Q&A: Questlove On Artistic Freedom, “Shuffle Culture,” And Spreading The Springsteen Gospel


In a recent tweet responding to a follower’s assertion that he was a celebrity, the drummer and head Root Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson demurred, claiming he was merely “a personality.” The follower had a point, though; according to a website devoted to Quest’s blogs about meeting famous people, for instance, the man has gone on dates with Natalie Portman, turned down a European tour with Justin Timberlake, and napped in Spike Lee’s office. But what’s not up for debate is how he got to wherever he is. A brief tangle with Michele Bachmann supporters notwithstanding, Questlove has risen to fame on the strength of his drumming, which can be heard on D’Angelo’s Voodoo, Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, Common’s Like Water for Chocolate, Jay-Z’s Unplugged, and Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine, not to mention thirteen albums by the Roots. By staying impossibly funky and perilously behind the beat, he has boom-bapped his way into the ears and, with his high-profile stint as Paul Shaffer to Jimmy Fallon’s David Letterman, eyes of the mainstream. “Shuffle Culture,” running this Thursday and Friday at BAM, should only bolster his ascent.

As one might assume, Questlove is an especially fun interview. In the Voice this week, we talk about everything from Back to the Future to Lorne Michaels; here, we pinball from Sun Ra to Sesame Street. Drummers, it is often said, have the best seat in the house; in the case of Questlove, he’s also got the best stories.

Is the idea of “shuffle culture” personal for you? One minute you’re a producer, the next you’re a bandleader, a clothing store owner, a chef.

It’s not like I specifically chose that [lifestyle]. My manager and I always seem to think if I throw various spaghetti pasta on the wall, one of them is bound to stick. Rigatoni might be my Roots life, but maybe the DJ stuff can stick a little better than rigatoni can to the wall. So maybe that is my calling. The way that my whole career is designed, I kinda have to commit to eight different pairs of shoes. Basically, ten minutes each. That’s why I’m always envious of a figure like Jay-Z. Or, just, overall figures that can actually commit to one form. But I definitely feel as though I’m the one that’s stretching that limit as far as I can, as far as trying to brand myself. A lot of it has to do with survival and a lot of it has to do with how we’re built as a society.

Who are some of the artists who couldn’t make “Shuffle Culture”?

I’ve been talking to Fiona [Apple] for a good period. She only comes out of her shell once in a blue moon. But because of her album about to take off, she’s kind of on a pre-tour, and can’t do it right now. Justin Vernon, from Bon Iver, we’ve definitely been talking about working together for a long, long time. He’s often sat in with us. Not even, like, live on the show, but if we do a warm-up song or whatever. He’s definitely a friend of the show. A few other, kind of, jazz luminaries as well. They had commitments.

How did you meet pianist D.D. Jackson?

I was backstage at a Neil Young event at Carnegie Hall. And we were in our dressing room, and someone happened to be on YouTube, and just happened to have D.D. Jackson’s page on YouTube. And we were watching him. You know, there’s a Muppet character from Sesame Street called Don Music, who’s world-famous for, like, banging his head in frustration on the piano. With such violence. And besides Tori Amos, I’ve just never seen anybody be that violent to a piano. [laughs] But I was utterly amazed and just captivated by [Jackson’s] work. And I was just, “Find me this guy. Where do we find this guy at?” And it just so happens that about two hours later, I had seen [saxophonist] David Murray, my go-to guy. He knows every obscure musician on earth. He immediately got us in contact with him. And I’ll say within three weeks, D.D. started working with us, first on the undun project. Since then, I’ve used him in my non-Roots ventures of this caliber. I did something at Carnegie [Hall] for Langston Hughes’s “Ask Your Mama!” project with him. Every opportunity I can get. I’m just super-amazed that he’s very cool and cavalier about exposing his talent more. I mean, he’s down and grateful for the stuff that we’re doing together, but I was just, like, “Yo, man. How come you’re not out there more? You’re still everyone’s best-kept secret.” When he performed with us on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, I’ve never gotten so many responses on my Twitter feed. And I was like, “Yo, you do have a Twitter page, right?” He was like, “No.” I was like, “Aaaah!” He has to be from Brooklyn. [laughs] I would love to just sit and watch him perform. In order to play with this guy, I gotta be just as intense as he is. But he brings out the intensity, man. He’s incredible.

Are you interested in doing more experimental music?

Absolutely. By default, the Roots are not really following the status quo of where hip-hop is. I try to sneak it in as much as I can. Like, you know, I worked with [jazz bagpiper] Rufus Harley. And I work with David Murray. And D.D.

And you have that Sun Ra cover on The Philadelphia Experiment.

