I’m Mark Ronson and this is The FADER Uncovered Podcast. In this interview series, I’ll be speaking with some of the most influential and groundbreaking musicians in the world, from genre-defining stars to avant-garde trailblazers about their lives and careers. Each episode will be rooted in these musicians’ iconic FADER cover stories, an institution that over the past two decades has told artists’ stories like no other. The podcast is the chance for us to talk about the past, present, and future, reflecting on their breakthroughs, diving into their lives when their covers hit shelves, and discussing what the future might hold now. It’s an opportunity for me to speak to some of the artists I most admire.
Today, I’m talking with Amir “Questlove” Thompson, one of the greatest drummers ever and the backbone of the legendary Roots crew. Quest was a founding member of The Roots back in Philly in 1987. Since then, they’ve gone on to pick up countless awards including three Grammys and really some of the most thought provoking, hard hitting decks hip-hop of all time. Quest has also written three books, most recently, Creative Quest, a meditation on creativity released in 2018. His directorial debut Summer of Soul, a film about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, premiered at Sundance in 2021 and went on to win the esteemed Grand Jury Prize.
He’s also a good friend, even though his trademarked deadpan, no-nonsense demeanor did have me thinking he thought I was a fraud for the first 17 years of that friendship. For the first time he got in the drum booth on a record, I produced Nikka Costa to the most recent one we did together with Yebba. I always know a song is about to go to the next level when he gets on it. His talent, his instinct, his dedication to the craft and his insane knowledge of music history combined to make him an unparalleled contributor.
Mark Ronson: Was there still a thrill of being on the cover of The FADER, because The FADER just had such cool cachet at that moment? It was almost like if you got too big, you couldn’t be on the cover of FADER anymore. I don’t even know why I’m hosting this show. I’d never even been written about in The FADER before. That’s how cool The FADER is. But do you remember the feeling when you found out you’re going to be on the cover, when you first saw it?
Questlove: Well, yeah, I mean, it was important to me simply because we weren’t exactly cover material for the mainstream periodicals. It wasn’t Rolling Stone time, and Tariq got on the cover of The Source. So, as far as I was concerned, the fact that The FADER gave us a look like that was a big deal at the time.
It was a really cool cover. Actually, the whole issue, it just reminded me that there was a moment when The FADER was the American version of The Face. Inside, it’s Cody ChesnuTT, these fashion stories. It’s like a World Cup preview. You guys on the cover, shadow on the back, that was the absolute hippest thing I remember around that time.
What was that feeling like? Because this is just before Phrenology came out. You spent three years in the studio. Expectation’s at crazy high, because you had this commercial break through now as well as all the critical acclaim. You’ve had Voodoo, Mama’s Gun, Fan-Tas-Tic, Like Water for Chocolate, all these things. Was it fraught or were you just sitting on it like, “We’re about to fucking shock the world here”? What was the mood like?
So, the very first class that I taught at NYU was about departure records. We looked at 10 notable departure records. Usually, a departure record is the album in the canon in which an artist takes a drastic left turn after massive commercial success, usually, disguised as the art record or the experimental record, that thing. But every artist has their version of that album. I think the only artists in history that I can recall that actually tried to rise to the challenge and make that Thelma & Louise cliff jump attempt too was Michael Jackson’s Bad, because history will show that if you were at least a Thriller, then chances are Prince did Around the World in a Day and the Beastie Boys did Paul’s Boutique. Usually, after a big record, someone does a drastic left turn in their career.
Usually, I was trying to study to see, “How much does self-sabotage play in that?” I remember when we were mixing the album before [1999’s] The Roots Come Alive, which was basically a collection of five live shows that we’ve recorded across the world. Hearing it as we were mixing it, I was like, “Man, these songs are slow.” You also got to keep in mind that during that time period between 1993 and 2008, The Roots were doing at least 200 shows a year, just night after night after night after night, 600 shows since Things Fall Apart of doing low-tempo things. I wanted us to break free and just do something drastic that was more high-energy, just something more high-powered when we perform in concerts.
So, I think that’s where my mind was: “Let’s create an album that’s faster, that’s harder hitting.” So, that way when we do it in concert, it’s not this slow. It’s one thing playing the songs, but when I was mixing it, if you listen to “The Next Movement” on The Roots Come Alive, I’m like, “Not since Parliament-Funkadelic have I ever saw an act play their music as slow as it is on the record.” Now, I’m also not a fan of when people go totally Vegas and go breakneck speed. Lauryn Hill is a great example. If you see her in the last five years, she’ll do all those songs at breakneck speed, because I think in their head, they’re like, “I got to create excitement in concerts.” So, I just remember at the time just wanting to do something faster.
Also, it’s a much rawer record, because you’re really honed between “The Next Movement” and “You Got Me” and the sound of Things Fall Apart. It had your sound, but it was also really sonically just sharp. It was like The Chronic, Steely Dan, Random Access Memories. It’s in that thing. It’s almost like you just said, “Fuck it. We’re just going to use the room mics on this one.” It obviously wasn’t for every song, but it had that feeling of, “I want it to feel as raw as it does in the room when we’re listening to it.”
Well, the rule was let’s do the opposite and let’s do what we’ve never done before, which can be a dangerous thing. But I think at the time, what I didn’t expect was for Things Fall Apart to be a breakthrough record. I automatically thought we were going to be… There was a Devo box set that came out [which is] — next to Public Enemy’s Greatest Misses — the most self-deprecating compilation title that I’ve ever heard, Devo’s Pioneers Who Got Scalped.
At that time period, I was just like, “Okay, I guess we’re going to be hip-hop’s Fishbone, the best band that the world’s never going to know about.” So, I was ready to just settle into that: “No one’s going to catch on to this no matter what we do.” When Things Fall Apart blew up and subsequently, when the entire living room occupants of my jam sessions during that period between 1997 and 2001, everyone that was in that living room suddenly started to go platinum.
Are we talking about Bilal? Jill Scott?
1997, it was Jill Scott, Musiq, Bilal, Jasmine Sullivan, all 10 years old. Everybody would come through.
So, you’re not even talking conceptually. You’re saying literally your living room in Philly is where these jam sessions would take place.
Yeah. When Illadelph Halflife came out, that was almost like our close, but no cigar moment, because “What They Do” just started getting played on TV. We’d be like, “Oh, this is our moment. This is our moment.” I mean, they all have eventually crept to gold in 25 years, but back then, it just started like 400,000. We were worried because they were spending a gargantuan amount of money on us. The critical acclaim was there. The live show was there. Everything was there, except for us finding an audience that would commit to buying the music. So, having lived in London between 1993 and 1997, we decided to take everything we learned in London and bring it back to America. The jam session was one of those things.
So, in 1997, we did this thing where we put in our budget that we needed two 15-passenger vans, we needed a chef, we needed some roadies. The label’s like, “Hey, wait a minute, what are you guys doing?” We explained to them like, “Yo, we got to write a story. We have to create a movement in order for this to work.” What we discovered was if you do it alone, you’re just an island on your own. At best, you could hope for Weird Al-itis or the guys that did “Macarena,” a singular success. But if you do it as a movement…
We explained to them. It’s not just Stevie Wonder, it’s the Motown movement. It’s not just Britney Spears, it’s the idea of that Disney movement with Christina, NSYNC. So, they were like, “Well, why the chef?” We’re like, “You’ll never get people to come to our house for a jam session unless you have free food.” We hired the best chef in Philadelphia. His name was Terry from Zanzibar Blue. He came and cooked. Of course, everyone was like, “Free food at The Roots’ house at Questlove’s living room.” These people just happened to be Beanie Sigel, Freeway, Eve, Jill — in some weeks, Kindred the Family Soul. Fatin from Kindred the Family Soul, his home girl, India from Atlanta, she plays acoustic guitars. She’ll come up. So, India Arie came up a few times.
