It’s 11 a.m. at Studio 6B inside NBC’s Rockefeller Center headquarters in New York, and for a moment, the loudest noise you can hear is the vacuum cleaner going up and down the aisles of empty seats in preparation for that day’s taping of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. A break in the tidying-up process makes audible a series of snare-drum hits coming from just outside the studio doors.
Follow the sounds into the hallway, make a left, and you come to a blue door emblazoned with name of The Roots. A Grammy Award encased in glass is affixed on the wall next to the handle. Behind the door, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is running through one of the myriad pieces of music he and his bandmates will be performing a few hours later when Late Night goes live.
I consider myself lucky to watch Thompson work up close and in person on the sixth floor of Rockefeller Center, where I book the musical guests for Late Night. To be able to say that Questlove and The Roots are my co-workers still blows my mind, nearly four years into the history of our show. But the pace of Late Night is so relentless that it has taken me that long to actually sit down with Thompson and talk to him about his musical background.
He was born on January 20, 1971, in Philadelphia, the son of doo-wop great Lee Andrews of Lee Andrews and the Hearts. His earliest memories involve being on the road with his father, and by the time he was a teenager, he was the full-time drummer in the band. That education ran parallel to his tenure at the famed Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, where he met future Roots MC Tariq Trotter and furthered his ambitions alongside a student body that included a host of future music superstars.
the red bulletin: You were blessed by growing up in a professional music family. For people who don’t have that opportunity, is there a way to approximate that special experience?
questlove: Between the ages of 2 and 13, I learned every aspect of show business. Every aspect of it. I started off as the navigator, figuring out how to get from my house to a nightclub or to another state. I had to learn to read a map at the age of 7. Then, I graduated to wardrobe. I steamed, ironed, hand-washed whites. By 10, I was running the lights. I had to learn how to cut gels and operate different systems. I would come before soundcheck, mark spotlights, and get a ladder.
When I was 10 or 11, I started learning chord charts. I learned my dad’s material left and right, so I could identify a B-flat 9, a C-major, an E7, and so on. I became the de facto bandleader. Then when I was 12 or 13, I became the full-time drummer. That whole time, I was just watching my mom and dad entertain.
Later, without even knowing it, I realized The Roots were incorporating the same exact lessons. We became big on hip-hop karaoke. That’s what my dad did. He didn’t just do his songs. He did the songs of the day, the songs that were familiar. He knew how to perfectly navigate a show. The first five minutes, you hit them with something they know. The next two songs, your mom is the entertainer and the comedian.
Of course, I thought that was basic, general education. I just assumed every kid knew how to get to Muncie, Indiana. And then it was like, “What do you mean, you’ve never been to a nightclub before?!” I didn’t realize how privileged I was until I was much older.
So once you got to high school, was the more structured environment a bit of a culture shock?
Well, I had to start all over again. I played drums like an adult when I was 8, so there was a novelty factor of having this little kid in the show. My dad’s show was so good that it transcended the oldies circuit. He had a model wife and two kids that defied their age in the show. He used it to his advantage. When I got to high school, suddenly I wasn’t the shark in the small aquarium. I was a sardine in the Pacific Ocean!
On the second day of school, Christian McBride and Joey DeFrancesco got yanked out of class to play on Philadelphia morning TV alongside Miles Davis. Meanwhile, I’m like the fifth drummer, playing the triangle and maybe a tambourine. I was by no means the star. I was frustrated, but I’m glad it happened the way it happened. Boyz II Men were stars in our school, with all the screaming girls. Tariq and I didn’t have that moment, but it did happen after we graduated. Because of our tortoise-and-the-hare journey, we’re able to sustain a very good living now, whereas many of our contemporaries are on decline or on shaky ground.
What is your sense of where new and emerging talents are honing their skills?
One of the biggest regrets I have about where music is now is the idea that a subculture in the underground doesn’t matter. Hip-hop kind of turned its own Ginsu sword on itself in about 1997, when suddenly only winners counted, and losers or strugglers weren’t shit. As a result, nobody wanted to embrace the underground. It became the highlight-reel era. You just want to watch the amazing slam dunks, not well-executed team play. Puffy started that era, in my opinion. The narrative became aspirational and all about winning. It no longer celebrated the water boy, the statistician, or the assistant coach. Those people help the team as well. Everybody began to fast-forward to highlight, highlight, highlight.
Probably the biggest debate I always get into with Jay-Z is about the need to pay it forward and establish a subculture. Right about now, there is no subcultural context for black music. The reason The Roots became successful is because we decided to gather two of every animal and make them a part of our inner circle. It wasn’t a coincidence that The Roots went from selling 200,000 units to being platinum. Mos Def the same thing. And Gang Starr, and D’Angelo, and Talib Kweli, and Erykah Badu.
This movement was brewing and that’s the result of it: the fact that it could be contextualized. As with most strugglers in the underground, once you get that success, it’s like Lot. You don’t want to look back to Sodom and Gomorrah. It’s sacrilegious to look back. Then, you just wind up isolated. In the age of YouTube, yes, you can sit in your bedroom, cover a Little Dragon song and be a star overnight on the Internet. It’s cool, but it’s temporary. It doesn’t make a 20-year career.
So what basic building-block skills are necessary?
I don’t know if it’s more about skills or just the willingness to fail in public. A great example is Jill Scott and Jaguar Wright. They were two friends of The Roots. We met them around the same time in 1994 and 1995. When we started having jam sessions at our house, Jill was working retail and going to school, and Jaguar was working at WaWa -- like a more refined 7-Eleven. Every week, they’d be at the house for the jam sessions. Even though they were friends, there was an Ali/Frazier thing going on. Jaguar had an insane ability to freestyle as a singer. She had our crowd on the edge of their seats with any words she sang. That made Jill step her game up and prepare and practice at home. So when she’d come back the next week, she’d have the crowd, not Jaguar.
