Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Questlove: A Vision Quest

Questlove (?estlove)
Questlove (?estlove) The Roots The Roots The Roots at Red Bull's Sound Clash

Conscious. Creative. Humble. Iconic. Innovative. Inquisitive. Intelligent. Wise. Witty. A humanist. A born leader. Brothas and sistas, meet The Roots drummer/co-founder Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson.

He’s that laid back stout dude that dons an Afro, the fist pick, and some mighty fresh kicks. He’s a multi-talented conceptual artist: one who knew that his love of music and concern for humanity could take him to great heights. Blessed with a wealth of experiences and astute insights, Questlove lives and breathes inspiration. And he’s not afraid to share it. I was able to sit backstage with one of my absolute favorite musicians prior to the Nov. 14, 2010 Red Bull Soundclash concert in Atlanta. Follow me on this magical mystery tour – or should I say his views on politics, social activism, his talks with Jay-Z, the business of music, the culture of music, and of course – his love of music?

My generation is said to be in a crisis: especially when it comes to music. Granted I’m only 28 years old now, but this is nothing new. It was one thing for generations before me to dismiss (but somehow radically embrace) jazz, the blues, rock-n-roll, and hip hop. Even growing up listening to any and all that I could for hours upon hours in my bedroom, my mother used to beg me to turn that shit down!!
It’s another thing for the cynicism to still linger – from music journalists, cultural critics, social network postings, our parents, professors, everybody. There are no greats. No one with longevity. You don’t play instruments. You have no real sense of history. Y’all don’t care about the issues. Awww (followed by a quick hand wave), y’all ain’t talkin’ ‘bout nothin’! And yada yada ya. And let’s be honest; not too many of us cultural scribes and music lovers have had enough balls to challenge this nonsense. I, playing Devil’s Advocate, never believe the hype. Those close to me have always counted on me to be their musical encyclopedia. I was that kid recording songs off the radio and then writing the lyrics in my Trapper Keeper. Oh, trust – I know a lil’ something when it comes to Grammy Award winners, musicology, music theory and appreciation, the terminology, chord progressions, Billboard chart positions, album track listings, and appreciating the cover art! I can talk, but Questlove (nee: Ahmir Khalib Thompson), on the other hand, is one of this generation’s truest masters – a modern legend ahead of his time.

“The old school was on it. Like that’s the power of a tastemaker. Now, the gatekeepers – the people who control, um, radio, who control what you hear on television and what you see – they’re now sayin’ ‘OK, this new artist is gonna be.’ They determine who gets through the floodgater now, so they’re kinda silencing the tastemaker. Um. That’s pretty much what’s goin’ on. I think that people are really feelin’ that somewhat totalitarianism, the tyranny of-of-of that sorta oppressive feelin’. I can’t describe it, but it’s almost like a Communism war – well, not a Communist war – but a-a-a-a dictatorship rule in which one person or one corporation determines how many times you hear something. So I think people more or less are just tired of the fact that, you know hip hop, is now mainly a tool of survival. Before it was I think a creative, sorta art expression in which you wanted to. You know, when we came up and we were makin’ records, you know our first thought before anything was like, ‘Yo man, when [Q-]Tip hears this shit or Rza hears this shit and you know or especially if this serves. Man, Dylan gon’ be mad as shit when he hears these joints; (higher octave) it’s gon’ fuck him up!’ That was my whole thing, but now it’s like because it’s basically a tool of survival now. You know, like your deal is all that you have. If you depend on your record deal, then…you’re more or less thinkin’ about how not to get dropped off the label. And you’re thinkin’ of, ‘I gotta do what’s popular in the marketplace, and I gotta proximate what the marketplace has called for.’ And then, that’s where it gets in trouble. So now like, you know, I think especially for black music because survival and just everyday life, you know, a lot of us are one check away from being messed up in the game. So you know there’s really not too much risk taking when it comes to music like no one’s gonna try and turn in the hip hop equivalent of Pet Sounds or anything kinda unique and forward to do that. But you know basically like you won’t find any current artists tryin’ to make their own version of '808 and Heartbreak' because they can’t afford – they literally can’t afford to take any missteps in their career you know, so…”

