Wild Wild wild wild
MIDWAY THROUGH the interview, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson refers to the fact that he probably has 15 different jobs on the go right now. He’s talking to The Ticket during a break from recording the Late Night With Jimmy Fallon TV show, where The Roots have been the house band since 2009. Later, Questlove will head to the Brooklyn Bowl for his weekly DJ-ing gig at Bowl Train.
In between all of this, he’ll do some thinking and tinkering on the two books he’s currently writing.
While Questlove notes that “making records is probably now my eighth job out of 15”, the band with whom he makes the bulk of those records remains the hub for all of these activities. The Roots first hit the streets of Philadelphia back in the early 1990s and have grown to match that Legendary Roots Crew title with a starry history, a fantastic live show and 13 albums to their credit.
Many acts begin to plateau at this stage of the game when they go into the studio, yet The Roots are still moving onwards and upwards. Last year’s Undun was a career highlight, an ambitious, far-reaching concept album about the life and death of a character inspired by a Sufjan Stevens song title.
Questlove attributes this recent creative flourish to a freedom the band now possess. “We recorded Undun and How I Got Over with a total lack of fear because we didn’t have a plan B. With Undun, we were confident that we could make an art record – and Def Jam know we’re there to add artistic prestige to the label and not sell millions of albums. That’s what they expect from us.
“That’s a freedom that artists rarely get. There’s a handful of artists that are prestige artists and they’re the ones who can still make a living being an artist without the fear of getting dropped. Bruce Springsteen will always have a career, Sony will never drop him. Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, they’ll always have a career.”
Things are different in hip-hop, he says. “Hip-hop is such a disposable art form from a business standpoint. It never treats its artists as art, it never treats its product as art. Most music by contemporary black artists is produced under the invisible guise of a trigger to the brain, the pressure of having to stay relevant, the pressure of having to have a hit, the pressure of having to sell records, the pressure of not getting dropped.”
Questlove believes this fear also applies to the biggest acts. “I used to have this conversation with Jay-Z about The Black Album. I used to say to him ‘don’t you want to do an album like The Black Album? An album that’s unannounced, absolutely anonymous,
no title, nothing’.
“The Black Album he released was ambitious for Jay-Z, but what about a real Black Album like Prince did? Take it back to the hip-hop that was passionate for you without the pressure to sell three million copies and make anthems. The thing is he can’t afford that risk. The idea of jumping over a cliff and landing on the other side is too risky for any black artist.
“Because we made our transformation into late-night television, the fear and pressure was erased all of a sudden.
“While it’s not a lifeline for me, I wanted to take advantage of the freedom and make albums I’ve been dreaming of doing, but was always afraid to do.”
The regular TV gig has rejuvenated The Roots. “The idea of being on Fallon was supposed to be about taking a break or a sabbatical,” says Questlove, “and it actually made us busier than we’ve ever been.
“The show also helped humanise us in the States, which is hard to do in hip-hop. Hiphop is so much about character and caricature that people just see you as a character. Very rarely are you flesh and bone to people. This allowed us to show people that we had a sense of humour. The last four or five records were so dark and political and down that your personality gets lost behind all that political content.
“It’s not like the four to six million people who watch us on TV are out buying Roots records. The majority of them think of us as Jimmy’s new cool band. We were always underestimated. For the longest time, people thought we were the Fugees. People would go ‘hey, where’s the girl at?’ That happened a lot.”
A few years ago, Questlove noted in an interview that hip-hop and black music were usually at their strongest when there was a Republican president in office, as there was something to rally against. Now, he’s a little unsure about what happened to hip-hop’s