Drummer, producer, and tastemaker Ahmir Khalib Thompson, who performs under the name ?uestlove, ranks as one of the preeminent musical forces of his generation. A leading figure in the neo-soul and alternative-rap renaissances of the '90s, ?uestlove began performing with rapper Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter while they were both students at the Philadelphia High School For Creative Performing Arts, a partnership that eventually led to the formation of The Roots. In 1993, The Roots released its aptly titled independent debut, Organix; the same year, the group signed with Geffen. Albums like 1995's Do You Want More?!!!??! and 1997's Illadelph Halflife made The Roots a critical favorite, and dogged touring helped win it a devoted cult, but ?uestlove didn't achieve substantial crossover commercial success until 1999's Grammy-winning breakthrough Things Fall Apart, with its haunting breakout single "You Got Me." The Roots' 2002 album Phrenology was another critical and commercial triumph, but 2004's The Tipping Point underperformed with critics and audiences alike.
While maintaining a rigorous touring and recording schedule with The Roots, ?uestlove has branched off into producing other acts, including Erykah Badu, Bilal, Common, and D'Angelo. He also served as the musical director of Chappelle's Show and Dave Chappelle's Block Party, and he's performed live with a veritable who's-who of hip-hop heavyweights. The preternaturally prolific ?uestlove recently talked to The A.V. Club about The Roots' next album, the group's history and future, and whether he would want to be Madonna.
The A.V. Club: What can you say about the new album?
?: Let's see. It's our ninth record. I guess it's our most concise, to-the-point album. It's very moody. Most Roots albums tend to rely on past hip-hop references, to things that happened in hip-hop between 1988 to 1994. This is derivative-free. It's trend-free. There's no snap music or bounce music or crunk music. It's not hyphy, it's not chipmunk soul. It's our version of what classic hip-hop should sound like in 2006, minus all the complaints.
AVC: What guests appear on it?
?: We really started to be very spare with the guests. Probably the trump card that we were planning on the most was that everyone would expect this album would be our cash-in, our cash-cow record, the one where we cashed in and finally got paid. I wanted people to underestimate us and have those expectations turned on their heads. The most notable guest on the album is probably the return of Malik B. He's back in top form.
AVC: Is he back with the group?
?: Not necessarily. Malik has never been a touring member of the band, but on this record, he has three very powerful guest cameos, which are extremely needed. Malik is the yin to Black Thought's yang. The chemistry's back. So he's back on the record. There's a new act on it as well. At least once on every record, we try to introduce someone new, like Cody ChesnuTT or Jill Scott. This time around, there's an artist from Los Angeles. The name of her group is J*Davey. They remind me of a ghetto Eurythmics. She's the lead singer of this duo, which is one of my favorite new groups of this year. They're on it. The fifth Beatle of The Roots, Dice Raw, has a band called Nouveau Riche. Two of their musicians contributed a lot to the songwriting and production of this album. There are no big names.
AVC: It seems like there was a lot of commercial pressure on you guys with the last album. Were you happy with the way The Tipping Point came out?
?: At the end of the day, I don't release any records that I'm not proud to put my name on. I never got to that point. I will say that if we were a group that constantly got straight As in school, that was probably the one project in which maybe I didn't study too hard, so we probably got a B-. I don't want to leave a false impression, like [Interscope head Jimmy] Iovine held a gun to our heads and said, "This is what you have to do!" I made a bad call, and the call was that with only 24 hours in a day, how can any one particular person pay attention to the nuances and the wants and needs of the [Roots] unit when he also has [to deal with artists like] Busta Rhymes and Will.I.Am and The Black Eyed Peas and 50 Cent and Eminem and [Sighs.] Dre and Pharrell and Snoop and Gwen Stefani and Ashlee Simpson and Bono and U2?
After you get to your 18th multi-platinum artist, then it's like, "Who's next?" It's like, Common and The Roots will fall somewhere around 34th. I would have burned out too, if I had that much pressure to make the magic work every time. I just felt as though we really weren't going to get that much attention from him. One: He showed some minor signs of enthusiasm over the "Don't Say Nuthin'" demo, so we were basically so overenthused and happy that we decided to make a dry album. It was dry as in, you know, "Let's go with his tastes and give him something that he wants to work with. He says he has the magic, so let's give him whatever tools he needs to make it work."
What's good for the goose isn't necessarily good for the gander. "Don't Say Nuthin'" could easily have worked for maybe 50 Cent, or maybe Snoop, but our fan base wasn't really having that, and they let us know. We made a misstep with the first single. It's hard as far as the album's concerned. I still stand behind much of it. Where I come from, if there are five good songs on an album, that's cause for a celebration. I still think that "Star" is one of my best creations, I love that song. I love "Boom!", I love "Stay Cool," I love "Web," I love "Din Da Da." So there are still songs on that record that are worthy, but the first single and the shortness of that record really threw people for a loop. Fans associated The Tipping Point with Don't Say Nuthin': The Album. So yeah, I'll take a B- for that one. This album is strictly… I'm summa cum laude. Back on the dean's list.