I just knew Quest was amazing a long time ago. Check this out -- January 2000 – my junior year of high school; I was always beggin’ to get a ride to the record shop every Tuesday to pick up the latest albums. I was the class music connoisseur, not quite a superlative in the yearbook, but everybody counted on me to see the CD jackets first and to always give my opinion on the music. I thought I was pretty damn cool; I actually took pride in it. Who would think that in just a few years, I would go from singing on Sunday mornings in my rural South Carolina Baptist church’s gospel choir and puttin’ on Michael Jackson routines late at night for my mom’s drunken company to sittin’ principal chair for the viola sectional in my school’s concert orchestra. Most of my friends, however, in my ‘hood were into the greasy, seasoned Southern fried funk from OutKast and the Dungeon Family. Everywhere else I turned was either the bling–n-boucin’ New Orleans camps No Limit or Cash Money, Jay-Z and his Roc-a-Fella empire, or Wu-Tang’s chime-laden 36 Chamber music. I, on the other hand, was a funk and soul junkie at heart. In one hand at that time though was 'The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill' from the year before – I couldn’t take it out of the disc changer. D’Angelo’s second album, 'Voodoo', was a BIG event – the album I anticipated the most. It was THE mesmerizing musical experience for me. It had gotten to where my mom would yell at me constantly ‘cause I literally played the disc every chance I got.

And with good reason, too! It wasn’t until I was an undergrad at Johnson C. Smith University a few years later when I realized that cats were just as into 'Voodoo' as I was. It wasn’t as extreme like some Deadhead cult, but it was powerful enough for us to blaze some trees and nod our heads. 'Voodoo' was like some pure uncut, concocted magical dust, and I was one of its biggest fiends, man. I was hooked on the album’s sequencing, 79 minutes flat of raw funk-n-grooves, and all of the creative process folklore that I’d read about. I was so jealous and longed to be there to see it (more than my pipe dream of being in Minneapolis to miraculously find Prince & the Revolution recording at Paisley Park): Electric Lady Studios being on Ft. Knox-type lockdown over the course of five year’s worth of jam sessions. This was my idea of getting’ a higher, no puns intended, education, and I’d found my mentor. As I read thoroughly through 'Voodoo’s' maroon and black liner notes and grainy thick black and white photographs, I saw the name, ?uestlove, appear too many times to mention. Producer. Drummer. Songwriter. The co-pilot along on this musical trip. I thought he was the answer to my prayers.

I’ve always said that a musical genius is blessed from birth. And Questlove, a meticulous prodigy, is no exception. For one, what else is there to expect from someone who is born (January 20, 1971), raised, and nourished out of a homebase like Philadelphia -- again, I’m jealous – the foundation for some of the most remarkable talent, who Quest refers to as “The Yodas:” i.e. Patti LaBelle, the late Phyllis Hyman and Billie Holiday, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the late Teddy Pendergrass and Tammi Terrell, Eve, Chubby Checker, Pearl Bailey, Ethel Waters, John Coltrane, Bunny Siegler, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson The Intruders, The Delfonics, The Stylistics, The Trammps, Pink, Crystal Waters, Santogold, Hall & Oates, James Mtume, Grover Washington, Jr., Sun Ra, Schoolly D., Three Times Dope, RJD2, Solomon Burke, Frankie Beverly (of Maze), DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince (sorry, Will Smith to you youngstas), Stanley Clarke, Boyz II Men (who coincidentally were Quest’s classmates), Jill Scott, Bilal. Oh, you get it by now, don’t you? Two, and I’m not surprised by this at all, he has an impressive collection of vinyl; not bad for a former employee of Sam Goody – you remember that record store chain, don’t you (70,000 units he possessed at last count)? Oh, and did I forget to mention also that Quest’s father is Lee Andrews, the leader of 1950s doo-wop group Lee Andrews & The Hearts? That was three. Or that while most kids were learning how to ride bikes or being able to tell their times tables, Quest was on a quest – touring with his dad and mastering timekeeping at seven years old. Can’t you see where I’m goin’ with this so far? I hope so. “You know, people always ask me, ‘Why don’t you hear stuff with quality?” I mean, I go to the Internet, so I don’t depend on radio to feed me anything nutritious or-or-or any sort of subsistence I depend on. Not to say that all radio is like that. There’s a lot of college stations still goin’ strong: things like that. And not even sayin’ that I’m against like commercial radio. I mean…I like, you know, I mean I like Waka Flocka [Flame] like the next people, but I don’t know if I necessarily wanna hear it 20 times a day. I just want variety. You know, I like Waka Flocka (door cracks). I also like Foreign Exchange. I like Led Zeppelin. I like a little Ke$ha. I like, you know, gimme…gimme a little bit of everything. Gimme some variety.”

