On the heels of last month’s historic ruling declaring the “stop-and-frisk” tactics of the New York City Police Department unconstitutional, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of the Grammy Award-winning band The Roots joins us to talk about his own experiences being repeatedly racially profiled by police. He describes the first time he was harassed by police, as a young teenager in Philadelphia on his way to Bible study, to the most recent: being pulled over in his car by the NYPD several weeks ago, despite being one of the most acclaimed artists in hip-hop. He also discusses the 40th birthday of hip-hop, the anniversary of the first Bronx block party thrown by New York DJ Kool Herc. He talks about his upbringing, his musical interests, transitioning to “Late Night,” and his new memoir, “Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
Amy Goodman: This week is widely celebrated as the 40th birthday of hip-hop music and culture. On August 11, 1973, the New York DJ Kool Herc held his first block party in the Bronx. It was at these parties where Kool Herc pioneered a revolutionary technique: Using two turntables and two copies of the same vinyl record, Herc isolated instrumental portions of funk, soul, Latin and even rock songs to create the elongated beats that form the basis of the hip-hop sound. Combined with lyrical rhyming over-top, rap music was born. This past week, Kool Herc was joined by a number of hip-hop legends in New York’s Central Park for a 40-year celebration.
Well, today we are joined by one of hip-hop and popular music’s most eclectic and influential voices, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots. Born in West Philadelphia and immersed in music from an early age, Questlove rose to fame as the co-founder and drummer for The Roots. While most rap music comes from drum machines and samplers, The Roots create their sound through live instrumentation. Steeped in the jazz and soul tradition that influenced hip-hop’s rise, The Roots have helped define a new generation of neo-soul and conscientious rap.
Today, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and The Roots are well into their third decade. They’re the house band on NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, with Questlove serving as musical director. Questlove is also a highly prolific music producer and composer, working with artists including D’Angelo, Common, Al Green, and Betty Wright. He’s also a highly in-demand DJ. Questlove is also now an author, out with a new memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove.
Democracy Now!’s Aaron Maté and I sat down with Questlove to discuss his new book, the state of hip-hop after 40 years, and the killing of Trayvon Martin. But first, on the heels of this week’s historic ruling declaring the stop-and-frisk tactics of the New York Police Department unconstitutional, I asked Questlove to talk about his own experience with racial profiling. He talked about his first time being stopped as a teenager in Philadelphia.
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: There was a point where I was coming home from—from Bible study, like teen Bible study on a Friday night, and there was a Tower Records on South Street. And a friend of mine wanted to purchase U2’s The Joshua Tree album, which just came out. And they were coming to Philly at RFK Stadium, so he wanted to, like, study the record and know all the material before they came, and so we went and purchased The Joshua Tree. And we were driving home, and then, seconds later, on Washington Avenue in Philly, like, cops stopped us. And he was holding a gun on us.
And there’s nothing like the first time that a gun is held on you. Like, we’re 16, mind you, like 16, 17 years old. And, you know, I just remember the protocol. I remember my father telling me, like, “If you’re ever in this position, you’re to slowly keep your hands up.” I mean, he did it in sort of a humorous way that Richard Pryor did. You know, Richard Pryor told a joke of, whenever you’re stopped, “Yes, officer, my hands are on the steering wheel.” You know, it was that type of thing. I remembered that lesson. So, my friends didn’t know that, so they just thought that it was normal. And I was like, “Yo! Get your hands up! Get your hands up!” Like, how I knew that was the protocol at that young age, I mean, it’s probably a sad commentary, but it was also, you know, a matter of survival. And so—
Amy Goodman: You know, Judge Shira Scheindlin just handed down the decision saying “stop and frisk” is unconstitutional in New York, 700,000 especially—
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: I was—I was highly shocked that—you know, that’s something that just came out of left field, because I, too, was wondering, you know, will “stop and frisk” just be just a way of life? I mean, just two, three weeks ago—I mean, I wasn’t frisked, but I was—I definitely know that was stopped for, you know, unknown reasons, that I was just the wrong person in the wrong automobile.
Amy Goodman: Two weeks ago?
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: Yeah, I get stopped all the time. I mean, I just—it’s just to the point—
Amy Goodman: Tell us about the last time.
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: I was leaving my Thursday night residency. I do a regular DJ night at Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg, and right before we got on the Williamsburg Bridge, we got pulled over. They walked up, asked to see license and registration. And it was like four of them with flashlights everywhere. And I played a risky card: I was like—I pulled this out of my backseat and was like, “This is me,” you know, hoping. And nine times out of 10 when I’d play that card, it never works.
Amy Goodman: Showing your book, you mean.
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: Yeah, you know, because they wanted to know, like, well, you know, “Are you in a cab? You know, is this a cab? Where’s your New York taxi license?” I have my own car, and I have my own driver. And so, by the questions they were asking, I knew they didn’t know who I was. So, to them, it’s like, “OK, like, why are you sitting in the backseat like a—like a don, and you have your driver up there?” And, you know, so I showed them the book, and they looked, and they kind of had a meeting for five minutes. And then, it was like, “Oh, OK, you can go.” And phew, you know, but this happens all the time.