It was in my living room. But after a while, I got tired of it. I was the guy that I would Karen my own house. I would call, “There’s a disturbance at… Could you send somebody by?” They’re looking at the phone like, “Wait, aren’t you calling from his house right now?” Hurry up. There’s a disturbance. I was the guy that would call the cops, because jam sessions were going until 3 a.m. People were putting their weed out on my rug. It was that moment.
At its most ridiculous, I’ll say that… My boy who was producing these, he was trying to make a girl Kris Kross. They’re like, “Our homegirl’s singing. She’s dope. She has a dope voice. She sounds like an adult.” They brought this third-grader over. I’m like, “What? No, no third-grader.” I’m like, “No, there’s too much weed here and all that stuff.” But they begged, “Please let her sing.” It was Jazmine Sullivan.
Even during that four-year tenure of her always singing, she would sleep in the back of her dad’s car, come 11:30 when it’s time for her to start singing. He’d wake her up, bring her in. She sang her three songs and then go to school the next day. The other ridiculousness was me coming home from a tour and realizing that the pizza guy is now on the microphone. I’m like, “Oh, this is Showtime at the Apollo. Everybody can get a chance.” This has passed what I thought it was. Now, everyone’s doing a free-for-all. The pizza guy is now singing on the mic. That pizza guy wound up being Musiq Soulchild.
And then Floetry came over. They heard about the jam sessions. So, my whole point was that by 1999, I didn’t expect The Roots to blow up. I definitely didn’t expect what we were doing in our living room to resonate to the entire world. So, come three years later, where this is now the standard, I think half of me was like, “Well, now I want to do the opposite of that.” Because now everyone’s doing this. I just wanted to do something faster, because I didn’t like the slow tempo of our songs on stage. At the time, we’re also subsequently working on Common’s Electric Circus album at the same time.
Dilla was really adamant about, “We’re going to leave our comfort zone. You’re not allowed to play the drum set you played on the last albums, the Voodoo set. Get it out of here. No more piccolo snare. Pick up the deep giant snare. Start hitting your tom-toms. Hit your cymbals.” Dilla was like a coach, telling us, “Do the exact opposite of what we did.” He said the same thing: “I’m messing with these keyboards I’ve never messed with before.” So, we were just in that mind state. Those albums are twins to me. That’s how it wound up sounding like it did.
For a good chunk, it seemed as if anything important in soul music was coming out of Philly. Jill Scott, Bilal, Musiq Soulchild, Dre & Vidal, who wrote Butterflies” for MJ, “Caught Up for Usher and so many other jams. It was as if it was the ’70s again, the era of the sound of Philadelphia, Teddy Pendergrass, The Intruders. Even David Bowie had to visit Sigma Sound in Philly to make his soul record, “Young Americans.” Liverpool in the ’60s, Seattle in the ’90s, something happens in an area when a key artist makes it and inspires and elevates all those around them. Healthy competition is never a bad thing either.I remember my early trips to Philly around this time, being in Jazzy Jeff’s studio. Jeff’s no longer Will Smith’s ex-DJ, but also the patriarch of this vibrant new scene.
Did you do most of the tracking in Electric Lady? Because obviously, Electric Lady, I think of it when I think of Mama’s Gun, I think of Voodoo, but you guys are obviously still a Philly band.
Okay. So, the deal was that Tariq was real comfortable doing his vocals at the place called The Studio. The Studio is one of the first studios that I knew that actually had open loft windows. Most studios are closed in. It’s dark. You don’t know if it’s day or night. It’s like Vegas. You know what I mean?
It’s in the same building where Larry Gold is, in Philly?
Yeah. So, it was a loft vibe there and Tariq really liked doing his vocals there. So, all the vocals were mainly done there. I did most of my drum tracking at Electric Lady. I’ll say that the heart of the album that I put a lot of work in, of course, was “Water.” So, I definitely remember James Blood Ulmer — masterful, avant-garde guitarist — him being very skeptical, him and Rufus Harley. When Rufus Harley did bagpipes on “Do You Want More?!!!??!,” he was just as skeptical. I cold-called them: “Sir, I’m a drummer in a group called The Roots. I’m a big fan of yours.”
Old Black jazz guys and old Black blues guys are all the same ilk of not trusting: “Wait, so you want me to be on your record?” He couldn’t believe that. So, it was this whole thing like, “Whoa, I want cash-in-hand in a paper bag.” I had to have $2,000 cash the second he steps in the studio. So, he knew it wasn’t a hoax. You want me to come to Jimi Hendrix’s studio to play on your record? Yeah, right. So, he didn’t believe it one bit, but yeah. We did a majority of “Water” there. “Thought @ Work,” we definitely did there, the poem with Amiri Baraka.
Where was “The Seed?”
All right, so this is what I’ve learned in history. This is what Steven Van Zandt taught me. He taught me that some of the biggest songs in history were afterthoughts. So, “Twist and Shout” was a result of the Isley Brothers having 10 minutes left on their dime at the studio. So, they’re like, “Oh, we got 10 minutes left. Let’s run that song we were making fun of this morning,” that thing. “Tequila” [by The Champs], the same thing. “Tequila” was done with five minutes left in a session. All I remember about “The Seed” was people often ask why I left a false start on the track — I was late for date night. Cody’s flight had come in late, three hours late. I thought, “Okay, well, this should be four hours to track the song. It shouldn’t be that long.”
So, he gets to the studio with 10 minutes to spare. I was on date night with somebody really important. I wasn’t about to stand this girl up just to do the song. So, literally, with my coat on and my backpack on my back, that’s how much thought I put into it. I was just like, “Well, let’s just run this real quick.” So, we ran it and I didn’t want [engineer] Russell Elevado to rewind the reel-to-reel. That would have wasted another three minutes.
So, I was just like, “No, just keep it rolling. One more time. One more time.” Literally, when that cymbal hits at the end, you can hear me run out the studio. You can hear the door closing and I’m running for my life to get on 8th Avenue to get a cab to get to my date. That’s how much I put no thought into “The Seed” whatsoever. It just goes to show you that sometimes when you don’t plan something, it works.
I think that we must have met properly 1999 in Electric Lady. So, you would come into play with [bassist and producer] Pino [Palladino] on the Nikka Costa record [2001’s Everybody Got Their Something]. But I remember walking around Electric Lady, that was my first time ever in a real studio and I would be walking down the halls. There’d be Common with a forty in his hand looking a bit lost, because he was like, “Well, I can own this place. I can go in any room I want.” He’d just come in and hang out for a while. And then I would see Erykah and I felt like —
He probably had apple juice then. Erykah had gotten to him.
It was so crazy. I was so beyond this wide-eyed kid seeing my heroes only a couple years older than me, but the mythology around this studio because of what the Soulquarians did. I mean, can we talk about the energy in Electric Lady around that time?
Yeah, I’ll say that the beginning of the residency of the Electric Lady’s period, it definitely starts with D’Angelo. The last song we worked on for our Illadelph Halflife album was “The Hypnotic” with D’Angelo. We have carved out two days to do it at Sigma Sound in Philly. He’s so genius with his precision that he knocked it out in three hours. So, we had all this time on our hands. We spent the rest of the day testing each other’s music IQ out: “Okay, well, you know this Robb Royer song? You know this Stevie Wonder song? You know this Earth, Wind & Fire song?” So, in a half hour, we knew like, “Okay, we’re brothers.”