Questlove is a prude – I mean a purist (clearing my throat). It’s just not enough that he’s the self-proclaimed “your favorite Twitterer’s favorite music snob.” Quest makes it clear that he marches to his own beat: with a Yamaha Absolute Maple Nouveau, 24x18 Bass Drum, 14x14 Floor Tom, 14x35 (and 14x5.5) snare drums, a Yamaha Subkick, Zildijan (14” New Beat Hihats, 20” Oriental Crash of Doom, 24” K Constantinople Light Ride) cymbals, and Vic Firth 7a American Classic (or better yet his own signature) drumsticks. Believe it or not, he frequently changes the drum kits.

Okay, now quickly flashback to 1987 – the first day of school at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts -- Questlove connects with his musical soulmate, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, a mastermind of social consciousness, precise lyricism, and flawless delivery. Both fellas were armed with a vision to set hip hop music to live instruments, so the two formed a band, The Square Roots: later condensing the name to The Roots. They rocked the street corners – later adding a then unknown keyboardist turned producer Scott Storch, Malik B. on vocals, and Josh “Rubberband” Abrams (replaced by Leonard “Hub” Hubbard in 1994) on bass – and set out to take over the stage and eventually the world of music.

Of course there were band member changes along the way: The current lineup includes Kamal Gray, F. Knuckles, Captain Kirk Douglas, Owen Biddle, Damon “Tuba Gooding, Jr.,” James Poyser, and Yasser Stephens. Previous members were Dice Raw, Scratch, Ben Kenney, Martin Luther, and Rahzel the Human Beatbox. And with over 20 years of evolution from the underground and into the limelight, the transitions have had no effect on the band’s momentum…at all.

Considered by many to be “the world’s greatest hip hop band,” The Roots successfully transcended musical boundaries in ways that previous bands could only dream of. Black Thought never fails to rock the mic while Quest brings the rimshots. The band is incredible on stage: blurring genres as they perform their own catalogue, rockin’ racially and ethnically mixed crowds, and covering Top 40 radio (and some of their personal favorite gems). The Roots have released a consistent stream of critically acclaimed albums – 'Organix' (1993); 'Do You Want More?!!??!' (1995); 'Illadelph Halflife' (1996); 'Things Fall Apart' (1999); 'Phrenology' (2002); 'The Tipping Point' (2004); 'Game Theory' (2006); 'Rising Down' (2008); 'How I Got Over' (2010); and their collaborative project with John Legend, 'Wake Up!' (2010) –, EPs – From the 'Ground Up' (1994) and 'The Legendary' (1999) and a live album, 'The Roots Come Alive' (1999). Of course, with being eluded by commercial radio, in some cases being virtually unknown until so many albums into the game, and throw in a few record label changes, The Roots stay true to themselves -- delivering their quality and infectious brand of organic, substance-laden live music. The band even hosts an annual day-long music festival in their hometown.

“Um. I mean, [Def Jam] just…they promised to leave us alone. So our deal is that you’ll let us make the albums that we wanna make. We promise…(Blackberry chirps; blows raspberry and chases with laughter)…Oh, I’m sorry. Damn, my shit knows how to travel! Um. Nah. The deal that we have is basically, you know, um…we get to…you know. I want to end the misconception that you know we’re just all about makin’ art records and that type of thing. You know I mean, I would love nothing more in this world than for people to erase what we create. Like we slave over this stuff. Like when you hear…for every song that you hear on the album, you definitely know that we’ve spent somewhere between 60-120 painstaking days – I mean over every detail: over the quality of the hi-hat, the strings, over the arrangement, over the lyrics, the melody. We’ll write another one. Write another one. Go back and write another one. Go back and write another one. Jimmy [Iovine] ‘bout to hurl a chair at you, you know, that type of thing. But um, you get…I think that if anything, if you give it a chance, you can hear it that the people make the product – our product that we care about and the way that we present it.”

So now, what happens when your band becomes the first hip hop group to perform at the Lincoln Center – um, the world’s leading performing arts center in New York City? You play “Here I Come” every night on NBC and take over late night television. The Legendary Roots Crew (The 5th Dynasty, The Foundation – hell, pick one), beginning on Mar. 2, 2009, became the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, now currently in its second season. Quest calls that his “nine-to-five job.”