Amy Goodman: How many times would you say you’ve been stopped?
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: Probably, in my lifetime, I’ve been stopped—one, two, three—I mean, the memorable ones are probably six times. But it’s definitely in the twenties and thirties. I mean, probably, since 1994, twenties and thirties. The worst one was after Super Tuesday in Orange County. I was campaigning for Super Tuesday, and—
Amy Goodman: For Obama?
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: For Obama. And after it was over, a friend of mine, Jurnee Smollett, who’s an actress on True Blood, she and I were done campaigning, and we decided to see a movie. After the movie, we went to Borders to get—I wanted to get a housewarming gift for my manager. And we pulled over. I pulled over to take a phone call from my manager, because, you know, I thought, being a law-abiding citizen, you’re not supposed to drive and talk. So I pulled over, talked, finished the conversation, pulled off. Five cars stopped us, and pretty much that was like the—that was the most humiliating experience, because, like, we had to get out the car. They made us spread on, you know, the car. They searched the car. We sat in the back of the—not their paddy wagon, the—
Amy Goodman: Cruiser.
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: Yeah, their car. And the whole time I was thinking, like, “God, please don’t look in the trunk.” Like, first of all, I felt like a criminal already, like, OK, I’ve got stuff in the trunk. But the stuff I had in the trunk were psychology books and some Scrabble games. And in my head, I was like, there’s no way that they’re going to believe that that stuff belongs to me. Like, there’s no way that they’re—and so, the whole time I was just like, “God, please don’t. Please don’t.” She was trying to get like her camera phone. She’s like, “This is unconstitutional! They’re not—this is an illegal search. They’re supposed to have a protocol for”—you know, so that—you know, I’ve been—this is like the night before the Grammys, the night before the Grammys in 2010, when I won. So, it’s like, this happens all the time.
Amy Goodman: So, with all these examples you’ve given of being stopped, whether at the airport or in a car, by cops, can you explain—because we hear, legally—I mean, now it’s been ruled unconstitutional, “stop and frisk” in New York—but what it does to you?
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: It is absolutely probably the most humiliating, lowest, lowest feeling a human being can have. Twice this happened in front of dates. And all I kept thinking about was like, man, like, nothing’s more emasculating than to be emasculated in front of a girl that you like. You know, like there’s just no coming back from that. And it’s sort of like an unspoken thing, like I always felt like, even afterwards, like there’s this unspoken cloud of the question of my manhood, because—you know, that’s why I’m often shocked when I see footage of people and they talk back to cops. Like, I want to do that, but it’s like—you know, even watching Fruitvale, like I was like, “No, don’t—don’t—like, just get on your knees! Just don’t—you know, you can die.” And that’s—it’s the most humiliating, emasculating feeling I’ve ever had. That’s—I only feel low when that happens, you know, even—even if it’s playful.
In Philly, whenever we finish a Roots album, I give it the car test. So, even driving up and down Broad Street in Philadelphia, I once got stopped three times. And, you know, the first two times, they were just like—they looked, they were just like, “Oh, it’s you.” They let me go. Third time, this guy, “Oh, man, it’s you!” And then I felt safe enough to sort of have casual banter with him. I was like, “This is the third time I’ve been stopped. Like, what’s going on here?” And he was like, “Well, you know, I mean, you’re kind of in Temple University’s neighborhood.” And I was like, “Yeah? And?” He’s like, “Well, look at the car you’re in.” I drive a Scion. And my logic for getting a Scion was like don’t get a flashy—like, I come from the ’80s, so in the ’80s, when you saw someone in a BMW, in a Mercedes, they automatically got pulled over, because they were a drug dealer. So I thought, OK, I’ll get a Scion—well, first of all, it was free; it was given to me. And it was boxy; it was afro-friendly, like it didn’t smoosh my afro down, and so it’s a comfortable car. I like it. He said, “You know, in this, you kind of look like you stole it from a college student.” And I was like, “Oh, well, OK, I get it.” So, in even choosing the car in my mind that would sort of not put me in that position, I actually wound up putting me in that position by driving that car, because he said, “If you were in a SUV, we would have just thought you were one of the Philadelphia Eagles or something.” Like, oh, OK, that’s the car you belong in.
Amy Goodman: And you mean by “street test” that you play your album in the car?
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: Yeah, well, you know, most people, when they finish their records, they try and find a really good speaker system. When you mix your records, you do it on horrible speakers, so that way, if it sounds great on horrible speakers, it’ll sound great elsewhere. So when you finish your record, the first place you want to take it to is to a good car system. I mean, mine is not—I mean, it’s satisfactory, but, you know, I just wanted to drive around with it. I always do it, with every Roots album. I just drive around for five hours, making sure that I like the mix and I’m fine with it. I just happen to drive between the hours of 2:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m., and, you know, that was another unfortunate circumstance I found myself in. But even then, it’s just like, what do you do? Do you—I mean, how much more can I play it safe? Like, I’m already like taking—purposely taking myself out of situations because I want to avoid that. But I don’t know how much more I can—I can suppress myself to not seem like a threat or be a threat. So…
Aaron Mate: After the George Zimmerman verdict last month, you wrote a post that was widely circulated. You said, “I don’t know how to not internalize the overall message this whole Trayvon case has taught me: You ain’t [bleep].”
