Wild west quest
Two decades into their career, hip-hop supergroup The Roots have hit a purple patch that has seen them take on and take over the mainstream. “We were always underestimated,” drummer Questlove tells JIM CARROLL
MIDWAY THROUGH the interview, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson refers to the fact that he probably has 15 different jobs on the go right now. He’s talking to The Ticket during a break from recording the Late Night With Jimmy Fallon TV show, where The Roots have been the house band since 2009. Later, Questlove will head to the Brooklyn Bowl for his weekly DJ-ing gig at Bowl Train.
In between all of this, he’ll do some thinking and tinkering on the two books he’s currently writing.
While Questlove notes that “making records is probably now my eighth job out of 15”, the band with whom he makes the bulk of those records remains the hub for all of these activities. The Roots first hit the streets of Philadelphia back in the early 1990s and have grown to match that Legendary Roots Crew title with a starry history, a fantastic live show and 13 albums to their credit.
Many acts begin to plateau at this stage of the game when they go into the studio, yet The Roots are still moving onwards and upwards. Last year’s Undun was a career highlight, an ambitious, far-reaching concept album about the life and death of a character inspired by a Sufjan Stevens song title.
Questlove attributes this recent creative flourish to a freedom the band now possess. “We recorded Undun and How I Got Over with a total lack of fear because we didn’t have a plan B. With Undun, we were confident that we could make an art record – and Def Jam know we’re there to add artistic prestige to the label and not sell millions of albums. That’s what they expect from us.
“That’s a freedom that artists rarely get. There’s a handful of artists that are prestige artists and they’re the ones who can still make a living being an artist without the fear of getting dropped. Bruce Springsteen will always have a career, Sony will never drop him. Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, they’ll always have a career.”
Things are different in hip-hop, he says. “Hip-hop is such a disposable art form from a business standpoint. It never treats its artists as art, it never treats its product as art. Most music by contemporary black artists is produced under the invisible guise of a trigger to the brain, the pressure of having to stay relevant, the pressure of having to have a hit, the pressure of having to sell records, the pressure of not getting dropped.”
Questlove believes this fear also applies to the biggest acts. “I used to have this conversation with Jay-Z about The Black Album. I used to say to him ‘don’t you want to do an album like The Black Album? An album that’s unannounced, absolutely anonymous, no title, nothing’.