“You know, my thing is like basically, you know, The Roots – we can all hold ourselves high above water without havin’ to have a record deal. At this rate, havin’ a record deal and releasing records is basically just a small reminder to the public that we’re still here, but now that we’ve kinda have late night television, you know, I mean I’ve just never been this type of person to like, uh, once you see my face it’s like, ‘I got a new job now, so you can keep your fuckin’ record deal.’ You know, anything that exposes us to a new artist, I’m wit it! But I learned a long time ago never ever to depend on the record deal as your sole means of survival or just your sole expression means. It just amazes me; you got artists today that just live for their record deal and nothing else. Like I think now the record deal, even for people that are successful, I mean we’re not dealin’ with music. We’re dealin’ with the cult of personality. So with the cult of personality, you have you know, take Jay-Z for instance. I mean, he’s more of a business mogul on the Monopoly board. And it just so happens that one of his properties happens to be, ‘OK, he makes records, too!’ Like, I don’t see the Monopoly board as Jay-Z’s recording history. I kinda see like Mediterranean Ave. or New York Ave. as, ‘OK, he makes records as well ‘cause you know he also, you know, has, you know, stake in a basketball team. He has, you know, his record label, his management label. In New York alone, I can count at least 16 other small businesses that he has his hands in from restaurants to you know other properties and stuff like that. So, um, of course that’s also like the most extreme example I could give ‘cause you know he’s Mega Man. But I mean you just basically have to supplement your recording career for something else. Most people do acting. Most people uh, you know, they find some other means to sorta supplement. You know, for people that just strictly make records and nothing else, I don’t know. That’s sorta like livin’ in a straw house and knowin’ that a tsunami is comin’ in a week. You know. Good luck with that one.”

This is all too refreshing to music lovers like me. Questlove has a lot on his mind. To the average Joe, Quest will talk your head off. And boy was it an experience (or should I say a tedious task) rewinding and transcribing the audio interview. Damn! But every word spoken is some funny story or some articulate, insightful segue into how he feels about current events, politics, or other phases of his career – or careers rather. Always imaginative and uber thought provoking, Quest has the power of the pen. I’m starting to wonder if he sleeps. He’s brilliantly concocted musical enigmas in and out of the recording studio. Quest is an active participant in offspring production teams The Soulquarians, The Grand Negaz, The Randy Watson Experience, and The Grand Wizzards. I’d consider him a fine scholar: one I would’ve wished for during undergrad. He’s written the foreward to the 2007 book, Check the Technique. He contributes to Esquire’s The Visiting Critic blog – earning the moniker “hip hop’s resident musicologist.” Adding to his three Grammy Awards and an NAACP Image Award, Quest’s talents have earned him an Esky Award for “Best Scribe.” Oh, and look out for his children’s book, too, Mommy, What’s a Questlove?

“The truth is basically 90 percent of my life is work-related. Three percent of my life personal, which I mean the real question is you know, ‘When am I gonna go to the altar finally? When am I gonna have kids? Aren’t you gonna be 40 next month?’ You know…you always say like, ‘OK well 27 now – then I’ll wait ‘til I turn 30. Then, I’ll wait ‘til I turn 33. OK, I’ll wait ‘til I’m 37, and now it’s like I’m 40.’ And now I’m probably sayin’ 42 and push it. But I dunno. I think right now my life…I’m just totally devoted to workin’ and a lot of its just. I’m not sayin’ based on the fear of losin’ it, but I’ll say that one thing I’ve never expected…in 1992 when we first started, I thought like 1999 was like far ahead. I thought that was gonna be some Jetson futuristic spaceship thing. I couldn’t see 1999. Now, 1999 seems like it’s 1950 like so long ago so I never envisioned that, ‘OK, it’s 1994 when Do You Want More? came out – where you gonna be in 2010? I would’ve just been like, “Oh God. I guess we’ll be done by then.” You know ‘cause most rap groups fall off after their third or forth record, and they stop recording. Um. So the fact that we’ve been here for 17 years – now that’s mind bogglin’. The fact that we have 12 records out that are, you know, I feel if anything are our, at least, artistic achievements. I don’t feel as though I phoned in anything from home or that I’ve you know cheated anybody in the public of anything that wasn’t 100 percent, you know. Even though people have their favorite Roots period, I still feel as though with all 12 records, you at least know that hard work was put into it. You know what I mean? I mean, I’m not the world’s biggest arcade fire fan, but after seein’ them last night, I totally respect what they do. So even if all 12 of those records aren’t your favorite, then you at least know that we work hard so that’s important to me. I just think that you know you only get one chance in life, and I’ve seen so many people. Like I have so many hilarious stories – cats who were like the Lord Jesus Christ back in ’94, ’95, ’96 like doin’ the Martin hard, you know. Like one guy was like, ‘Y’all got a record deal or somethin’? You know, y’all want to give me y’all’s demo?’ This was during like the Things Fall Apart period. (laughter) You know what I mean?

