Wild Wild wild wild

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

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,

irish­times.com/cul­ture

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

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