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: Yeah.
Aaron Mate: “That’s the lesson I took from this case. … I guess I’m struggling to get at least 1 percent of this feeling back, from all this protective numbness I’ve built around me, to keep me from feeling.” What did you mean by “protective numbness”?
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: You know, I think there’s just a bit of our soul that sort of just melts away when things like this happen. I mean, first of all, you internalize it. Like, as I watched the case, I mean, I identified with Trayvon Martin, like I felt like, OK, that would have been me in that situation. I mean, there’s definitely been times where I’ve been watching either a sporting event or the Grammys or any sort of television event, and then I’d be the person that would run to the store to get something. Like, that could have easily been me. I live in hoodies. I opened a hoodie shop. I have a hoodie shop that sells nothing but hoodies. Like, I love hoodies, because it gives me anonymity, like I get to go to movies, and no one bothers me. Like, if I go looking like this all the time, then it’s going to be problematic. And so—
Amy Goodman: Just for people listening on the radio and don’t know Questlove—
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: Oh, what I look like.
Amy Goodman: Yeah, he’s got pretty distinctive hair. It may not be the psychedelic hair on Mo’ Better Blues.
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: Yeah.
Amy Goodman: But it’s sort of just like that.
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: Yeah, I’m kind of—I’m Captain Obvious. And so, when the verdict was handed down, you know, I just felt like—half of me, I instantly felt like, well, yeah, I knew that was going to happen. But then the other half of me was upset that I had just resigned to that fact. And, you know, because I was on an international flight—I was in Holland the day that the verdict was handed down, so that whole eight-hour trip on the plane, I just felt like, oh, well, you know, nothing matters anymore, like this really—life doesn’t matter, like you’re guilty no matter what, and you just now have to figure out a way just to make everyone feel safe and everyone feel comfortable, even if it’s at the expense of your own soul. And so, in talking to my manager about it, who was the first human I talked to when I got off the plane, you know, he, too, was like sort of echoing that, like, “Well, why are you acting shocked? Like, you knew exactly this was the outcome. Like, why are you shocked? Like, why are you letting it get to you?” I just felt like I was going to explode right there, so I just—I had to talk to somebody, and so I just started to write, for no particular reason. And one person asked if they could, you know, put this on their blog, and then it kind of spread, and the ripple effect happened.
Amy Goodman: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, drummer and co-founder of The Roots, the legendary hip-hop group and house band of NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, soon to be The Tonight Show. He’s also a DJ, music scholar, and author of the new memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with the conversation on this 40th anniversary of hip-hop in a minute.
Amy Goodman: That’s “Wake Up Everybody,” John Legend and The Roots, with Questlove. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. And we are speaking to Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the hip-hop musician, producer and DJ, best known as the drummer of the group The Roots, the house band of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. He’s just out with his first book, Mo’ Meta Blues. I asked Questlove to talk about his childhood and his family.
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: My father was an oldies doo-wop—I’ll say “legend” of Philadelphia. He was on Chess Records. He had a group. He was Lee Andrews of Lee Andrews & The Hearts. So their period was in the early—late ’50s, early ’60s. And they kind of imploded in the—1960, ’61. My mother was a print model from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They got married, had my sister, had me in the early ’70s. And I guess that was the first wave of nostalgia for the doo-wop generation, or baby boomers, if you have it. So, I kind of grew up in an atmosphere in which, you know, backstage at—Dick Clark would throw, you know, the Dick Clark Doo-Wop Extravaganza, and it would be like Sha Na Na and Frankie Lymon’s Teenagers and Johnny Maestro & The Brooklyn Bridge and Harvey & The Moonglows, Don & Juan—all these ’50s luminaries.
So I kind of thought that that was contemporary music, and so by the time I got to the first grade, one of our assignments was, you know, bring your favorite single and your favorite 45. So, you know, at the time, ’77, kids were bringing in like “Night Fever” and “Shadow Dancing” and “Disco Duck” by Rick Dees, and, you know, I had like “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” by Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers. And they were like, “No, that’s—this is an old record, man, like this came out when I was a kid.” Like, and I couldn’t understand. I felt like my parents had played a trick on me. But it’s kind of happening now, like even with the kids of my bandmates. Like, some of them are growing up thinking that Off the Wall by Michael Jackson like just came out like last year.
Amy Goodman: But you were drumming when you were like what? How old?
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: I was two years old. My birth doctor was—he was also a child psychologist. So he kind of—you know, both him and my parents were like post-Boho ’60s hippies trying to readjust to times in the ’70s, and my doctor told my mother, you know, like, “Let him”—he was very curious to see if the traits of my father, who was, you know, a singer and musician, would be passed to me in some sort of indirect way. And he kind of told my mom, just as a small aside, like, “Let him—let him be creative. Like, if he wants to make mud pies out of his mashed potatoes and his food, let him do it. If he wants to draw on the walls, let him do it.” Like, in black households, you don’t do that, like there’s plastic covering everywhere. You don’t bang on furniture and that stuff. Like, you don’t do that stuff. And he specifically told them, like, “Let him find his creativity. Let him destroy stuff. Let him build things. Like, let him do it.” And, I mean, kind of much to their chagrin, like, I did those things, and I guess they had to refocus it. And by the age of three, they got me like a toy drum set, so I wouldn’t break the coffee table anymore, and that type of stuff.