SHIT EVEN LAST NIGHT!?! (laughter) I was as the SNL afterparty, and a SNL acting veteran came up to me. He was a little inebriated, but he says, ‘You know what? You look important.’ I said, ‘Huh?’ He was like, ‘I don’t know who you are. You could be a regular person, but you kinda look important. You walk around like you’re important.’ And I was like, ‘OK where is this goin’?’ But he literally didn’t, you know, not tryin’ to explain like…and I said, ‘Well, you know, I’m on the Fallon show: a drummer for this band called The Roots.’ He said, ‘ROOTS! ROOTS! Yo, we – when that came out, we all watched it. It was just great.’ And that’s when I smelled the alcohol. It was like, ‘Oh! Thank you…I enjoy your work, too.’ I escaped, but you know it’s just like…I dunno if there’s a finish line, or I don’t imagine a finish line in the race. I just – I run and then you know when it’s time to stop, I’ll know when it’s time to stop, but I can’t stop now.”

Quest’s artistic curiosity is hands down what intrigues me the most about him. He’s a visionary beyond his video game pastiche on NBA 2K…7-9. No really! When he’s not hittin’ Jay-Z up on Gmail to debate about music, count on him to continue working his magic on stage and on camera. It’s true -- great minds think alike. He was Jay’s musical director for his monumental MTV Unplugged episode and for Jay’s rock doc and concert film, 2004’s Fade to Black. Quest has taken over Broadway! He was the associate producer for FELA!, a triple Tony Award-winning production paying homage to the famed Nigerian Afrobeat musician and activist. Keepin’ it in the family, he convinced Jay to join him as a producer: along with Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith. Quest says he wants every child and musician to go see it because they will get inspiration. And he has a lot to say about Dave Chappelle; he’s been the comedian and satirist’s musical director and made feature appearances on Chappelle’s Show and for his concert film, Block Party.

“That’s something you really gotta know about like me and um…me and Jay[-Z]. We have sorta these… these Malcolm and Martin debates; that’s the only way I could call ‘em because like you always hear these Malcolm and Martin conversations that nothin’s ever documented. So you know, I know that years from now, like 50 years from now, if I still have my Gmail account, all my conversations that me and Jay-Z have had that could almost be like the most hilarious musical version of Malcolm and Martin – not even like a historical statue but just like my conversation. We’re privy on everything. I’m tryin’ to explain to him the difference between genius and maverick. And you know, I’m explainin’ to him ‘cause he sees like, ‘You know, there’s the Quincy, Stevie, and Kanye you know and all of these things.’ And I’m like the difference between those guys is that I guess to me is the ability to think on another level than the average human being. But being a maverick is when geniuses can figure out a way not to ruin it because they don’t know how to stay in flight. They gotta figure out a way to self-sabotage which is why all the people that you’re cravin’ for – the D’Angelos of the world, Lauryn Hills, Dave Chappelles of the world, the Zack de la Rossas of the world. Anybody that has not released nothin’ in 10 years, you’re wonderin’ like, ‘How come they not make the right? What’s takin’ ‘em so long?’ Like you know, I don’t think that they know or if they would even characterize themselves as self-sabotaging. But it’s a subconscious fear that makes you psychosomatic or just make you ruin it or makes you not deliver product. So the fact that there’s a group of people that have a history of genius and deliver that to me is you know…that was a very interesting exchange that we had about maverick and geniuses. So you know…”

Guess I could ramble on and on about album sales, but it’s pointless. And now since you’re probably syncing all kinds of crap on you iPod or iTunes, you probably wouldn’t care anyway. I’ll tell you what though; Prince pulled him up on stage from the audience to perform with him. He’s damn near one of my Messiahs at this point. I’d even call him my Yoda. Just sayin’!

And now back to his nucleus. His collaborations (whether he’s produced it or played drums on the track, point is he’s a genius) include Erykah Badu, Dilated Peoples, Roy Hargrove, Blackalicious, Common, N*E*R*D, Joshua Redman, Zap Mama, Fiona Apple, Christina Aguilera, John Mayer, Joss Stone, Hank Williams, Jr., Ben Harper, Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, Al Green, Duffy, Evanescence, and Booker T (of the 60s band The MGs). There’s more comin’ I’m sure, so only time with tell with Quest. I even heard him mention his meetings with Al Jarreau and Tom Jones. Then there were a couple of itching-to-get-this-outta-me vanity projects – his drumming on an album of jazz instrumentals, The Philadelphia Experiment, and him DJing a compilation set, Questlove Presents…Babies Making Babies. Quest be gettin’ it in!