This happened every Friday in 1997, 1998, and 1999, and some Sundays. You devote three hours, 365 days a year for several years in a row, and all of a sudden they’re the most seasoned performers you can imagine. It’s the idea of a workshop. The idea of patience and waiting. It is kind of lost on this time period. I wish there was a just-add-water solution where you could get that seasoning. Working here, I’ve seen situations where artists with only a year or two of experience are in the dressing room shaking and running to the bathroom. The Roots were nervous out of our heads our first two Late Night shows. But now I laugh thinking back, because we have done it so many times.
At the NYU class on Classic Albums you’re about to start teaching, what do you hope to impart to the students that they can apply practically?
I decided to start simple. I had the option to make this a 100-student class, but I told them I wanted the minimum. So I have 24 students. I simply want to teach them the art of patience for listening to music. As much as I’m supposed to be an encyclopedia of music, as a hip-hop producer, I was taught to skim through records. You put one on, and you skim, skim, skim, looking for a sample or a break. I’m trying to reverse that and explain to people why some records are more important than others, then leave it in their hands.
Someone my age -- someone born 40 years after I was born in 1971 -- they now have more information than ever before. But what I think we’re lacking are teachers to point them in the right direction. Just this morning, I had to scold someone who scolded someone for not knowing that “It’s a Shame” was not a Monie Love rap song but a Spinners song from the ’60s. I was in that sort of shake-my-head mode when I first got on Twitter, but then I realized that basic things I take for granted have to be passed on, you know what I mean? There’s a wealth of information out there and it’s easier to access, but it takes patience to sift through it, and it also takes patience to help someone do that.
I feel like when I was growing up, there seemed to be a finite amount of music. Now there are just so many more releases. Can you talk about what it’s like to think you know everything there is to know about an artist, and then out of the blue there’s so much more music by them to absorb?
It’s not maddening for me. The three artists I care about the most in that sense -- Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and Prince -- I have just enough empty space in my brain to absorb that music. And I’m a person who listens to music probably five hours a day. Between working out, the car and when I go home, I probably devote five hours. Some people do come to the end of their rope. Some DJs I grew up on stopped playing new music long ago. I probably would have become that person if I hadn’t discovered stems [components of a song separated digitally]. Stems have given me a new lease on life, because I get to learn how records are made all over again.
It seems like you aren’t the type of person who likes to collaborate on a single song. When someone hires you to work with them, do you prefer a more comprehensive collaboration?
Well, I do not have the know-how or the knowledge to make a grandiose statement in three minutes and 30 seconds. I wish I had that gift. But I know how to make a statement in 70 minutes.
Discuss the problems of being a music geek when you have access to seemingly all the music in the world.
There’s really not enough time to get through it all. I need to figure out what will happen to my record collection if I die. As soon as I know exactly where this show is going to be for the next few years, then I can start building what I call the ultimate library.
Is the album still a viable form to release music? I remember talking to you when Late Night first started about whether it made sense anymore to put out full-length records. But since the show came on the air, The Roots have made a couple of very conceptual albums.
You know how in the movies, when the bad guys know it’s the end, they either push the pedal to the metal like in Thelma and Louise or they give up? There is no precedent for a rap group at this point in their career to be on the same label, releasing their 16th record. I always think, “Okay, this is going to be your last grand statement, and you always need an exclamation point at the end.”
If you’re not going to compete with what’s winning, like Rihanna, Drake, or fun., then maybe you should just do what you know how to do best and wait for the guillotine to drop. Then you release it, the guillotine doesn’t drop, and you’re like, phew, let’s do it again! That’s pretty much the state of mind I’m in with every record. You’ve had a good run of critically-acclaimed albums, so let’s go out with a bang. I want to do a lot of things we haven’t gotten the chance to do yet.
Red Bull Music Academy: NYC
It’s a playground for passionate musicians, a melting pot of musical ideas and visions. Or, as Questlove puts it: “The most progressive entity of music education.”
Since 1998, Red Bull Music Academy has been traveling the globe, setting up shop once a year in cities like London, Cape Town, São Paulo, Melbourne, and Madrid for a month. Two groups of 30 selected participants -- producers, vocalists, DJs, and instrumentalists from all over the world and many genres -- come together for two weeks to work together in top-of-the-line studios, play the town’s best clubs, and learn from the true heroes of their craft.
Mentors like Questlove, who has been working closely with the music camp since 2006, techno visionary Carl Craig, composer Steve Reich, and star producer Mark Ronson not only drop in for lectures but often stay longer, some for days, jamming in the studios with the participants and sharing their wisdom.
In its 15th year, the Red Bull Music Academy sets course for New York, the birthplace of iconic genres such as punk and hip-hop. To pay tribute to the city’s creative nature, the Academy turns New York into a gigantic five-week festival, with 35 shows by more than 150 artists.
Also featured are public talks by pioneering NYC music makers such as Nile Rodgers (Chic) and James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem fame, an audiovisual installation by Brian Eno, and gigs by artists like Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth), Four Tet, and -- of course -- 60 Red Bull Music Academy participants from 35 countries.
Red Bull Music Academy comes to New York City April 28-May 31, 2013.
Check out the April 2013 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands March 12) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app. Follow Red Bulletin on Twitter for more.