So, the next day, I believe he brings in a reel or a song called “Bitch” and asked me to play on it. I think initially, we went to Battery Studio to do it. The environment just wasn’t vibey to him. So, I think Dominique Trenier had recommended to him to go to Electric Lady Studios and told him the history that Stevie Wonder recorded Music of My Mind and Talking Book and all that stuff. So, the second session for Voodoo wound up being in Electric Lady. What we didn’t know is that it was going to take four years to make. So, for me, it was like college, because even though we did a lot of jamming — we did a lot of jamming, a lot of preparation, a lot of show preparation — it’s almost like making the album was maybe in sixth place. We just lived there.
There was a point where if I felt I was needed for D’Angelo and I had to do something for The Roots — because at this time, we’re starting to do Things Fall Apart — then I would just quietly rent Studio B down the hall, do my Roots stuff. And then D’Angelo gets there around 7:00. We work on Voodoo. And then Common was in the same space, where he’s like, “Yo, I want to catch some of that magic that you guys got.” Again, we worked on the last song he worked on for his record before One Day It’ll All Make Sense, was the song with Erykah, “All Night Long,” and the Lauryn Hill song, “Retrospect for Life.” That brings in James Poyser.
So, suddenly, Common is just like, “Well, I want to set up shop in Studio B since you all are going to be here all the time. You said D’Angelo doesn’t start until 7:00. So, maybe we can do 11:00 in the morning until 7:00 and then you go to D.” I thought, “Well, okay, fine. Let’s try it.” And then after that, it just became fully operational. I mean, by the time Erykah came in to do Mama’s Gun, we were already on tour with D’Angelo. But James Poyser came home to start working with Erykha on Mama’s Gun halfway through the Voodoo tour. At its craziest, it was just like a freefall. I’ll say that one of the folklore stories of it was “Chicken Grease” was initially for Common. That was a Common song.
D’Angelo just happened to come in at the tail-end of it and pulled me to the side. He’s like, “Yo, man. You know good and well he don’t deserve that funk.” He’s like, “That’s my funk, man. I got to have that song.” I was like, “Yo, man, this is for him.” He’s like, “No, man, I got to have that song. I don’t care.” So, then it just so happens that was also the same week in which I believe after three or four failed attempts to get Lauryn Hill to come down to the studio to do her duet on the Voodoo record, he did her record, “Nothing Even Matters.” And then she come and reciprocates, does his.
There was a lot of drama I remember at the time, because she was quite religious and her husband [Rohan Marley] had certain views about singing a song with a man that she wasn’t married to. Because Dominique was my manager, so I’d catch. I just remembered it.
See, that’s an exclusive. I didn’t know that. I just thought she was busy on tour.
It was a very Jason Jackson managing Lauryn and Dominique Trenier managing D’Angelo. It was a chess match. Everyone wanted it to happen, but I even couldn’t remember 20 years later what was going on. It felt like something.
Wow, that’s news to me. Well, okay, I guess it makes sense. It explains a lot, because initially, it was a Dilla song that they were going to do. That didn’t happen. And then the song that wound up being “Ghetto Heaven” on Common’s album was our second attempt at it, but we were just jamming. The groove was good, and it was seven minutes. The third option was like, “Well, let’s do a cover. Let’s do Eugene McDaniels’s “That’s The Time I Feel Like Making Love.” The fourth option was just do it by yourself without Lauryn. I remember when he said, “Yo, man, that’s my song. I need that song.” I was just like, “Well, let’s do a trade-off. Can he have one of the joints we worked on?” Yeah, whatever.
Once I realized that “That’s The Time” was going to be the new Lauryn enticement song, I asked him, “Oh, let’s do that second song we meant for Lauryn. Let Common have that joint.” He agreed. So, then they made a trade with each other. The thing was it really didn’t stop. It didn’t stop at all once 2000 came, when the first round of records came. So, it even got crazier between 2000 and 2003 when everyone was working on their Electric Lady follow-up records. To me, it was just one of my favorite times in drumming. I still get excited. Every time I walk down the stairs and pass that mural, I always say, like, “Wow, 9 times out of 10, I create something magical when I come here.” That even counts for you with Yebba.
The amount of phone calls from her peers that I’ve gotten over that song, it’s like, “Wow. I haven’t seen this since the early aughts at Electric Lady.”
Oh, great. “Over Distance?”
Oh, great. Yeah, because obviously, her record is coming this year. You’re such a huge part of that. I don’t know if you recognize, but I’m sitting in [Studio] A right now, which I feel like, if anything, you should be here.
Yeah, I was going to say you’re either at Electric Lady or you pull the prints and have them design it exactly as is in your house. I’m super jealous of that shit.
Or fancy screensaver. So, now, that you’re really talking about that period between 1999, 2000, 2001, it makes Phrenology actually even braver because not only are you breaking from The Roots sound, but you by brute force have dragged all of the air of hip-hop and R&B to now suddenly be used to this. There have been huge records: “Untitled,” “The Light,” like we said, Erykha stuff. This is at the moment where you could fully cash in and be like, “Okay, finally, they’ve all caught up to us, and we’re going to do this big record.” That actually makes it even more crazy that you just… turn the car around.
I’ll tell you exactly when I knew there was a change in the air. I was wandering around late 2000. Once the Voodoo tour was over in October and it was back to The Roots, I was wondering to myself, “By the time we finished this follow up record, will we be able to sound the same, or will we just be one of the million people sounding like this?” Because there was just a point where they’re doing neo-soul Coke commercials and all those things. Suddenly, we became the mainstream. 1997 was on my mind. I felt that that was the paradigm shift for hip-hop and when hip-hop finally became what it was once against.
I just didn’t know if we [had] made an album similar to Things Fall Apart, if that would have been satisfactory. You made a great observation about the open mics and everything, because the first thing I did was got out of that booth. Well, you remember it now, but there was a cubbyhole that they built for me, a little miniature house inside of Studio A in which that’s where the drums were. It was a tight room. That way, I wouldn’t bleed on top of whatever D was doing on piano or any of the live mics.
That’s where you got your signature sound really, because it was a tight area. There’s no reverb. The definition was crazy.
A very tight sound, right. And then the challenge number one was well, let’s come out of that cubbyhole into the main room. So, I remember I spent a lot of time with Russell Elevado. I didn’t want to sound like System of a Down. Because the very first thing I did outside of that room, there was a month where I worked with Zack de la Rocha on his first solo record back in 2000. I figured, “Well, let’s go into the main hall of Studio A to get a bigger boom sound.” So, it was closer to John Bonham than J Dilla. I was wondering, “Should this be the sound of Phrenology? Should it not be the sound of Phrenology? I’m not sure.” Maybe mid-recording, we decided, “Let’s just do everything that we’re not supposed to do.”
Because even with “Break You Off,” the story behind “Break You Off” was the King of Comedy, Walter Latham, who’s a promoter manager, who was instrumental in the careers of Cedric the Entertainer and Steve Harvey, all those guys from being local comedians to national stage. He’s the one that’s put together the Spike Lee, the Kings of Comedy concert film. Walter wanted to do a Black sketch show. It’s been a long time since In Living Color. So, we had shot a pilot for a Black SNL back in very early 2002. His idea was like, “Well, I want The Roots to be the house band. Let’s say every episode, maybe one or two guests sit in with The Roots.”