You can’t help but to expect the unexpected from a brilliant mind – especially one that seeks a constant challenge. Questlove, the one time top candidate for enrollment into New York’s prestigious Julliard School of Music, knows how to change with the times. “You know what’s weird? I just got my iPad, so I probably…the books that I read the most which are – which might sound weird to people – I read a lot of reference books: lots of odd historic, reference books which I know is rather strange that there’s not a you know I can name a bunch of bell hooks books for you. But right now, I’m utterly obsessed with the company called AV Network. It’s not – for some reason, they have the same title as the AV Network, which is of course you know otherwise known as Adult Video [Network], but it’s not that. The AV Network – they basically compile lots of the meaningless lists, and I’m absolutely obsessed with. Like I’m the guy that will continually count all the curse words on Straight Outta Compton just because that’s the type of shit I do in my spare time. Like take a shit count. Take a ‘F’ count. Take a damn count. Take a nigga count. So right now just reference books – Guinness Book of World Records…dictionaries even. You know what I mean? Like I’m obsessed with the word of the day. The word for today is isthmus – I can’t pronounce it – IS-ITHMUS. For some reason, my ISH becomes an F, but reference books because I’m also obsessed with playin’ Scrabble. So I am…you gotta start like Malcolm X did. He studied every word from aardvark all the way from A to Z, so reference books.”

I’m quite a social media enthusiast: regularly updating my Facebook profile with great quotes to share with my 1,500+ friends or connecting with other passionate tastemakers on Linkedin. Since 1999, Quest has been the host of the soul music online community, I tried to add Quest on Facebook, but he already had too many friends! I pretty much abandoned my MySpace profile, but Quest hosts his blog, 'The ?uestosphere!!!!!!!!!!!!!!', on there. I follow Quest’s streams of ‘Tweets though, where I’m one of the 1.4 million cats that follow his love of album interludes by Earth, Wind, and Fire, his personal playlists, streams of Parliament-Funkadelic albums, political commentaries, occurrences on the Fallon set, NBC Studios’ bland cafeteria food, and his conversations with other performers. If he has downtime in the recording studio, you might catch him in the middle of one of his Skype chats with Amy Winehouse, who he says has an impeccable knowledge for jazz music. He, along with Amy, are in talks with Raphael Saadiq, Mos Def, and Salaam Remi to collaborate on an upcoming project.

“I got one word for you, and she says it like: ‘She gotta get her visa shit together.’ Ya know what I mean? Yeah, I mean, she…Um…like more than anything, she’s a jazz head. Like a real jazz like you know like between 1930s and 1950s like a walkin’ jazz trivia Smithsonian. So she pretty much wants to just do a collaboration album between me…actually to tell the truth, it was me, Mos [Def], and Amy. And I believe how it happened was that a journalist from Rolling Stone happened to be in our dressing room doin’ a story on the Fallon show, and he happened to see me Skypin’ Amy. And I guess someone had told him, ‘You know, they’re tryin’ to do this project with Raphael Saadiq – dutta dutta duuh.’ So that’s how that rumour got out (laughter). But then Raphael was like, ‘Oh! I hear I’m part of a project.’ I was like, ‘I dunno.’ You know, it’s null and void as long as she can’t come into the United States. I mean, we can have the ashes of Michael Jackson join us if we want, but it ain’t gonna happen because she don’t have her visa stuff straight. So you know like for all intensive purposes, the party members have all said yes. Now you know she has to get granted her visa to return to the United States so right now she’s just…umma see her Thanksgiving; me and John are gonna do some shows in Europe. So I’m gonna chop it up with her ‘bout two or three days – see what’s up. But she’s itchin’ to do somethin’. It’s just none of us can go to her. Her and [Mark] Ronson are fightin’. Salaam [Remi] is, you know, scorin’ movies and stuff. And I got my TV show. She just thinks like, ‘Just leave your TV show for three weeks and come over and hang out wit me.’ It’s like it doesn’t work like that. I have responsibilities. (mocking) ‘Fly into London for three weeks. We’ll make a record, and you can go back to your job.’ I’m like it doesn’t work like that; I got a nine to five (laughter) …So you know…” The trendsetter even has his patented custom Nike Air Force One sneaker, appropriately named “The Questo:” colored burgundy and lime green with a gold check, etched with his silhouette on the back of the shoe and on the tongue, and laced with red or gold shoestrings. There’s a second round of his custom sneaks coming this February.