Amy Goodman: When did you first publicly perform?
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: OK, so, my parents didn’t believe in babysitters in the early ’70s, because I had to travel with them. I’ll say that he left that oldies, Madison Square Garden, multi-act circuit in 1975 and started a nightclub circuit. You know, whereas now, you go to nightclubs, and DJs play. But back in the ’70s, before DJ culture, they hired bands. So my father came up with a nightclub act that kept him busy like maybe like 150 nights out of the year. And I would often come to these shows. So, they didn’t believe in babysitters, so pretty much I’ll say that I was my father’s human GPS by the age of seven or eight. No, I knew how to—I could navigate through a Rand McNally map just like that. I could get us to Virginia. I could get us to, you know, Connecticut. I knew how to read maps and write down how to get there, get instructions.
And then, when I was nine, he taught me about technology, so I started working the monitors, the soundboard. By 10, I knew how to cut light gels, so I was working the spotlight. And all this time, I always wondered, like, wait, didn’t the nightclubs have a problem with a 10-year-old like running their system? Like, I’d get there, get the ladder, put the—you know, “No, no, green doesn’t look good on black people; we need like a magenta color or pink.” You know, like I was that person. And eventually, a musician had got in an accident, sprained his arm. And it was the drummer. And my father was drummerless at a gig, and just kind of like, “Well, you know the show. You drum.” And I was 12 years old, and my first gig was at Radio City Music Hall. And that’s how I got my feet wet in performing.
Aaron Mate: And tell us about your high school years, where you met Black Thought, going on to co-found The Roots with him, and how you guys came to collaborate.
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: He hates when I tell this story, especially now that it’s kind of immortalized in the book. So, he says that it wasn’t on the first or second day of school, but I definitely feel as though it was like the first three months. This was my first time in a public school experience, because, before, I was just in private schools up until—I was in private schools up until the 11th grade. And so, at Philadelphia High School of Creative and Performing Arts, I was in the principal’s office getting free bus tokens. And subsequently, he was getting ejected and suspended out of school for doing something that he shouldn’t have been doing in the girls’ bathroom with who knows what. And that’s how we kind of met, because he became a legend, as in this freshman who was with this girl in the bathroom. Like, you know, he became like the man. So that’s how I knew who Tariq Trotter was.
And I think the way that we started the group was by accident. I was trying to impress like the prettiest girl in school, and so I think I kind of lied and said I had a group. You know, it was about, like, who’s going to perform at the talent show for the Valentine’s Day talent show. And I was like, “Well, yeah, I’ve got a group.” And, you know, “Really?” “Yeah, with him, right there, Tariq.” So, I ran up to him, “Look, if anyone asks you, we’re a group. And, by the way, we’re going to do the talent show.” And so, that’s kind of how, like—
Amy Goodman: Now, Tariq wanted to do it, because he had something to prove.
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: He—well, Tariq also had decided in his mind that he, too, wanted to form a group, because there was a girl he was trying to impress, as well. And so, his motivation, I think, was to upstage one of our classmates, who eventually was in Boyz II Men. And my motivation was Amel Larrieux, a Grammy Award-winning singer.
Amy Goodman: You had an amazing school of musicians, artists.
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: Yeah, like, half the Cosby Show extras were in our school and a lot of—you know, the world of jazz rulers now, like these are guys that I went to school with. Joey DeFrancesco is considered like the greatest organ player in jazz; Christian McBride, who, you know, is basically our generation’s Mingus; Kurt Rosenwinkel—like, people who are now, you know, trailblazing in jazz now, they were young lions when I was in school.
Amy Goodman: And this was West Philly. And you—
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: Oh, I was born in West Philly, but Performing Arts School was in South Philadelphia. Yeah.
Amy Goodman: And you lived on Osage Avenue?
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: I lived on Osage Avenue.
Amy Goodman: So, tell us about the day—
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: The infamous MOVE?
Amy Goodman: —that the MOVE house was bombed. How old were you?
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: Well, most people—most people think that—I believe it was May 13th, 1985. Philadelphia historians note that as the day that our mayor gave permission to bomb my block. Well, I was eight blocks away from where that happened, but all week there was a standoff, like cars weren’t allowed. You know, there were—you’d see news camera people ducking, because it was a standoff between the MOVE organization and Philadelphia police.
But I mostly note that day as the day that, like, my high school girlfriend dumped me. So, you know, I kind of came home just wallowing in self-pity, and then, literally five minutes later, pfff! You heard it. We ran outside, and we just thought—I thought it was like just a gun battle. And then, once I turned on the news, I realized, like, “Oh, God, you know, they bombed that house.” And then, four hours later, we didn’t know whether or not we would have to vacate, because one fire had spread to three houses and then two blocks and then three blocks, and then we thought, “OK, four hours from now, this is going to be”—so the first thing I did was I grabbed my favorite records and my Soul Train collection. Like, I had them in a—just waiting, just in case. But the fire never reached 52nd Street, so…
Amy Goodman: The police killed—the bombing killed 11 people—
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: Yeah.