Little did I know that my life would be this in seven years. But having no experience in that world whatsoever, we didn’t know what we were going to do. We were camera blocking for an hour. There was some song in the E minor, some Sean Paul song that I don’t know if Kamal was making fun of it or whatever, but he was just noodling around to and Musiq started singing to it. So, then “Break You Off” gets born maybe seven minutes later, because we’re just camera blocking, but I had no clue. The rest of The Roots is like, “Hey, that’s a song.”
To me, it was just like, “Okay, this is a seven-minute jam for camera blocking and that’s it,” because I went away to work on some project and came home. They were working on “Break You Off.” I’m like, “Wait a minute, this is the song from that camera blocking.” They were like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” I was like, “Oh, I don’t know, man. This is a cheesy R&B song.” That’s when my manager, Richard, was like, “Well, that’s going to be an album. Let’s just do everything we’re not supposed to do.” Once he presented that challenge to me, then that’s when I took it to the hilt, where every song that’s… Even though it’s normalized now, those songs from Phrenology, none of those songs could have ever fit on Do You Want More?!!!??!, Illadelph Halflife, or Things Fall Apart.
A bold change in direction is one of the toughest things an artist can do, especially when you’ve just broken through to the mainstream. I mean, it’s the musical equivalent of burning a bag of money. You know people like this thing you’ve already done and now you can milk it. You can get gigs, sponsorships — but instead, you do a 180. The great artists do it all the time: Kanye, Radiohead, Bowie. I mean, that’s why they are the great ones. But at that time, it feels like you’re risking everything, because you are. Only your gut — the thing that makes your hair stand up when you’re listening back to some new jam, some new song, some new idea you just worked on — that’s the only thing you can really count on in these instances to show you the way.
I can’t imagine that everybody in the band shared your same brave new world thing on it. You guys have worked, like you said, 200 to 250 dates a year touring. You finally got to this place where the rest of the world is caught up with the sound that you’re making. You’re like, “All right, guys, we’re going to do this now.” Was it hard to convince everybody else in the group or were you a pretty unified vision?
Well, at the time, Tariq is also trying to wrestle with what was once Masterpiece Theater, his solo record. So, I think with him, it wasn’t church or state. I think that was one of his first bouts with writer’s block. He put all of his energy into Masterpiece Theater. But my manager Rich is very big on touring season and time, deadlines, and all those things. He’ll be like, “Alright, eight months, we got to have his record turned in eight months.” I mean, he has a way of cracking the whip that just pulls you out of it. It’s either you get down or you don’t get down.
Now, I’m not saying with Tariq, there’s an option to not get down, because you can’t have an album without a lead vocalist. But I’ll say at the time, we had expanded the group — Ben Kenny, who now plays with Incubus was starting to play guitar with us. Scratch had joined the group as vocal percussionist. I just think at the time, we were all just a little tired. It wasn’t just Things Fall Apart.
Those three years with Things Fall Apart is one thing, but you got to understand, we’ve been together since high school. That seven-year period from high school that led to the record deal and all the busking we had to do on the corners and all the cars we had to cram into. And then that period where we lived in London in poverty for three to four years touring in these horrible tour buses and playing to audiences in the basement of some Swedish bar, red-light district area for 12 people. We had been together more than we’ve been with our families by this point. So, I just think there was a need for a jolt, a sea change, if you will. So, I think we were all aboard for it, because it was just different and exciting.
The song that has the most unconventional feel for hip-hop record is obviously “The Seed (2.0).” That was a straight club banger. I remember maybe I even had to have an English 12-inch that you had to play on 45, maybe it wasn’t on a 12-inch in America, but I needed it to play in the club. I remember that shit just going off in clubs, especially hip-hop clubs in London that I was starting to play. The DJ would play that out of “Steady, As She Goes” by The Raconteurs, I remember one time. This was a hip-hop club and the walls are sweating. That’s a full-on banger. In The Roots catalog, that is one of my biggest dance floor records to play.
My story with Cody starts actually with Butterfly, Ishmael Butler, Digable Planets. He had had Cody’s demo for the longest and he had shared it with dream hampton, the director and writer. She let me hear “Bitch, I’m Broke.” She picked me up. We were doing a show in Detroit and I heard “Bitch, I’m Broke.” I thought was the most hilarious shit ever. And then she played “Serve this Royalty” and then she played “Boylife in America.” I thought, “This dude’s fucking brilliant. Who is this guy?” She kept it secret, secret. We had to go to a gas station. I’m in the passenger seat. She got out to pay for the gas.
I just took a sneak and looked, Cody ChesnuTT with two T’s. That’s the power of pre-social media. So, I went on Okayplayer. I was like, “Have you guys ever heard of a Cody ChesnuTT? I think he’s from Los Angeles. If anyone can point me in his direction, I would appreciate it.” It just so happens that an intern at MCA happened to hit me and says, “Yo, you’re coming in the office tomorrow, right?” He’s like, “I think I got info on that guy you posted about.” We were in L.A. the next day. We go to the throwaway bin. Ten of his demos are in the trash. They’re like—
The whole Headphone Masterpiece, as we know it, the whole thing.
Yeah, in the trash.
I was like, “Wait, what?” I grabbed it. It’s like, “You want these?” They gave me those 10 copies. I was like, “Yo, this shit is incredible.” They were just like, “Yo, this is so lo-fi,” whatever. Me and Rich tried to explain to them what we liked about Cody’s version of rock music. Oftentimes, especially with Black people, in their mind, rock is when you see Beavis and Butt-head do the hand signal, that thing. In their minds, it’s always like “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath or “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” just balls to the wall. That’s just one thing.
That would be just picking Naughty by Nature as your hip-hop experience and nothing else when there’s such a spectrum of it. We’re trying to explain to them, “Yo, this is like part early-Stones, a little bit of Velvet Underground. There’s traces of Van Morrison in there. There’s a level of rock in here that you rarely hear from Black rockers that feels authentic and lo-fi.” So, we looked at the number on the CD. It was his cousin, Donray. We told him the story. Yo, I heard the song in a gas station. As fast as you could say… We met them in L.A. And then in two weeks on date night, they came to New York City to cut “The Seed” with us.
It’s been crazy ever since.
I can’t remember the chronology then. So, you guys cut “The Seed” with him. And then between then and when Phrenology actually was released, did The Headphone Masterpiece come out? In other words, did he get his version out to the public eventually before your version came?
By that time, The Headphone Masterpiece was done on a local disk maker, maybe 1,000 pieces thing, but they also saw and seized an opportunity to ramp up support for Cody and get his record to come out at the same time. If I’m not mistaken, we had gotten word in August that MCA Records might be imploding, which is weird considering that they had a really stellar year as far as their product was concerned.
I always joke that I will never slander Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me” and Jodeci’s “All My Life,” because the profits reaped from that single probably single-handedly covered our video budgets for Things Fall Apart and all of our promotion. They said, “You guys better thank Shaggy.” The same with “All My Life” was for Phrenology, but we got word in August that MCA was about to implode. We wanted to release Phrenology maybe February of 2003, because we felt like the first quarter, that dead period, that was our sweet spot. Nobody else have records out at the time and here come The Roots.
Everybody put out their big records for Christmas. You look at Adele’s records. If you’re a new artist with a shot to chart big, you go in January, February, because it’s a little quiet.
Yeah, you got to wait until traffic is down. Things Fall Apart came out February 23. That was on purpose. Let everyone do their shit in 1998 and then we’ll come out. But when we got word in August that maybe the label’s going to implode, Rich was like, “Well, no, we got to come out November.” It was almost like insider trading. We finally got word in September that the label will be no more, December 1 of 2002. Rich was like, “Well, what do we have to do to make sure all the budgets are approved and that this goes according to plan?” They said, “Well, you would have to release it the third week of November.”