Now fast forward ten years and eleven months after my 11th grade year, I finally get the chance to meet my “mentor” (remember). I’m backstage at Atlanta’s The Tabernacle, runnin’ about ten minutes late from another interview with electronica band Shiny Toy Guns founders Jeremy Dawson and Chad Petree. “I learned that they do country better than us,” Petree tells me. “And that’s weird.” Dawson also praised The Roots. “We thought we had ‘em on that, and they played it and killed it,” he says. “Those guys just…they play all the time. They play their instrument all the time. It’s inspiring to see those guys get up there; it makes me want to get better at my instrument.” Quest was in the room adjacent to us. As I entered the aqua-painted room with some empty nickel bags on the floor, it all flashed before my eyes: my older sister’s then boyfriend rollin’ up mad Phillie blunts to 'Do You Want More?' and 'Illadelph Halflife', my older cousin playin’ “What They Do and Respond/React” maxi-CD single on repeat, Quest’s impressive drum-and-bass cadences at the end of the Grammy-winning single “You Got Me,” and the first time I read his published work -- a Prince tribute article in a Rolling Stone issue commemorating the greatest musicians of all-time. Quest was sittin’ relaxed on the tan sofa’s corner: comfortable in gray sweater, black jeans, and checkered button shirt. His fist pick was tucked in the front of his ‘Fro; he frequently removes the pick and waves it every other tangent. His BlackBerry sits face down on his left thigh – periodically chirping once or twice.

He just takes a glance before he gets back on his reserved, soft-spoken rants. He poses for pictures. He hugs some kids. But I get a mouth full about Kanye West’s apology to George Bush. Whew – but with good intent I must say! “I’m so upset about that. Well I’m – I get where he’s comin’ from, but I’m more concerned that Bush was more hurt about being called a ‘racist’ by a rapper…or an artist [I’m sorry Kanye; you’re an artist] than he was about people literally drownin’ under his slow watch. You know, if you would’ve said, you know, my lowest point was the fact that my administration was slow to handle the New Orleans debacle. I would’ve accepted that, but when he said you know my lowest point was when Kan-way West called me a racist, that just… (sigh) …that to me was like, ‘OK, I get it.’ It’s not even I think is like an unintentional thing with him – the aloofness thing. It’s just another over the head hump, and I just think the lack of compassion from political figures to common everyday figures, you know, there needs to be a meeting at the 50-yard line. So I was kinda cryin’ when I’d see it. I understand that he was tryin’ to appeal to him as a human being and that for Kanye – his whole thing is like wipin’ away the sins and havin’ a clean pallet and modesty thinkin’ that you know. Of course you don’t want nobody thinkin’ that you’re an asshole or you know that type of thing, so I understand why Kanye did it…but by no means do I feel as though Bush even the fact that…that was Bush’s mean grips. Really?”

It was good to hear that Quest was quite active on the political front: especially during Barack Obama’s road to the White House.
“Um. I’m really chagrined that it is how it is. Probably one of the biggest – this is how it ties to how John Legend and I got to make the 'Wake Up!' album. Both he and I were like doin’ heavy campaigning for Obama back in 2008. Actually on two levels – I mean him as John Legend, you know, there’s power in his name, you know, he did a lot of concerts: a lot of fundraising events. When the Obama organization sorta asked us to partake of it. Um. I was a little skeptical because I thought that they were giving me way too much credit than what I deserve. Like ‘OK, you want me to just talk to these like 5,000 people at a job convention?’ ‘Yeah! Yeah! Your points and all that other stuff.’ And I was like, ‘Wait a minute! Like… (chuckles) …don’t you need like Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie to talk to these people? They was like, ‘Yeah, we got Questlove!’ And everyone’s like… (dry face with sparse and echoing clapping).

So I didn’t want to put myself in that situation, so I told them. ‘Cause really what I wanted to do was I really wanted to for all this talk of us being political, I really wanted to earn that title. So I told them at least for maybe like the first four or five months of that I started volunteering. Like I would want to do like the elbow grease aspect of this job. So I mean, they had me out there; I told them if it’s menial stuff, I’m your guy. So I was doin’ stuff like, you know, I was on phones. I was grabbin’ sandwiches; I’m wakin’ up at like four in the mornin’ like flyin’ to California, whatever city I had to fly to. Knockin’ on doors, I mean, freakin’ some people out ‘cause like (lookin’ out the corner of his eye and a quick wave of his left hand) ‘Nah that’s not him.’ Knockin’ on doors, you know when you have that thing on your door knob to let you know like ‘Today is Voting Day’ and all that stuff – so doin’ like all this Super Tuesday primaries. Like I was that guy; I was like gettin’ boxes and goin’ to neighborhoods and just doin’ like menial stuff – drivin’ people to the polling places, you know talkin’ to block captains. ‘OK, is there anyone on your block that’s like disabled or needs a lift to the polling places?’ Like really doin’ grassroots stuff like that, and I’ll say that… um, you know, after four months they were kinda like ‘Stop playin’. You know, we really need you to exercise your quasi-celebrity power and really pull some people in; not just like just grabbin’ sandwiches and make potato chip runs for the volunteers. I was like, ‘OK. Cool.’ Um. So then that started teaching me really to…I learned the political process that way and what really had me shocked was even during the 2008 primaries was like…I would be on the phone [and I guess in my “phone” voice]. I’m like really ambiguous where you couldn’t tell who was talkin’ to you over the phone. And some of them people felt comfortable enough…was like, (in low voice) ‘Well between you and me, I don’t trust him because he might turn the country around.” Havin’ no like…’cause I was an alias or whatever. And so that was the point I realized that even though he… (door squeaks loudly).

