A surface reading of the stage name Questlove suggests that its owner, Roots drummer Ahmir Thompson, is on the hunt for romance, or that he embraces the journey he has taken. But an alternate spelling—?uestlove—tells the truth: Thompson loves to search, to learn, and to ask questions. This inquisitive nature has led him to any number of mountaintops over the past two decades—including 13 albums with the Roots, the bandleader position on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, production duties on records by Al Green and Betty Wright, and sideman work with the likes of D’Angelo and Fiona Apple. The investigations continue this week at BAM, where, as part of a two-night stand he’s calling “Shuffle Culture,” our percussive protagonist will collaborate with artists from all over the musical spectrum. Featuring Deerhoof, Reggie Watts, Sasha Grey, and the Metropolis Ensemble, among others, the only constants of Shuffle Culture will be Questlove’s strong, flexible drumming and the idea that no style can’t be conquered by a man on a mission.
To Questlove, the concept of Shuffle Culture is something to be both celebrated and critiqued. It’s an approach to life that allows us to consume more information than ever before but at a rate that doesn’t always provide us the time to appreciate that knowledge.
“Sunday afternoons, when I have off, and it’s a game that’s not particularly interesting, I find myself [with the] remote: change, change, change, change,” Questlove explains over the phone from Fallon guest Christina Applegate’s dressing room at 30 Rock. “By the time I get to channel 940, Back to the Future on TNT is already half-over. I could’ve just committed to that. But it’s the kind of greed in our society that tells you that something better is around the corner. ‘I like Back to the Future, but maybe, maybe The Matrix is on.’ We’re a greedy society; we’re a consumer society; we’re really not patient. Now that you carry your entire record collection in your pocket . . . I mean, right now, I got about 12,563 songs on this iPod of mine. Just depends on what mood I’m in. Ten seconds a song, and then I’m on to the next one.”
But some music requires patience. “Will to Power,” from the Roots’ stunning 2011 album undun, is a spastic, improvised duet between Questlove and free jazz pianist D.D. Jackson that practically begs the listener to focus deeply. Questlove and Jackson will reunite at BAM.
“D.D. takes me back to a period in my life when the Roots first started,” reminisces Questlove. “In ’91, I was definitely deep into free jazz. [The Roots have] always had an appreciation for it, but very rarely do we find a way to mix it into our very strict, disciplinary, breakbeat sort of presentation.”
The drummer is also looking forward to cutting loose with Watts, a dangerously soulful vocalist whose abstract, stream-of-consciousness comedy routines have won over folks like Brian Eno and Conan O’Brien. On Fallon, Quest and the Roots inject their brand of humor into the proceedings through guest walk-on songs, like Wu-Tang’s “C.R.E.A.M.” for Donald Trump and Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead” for Fred Armisen. But they got into hot water late last year for playing Fishbone’s “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” as Representative Michele Bachmann strolled on set. In comedy as in music, you’ve got to know your audience.
“As history has shown, I can take it too far,” Questlove admits with a laugh. “I guess, in my head, I’m thinking that I’m coming into the Lorne Michaels school of comedy and trying to establish my legacy. But you can’t exactly go from zero to 60 that quick.”
Not just a student for life, Questlove often acts as a teacher, hyping things like Björk shows and Breaking Bad via Twitter. Shuffle Culture will be more than a concert experience; it’s a teachable moment where Questlove can hip his audience to an under-recognized talent like beatboxer Kenny Muhammad, who will jump in the mix both nights at BAM.
“I would like to remind people of great music they may have overlooked,” Questlove says. “Or great artists that they may have forgotten about. There’s a lot of great things that are over-looked. In the age of ‘Hip-hop is dead’ and ‘Music ain’t what it used to be,’ if I could be the person that mines for gold, that doesn’t mind sharing that treasure, I’m with that.”
Shuffle Culture, hosted by Questlove and featuring Jeremy Ellis, Sasha Grey, D.D. Jackson, Rahzel, Kenny Muhammad, and Deerhoof, takes place at the Howard Gilman Opera House at BAM on April 19 and 20.