I remember going to Common and saying, “Yo, you might want to put out Electric Circus maybe a month earlier because this is going to happen.” I think him and his people were just like, “We’ll be cool,” because they had some leverage with The Neptunes song, the “Come Close” song. There was a two-week difference between the two records. Because we had all of our budgets approved and all that stuff, we were able to successfully push that out into gold, which, again, we weren’t expecting to have lightning strike twice, especially with such an anti-Roots record. But because this came out two weeks later, unfortunately, that record didn’t do well for him.
I went to look at the charts that week that Phrenology came out, just because I’m getting old now. So, eras fold into each other. I was like, “What was that exactly?” It was Justified, The Eminem Show, 8 Mile, Under Construction, The Blueprint 2. It’s wild, because when I think of most of them and they all had their own progressive mind-blowing things about them, or at least most of them, but when I listened to “The Seed” or “Water,” it certainly sounds fresher than those things. I’m not expecting you to get on here and just diss everyone.
It’s not an Avirex jacket. That was 9X Avirex jacket time, Rocawear jeans 5X too big, white T-shirts to your knees era. It didn’t feel like that. You know what I mean? When I create records, my number one goal is to make sure that in 20 years, I can play it and not be cringeworthy like, “Oh, yeah, that’s definitely 2003 right there.” You know what I mean?
There’s no way to identify what period it came from. That’s always my goal with The Roots record.
One of my other most treasured 12-inches, because it obviously never came out because the sample wasn’t cleared, was the original version of “Thought @ Work” with the Beatles sample, which is just one of the greatest… I must have played that white label about 700 times that year. Obviously, I’m a big fan of Apache breakbeats and that hip-hop, but it must have been a bit of a gut punch not being able to get that sample cleared.
It was at the time, which is weird. John Branca, Michael Jackson’s attorney, was like, “Hey, I love you guys. I would have done it for you.” I’m like, “Oh, really?” The lesson I learned there was oftentimes you got to figure out how to cut through red tape. That’s the last time I let a representative let the label talk to their label and their owner. After that, I learned that, “Oh, if you go directly to the source and ask, it’s always a different result.”
Yeah, now you could call Paul McCartney [or] Sean [Lennon].
Yeah, man. “Hey Bulldog” was one of my favorites from Yellow Submarine. Yellow Submarine was always a childhood record to me like what Carole King’s Really Rosie is to some people or Marlo Thomas’s Free to Be… You and Me. I don’t know why I always felt like Yellow Submarine was a kid’s record when it wasn’t but I always felt like it was a kid’s record. I love that song. So, I had initially made it for Tariq’s Masterpiece Theater album, because he was such a fan of Kool G Rap’s “Men at Work” on his debut record. I was just like, “Yo, we have to make ‘Thought @ Work.’ You rhyming over Apache like Kool G Rap and just going off.” So, it was a heartbreak then.
We should get it cleared for the 20th anniversary of Phrenology.
I know, right.
You know you could just get it cleared and throw it on that. That would be amazing.
You don’t think I’m working on that right now? Next year is the 20th anniversary of Phrenology. I’m definitely trying to get my ducks in order for that.
It’s definitely crazy to think now that Questlove, a dude who I think of as maybe the most connected, respected figure in music couldn’t get a Beatles sample cleared. But back then, you’d get a letter from some attorney saying, “Sorry, access denied.” That really did seem like the end of it. There’s very few feelings worse than making a record, falling in love with it, you can’t wait for the DJs, the clubs, the world to hear it, and then you find out you have to rework the whole thing because the sample didn’t clear or you can’t afford it. It’s the gift and curse of sampling. Maybe because the music was never fully yours to begin with.
In those days, I was essentially a club DJ. So, that’s how I listened to music. I needle drop. I wasn’t really at that point where I was listening deeply to records, because I was DJing six nights a week, six hours a night. I just didn’t want to hear music in my off night. So, really listening to Phrenology recently is more where I’ve gone into the record. “Water” just struck me, I mean, obviously for emotional reasons, but the epicness. It’s avant-garde. It feels like birth at times. It’s incredible. It’s obviously your song and Tariq’s statement on Malik. But it would be really great if it’s okay to talk about that song, because it’s so special.
Oh, yeah, absolutely. In hindsight, when you’re dealing with someone and their struggle issues with narcotics especially, there comes a point where you’re wondering if you’re enabling them or if you’re helping them or if you’re hindering them. Like, “Okay, we’ll give you money this week, give you money this week.” Is it helping or hurting? There was just a point where around early 2002, it became downright dangerous. Even professionally for us, it was becoming detrimental. We had to go to Larry Gold’s studio to set up shop there, because we had gotten kicked out of Sigma because of one of Malik’s antics.
It’s one thing when you’re able to cover it up and not involve the world in it. But there’s a point after 2001, where everybody and their mother had these sightings and whatnot and just the constant 3 a.m. phone calls about… he got incarcerated or something. It became an absolute nightmare. We never had a discussion like, “Well, let’s do a song about it.” For Tariq, it was therapeutic to just address him that way, because that was the only way. We’ve done the intervention talks, the sit you down with the family members and do that whole thing where we all share in a circle, where it is and what we’re feeling. It really wasn’t getting through to him.
Tariq felt this is the best way to express himself with it. I guess, with expanding it to this 10-minute statement. I know that oftentimes, songs of that level could be seen as a self-indulgent thing, but in my mind, I wanted to paint a scene that let you know what a literal nightmare that situation was — where every day you wake up expecting to get that phone call of, “I got arrested.” I got to bail him out. Or “broke into someone’s car,” whatever. It was that bad.
Even in terms of when he passed away, people ask questions like, “Well, what have The Roots…” We kept this very close to the chest. Even until his last breath, we were his literal life support. Not just like, “Here’s money.” Trying to get him help, that thing. I guess you could say that that was more of a cathartic act for both Tariq and I to deal with whatever the anxiety was in dealing with Malik and that whole situation.
You can hear your anger at times. The music gets quite furious. And then there’s this thing going on in the background, that keyboard thing, it’s just some chord pattern he’s playing, but to me, it sounded like a life support machine in a hospital. I’m sure it’s just my own weird abstract take on it, but it goes through all these movements. It’s such a moving piece of music, to put that in the middle of the album. It’s not a love letter, obviously, but it’s showing how much you care within this piece of music.
I mean, the thing is when you’re confronting somebody, you run the risk of it being passive-aggressive or out of line. We weren’t trying to be adversarial or confrontational to the point where it was done in an embarrassing way. It wasn’t a diss record or that sort of thing. I can tell you listen to things closely. The weirdest part of crafting that song was when I realized that I found James Blood Ulmer. This is maybe six days after finding him, and he was coming to Electric Lady. I realized off the bat that wait, I have no musical backdrop. I’m bringing him here to do free jazz on a song and I don’t have anything yet. Crap, what do I do?
Because the guys were in Philly. So, usually, the way that I craft songs, if we do it like Abbey Road-style, if I’m just by myself, I will noodle on something until you get the idea of it. And then I play for the band like, “Okay, this is what I was trying to go for, this score D. Do you know… Oh, yeah, that’s it. That’s it. All right. Can you do that?” So, at Electric Lady, there weren’t that many Roots reels there. There’s like five reels there. But one of those reels had us trying to flip Biggie’s “Unbelievable.”
Just that one chord.