WOULD YOU PUT A STOP ON THE DOOR????? It’s that squeakin’ shit that’s gettin’ me. Sorry… (imitates squeaking).…so by the time I started doin’ phones and started callin’ up random people; them same people in middle America really feel comfortable enough to sorta reveal who they were and not knowin’ that there was a black person talkin’ on the other line. Um. That’s when I realized that, ‘Oh God. We’ve so not advanced as I thought we were. So much for post-racial America. And um…even in talkin’ on the phones, I learned that a lot of Americans do not know the political process. They think it’s like a hybrid…like basically why don’t he take his magic wand (spwink!), and we can all get better education and health care? That’s our hierarchy; that’s like a kingdom, you know, which that’s not the process. And a lot of them don’t understand that basically you know Obama even though he is the coach of the team, that he is not the – you know – there’s a jury of people or a pool of people that he can suggest an idea, and they have to vote on it. And unanimously agree and things get gone that way and you know then some. So it really mess their minds up; they can never believe that , ‘Oh, there might be a group of people whose sole purpose is to overturn any idea that he suggests to them even if its at the costs of the merits. And even people refuse to believe that yes, there are other people that will deny you health care just because he suggests it -- you know. If it comes from him, I cannot wait until…I want to see what happens with education. Like you know, it’s one thing to say – like you know – everyone doesn’t need health care. I would like to see Republicans start denyin’ our children a proper education. Now that’s where I really think shit’s gonna hit the fan. I’m not even like…now it seems like voters have turned on him and what not, but I wanna see what happens when he starts gettin’ his education game together. What we’re doin’ is, I guess the day after we lost the House, Obama gathered about 50 of us on the phone just sorta…you know I guess a pick me up pow-wow because a lot of us were really depressed at what this now means which could be you know a leaned up sorta term where you know basically if he brings up an idea, then they’ll shoot him down. If they bring up an idea, he vetoes it. He brings up an idea, they’ll shoot him down. I really think that America has to learn…I wish he would put a coalition together that actually teaches Americans what the political process is so that if in 2012 we can do this again the right way, they can understand that midterm elections are just as important as the four-year elections. So…”

But the stage is Quest’s home away from home. This Nov. 14 night, I experienced my third fix of The Roots on stage – thanks to a few of my close friends from Red Bull. As I sat in VIP about thirty minutes post-interviews, I was taken by the two separate stages – one with basic live instruments and the other with a slew of synthesizers and drum machines – and how the audience was sandwiched in between the platforms. Soundclash took two separate acts in diverging genres: entertaining and exchanging musical performances of each other’s work and selected tracks. “Atlanta, I need y’all to be my partners in crime tonight,” Black Thought says to the audience.

So about 8:30 p.m., the crowd cheers when The Roots comes on the stage with the tuba blarin’ and some funky congas. I didn’t expect anything less from their live show. My last experience with The Roots came at another Atlanta spot, The Velvet Room, in 2009 where they were curators, along with Common, for the four-city Hennessy Artistry series. I must admit – I had more shots and full cocktails that I could count, but it was cool to see Boyz II Men as their surprise guests. Four years before that, I saw The Roots for the first time at a small, extremely overcrowded dive bar in Charlotte; soul duo Floetry and Detroit artist Amp Fiddler were the opening acts. As to be expected, The Roots were precise, tight, and to quote James Brown “on the one.” During their cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire,” The Roots hit this extended slow rock sound only to transcend into an electrying bluesy jazz set. Somewhere else in the mix, Quest breaks out some percussion funk that recalls Santana with hints of dub, ska, and reggae rhythms. The band even introduced hip hop artist Yelawolf as a special guest. As an encore, The Roots played with Shiny Toy Guns on their rendition of The Impressions’ “Move on Up.” As to be expected with Quest, there are always moments to remember and a moral to the story.
Words Christopher Daniel

From Jazz Funk & Fusion To Acid Jazz

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