AVC: You've called Jay Dee the greatest producer of all time. What did he mean to you?
?: It's so weird, because the value system of how people judge hip-hop is different than that of any other music, you know? Brian Wilson is proclaimed by none other than Sir Paul McCartney as one of his favorite composers. And this is the guy that is the other half of Lennon-McCartney saying this. But Brian's greatest work is the album that sold the least, Pet Sounds. Unfortunately, in hip-hop, the system is so skewed that the album you sell the most is considered your greatest work. Before Dr. Dre's The Chronic, any album that did multi-platinum sales really didn't have the legs to stand on, as far as credibility is concerned. It's not like people were saying [Vanilla Ice's] To The Extreme or [MC Hammer's] Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em were art. But once The Chronic became critically acclaimed and was the first album with street credibility to be doing those types of numbers, everybody followed suit. It's really hard to turn around and praise something that doesn't sell as much.
Jay Dee, unfortunately, was so radical with his execution and his ideas that I think it was just a little too much for the hip-hop audience to fully grab onto. But he absolutely spoke to me. Every time he played something for me, I wound up saying, "Yo, I didn't know we were allowed to do that!" I didn't know that we were allowed to program a drumbeat after drinking two bottles of Grey Goose in a row, I didn't know that, "Oh okay, that's what that button does on the MPC 2000, and then you can manipulate the sound to sound like this, and you can do this control, and you can do time compressing." At the end of the day, he's the guy who went past page three of the instruction manual of any machine that he was using. He studied his craft very carefully. He's the most unorthodox producer that I've ever known.
AVC: Reading your liner notes to the two-disc Roots best-of set Home Grown!, it seems like you felt Geffen and MCA didn't really understand or appreciate The Roots. Is that a fair assessment?
?: There's a difference between the old regime and the new regime. The new regime, there just was no time to understand us. It's a factory there. You go in the kitchen, you make the pasta, you give it to them, they grab it with their hands, they throw it on the wall, and if it sticks, then it's "Okay, you can stay." But if you throw it and it spirals down to the floor, then it's like, "No, try again tomorrow, we'll give you one more chance." After MCA dissolved, we went to Geffen, but it was Geffen in name only. It was really just Interscope. We were stowaways on a whole 'nother boat, and allowed to come onto their territory.
AVC: How did you end up on Def Jam?
?: This was initially going to be the last album of our contract, and in February, I told my manager, "Yo, do you think Geffen is hip to the fact that we most likely won't be renewing the contract once we release this last record?" And he said "Why do you ask?" And I said "Well, okay, if you were Geffen and this album that we were about to turn in was going to be very hard to swallow for some, do you think that they would sort of stall it and let it fail?" And that caused major concern for us, and we talked like, "What if they just let it sink because it's the last album, and they know that we're not going to renegotiate, so they just kill this project?" We didn't want that risk, especially in light of what happened with The Tipping Point—we really couldn't afford two missteps in a row. Coincidentally, our very good friend Sean Carter [Jay-Z] assumed the presidency of another Universal-based label, Def Jam, so we asked and we were able to hook up with him.
AVC: Now that you're on a hip-hop label, do you feel like you have more creative freedom?
?: Def Jam was the logical place to go. For starters, the president is in the same age bracket that I'm in, and he's only an hour and 15 minutes away from me so, if we were upset about something, then we could just drive over there and curse him out in person. It was a very thin line, because it's the Universal label system, and one Universal label head is not allowed to look at the stable of another Universal label head and move the other artists away from whatever situation they're in. We had to approach it with kid gloves, and we felt like if we left out the middleman, then no one was going to miss him. Three months later, we got a deal.
AVC: Doesn't the critical acclaim The Roots have won count for something when dealing with labels?
?: I don't count on that, and I do count on a changing of tides. All too often, what could be a critics' darling today becomes tomorrow's target. I don't want to be too blasé about it. I just wanted to be in a place where we could create and not have to worry about "Is he going to get this reference?" or "Is he going to drop us?" When we played "Star" for Jimmy Iovine, he had never heard Sly Stone's version, he thought it was some new guy.
AVC: You've played a role in breaking acts like Little Brother. Because you have that reputation as a tastemaker, do you have people slipping you demos all the time?
?: All the time. They just want that one quote, but I won't give that quote unless I can't live without that record for even a single hour. When Little Brother came out, that album really, really got me in a good place. It was something that I hadn't heard in a really long time. Those guys are so damn zany. They should be the Animaniacs.