Right. I remember taking that reel, sampling it in the 2000, and I just used it as a temporary placement until I got either Kamal or James to do something else on top of it. I just never got to it. I needed some musical movement just so that James Blood Ulmer could have something to play to when he gets to Electric Lady because I was by myself. So, it started with his noodling and then I had to add the other elements later. It’s funny you notice that. I just kept it in the mix. I think Russ asked, “Are we using this?” I was just like, “Yeah, just throw everything in there.”
And then when the album came out… I was just looking at the Wiki today. I was like, “That’s odd. They’re coming out this huge record. It’s a really acclaimed record.”
Yeah. It came to 22. I’m like, “Okay, that’s because you probably came out in the middle of a Mariah Carey, Christmas extravaganza—”
Exactly. You know me so well, Mark. I lost my mind. I’m like, “Yo, this shit is not going to debut on the top 10 What the hell? We’re done. We’re done. We’re done.” They explained to me that no, it’s just that everything above you… That was the last of an era. Napster in 2004, that ruined an era of those big week sales, but there was a time in 2002, in which maybe the entire top 40 had the ability to move 300,000 units. Now, it’s a miracle. You do 300,000, you might live at number one for four weeks or whatever.
But the label said that once we decided, “Okay, we got to get this out now on November,” I remember, Tim Reid III, son of Tim Reid, the actor from WKRP, he was our product placement guy. He was like, “Okay, Ahmir, I’m just telling you now to curb your enthusiasm, don’t call my office crying when you see the numbers. Just know that when you release a record in the fourth quarter during that whole Black Friday madness, you’re probably going to chart lower — but that does not mean that you didn’t sell well. It means that you just charted lower, okay?”
I was like, “Yeah, I get it.” But then that November when I see it… Because I remember J.Lo’s record also came out that week. Oh, man. I was like, “Fuck, we’re done, 22. Damn.” But we went gold, which to me, I almost consider that a bigger achievement than Things Fall Apart going platinum at a time.
And then The Tipping Point comes [in 2004]. The Tipping Point now listening to it, it seems like there’s a little bit of exhaustion. There’s a lot more outside production. You hear a little bit less of you in it. Is it fair to say were you just really exhausted, or where do we go now, or what does The Roots sound, or I can’t carry this whole thing with my drum set anymore?
So as promised, MCA imploded. We were without an island. The way that I heard the story went down was Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine had a breakfast meeting. Jimmy basically let Dre control the MCA guillotine. Okay, who do we save? Who don’t we save? I remember, eight of us got saved: Mary, Common. I remember our name being last on that list. So, it was like, “Phew.” The way that the email came to us is like that high school musical, you look to see if you made the part.
Because that was a question like, “Okay, so where do all the MCA acts go?” And then around February, we heard a rumor that they’re going to have a meeting to decide the future of who they’re going to save and who they’re not going to save. It was like, “Did I make it? Did I make it?” Yeah, they’ll have an official statement in March. And then come March, they said, the following acts will be transferring to Geffen-Interscope. We were last. I was like, “Phew!” And then I asked around. I was like, “What happened?” That’s when I found out that Dre knew and liked us. Wait, Dre insisted that they save The Roots? Wow.
I thanked him for that. We had a meeting with Jimmy Iovine. We realized instantly that this wasn’t going to be the right fit. I think Jimmy knows how to sell what can be easily sold. We were not easily sellable. In my mind, I guess he took a cursory glance, a gander, if you will, like, “Okay, that song’s cool, that song’s cool” to get familiar with the group. I think he played “The Seed” in the office. I could tell maybe it’s his first time listening to it. He says, “Sounds old, sounds real old.” We shot each other a look like, “Okay, what does that mean? Do we make it?” And then he asked, “Okay, so what ideas do you guys have?”
Can I just clarify? “The Seed” was out already. This is after the album’s come out.
Yeah, it was out. It was out. He had to do some homework — and I get it. Oftentimes, The Roots are the band where you have to decide whether you commit or not. It’s the same way with Kid A. When Kid A first came out, everyone’s like, “Yeah, I love Kid A. Hell yeah, I love this shit.” But they didn’t start digging it until maybe six or seven months [later] when it became absolutely undeniable. It’s like those things like, “Zero 7? That was my shit!” I know for a fact that that’s The Roots for lot of people. The cool band that you have to cosign whether you listen to it or not.” It’s a lot to take in. So, I get it.
All I know is that we had a feeling that he wasn’t that familiar with the group and that we would just be very hard to deal with. I actually had a suspicion that this might be an embarrassing situation for him, because you’re on a label in which 19 of your acts are platinum or multi-platinum. You know what I mean? Everything you touch is amazing. What will it mean if you kill something that has just started? We just started going platinum and gold. So, he knew coming in the door that we had some niche audience, cult following cache thing. If he drops the ball on that, then what happened? So, there was a trepidation, fear feeling leaving that meeting, convinced that he might be afraid to touch it, afraid to wilt a very sensitive flower.
The first thing was he made the discovery that his beloved Scott Storch was once a member of The Roots. “Wait, wait, Scotty, Scotty, you know him?” Dude, he was in our band. Scott is a Root. That opened a door, at least where I felt like, “Phew! Okay, he won’t drop us.” We played him one demo. The demo was for “Don’t Say Nuthin’,” which Tariq was just mumbling the chorus, because he was going to just do it later, but he did it as a placer. He responded like, “Yo, that’s so clever, that nonsensical scatting thing. That’s amazing.”
I’m like, “Well, you know that’s a placer, right?” He’s like, “No, I like that.” He had so much stand-at-attention energy. Suddenly, he’s sitting in the chair like this. That’s the first and the last time I’ll ever create an album, specifically for someone’s taste. I’m not trying to say that Tipping Point’s my redheaded stepchild. It’s ironic that we’re circling back to The FADER right now. Now, imagine getting straight A’s your entire life and then you get your first C-.
Yeah. Was that from The FADER, your first C-?
Yeah, I remember my publicist playing The Tipping Point for whoever was the Editor-in-Chief at The FADER at the time [Knox Robinson]. He hated the record. Now, mind you since 1992, I’ve never experienced any pushback from any critic whatsoever. I knew I had critics in my pocket. So, I remember going to my publicist like, “All right, all right, so what did they say? What did they say?” She’s like, “Well, I don’t know.” I never experienced that before. I’m like, “Wait, you know what?” She’s like, “He said he needs time with it.” I never had a situation where no one’s ever said, “How high?” when I tell them to jump. Oh, God.
And then the Rolling Stone review was just three stars and this new thing I never heard of called Pitchfork. What’s a Pitchfork? We got 5.4. What the hell is that? We never experienced that shit. Oh, my God. 2004 is one of the worst… Now, as a 50-year-old, I appreciate the idea of failing and learning lessons from it, but in real time, to experience 2004 was just such a crazy experience. Wait, what’s happening? Why is everything getting stripped away from us? So, that’s the last time I will ever try to cater an album to the tastes of someone that has my life in their hands.
The perfect flipside to that — Jay-Z becomes president of Def Jam and signs you over there and was like, “I don’t want you making records to the radio. I need you to keep being The Roots.” Obviously, that was such an amazing thing. Game Theory, actually, that has one of my favorite Roots songs. I mean, I love the whole album, but “Long Time” with Peedi Crakk, I forgot about that. I was listening through it yesterday, the whole record, and it came. That song is so emotive and just also, the beat is just so far. It was like a gut punch.