Amy Goodman: —five of them kids.
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: Yeah.
Amy Goodman: How did that affect you?
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: You know, at the time, I don’t know how—I mean, I didn’t know that much about the history of MOVE until I read what happened to them in 1977 by Frank Rizzo, with him sort of humiliating them and making them walk outside naked and beating them with—
Amy Goodman: The mayor.
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: —batons. Yeah, Mayor Frank Rizzo, who—yeah, I mean, it’s a wonder that we’ve survived as a city with him in office. And so, just at the time, like I—it didn’t register to me that, oh—like, oh, we’re seen as the enemy by—you know, because everyone wants to grow up with that sort of—you know, again, I was in a middle-class existence, because, you know, you were told and taught like, you know, oh, like, Officer Joe is your friend, and that type of thing. But that was also around the time in which I, too, started to quietly learn that, oh, maybe I could be, you know, in this position, in a snap.
Amy Goodman: Well, we’re talking to Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. And his book is just out, a memoir; it’s called Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove. We’ve just passed what many call the 40th birthday of hip-hop.
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: Yeah.
Amy Goodman: August 11, 1973, a 16-year-old Jamaican immigrant named Clive Campbell, later known as Kool Herc, held his first block party at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. Can you talk about the significance of that day?
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: You know, Kirk—Kool Herc deserves like his own—it’s always been my dream to establish like hip-hop’s version of like, I guess, like the MacArthur Genius Grant or something like that, simply because he took, from his birthplace of Jamaica, the idea of Jamaican toasting, Jamaican parties. They built their own speakers. You know, you go out into the park, and you play these records. And he took that idea and just reapplied them to soul records—and more specifically, a lot of obscure soul records that were ignored but had a special element to them that seemed to be the favorite, which was basically the drum break, the idea of giving the drummer some, which you don’t take a solo, you just let the drummer play the break for eight bars. You know, that’s always like the highlight of any ’70s record. Once you gave the drummer some, that was your time to get down, you know. That was the most exciting part of the song. And, you know, for him to take that technology and that idea, and bring it to the masses—you know, not only Kool Herc, but also Afrika Bambaataa, who—you know, Kool Herc is known for The Herculoids, the idea of large speakers, because he comes from Jamaica. They build their own, you know, crates, their own woofers, their own tweeters, and have the loudest speaker systems ever.
Afrika Bambaataa, who wisely just donated his 40,000 records to a New York museum for display, like the actual record collection that invented hip-hop, you know, he was more or less known for his obscure selections. He told me, like, you know, the real definition of hip-hop is going to the Bronx River Projects and playing The Monkees and playing The Beatles, and your audience not being the wiser. There’s a drum brake in the reprise of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” that is a b-boy favorite. You play that for five minutes, and no one knows that’s The Beatles. You play “Mary, Mary” by The Monkees, no one knows that that’s The Monkees. They just see it as a great drum break to dance to.
Grand Wizard Theodore, who invented scratching, you know, and of course Grandmaster Flash, who did so many innovations with the turntable—I mean, it’s the birth of a hip-hop nation. It’s very important. And, you know, I’m happy to—not even be a part of it; I’m happy to actually bear witness to it. And that, to me, is probably the great last American music revolution, in my opinion.
Aaron Mate: Can you talk about this incident that you describe in the book with The Notorious B.I.G.? The Roots video, “What They Do,” sort of lampoons the materialistic culture of some in hip-hop at the time. You write a manifesto—
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: Yeah.
Aaron Mate: —about hip-hop, which you then burned when he was—when he was killed.
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: Yeah. You know, and 1996 was, I guess you can say, a crucial year for hip-hop culture. Basically, that’s when I think the apartheid movement started inside the culture, where suddenly there were haves and have-nots. And I was starting to see the results of it, because on my block, you know, kids were like, “Yo, why do you still take a cab? Like, you were just on BET a second ago. Like, why are you still taking a taxi cab? Like, how come—you know, how come you never wear jewelry? Like, you know, you’re a rap star. Like, aren’t you supposed to have these things?” And so, you know, I wanted to do a video that pretty much showed that being an MC and being an artist isn’t about being a personality, but more or less, you know, a human being.
Unfortunately, you know, the commentary cut a little deep with some in the hip-hop community that felt that we were taking potshots at them. What I didn’t know was that we had taken—we had taken a swipe at an actual Biggie video. I wasn’t aware that we had done something scene for scene. And, you know, of course I can see how you think we’re mocking him, because this is exactly his video scene. So he wasn’t too happy about that.
The thing was, is, though, we were always in Europe. Nobody in hip-hop wanted to ever tour Europe, especially when they were successful in the States. So we had heard talk of, like, you know, “Yeah, I’m gonna see them, and, you know, it’s on when I see them.” So, at the time, The Source magazine had kind of asked me to respond to Biggie’s statement of how, you know, he was upset. And, you know, he had really—he had championed us in a lot of books, so this really came as a swipe, from his point of view, as in like, “Wait a minute, I said they were like one of my favorite groups ever. Like, why would they do this to me?”
