Quizzing the Roots' Questlove: Can the man who reinvented rap music revolutionize the late-night TV band?
The first time I met the newest guy to take on the mantle of late-night bandleader, Roots drummer/producer/leader Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson was holed up in a phone booth in Italy, midway through a tour with noted '70s soul inconoclast Gil Scott Heron, wondering why the readers of Modern Drummer magazine would be interested in a drummer who works so hard to sound like a drum machine.
Thirteen years later, he’s trying to revolutionize late-night music the same way he revolutionized what musicians could achieve in rap music, leading the band powering NBC’s Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. See a great St. Petersburg Times interview with Questlove here.
We’ll all get to see the fruits of Quest's labor Monday night at 12:35 a.m. on WFLA-Ch. 8, when Fallon's show makes its debut -- with a revamped version of the Roots' Here I Come as its theme song.
But I have a story in Sunday's Floridian about the massive task Thompson is taking on; here's an excerpt from the interview that backs that story.
ME: So tell me about how this gig came about. How’d you get this?
Questlove: Well, technically, a good friend of mine, my former employer, is Neal Brennan. He was co-creator of Chappelle's Show. He was slated to be on board to help create the Jimmy Fallon show but I guess because he had so many options after the Chappelle Show –- movies were calling him … he just did a movie with Jeremy Piven -– he wanted to stay in Hollywood and just do movies. That said, he’s still a creative consultant and sort of … I guess he recommended that we … kinda just halfway joking and halfway just …
E: Yeah, I just got off a conference call with Jimmy and he said that Neal said, oh, you’ll never do it.
Q: Yeah, and, you know, since this is the age of irony, that’s exactly what I did. I decided to do it just to spite Neal Brennan’s intuition. His intuitions have low self-esteem now.
E: Why do you think Neal would say that you wouldn’t do it?
Q: People underestimate us and we’re always doing stuff that we shouldn’t do. You know, we wanted to get into the hip-hop game and do we do it the traditional way or do we stick out like a sore thumb and play instruments? I always choose the hard way, we chose instruments, you know, or six album covers after our biggest success and, you know, do we capitalize on the Grammy and going platinum? No, let’s make an art record. Alienate ‘em, you know. And then they get it about a year and a half later. Almost to the point where an album like Phrenology, which seemed so radical in 2002, is almost like normal stuff … you know, normal by today’s standards.
E: Did you have a sense, when the offer came, how you could do this differently or, you know, what felt like a challenge to you?
Q: Well, I instantly just started having creative ideas. I know that the idea of a late-night band is sort of the story line of a neutered musical experience, if you will. If you hear Branford Marsalis tell it and things like that. But I see the endless possibilities in it, you know, and I think at the very least, we’ll try and be one of the more memorable bands in late-night history. But it’s also two monsters that we’re dealing with. One is the 20-million people that are watching in America that only get to see the eight-second spurts in between commercials and the theme. And then there’s the industry and the 300 people that come in the studio every night after night. It forces … it forces, you know, like, a new challenge, especially for us. This is a new challenge, like we’re rehearsing more than ever and we’re preparing more than ever.
E: What will you play? Everybody else plays cover tunes. Are you gonna do that?
Q: No, new tunes.
E: Oh, wow.
Q: Technically, NBC is not gonna pay for publishing … for outside publishing. You know, it can get expensive, you know, but a show like David Letterman can afford to, you know … let’s say if Barack Obama comes on and Paul decides that he wants to do, you know, Give Peace a Chance or All You Need is Love, then, you know, as Barack Obama walks out, you know...they could charge you $60,000 just for that three-second sound bite. It’s almost … it’s like a larger form of sampling. So this is forcing us to write songs for the show. It’s so funny 'cause I talked to a few of the cats about late-night TV, and their challenge is trying to sneak an original composition past the producers. And now we’re gonna have these opposites. Now, you know, the producers want … (they're asking) 'This is not derivative of any other song, is it, Ahmir?'
E: So, now, Jimmy talked about having a meeting where he felt like he had to sell you on doing this. But it sounds like you're excited.
Q: We came here at the right … sort of the crossroads of our career, you know. I mean, instead of doing this since November of 1992, we actually managed to outlast a lot of the bigger rap groups that were bigger than us, you know. We managed to outlast 'em all. And I just feel like … I don’t know. Maybe Mercury is in retrograde or something. I don’t know, but I do know that he presented us with the idea. We coughed for about maybe six or seven … seconds. And then we said, we’ll think about it. We did the official yea in December of 2008 and I came home the next week and we basically started prepping.
E:Jimmy said your only question was whether somebody like Herbie Hancock could sit in.
Q: Yeah, I’m trying to figure out how in every way can I revolutionize the art. I’m thinking that maybe there could be a turning point where musicianship … you’ve got to understand, hip-hop was really started as a reactionary form to the poverty condition of the post-civil rights era. Every hip-hop partner I ever spoke to said, you know, I always wanted to play guitar, always wanted to play drums, my parents couldn’t afford it. We had a pair of turntables, we had records, that was our instrument, you know. That’s how hip-hop started.
So if people want to sit in with us now, they sit in. I mean, it’s much easier to get an unknown musician than it is to sort of get an established artist in the situation. But, now I talk to everybody. Actually, the super, super challenge is how are we gonna position the stage so they can sit on it … the way the stage is built, sort of like an isolated island that revolves and turns and turns. There’s space challenges 'cause we’re seven deep. We’re on a two-level stage. Five are downstairs and two are upstairs, and the stage moves and revolves, so we’ll have to think of something creative.