I nearly had to pull over to the side of the road, because I forgot how much those… It’s got some melancholic chords, I forgot how much it moved me. I was like, “Oh, my God, this record. I listened to this record 100 times in a row when it came out.” And then I also think with Game Theory — this is a nerdy theory that you could shoot out of the water — I feel like when you opened up the hi-hat and your hi-hat goes from being tss-tss-tss to being sshh-sshh-sshh, I know you’re excited. There is no open hi-hat on Tipping Point. When you come back in on that first song or whatever the second song—
“Don’t Feel Right” and all those things, yeah. Wow, you’re really observant.
In “Game Theory,” the groove is back.
I did a session with John Mayer on one of his albums. Steve Jordan’s drum set was there. That’s the first time I’d ever seen crash cymbals and ride cymbals as hi-hats. I was like, “Wait a minute. I can put ride cymbals on the hi-hat and play it?” So, I got back on the drum set and started noodling. I was like, “Yo, this is a crazy sound. I never thought of this.” So, Game Theory is the period in which I started playing regular cymbals as my hi-hats. I haven’t used traditional hi-hats since 2005. I’ll say that Jay had known my immediate concerns and fears back in 2004. Once we finally put The Tipping Point to bed, I wrote Iovine an email. I wanted to let him off the hook.
My appeal was, “Look, we’re a group that has this cache and a very specific audience. I know it must be confusing for you to try to figure out how to cater to that audience. I know you don’t want to be seen as the guy that killed this group’s momentum. You’re all the way our in Los Angeles. We’re used to dealing with a label that’s in New York City. I’m asking permission for you to just quietly let us go to another label under the Universal umbrella where we have a relationship.”
I was like, “If we walk out the door, you’re going to lose a lot of nightmare phone calls of us screaming about this video and this single and this promotion or whatever. You have 19 other platinum acts. You don’t need us. If we sneak out, no one will even know we were here.” That was the most polite way that you could ask to get dropped. He complied. Jay called him up to just say, “No hard feelings. I’m not poaching your audience.” He’s like, “No, Ahmir wrote me already.” So, that’s how that went down.
And then Jay had already done Unplugged. I was such a huge fan of all the MTV hip-hop Unplugged albums from the first round with the LL ones. And then there wasn’t anything like that. I can’t remember who the band was on the first round of Unplugged. Who was it?
That’s a Philly group called Pop’s Cool Love.
I remember. Well, as good as anyone was at that point other than the Brand New Heavies backing a rapper and making a little bit of an attempt to try and preserve the sound of the samples and stuff, it was a lot of fun. And then there was nothing like that. And then you do Jay-Z Unplugged. Then you take it, because of your record knowledge and everything, just to the next level of recreating. That’s still to me is maybe one of hip-hop’s greatest live recordings. Was that how you forged the relationship with Jay? Was he a Roots fan?
It’s so weird. In 2001, there was still this hip-hop apartheid, church and state separation thing between artists. Backpackers didn’t take kindly to commercial rappers. Commercial rappers looked at us like broke haters.
Yeah, the “What They Do” video could have been looked at as taking shots at lot of people too.
Which is so weird, because Charles Stone, the guy that created the “Wassup?” Budweiser commercials, he made a video for this rock group called Tesla that was on Geffen at the time. My relationship with the rejection bin at Geffen is legendary. So, not only with Cody ChesnuTT, but that Tesla video, they didn’t like the video. I thought it was so clever. I was like, “Yo, this is amazing.” The one area that Roots are never involved with is our visuals, our photos. We don’t have that Kanye gene in us, where you got to micromanage every frame of the video and the edit and all that stuff. We didn’t care. It was just you show up. All right, where do I play? All right, goodbye. We just told Charles, “All right, do this video.”
It wasn’t until later that we realized there was a Biggie “One More Chance” reference in there. It’s weird. It’s like, “Well, how do you guys not know if you’re laying on a bed, just like Biggie in the video, and it’s lit just like Biggie in the video, and there’s a girl in the bed just like Biggie in the video?” It’s so weird. On the set, it didn’t look like that. It didn’t transfer me like, “Oh, we’re taking a direct pot-shot at Biggie,” because we would have definitely deaded that shit like, “Yo, dawg, we can’t…” So, he was not happy about that shit whatsoever.
I actually spoke about it in The Source magazine, which Selwyn Hinds asked me to write an op-ed. Who writes an op-ed in The Source? He wanted me to write a letter at the beginning of The Source about the impending civil war between rappers on the East, about commercialism versus art. I wrote this eight-page manifesto. Literally, right when I was about to fax them my response, someone’s like, “Oh, obviously you haven’t heard.” I was like, “What?” He’s like, “Biggie got killed last night.” Literally, I wrote that letter at the beginning of March 9 not knowing what happened. I felt horrible about that shit.
What’s weird is for a lot of people, September 11 is the day where a lot of us just self-soothed to The Blueprint by just listening to it over and over and over again, just to get our minds off of what was happening. I hit up dream hampton. I was like, “Yo, don’t tell nobody, but I think this Blueprint record… but don’t tell no one.” She’s like, “Ahmir, you got to let me tell Jay this.” I said, “No, no, no, no, no.” Because to my mind, he’s like, “Oh, he’s the devil, commercial rapper.” It’s like, “No, no, no, no, don’t do that.” She’s like, “Ahmir, I got to get you out your own way. I’m telling Jay this, and you’re going to accept it.” “No, don’t do it. Don’t do it.”
Maybe the next day, I was like, “So, what did he say?” Acting like I don’t want to know, but still like, “So, what did he say?” He said that the fact that Common hit him up earlier and the fact that I admitted that, that meant more to him than any critical claim. He’s like the fact that he actually reached through to the other side of the hip-hop aisle, that meant more to him than anything. And said, “I want Ahmir to meet me. I’m coming to Philly to do the Electric Factory on September 14, three days later.”
Again, I was like, “Yo, man, I’m not going to a Jay-Z show. I would never be caught at a Jay-Z show.” I wore a hat. You know me and my Afro. I put a hat on and stood at the side of the stage. I didn’t want no one to see me like, “Yo, Quest, was that you at a Jay-Z show?” That’s how much in my head I was about this whole thing. I didn’t go backstage to say hi to him, because I was worried about my reputation. So, she gave him my number. He called a few times and I wasn’t answering. She hit me up like, “Why aren’t you answering the phone, Ahmir? Just talk to him.” Finally, I gave in and he disarmed me in two minutes. He doesn’t remember this. He made a Troy McClure Simpsons reference.
Shut up. Jay knows The Simpsons like that? Troy McClure? That’s crazy.
It was either a monorail reference… it wasn’t Lisa needs braces, but it was a deep Conan-era Simpsons reference that he made.
That totally disarmed me. I said, “Wait a minute. He’s a nerd?” We started talking more. I was like, “Wait a minute. His speaking voice isn’t like his rapping voice.” Ten minutes into that conversation, I was like, “Yo, he’s a nerd. He’s like me.” I was amazed. I called her back. I was like, “Yo, he’s a regular guy.” In my mind, I’m thinking of the guy that allegedly stabbed Un Rivera at a party. He’s just going around, doing crazy shit that I’ve seen in the videos or whatever.
We worked. I got to say that I’ve never met a person that was well within their rights to be a know-it-all. He was a complete sponge. That’s when I realized that people who are really successful are open. They let everything in. People try to manage and control what their creative process is or they have their ideas and they’re locked. Jay’s a guy where it’s like, “Okay, let’s try this idea, let’s try this idea, let’s try this idea.” He’s open to all ideas. What sticks, that’s what works. That’s what we go with. That’s how we forged our relationship.
