number two has the world's largest Chipotle hot sauce collection and pepper sauce collection. I have to admit that I break the law—there's no pepper sauce or Chipotle sauce that I will not blatantly steal from a restaurant. Like Back To The Future—"Hey Biff, what's that?! (makes sound effect) Whoosh!" Being on the road allows us to do dumb shit. One time we had a chili eating contest and Kirk [the Roots' guitarist] almost had to be rushed to the hospital.

What is one song you absolutely jam out to when nobody is looking?

You know what?! We have the same agent, and I saw Lady Gaga's first performance in New York city and Mos and I were the equivalent of the two muppets up in the balcony chuckling, but now I love the shit out of Lady Gaga. I can't think of a specific song but I have done a complete 180 on Lady Gaga.

If you could ask one deceased musician one question, who is it and what are you asking them?

If Jimi Hendrix were able to have a DoLorean-esque time machine, I would like to know what his take on modern technology is. Because he pretty much, with his second album Bold As Love, he damn near invented half the things that are now standard to modern music—it's just that he sort of had to invent them the hard way. He wanted flange on his record, and he had to take three of his reels and play them all together simultaneously. Whereas now, there's a flange invention. I would like to hear Jimi actually tell me, "Oh yeah, I would have invented auto-tune."

What do you think has been the most influential piece in the American evolution of hip-hop?

"Rapper's Delight" has stood the test of time. "The Message" is what made people take it [hip-hop] seriously and Run DMC made it accessible and Nation Of Millions made it art and Three Feet High and Rising made it fun and the first two Beastie Boys albums made it relateable. But just on a matter of a song coming out and me seeing the instant results of it, I think that no hip-hop song has had more cultural power—and it's not even my favorite hip-hop song but I acknowledge the fact of it's power—"Nuthin' but a G Thang," to me, was the first time that I saw a black hip-hop song make white kids feel black and like, with instant results. It's almost as if "Nuthin' but a G Thang" was Bill Haley's "Rock Around The Clock". To me, that signified rap as the new rebellion music for kids to piss their parents off to.

What should Obama's presidential theme song be?

When he does his next four years, I think “Encore” by Jay-Z would be a fitting song.

In past interviews you talk about D'Angelo and his “Untitled” moment, where his artist talent was overshadowed by his sexy pop appeal. You described this as an artist having fan “love” versus fan “respect”. You've expressed frustration of you and the band never having had “the love,” that pop appeal. Do you still feel like you're on the quest for “the love” versus “the respect”?

Definitely. We're taking a lot more meetings about doing stuff with experimental people—I definitely want to do something with Ornette Coleman before he checks out. Clubs are coming at us more and more to do experiments with jam sessions and those type of things. We thought this was going to be a slow-down period when, in actuality, it's turned out to be the most prolific period of our entire career. The feeling in the air sort of feels like the beginning of 1999, right before Things Fall Apart came out where the pendulum was on our side of the fence. The last time, I gave a lot of that magic to D'Angelo [Ed note: Questlove helped produce much of D'Angelo's esteemed Voodoo album] and Common, and put it less on the Roots. I kind of feel like there's a renewed interest in us right now, and I really want to take advantage of it and take it to the end. I don't want just Baltic Avenue and Oriental Avenue, I'm going to take it to Pennsylvania and Boardwalk.


SEE IT: The Roots, along with Pacific Division play this Friday at the Roseland, 8 NW 6th Ave., 224-2038. 8 PM, all ages, $29.

Photo courtesy of Questlove
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