It’s funny you said that. “Nuclear War” just came up on my iPod. It came up on my iPod last week when I was exercising and I was like, “Wow. I think we should do this.” Our Phrenology record is probably the closest that we ever got to doing musical experimentation to that level. Working with James Blood Ulmer and doing some crazy time signatures. We’ve always cautiously treaded water for fear of some sort of mine explosion. The attitude that we took with undun was kind of a good reckless abandonment. We told them in the band, “This is gonna be, probably, the least-selling record. There’s not really gonna be a single. It’s gonna be a concept record. It’s gonna be short. It’s gonna be uncomfortable. It’s gonna be a lot of classical music and experimentation.” And they were like, “Great. Let’s have it.”

I feel, now, it’s more important than ever for us to really express the creative side of the group without having that pressure. Most black artists create music with this underwritten guise of, “This has to win or else my career is over. And I’m gonna get dropped.” So I’ll say that undun was one of the rare records of last year [on] which a commercial artist, on a label, in urban music—not in jazz—actually had the freedom to artistically express themselves without fear of retribution. ‘Cause it’s not like Drake would ever pull off a Kid A. Or an In Rainbows. Or if Jay-Z decided to pull a Wilco. I will say the one artist that tried that and really got crucified heavy for it was Beyoncé. It’s weird to consider, but I know that a lot of her 4 album was the result of her having seen Fela! a lot. And her wanting to work with Antibalas. And do a lot of world music work with Diplo. And work with a lot of unheard-of producers, at least in the commercial community. And when someone on that level goes cold turkey on you, and just starts experimenting, you can take a whooping for that. Black artists still have a ways to go in gaining that freedom back.

A lot of free-jazz musicians are from Philly. Rashied Ali, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Odean Pope.

Yeah, Jamaal. He’s the man I credit with discovering [the Roots]. And you can’t forget Rufus Harley, man. Philly definitely has a strong tradition. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that Coltrane moved to the city. I think that had a really big effect on the culture in general. And Philly’s really not that far from New York City. You can get to Philly quicker than you can get to Yonkers without taking the West Side Highway. It is the sixth borough. But there’s a spiritual overtone to experimental music that I feel a lot of Philly artists and Philly jazz artists have, so it’s really hard to avoid. At that point in time, Philly was a very relaxed city. It’s a cosmopolitan city but without the pressure and the hustle and bustle that would reflect in music. So yeah, I can see why certain artists of that caliber are associated with the city of Philadelphia.

You’ve introduced a lot of artists over the years, and you’ve introduced books with your album titles. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of teaching?

Last night was a great example. I experienced my very first real [Bruce Springsteen concert]. I mean, I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen about six or seven times, but it’s not on his terms. It’s always a benefit, or maybe a Grammy party, where he does two or three songs. Or even playing with him. And those have been intense and amazing. But I never got to see him in his own element. And so a lot of hip-hop heads were like, “Dog, you buggin’. Bruce Springsteen? I ain’t into that shit.” The thing is that we don’t have enough patience to really absorb the way that we used to. But the cool thing about last night was the fact that there were about ten responses I got where it’s like, “Yo, are you sure about Springsteen? He’s coming to Detroit next week. If you say he’s worth it, I’ll shell out the ninety bucks.” I really felt, like, from a guy who only knew of commercial Springsteen, and the stuff that you hear in movies and, like, the hits that were ubiquitous and unavoidable, I was trying to explain to them, like, “Yo. Take it from a person that didn’t know the lyrics. When ‘Born to Run’ and ‘Rosalita’ came on, everybody was going crazy.” And I felt the excitement. And I was captivated. And I hung onto his every word. And this is coming from a person who was indifferent—”Yeah, he’s cool. I get it. He’s respected. But I’m not interested.” And he just totally made me a believer based on the three shows that I’ve seen in the last month-and-a-half. So the fact that I was able to at least get ten people to reconsider their position, that to me is what makes it worth it. Teaching people. And that’s what I use my Twitter feed for the most, more than anything.

I saw you and Christian McBride with Gary Bartz and Booker T. Jones at the Blue Note last year. I liked how you talked about growing up with A Tribe Called Quest’s “Butter” and then played Bartz’s “Gentle Smiles,” which “Butter” samples.

Christian and I are about to work on a new project. If you remember, Nigel Hall was also there, from Soulive. It’s scary how influential [Hall] is as a music figure in my life. The thing is, I pride myself in my snobbish, underhanded, snooty musical ways. Like, I know the difference between classic Prince and eh Prince. Nigel is the only person I know that actually embraces the horrible period of a lot of genius artists’ work. You know, I’m talking about ’80s Miles and… [laughs] I won’t say horrible music, but just the period that often gets ignored. So me, him, and Christian decided to start a society where we’re gonna go in the studio and cover all the horrible songs and just release them on 45. Just, like, do a song a month or something. [laughs] That’s my next project with those guys. We played together for the first time at the Blue Note. I’m certain that [Soulive guitarist] Kraz will also get involved.

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.