The Jay-Z-Roots Unplugged collab seemed to be the ultimate thaw in the cold war between underground and mainstream hip-hop. Jay was always the smartest guy in the room. So, of course, he would bring in the world’s best hip-hop band to accompany him. When I think of the artwork and all the visuals, I can still picture Jay smiling ear to ear through the whole thing, feeding off the joy that happens when a group of musicians are collaborating together to make this sound. It just doesn’t happen when you’re rhyming off an instrumental. To this day, no one has brought that Kanye, Just Blaze-era of hip-hop to life better than The Roots do on that recording.
I have a much less wonderful fruit-bearing Blueprint story, but basically, my friend called me up. Do you remember the albums would all come out on Tuesday, but the Friday before, they might be in some of the more bootleg spots and could go get the album? My friend called me up and he was like, “Yo, you’re not going to believe this. On that track Jay-Z gives you a shout out.” I’ve been DJing in clubs enough around New York. Jay-Z would be in the clubs and I had heard his story how he had… I used to do this thing in my DJ set where I would play “Do It Again” and would go, “I saw the same thing happened to Kane.” I’d go into “Ain’t No Half-Steppin’” and I know Jay likde that. I found out that he brought Kane out at Summer Jam doing the same arrangement—
The same transition?
Yeah. I was obviously flattered, but I was way too nervous to ever go up to him at a party. But my friend called me up and he was like, “Yo, Jay gives you a shout out on that song.” I’m like, “Get over here right now.” He drives. In the car, he plays the song. He goes, “So, I breeze through, jeans is Evisu. She’s respondin’, stop see Ronson.” I’m like, “Rewind that.” He plays it again. I’m like, “He’s saying top by C. Ronson, my sister’s clothing line. You idiot. You came over here. You got me so excited. I’m getting a shout out on the Jay record.” I mean, it’s my last name.
It could have been S-E-E Ronson!
I mean, it was okay, because I had some family pride. One thing that you said also about the line between when you’re younger, you have very strict artistic ideas about what’s commercial, what’s not, just how you felt about a lot of East Coast stuff in the beginning. Now, you’re so well known as a DJ. We all know that DJing is the biggest democratization for your appreciation and seeing why a song that you might not think is great totally takes on a life of its own when you play it for a crowd and see what it does to people.
I’m not saying we’re running around playing the Macarena, but I’ve been on the dance floor many nights where like, “Oh, Quest…” In the early days, Quest is playing “We Found Love.” I’m dancing, having the time of my life. Would you say that DJing and playing music for people and the joy that you see on people gives you appreciation for songs that you might usually write off?
Probably this next Roots album will show evidence of that. I will say that I’ve probably done more hours in concentrated DJing in the last 7 years than I’ve done in my 40 years of DJing. The evidence is going to show because most of the great producers start out as DJs. You’re one of them. Dr. Dre would DJ under duress. You play the wrong song, the club might get shot up. Jimmy Jam, world class DJ, the world doesn’t know this. I’m begging him to our level of DJing, which explains why he writes these songs.
So, I’m slowly realizing that some of the best producers start out as DJs. That’s because they have a connection with their audience. For me, DJing was always just a cathartic thing. I think inside, I’d probably just consider myself a really good record collector that used his drumming and his production as a monetary means to get more records. A lot changed when I first saw DJ AM, I’d never experienced open format DJing to that level. If you ever have someone that you really admire in the booth with you and then you find yourself catering to them…
Okay, Pete Rock, I’m going to play this rare Japanese soul break that only you’re going to appreciate right now and I’m going to lose half a dance floor just to get them, or if the artist comes and you play their song. At first, he was playing club stuff. And then he saw us in there and that’s the first time we met. We’re from Philly and everything. Then he just started playing real hip-hop, but we’re at an NFL, Maxim Magazine… Paris Hilton and Nicole are in the corner and the Kardashians are there.
It’s club heavy. And then he just starts playing “Listen to My 9mm Goes Bang” by Boogie Down Productions. I’m looking at my people like, “Oh, shit. Oh, man. He’s showing off for us. He’s about to lose this audience.” And then he started playing more. He played “Masta I.C.” by Mic Geronimo, a masterpiece of a song but very slow.
Yeah. “I’m so high, you so high,” that one?
Right, right. And then I went to him. I actually said, “Yo, go back to what you were doing. Don’t ruin your DJ set just to… We’re with you. You don’t have to…” He’s like, “No, this is what I normally play. Look at my playlist.” Then I realized I can play anything I want. And then he put Fela on, put Johnny Cash on. I just sat there. I was like, “Wait a minute. I’ve never seen someone jump from country to rap. You could do that?” I never knew what open format DJing was. At that point, I was just DJing what was expected of me. Okay, here’s a bunch of J. Dilla. Here’s some Tribe. Here’s some real hip-hop. That’s it. But then he taught me how to paint a picture. That’s what I learned from DJing, that freedom. But now I’m just using that education to create music now, which I’ve never done before.
I remember in the beginning, I would go to the sets and all the beats and the blends and everything was on point as I expected. But I remember seeing you play in Vegas about two and a half years ago and I didn’t even know that it was you playing. I was like, “Oh, this must be one of those post-DJ AM Vegas DJs, who are technically crazy, because they play five nights a week and they can just play anything in their sleep.” Because the cuts were so tight and it was going eight bars of a song into the next thing. I just turned around and it was you. I was like, “Oh, Quest just quietly got better than all of us at DJing as well.” I guess that’s it, because you’ve been DJing so much and you love it. It’s the 10,000 hours, right?
Yes, I’ve spent an alarming amount of hours honing up my DJ skills, not to mention especially with what we’ve been through last year — which is why I’m really excited about this record. Basically because I’ve done more listening to new music and records. I’m the guy that will collect 75 boxes of some library that’s about to shut down. I’m that guy who’s collected over 200,000 records but really haven’t opened up any of those boxes. I ship them home, and then they just sit there for decades unscathed.
I’ve done more listening to my record collection in the last year just quarantining than I’ve ever done in my life. It’s opened up so many portals in such a new spectrum of creativity that I never knew existed before. So, yeah, I’ll be diplomatic and say, yes, I love all my records like my children. But we haven’t made an album in seven years. I will say that probably the excitement that I have for the End Game album, I haven’t had these goosebumps of this level since probably Things Fall Apart.
I know there’s sentimental attachment riding on that mountain called Things Fall Apart, but I definitely know that the effort, the sweat, the creativity, the blood that we put into that album, that energy is going to this record. And not just like, “Oh, is it good? Yeah, we love everything you do, Quest.” No. Seven years of rejection: “No, you could do better. You could do better. You could do better and pushing ourselves.”
When is this record coming?
We will see. Literally, right now, as I’m Zooming you, anytime you see my eyes go to the right, that’s Tariq and the engineer asking me, “Okay, where’s the that from last night?” I will be highly shocked if this album is not out before October or September of this year.
Great, just in time for live shows.
One of the weird things about not having Richard Nichols here as our coach… Me and Tariq now have to be Peter Grant of Led Zeppelin. So, one of the things not having him here is, Rich is the king of, “This is final. No more songs.” I’m the guy that’s like, “I can push and do better. I can push and do better.” So yeah, in the past seven years, we’ve made easily a good 400 songs, of which there’s at least 30 that I feel are fucking awesome. At least 10 are goosebumpy. So, I think we’re just now in the stage of, “What’s the final 14? What are we going to concentrate on?” And Ahmir, stop creating new music, that thing.
Man, that’s so great. Thanks for giving me so much time as well.
You’re welcome, man.
That’s really rad. Good luck and I’ll see you very soon.