E: No doubt, no doubt. So who’s Paul Shaffer -– you or Tariq ("Black Thought" Trotter)?
Q: Oh, good question, because Tariq had his first skit yesterday. I think, more or less … no, I’m the straight guy. They already see star potential in (tuba player) Tuba Gooding Jr.
E: He's got the name for it (laughs).
Q: Exactly. He’s ready for his close-up. But I think that the comedian now in the Roots is actually the unassuming, the most unassuming one, our bass player, Owen. He’s … comedy tonight, that’s all I can say. He’s straight comedy.
E: Have you guys written a theme for the show?
Q: The theme of the show is Game Theory's Here I Come.
E: Cool. Publishing revenue … very important. Ka-ching.
Q: Yeah, very important. Ka-ching. (laughs)
E: Every time the show gets played, you guys get paid, right?
Q: Oh, absolutely. But the thing is, not really in terms of hedonistic greed and overindulgence. I mean, in order for us to stop being on the road 200 days out the year, we would have had to find a job. This is a dream come true because I’ll say that by 2007, you know … people don’t know the pain of doing a two- to three-hour show every night. And for me, I’d do a four-hour DJ gig afterwards, you know. To do that, in ’93, ’94, ’95, 2000, 2001, 2007, 2008, you know, it’s like, we were just severely on the edge. You know what I mean?
Q: So we came out in the nick of time. The fact that, you know, we can actually make a little better living playing 300 seconds a week, it is baffling to me. What I did this week, I haven’t done in Europe for a month, doing all the splinters and calluses and all.
E: That’s show business for you, my friend.
Q: I’m on the good side of show business.
E: Can you tell me a little bit about just the technicalities of how this works –- how you figure out what songs to play people on with?
Q: Okay, well, that’s the challenge. He really fought for the walk-on songs so I basically have a month … I’m a month in advance of looking at future guests that are coming on. And then I get to make my … I guess I get a chance to be clever. That is one of the things that I love about the Letterman show. (Paul Shaffer) would do something really clever. I remember once when Rosanna Arquette was on the show, so naturally I thought that he’s gonna do the Toto’s Rosanna, but instead he shocked her with … apparently, according to her, and I spoke to her a few times, she said that she’s had a few songs written about her and Paul happened to pull one out the hat and kinda shocked her. And once James Taylor was on the show, he sat on the couch and they started to play You’re So Vain. He’s like, ah, 'you’ll never, ever, ever, ever get me to admit if that song’s about me.' So there’s a lot of clever things that we’ll be doing. But I definitely know that Jimmy fought for those (songs) or "exchanges," as they affectionately call them.
E: They put out a press release saying Robert De Niro will be the first guest. Do you know what you’re gonna play him on with?
Q: I don’t want to be cliché and … it would be so easy to play the second theme to Layla –- people associate with the murders Goodfellas did.
E: Oh, yeah, definitely.
Q: But, you know, there’s another reference. One of my favorite De Niro films is actually The King of Comedy. There’s a scene when Rupert Pupkin gets out of jail and he’s actually on late-night television. There’s a real creepy theme that plays in the background. I mean, it’s actually … you know, like in some ironic … like, it’s a real happy ironic theme. The smart-ass in me wants to do the theme to The King of Comedy, the same theme that was played when he came on the Jerry Langford Show to host, you know … if you’re familiar with (it).
E: They also said the second night is Tina Fey and Jon Bon Jovi…
Q: Okay, yeah. I’m really gonna try a good one … I have an obsession for Tina like for no other person. It’s like, I’m that person that will … I’m trying to make a connection, like you and I come from the same town, we live 20 blocks away from each other, you’re from Upper Darby, I was in West Philly and, you know, and it’s like … you know, I’m extremely uncomfortable in her sudden-found sexiness.
E: She’s been sexy for a while but it’s just kinda exploded everywhere now.
Q: Right. so you wanna do Hot for Teacher or Prince’s Sexy Motherf’er.
E: If you don’t do that one, you’ve got to do Prince's Irresistible B----. (laughter) There are no words, so she won’t really know what you're playing.
E: When we talked a long time ago, we talked a little bit about how you didn’t necessarily fit into the current rap landscape. Do you feel like …
Q: We still don’t fit.
E: You still don’t.
Q: (laughs) There’s a big argument that occurs at the beginning of our Rising Down album … I put that album in there purposely, you know, because I wanted people to know that it has always been an uphill battle for the Roots, even during the so-called good times, you know. It was a screaming match between my manager, me, Tariq, the A&R guy, the production manager, and we were just trying to behead each other, take each other’s heads off … some sort of discussion of whether or not (the record company) is ruining the Roots brand … doing all that they can to maximize on our notoriety and our position in hip-hop. And we’ve been going up against these obstacles since the beginning of time.
E: Does that help you to feel like … you’ve taken over a corner of hip-hop and kinda made it your own.
Q: Yeah, we’ve taken a corner but it’s a disposable industry. No one will ever consider us the best anything because there's nobody to compare us to. So we kinda won by default. … I remember when the Fugees were around. Well, we wanted to kick their ass … no, I mean, just because like you need that competition, like that’s the … the hardest thing now is that there’s really nobody left in our time bracket that’s still making viable records today. I mean, people are around but they’re doing other things. I mean, OutKast is acting and, you know, Tribe kinda broke up, so, you know, like there’s really nobody around that’s fired me up like, yo, I gotta kick their ass. So maybe this turned out to be a great thing.