So, my manager and I, the same manager that, you know, does the commentary in my book, the footnotes, we wrote a manifesto about how we see the dangers of the seeds that is the apartheid movement, the fact that, you know, hip-hop used to be an all-inclusive thing. When Run-D.M.C. sing about “My Adidas,” you can actually get a pair of Adidas and feel like you belonged in it. Now, suddenly, you know, rappers are like, “Well, this is my mansion and my boat,” and it’s like the Trayvon thing all again. “You ain’t ish.” You know, like “I have something you don’t, so I’m better than you.” And that’s not too inclusive. Hip-hop used to be inclusive. And so, we wrote this like nine-page manifesto.
And then, on the morning of March 10th, I called The Source offices to fax them this—this is before the Internet—to fax it, and the person was like, “Well, I don’t know. Like, you do know what happened, right?” I was like, “No, what happened?” Was like, “Biggie’s dead.” And that just like felt—I really felt horrible, because, one, I just—I was like, “Wow, he actually left Earth thinking that, you know, we were really going at his neck.”
And we weren’t. You know, we were kind of going at the neck of the idea of what was about to happen. And eventually that’s what happened, like it just sort of separated. And then, now, if you’re not part of the winner’s circle—you know, no one aspires to be the working man. Everyone aspires to be the man, you know? So, it’s kind of—it manifested. And, unfortunately, you know, he was a part of that manifestation.
Amy Goodman: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, drummer, co-founder of The Roots, the legendary hip-hop group and house band on NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. He’s also a DJ, music scholar, author of the new memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove. When we come back, he talks about working with Jimmy Fallon. Stay with us.
Amy Goodman: The Roots, “Guns Are Drawn.” This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re speaking to Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of the group The Roots. He is just out with his first book, Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove. It’s the 40th anniversary of hip-hop. I asked Questlove to talk about the TV show Soul Train and its host Don Cornelius, who created the first black-owned nationally syndicated TV franchise. But first, a few highlights from Soul Train.
DON CORNELIUS: Soul Train, the hippest trip in America. … And it’s always in parting we wish you love, peace and soul!
Aaron Mate: Those are some clips from Soul Train. Ahmir, you have a book coming out pretty soon—
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: Yeah.
Aaron Mate: —about that show. And you actually tweet pretty frequently, showing the clips that you have in your personal library.
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: My collection, yeah. Yeah, Soul Train is probably—you know, I grew up in a household where TV really wasn’t allowed. If it were educational programs or PBS, we were allowed to watch it—and music programs, I was allowed to watch. So, often, my parents would let me wake up a little bit after midnight so I could watch the night special or In Concert or Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert or even musical acts on SNL. And so, for me, Soul Train was probably the most important show of all, because before the age of video, like where are you going to see your favorite acts perform? And this is how I got to know, you know, musicians I admired—The Ohio Players; The O’Jays; Earth, Wind & Fire; Mandrill; The Manhattans.
But also, you know, Soul Train’s greatest trick was that it taught—it taught African Americans Afrocentricity, which is probably—I mean, that’s Don Cornelius’s greatest trick, was that he used the commercials. Johnson hair products were the sponsor of the show, so he used those Afro Sheen commercials and those Ultra Sheen cosmetic commercials to basically teach about African pride and taking pride in yourself, which was important because during that time period, you know, to be called an African, when I was a kid, that was like a sign of shame, like that was the worst diss that any schoolyard dozens could be played. Like, “Oh, yeah? Your mom’s so fat, when she get on the scale, it could be ‘to be continued.'” “Oh, yeah? Well, you dirty African”—and then it would be like, “Yo, it’s time to fight. You called me an African. I ain’t no African!” It was a sign of shame. And what Soul Train wound up doing was teaching like African history, without you even knowing it. And that’s the beautiful thing. Like, one of their first campaigns was the Watu Wazuri Afro Sheen, teaching them Swahili while applying their hair, or having like Frederick Douglass teach you how to style your afro, or the story of Hannibal conquering Europe on his elephants. Like, they were teaching history lessons on the show. And so, that, to me, was a sign of brilliance. So, even without knowing it, he was teaching you pride. And his whole goal was basically to show the young black teenager in a positive light, which hadn’t happened before, because the only time you saw teenagers on TV was either mired in controversy, violence, protesting, being hosed down, being attacked by dogs. So this is the first time that you really got to see another slice of life, and it was important. So, I felt like that’s my passion project. I own about 600 or 700 episodes of the show.
Amy Goodman: Questlove is with us, Ahmir Thompson. Can you talk about Jimmy Fallon and what your—
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: Absolutely.
Amy Goodman: Talk about the whole experience. Talk about Roots there, what you’re trying to convey, what you’re doing.
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: Well, I guess my history with Fallon actually starts with my history with Dave Chappelle. I was the musical director of The Chappelle Show. So, Neal Brennan and Dave Chappelle hired me to do all the music cues for, you know, all the bits—Rick James and Prince and all those—all the stuff that you know on the show. So there was a point in which, once Leno was going to leave NBC and Conan was going to take his position and Fallon was going to take Conan’s position, that they had called Neal Brennan to direct Jimmy Fallon, because both Neal and I were without a show to work on, because Chappelle ended the show—he doesn’t say “prematurely”; he just says he ended it when it was supposed to end.
