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The Torchbearer: QUESTLOVE (Excerpt)

Highlights from 20 Interviews (2006)

Images courtesy of Island / Def Jam

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Friday, October 27, 2006

By Ben Fasman + Josh Abrams

The full Stop Smiling Interview with Questlove is in Issue 28: 20 Interviews

 
It’s telling that Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson has become the most recognizable member of the Roots, especially in the world of hip-hop, where the focus is usually on the MC. Equipped with the knowledge bred from growing up on the road with his father’s Fifties doo-wop group, Lee Andrews & the Hearts (his father, Lee Andrews, was the bandleader), Thompson’s approach to music has become more than that of simply a drummer for a popular hip-hop group. From production work with Al Green and D’Angelo to musical direction for the wildly successful Dave Chappelle’s Block Party film, to hand-picking local Philly up-and-comers like Peedi Crack and John-John for work on the latest Roots album, Game Theory, Thompson has fixed for himself his own genre of entertainer. He simultaneously acts as a cultural curator of the highest order and as the iconic figurehead of a cabal of progressive pugilists devoted to retaining a sense of history within the constantly shifting trends of the hip-hop world. He is a world-class drummer with a sense of timing and rhythm that’s nearly inhuman. In hindsight, the title of the Roots’ 2004 album, The Tipping Point, may have been more predictive than just a simple nod to Malcolm Gladwell’s book of the same name.

Thompson’s public endorsement of then-lesser known acts such as Jean Grae, Jill Scott and Little Brother has helped launch their careers, cementing his status as one of the few who, as Gladwell would say, can not only predict trends but actually create them. He’s a selector in the truest sense of the word. The past few years have seen Thompson man the turntables at DJ gigs all over the world, showcasing little slices of his vast and fabled record collection. It’s no surprise that hip-hop’s current king, Jay-Z, signed the Roots to Def Jam, creating another stage of endorsement of the Roots. (Questlove was also in Fade to Black, a film about the making of Jay-Z’s Black Album, and the Roots backed up Jay in his legendary MTV Unplugged performance.)

Extracting information and viewpoints from Thompson about the state of the music industry and his place in it isn’t a tough thing to do. Perhaps it’s his ability to objectively view his own groups place within the canon of modern music that has kept the group’s relevant for over a dozen years, in which they’ve released nine albums. Or perhaps it’s simply the working man’s aesthetic. When asked what he’s really doing, Thompson’s answer is straightforward: “My version of the Holy Grail? I’m still looking for the perfect beat.”

Stop Smiling: Do you consider yourself a music historian?

Questlove: A historian? I think that title has too much self-importance. I consider myself a student. Seriously, I’m the constant intern. Even with my career, I’m trying to get a job. The guy I was just on the phone with is the guy that pretty much controls Universal’s reissue department. Just to get my hands on some of those masters, I’ll do anything: I’ll clean his windows, water his plants. [Laughs] So yeah, history is important, for sure, but to call myself a historian always had that kind of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” feel to it.

SS: You can have a perspective on history and not make it academic, though.

QL: I know, but people always try to make it academic. On the other hand, I’ve personally seen what disregarding history can do, especially now and especially in hip-hop. There are a lot of people from the class of ’92 just scratching their heads, like, “What the hell happened to me?”

SS: Do you feel a responsibility to that golden era of hip-hop?

QL: I don’t want to be like Wynton Marsalis, crying about tradition. He singlehandedly stepped in and pretty much ended the natural progression of a lot of the more avant-garde music that was developing. On one hand, I believe in tradition, and on the other hand I believe we’re moving forward. It’s just that we’re in a very dangerous position right now. I’ve seen it with disco and I’ve seen it with jazz, and now with hip-hop. There’s a reason people are running up to me and grabbing my arm like, “Yo, thank you so much for the album!” It just feels a little more urgent right now. The kudos that I’m getting from the class of ’92–’99; I’m just realizing that we’re one of the last groups from that particular period that has a major record deal. For our genre of hip-hop, we’re hanging on by the skin of our teeth. Ghostface is hanging on — I don’t know what’s going to happen with Method Man’s record. As far as groups are concerned, I sort of feel that we’re holding a torch, but I’m trying to figure out if it’s a torch that people still care about or if it’s just a torch that I’m hanging on to.

SS: Is that inspiring, or has carrying that torch become a burden?

QL: Only recently has it become a burden. Not a burden, but more worrisome. Before it was like, “If you put your best foot forward, you’ll get rewarded.” That was the thought process for every album before. Now the whole environment has become truly the opposite. If I put my personal best foot forward it will be met with resistance, because my best foot forward is the exact opposite of what the current trends are in the marketplace. The equivalent is disrobing and standing in the street and letting everybody look at you. That’s a weird idea. And when I say disrobing, I mean, “I am who I am, so accept it.” There’s a lot of meaning behind that scenario. Like the expectations that I know people had of us when we signed to Def Jam. People would be like, “You guys won the lottery! You’re finally gonna make it!” It depends on what we’re going to make it in. I knew that it would still be the same situation as any other label. I accept that — we’re not that group. We’re not going to be a household name. We’re not going to go double-platinum. I think we’ll be here and I think we’ll be relevant. But the standard of success is now built on your monetary intake. I know that people come up to me asking what kind of numbers we did the third week out, and when I tell them that we just broke 100,000, the look on their face is like [looks down sadly].

SS: Knowing all that, what’s your goal?

QL: My goal? Just in light of what hip-hop has become — with all the minstrelsy that it is now — my goal now is to keep my dignity. I think that’s probably the most important thing. Because I’m sensing something I never sensed before, which is sort of a critical point on the other end. The thing is that bloggers have absolutely no point of reference when they blog. It’s to the point where your secondary critic will read a blog first. I know how the game is. This one publication asked me to review some music by these French artists who I had never heard of. So I did a quick Google search: Okay, this person says this, click on the next one, this person says that. That’s how I discovered why all the reviews were looking alike, using the same particular keywords from one particular review. I sense something there, but I’m clearly not relying on our previous straight-A student attendance record. I feel like now it’s just a fight to stay relevant — not even platinum, not rich, not invited to Puffy’s white Hampton parties or anything like that. It’s just a fight to stay relevant, and even more of a fight to stay dignified.

The full Stop Smiling Interview with Questlove is in Issue 28: 20 Interviews

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