AVC: You were the musical director as well as the drummer for Dave Chappelle's Block Party. When you're doing a show like that, are you able to enjoy the music, or are you too wrapped up in performing to enjoy it as it's happening?
?: I'm able to enjoy it as a spectator. I wouldn't agree to it if it weren't going to be a fun situation. I got to organize the band that I used. Their name is the Illadelphonics, and they're a combination of various session musicians from the Philadelphia area. It wasn't that hard putting it all together, because we'd worked with almost all those artists. It was just fun putting it all together. We just did a project with Jay-Z for the 10th anniversary of Reasonable Doubt, his debut record. He went to Radio City Music Hall and had a 50-piece orchestra play with us. That was more challenging. It was beautiful, but it was definitely more challenging, simply because that's a situation in which you have a brass leader and a string leader and the rhythm-section leader, all having to communicate with each other like a triangle, and then tell their respective teams.
AVC: Do you feel like you're negotiating between two worlds when you do something like that, when you have an orchestra and you have Jay-Z?
?: Absolutely. I love being in between Jay-Z and LP [the London Philharmonic].
AVC: When you do a huge show like Block Party or the Jay-Z Reasonable Doubt concert, do you still get nervous?
?: No, not when you do it 200 times a year. I get nervous more or less for them more than me. For Jay-Z, I was more or less worried that he was going to forget his lyrics, as opposed to me messing up. For the Dave Chappelle thing, I think the real fear was like, "Okay, is Kanye going to slip and bust his ass on the water, or are they going to come in and dry it out afterwards?" It's the miniscule things that you worry about.
AVC: Do you ever get tired of touring 200 days a year?
?: I love traveling the States no matter what. I love traveling abroad, going to Japan and Australia. I love it. I never get tired of it, it's definitely another season of life. It's not like the first time I've been there. However, it would be nice to slow down the activity a little bit.
AVC: You had a public falling-out with D'Angelo. Have you guys reconciled? Do you think you might work together in the future?
?: We've been quietly working on songs for the never-ending album. I think Boston had the record for longest stretch between albums, with nine years. I think this is going to beat that.
AVC: What about Bilal? He hasn't put out an album in a long, long time.
?: There's something about the class of 2000 that's very scary: Erykah, D'Angelo, Bilal, Lauryn [Hill], Dre.
AVC: Why do you think follow-ups have taken so long for them?
?: I think it's just fear, the fear of failure. I think that's all it really is. There's nothing else. What they have to realize is that there's no one else who's going to get these albums released. There's no real reason for artists like Lauryn to hold their albums hostage.
AVC: You talked a little about the commercial pressures of being on Interscope. Is it important for you personally to have another big hit?
?: It's important for our survival, literally. I don't know of any labels that will spend all this money and have diminished returns.
AVC: Have you thought about going the independent route, putting something out on Koch?
?: I have, but this operation is way too big for that.
AVC: Are you at all surprised at how big former Roots keyboardist Scott Storch has become as a producer?
?: That's funny that you say that. My manager had to go to Miami today because Scott called him and said, "Yo, I really need help with this Brooke Hogan project." I was like, "Scott, how did we get from MC Hammer to Brooke Hogan?" I don't know. I think the thing is, it's like Field Of Dreams: If you organize it, they will come. I think this is more or less the difference between Field of Dreams and the Moses story. We built this field, everyone comes to it, but we didn't all get to make it to the promised land, we being the initial proprietors of the field of dreams. I'm not shocked at all. The thing is, Scott has been waiting for his close-up for 10 years, so getting to this level took a lot of practice. And he's building nine hours a day, making music, making music, making music, that's just how he operates.
AVC: Last year, you were in a Motorola commercial with Madonna, Iggy Pop, and Little Richard. Did you film that together, or separately?
?: We shot it on two different stages. Me, Madonna, and Iggy Pop shot ours in London. Everyone else shot theirs a week before that in Los Angeles. Yeah, I was there with Madonna and Iggy Pop.
AVC: How surreal was that?
?: Um… I don't know if I want that much power. When I was walking away, I was like, "Is this what I'm working for, am I busting my ass for this?" It's like, the second Madonna walked in, you could hear a pin drop. Do I want that much power? I don't know. Is that what I want? But you also see the other side of it. I see the, "She's going to be here in half an hour. Everyone get ready!" Everyone's scrambling, scrambling, saying, "Don't look her in the eye!" My girl compared it to The Devil Wears Prada. It was like that. I'm sure that helps her stay in her career, but whew, I don't know if I could handle such fear coming from everybody. It'd kill me. But Iggy, on the other hand, that guy is… He doesn't stop, man. That guy is an incredible cat. Actually, that is the third or fourth time I've got to talk or work with Iggy, so by that point, we sort of knew each other as far as physical features. We'd bonded.
AVC: Is there a collaboration in the works?
?: I wouldn't mind that all. He's an incredible showman.