Amy Goodman: Why did he end it?
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: Because he felt like people weren’t understanding that it was satire and commentary, and that it was part of the joke. You know, it’s one thing to laugh with someone but not at someone. He felt that he was kind of becoming a caricature of what eventually he was trying to make fun of.
So, that said, as a joke, Neal had said, “Oh, and you should get The Roots to be your side band, you know, the house band. That’d be cool.” And no one—you know, everyone knew that would never happen. You know, we had just gotten to a utopia phase with our gigs, where we were actually performing for the price that we wanted and doing it 200 times a year, like finally at a place where we were comfortable. And, you know, my second day—I had purchased a house in Silver Lake, California, and my second day out there, I had seen Fallon. “Say, what are you doing here?” “Oh, what are you doing here?” And then, cut to me, after begging to live in California for four years, like, having to move back to New York—like I was only in that house for a month and a half.
You know, we were kind of, sort of looking for something new. Like, at the rate where you can navigate without trouble your way on a Japanese subway line, it’s time to go home. Like, we had been everywhere worth going to at least 20 times in our career, sometimes like a hundred times. And so, once you’ve seen the world and seen that, oh, OK, there’s a Starbucks everywhere and a 7-Eleven everywhere—first time in the Middle East, Starbucks and KFC, that’s the first thing I saw. I was like, “Really? Like, this is it?” So we decided that, you know, because we wanted families, or even a stable relationship, that maybe this is the best move for us, to be in New York—one place at one time—making the same money and being in one place.
And at first it was weird, because, you know, it is—it is a blue-collar-slash-white-collar job, like to go from being rock stars to having to wake up to go to human resources at 9:00 a.m. to study the manual, like, OK, this is elevator eyes, and this is when the lunch hours are, and this is where the meeting is yet to be at. And, like, it was a very real thing. And, you know, bowling night—and these are very real things that we do.
At the end of the day, this is probably the best move for us. We took the move knowing that we would be severely underestimated. I think it was Salon.com that once said that the idea of The Roots going to Fallon’s show is the equivalent of Miles Davis becoming a street musician. So, that was the kind of—that’s the kind of energy I wanted, going into it. I wanted people to underestimate us, because I personally wanted to make this a cool thing. I didn’t want to make this like it was community college. Everyone at community college is like, “Yeah, I go to city college, but I’m going to NYU in the fall,” like that’s their thing. I didn’t want to make it a shame-based thing. I wanted to make it like, yeah, we’re going to take this gig and make it good.
And, you know, it’s probably one of the best experiences ever. For starters, to much people’s surprise, this is the only time that The Roots have ever rehearsed as a band. We never, ever rehearsed as a group when we were The Roots, because we’re just spontaneity-based, like we just don’t plan stuff. And so, you know, this made us better musicians, better song writers, better craftmen. I enjoy it.
Aaron Mate: Was it a tough sell for the executives at NBC to bring on a rap group for this franchise?
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: There was concern—there was concern over—you know, Jimmy is very excited about a lot of things. And, you know, not behind his back, but they were basically like, “Look, you know, Jimmy’s over the moon about you guys, but, look, this is what you’ve got to understand. Like, you know, we know that you’re good in your environment. But can you be good and have range?” So, I think that the question up in the air was: How much range do they have as musicians? Like, we know that they give a great show, we know that they’re a good rap group, but, you know, what if Kenny Chesney comes on the show? Can they pull it off? What if we say we need an Andrew Lloyd Webber reference? Can they pull it off?” So the—we were there on like a probation period. It was going to be a thing of like, “OK, every 12 weeks we’ll have a meeting on whether or not The Roots fit the show or not; if not, we’ll just get regular, real musicians.”
So they invented this bit called “Freestylin’ with The Roots,” in which Jimmy would randomly name a genre of music and also name facts about the said audience member that’s next to him, and we’d have to make songs up on the spot. And the very first time we did it, then I started to notice like a lot of people were like peeking their heads in the room. Like, I could tell like, oh, executives, executives, executives, like they—this is the make-or-break moment for The Roots. And I was like, “Oh, you—we live for this moment. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for.” And so, once we did it, just the collective sigh of “phew” from the entire staff, you know, they threw the probation thing away. They were like, “OK, you are our band. Like, you’re here.” So…”
Amy Goodman: Well, talk about make-or-break moments. You have to talk to us—
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: Bachmann.
Amy Goodman: —about Michele Bachmann.
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: Yeah.
Amy Goodman: OK, let’s play the clip. And people aren’t going to get it, but just let’s play it. It’s the walk-over. Is that what it’s called?
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: Yeah, the walk-over.
JIMMY FALLON: Please welcome to the show Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.
THE ROOTS: She’s just a la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la
She’s just a la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la
She’s just a la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la
She’s just a la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la
She’s just a la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la.
Amy Goodman: So, Michele Bachmann sits down, the congresswoman. And talk about your musical choice.
