A Guy Called Quest
Ross, Aaron, Mother Jones
The Roots' Ahmir Thompson on stumping for Obama, signing with Jimmy Fallon, and cooking up Philly's neo-soul scene BY AARON ROSS
AHMIR THOMPSON, a.k.a. Questlove, is due onstage in a few hours, but right now he can barely suppress a yawn. When Thompson, 40, isn't drumming with The Roots- the influential hip-hop, funk, and neo-soul group he cofounded with highschool classmate Tariq Trotter in the late 1980s- he's producing and arranging, scoring films, DJing, and pulling all-nighters recording R&B star D'Angelo's upcoming album. Thompson was born to music. His father fronted one of the great 1950s doowop groups, Lee Andrews & The Hearts, and even as a young kid, Ahmir would accompany them on tour. He later attended the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts. The Roots' debut, Organix, hit the streets in 1993, and the band is now an American pop-music staple, with more than a dozen albums to date. In 2008, they shocked die-hard fans by signing on as the house band for Jimmy Fallon's late-night talk show, but in the end the move only raised their stature. Sporting cornrows, a black-and-white checkerboard shirt, and black jeans, Questlove settles into a plush red sofa at his San Francisco hotel to talk about his first gig, tea party politics, and the key to his band's longevity. Read the full interview at motherjones.com/ questlove.
Mother Jones: Tell us about Undun, The Roots' new album.
Ahmir Thompson: It's our first ongoing-narrative album. In other words, it's like listening to an audio storybook or a movie. We're trying to figure out, "Well, what if we told the end first, and then the beginning, and then the middle?"
MJ: And what's the story about?
AT: That part I'm keeping secret. Where I see How I Got Over kind of introducing the idea of a midlife crisis, like, "What do you do as 40-year-old into hip-hop?"- and RisingDown as kind of the American's anger at his government, and Game Theory as a mournful kind of reflection on lossthis story will basically be like the best of those three outlines. And whereas those albums were about us, this album is told in character form.
MJ: You're a natural entertainer. Has that always been part of your personality?
AT: It's more that that's all I knew. My parents didn't trust babysitters back in the early '70s, so I had to play bongos on stage with them, 'cause "No stranger's gonna watch my son in Muncie, Indiana!" [Laughs.] According to my parents, I just started drumming when I was two. I traveled with them from five to seven on the road, playing percussion. Between 8 and 12, my dad sort of prepared me by teaching me every aspect of road life. So I knew Rand McNaIIy map routes like I was a human gps. I had to cut gels, place mies, place lights. Then I became the sound guy and tech guy. One night the drummer didn't make it, and then I was his drummer. My first gig was at Radio City Music Hall when I was 13.
MJ: In what sense do you consider yourself a product of the Philly music scene?
AT: I don't think there's anything that special about Philly- or Detroit, or Memphis, or Muscle Shoals, Alabama, or New Orleans- except for that it took one person to gather. It's the Noah theory: You gather two of every animal, and you create a scene. The first thing we did when we took a label is we took that money and we hired a chef. Chef cooked his ass off, and when you say "Free food at Ahmir's house"- blammo! All of sudden Mos is here, Common's here, Jill Scott's here. And then five hours a night we'd just jam. People are still benefiting: A core 17 of the musicians who would come every week are now bandleaders.
MJ: You're known for changing up styles. What do you say to Roots purists always clamoring for the old stuff?
AT: The thing I've come to expect from Roots supporters is, "Oh, I like the last record, but I don't know what you've all done with this record!" I know people hold Things Fall Apart as holy, but when it came out- oh my God! …