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: At that time, I felt like we wanted—I personally wanted our trademark to be kind of like the kings of the walk-on. Paul Shaffer is the Lord Jesus Christ of the walk-on, the idea of customizing a popular song as commentary for a person who walks on the show. You know, Paul Shaffer invented that on the Letterman show. But it was kind of restricted to someone’s name. You know, Julia Roberts comes on; they’ll do “Julia” by The Beatles. You know, if we could clear the Beatles song, maybe I would have did “Michelle,” I don’t know.
But I just felt like the trait that she was most known for was just her—her kind of revisionist theories about and her offensive theories about—I mean, that morning, I had read that—you know, that blacks should be happy that slavery happened, because, you know, they were taken care of on these plantations and antebellums. And, you know, I just—in my head, I was trying to think of a way to play a song that had lying in it, but without having to sing lyrics. So there were three options, two of which had the—you had to sing “lies,” and I didn’t want to do that. I just figured, OK, I’ll play an iconic Fishbone song, that Fishbone fans are going to know what the song is without us even having to say a word of it. And we did it.
And I—you know, I was kind of feeling myself. It was like the beginning of social media. So someone said, “Wait, was that ‘Lyin’ Ass Bitch’ by Fishbone?” And I was like, “Yeah, we did it!” Like, I was feeling myself. And this is like the reverse tooth fairy situation. I woke up the next morning, and I looked at my phone, and it was like 32 missed phone calls. And I was like, “Oh, God.” I’ve never had 32 missed phone calls. Like, the last time I had that many missed phone calls was like 9/11. And none of them were from my mother. And I was like, “Oh, God. I did it now.” And NBC was not happy at all.
So, you know, in hindsight, probably the thing that I am, you know, regretful of. One, I never saw myself as a misogynistic person, because a lot of feminist groups were upset, like, you know, “How could you, you know, use a song that had the word ‘bitch’ in it? Like, you know, I don’t even agree with her theories, but you’re forcing me to”—you know, and then I thought about it, like, “Oh, God, like I didn’t even think about the misogynist angle of it,” like I was just so desperate to get a song about lying in there that I didn’t have to sing, that I didn’t even think at that moment. So that’s, you know, what I’m regretful about. I, you know, don’t want to be seen as this evil, misogynistic band leader.
Amy Goodman: Well, Jimmy Fallon went to bat for you. You didn’t get fired. And also the news helped, right? Wasn’t—weren’t you overwhelmed by—
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: Well, it was Thanksgiving—it was Thanksgiving, and she had inadvertently let out some secret information during a debate that kind of took the focus away from us and into her. And then, you know, on top of that, Fox News—like, my friends at Fox News were—they spent like three to four hours like combing through every Roots lyric to search for something, and they were like—they gave up after the fourth hour. It was like, “You guys don’t say anything controversial, like you’re probably the most thoughtful group in hip-hop, so you get a pass.”
Amy Goodman: Ahmir, as we wrap up, what are you most proud of? And as you move on to this main stage of The Tonight Show from Late Night, you—I mean, social justice is—you’re imbued with it, you are driven by it. What do you most want to accomplish still?
Ahmir Questlove Thompson: Amy, I’ve got to tell you, that’s the hardest—that’s the hardest question I’ve ever had to answer. Just like chapter one was the hardest—that was the last thing written for this book—because I couldn’t answer the question: Why is my story important? I don’t know how I program myself, but I never—I always felt like the downfall of any artist was to ever—kind of like this Lot’s wife theory of like if I ever did this and looked at my accomplishments—oh, yeah, you see me right there—that I’d turn into a pillar of salt or something. I can’t tell you what I’m most proud of. I mean, I’m grateful. I’m extremely grateful that I made it. I mean, some days, you know, I feel like, “OK, yeah, I did stuff.” And other days, you know, most days, I just feel like, “Ah, I haven’t made my mark yet, like I still—I’ve got a long ways to go.” So, a lot of the times, I feel like it will be the downfall of me if I say, you know, when we won this or when we did this or when I met this particular person. I mean, my whole life is full of super highs, like in the average, everyday person’s like life highlight, is like an everyday occurrence. Half the time I just can’t talk about it, because it just always seems like—they have a thing called “humble brags” on Twitter. So, I can’t just say, “Oh, so the other day, you know, I was with da da da da da da, and then Jay Z walked in and said, ‘Da da da da da.'” They’re just like, “Ah, humble brag.”
So, it’s just—you know, I’m grateful. I’m extremely grateful to have survived, literally just survived, because, you know, I’m still wondering: Will anyone in the hip-hop culture ever make it to 65? Like, will we have our first hip-hop senior citizen? Like, that’s an amazing thing for me. No, because if they don’t—if they escape bullets, they still have to escape strokes and their health, you know, Chuck D, Ice-T and Flavor Flav right now are kind of leading the pack, like they’re in their mid to late fifties, so it looks like they will get to that finish line. Like, that, to me, is an amazing achievement. But all I want to do is have the option to want to do this. I don’t want to be escorted out the building because I’m too old to do something or not have the ability to do it, or—you know, but I love my life the way it is.
Amy Goodman: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, drummer and co-founder of the legendary hip-hop band The Roots, the house band of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, soon to become The Tonight Show. He is just out with his first book, Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove. I interviewed him with Democracy Now!’s Aaron Maté.