The Questlove interview (12″ version)
You’ll find my interview with Questlove from the Electric Picnic-bound The Roots in The Ticket today. It’s an interview I’ve been trying to lock down since last December and I finally got him on the line one night last week …
You’ll find my interview with Questlove from the Electric Picnic-bound The Roots in The Ticket today. It’s an interview I’ve been trying to lock down since last December and I finally got him on the line one night last week as he wound down from another night working on the set of the Late Night With Jimmy Fallon TV show and prepared for his weekly DJ gig at Bowl Train at the Brookyln Bowl. As you’d expect from a man like Questlove, who has fingers in many pies (I think he was undercounting when he talked about 15 jobs) and has a lot to say about virtually everything, there was plenty more to the interview than appears in print and online today, which often happens given the word count limitations you have in print. After the jump, you’ll find the full transcript from the interview. Call it the OTR remix.
On the forthcoming US presidential election and Americans’ attitude to politics
This is probably the most crucial election in America’s history. This will determine if we’re going to progress or regress as a society.
Having actually done some grassroots campaigning for Obama in 2008, I can tell you that my number one discovery was the shock and surprise at how Americans get their information. I was easily disturbed at people’s ignorance about the overall general political process. I was equally appalled at the ease of many who lent support based on the wrong reasons. I don’t campaign for a politician, I don’t like the premise of ‘Questlove says this particular person is cool so I guess I should do what he does’. That’s dangerous too. I want people to look at the facts and look at what is needed in this country for justice to prevail. Then, you make a decision of who the best person is based on all the facts.
Most people think of the presidency as a king who gets to wave his wand and a magic rabbit comes out of the hat and everything is going to be better again. To me, the most important part of this election is not the president you elect, but you have congressmen and senators that are like-minded in their ideology. People think that all they have to do is vote for the president and that’s it. The president is just the coach of a football team. You need the right support, the right stadium, the right players, the right staff. An excellent coach is not going to win games.
That was a very frustrating discovery for me in 2007 and 2008 when I was campaigning. I get it. Most people think of politics are too overwhelming and depressing. Most people think change is never to happen. You have to look at people’s engagement with politics in America as being like a morbidly obese person that goes to a gym for the first time. They expect immediate results, they expect to be 100 pounds down after a month working out. It doesn’t work like that.
On political voices – or the lack of same in some cases – in hip-hop
My God, that is one of my biggest regrets. Regret isn’t even the right word. I was very naïve in the faith I had in the left-of-centre sector of music. I thought this was sort of like an army that was down to go into battle for you but it didn’t happen.
Most country’n’western groups usually support the conservative Republican side. One of the most loved groups of that period, back in the late 1990s/early 2000s, was the Dixie Chicks. During the Gulf war, they made what was a very unpopular statement with their audience that they didn’t support George W Bush and were ashamed of their president. At the time, no-one was talking against the leader like that and you had a collective gasp heard around the industry. I’m an admirer of the band but, man oh man, that was a wake-up call for every artist from every genre. You can lose your livliehood, you can lose your career, you can get blackballed if you stand up for what you believe in.
As far as my corner of the sky, left of centre black music like D’Angelo, Dead Prez, Bilal, Mos Def, Common, Eykah Badu goes, I found it weird that the people I thought I’d have going into battle, as far as being that voice, that counterpart to the overindulgent, hedonistic celebration which was going on in hip-hop at the time, all of them went silent. All the political voices fell silent. We haven’t had a Lauryn Hill album in 14 years, we haven’t had a D’Angela album in 12 years. At the time, Erykah Badu was taking six year breaks. Q-Tip took ages between albums. Zach De La Rocha from Rage Against the Machine has yet to release any product. These are the political voices I was counting on to keep audiences informed. Everyone just buckled, buckled out of fear, it was like we just didn’t care.
On recording “Undun” and where the Roots are at now
There’s a freedom that artists rarely get. There’s a handful of artists that are prestige artists. 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. 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.
We recorded “Undun” and “How I Got Over” with a total lack of fear because we didn’t have a plan B. 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. Because we made our transformation into late-night television, the fear and pressure was erased all of a sudden. There was none of that ‘oh my God, how will I pay my mother’s mortgage if this record doesn’t sell and we can’t do shows any more?’
Making records is probably now my eighth job out of fifteen. While it’s not a lifeline for me, I wanted to take advantage of the freedom and make albums I’ve been dreaming of doing but was always afraid to do. 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, no thing’. ‘The Black Album’ was ambitious for Jay-Z but what about a real ‘Black Album’ like Prince did? Take it back to the hip-hop that was passionate for you without the pressure to sell three million copies and make anthems. The thing is he can’t afford that risk. The idea of jumping over a cliff and landing on the other side is too risky for any black artist.
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.
On The Roots’ age-old reputation as a live band and how he thinks this may have harmed others in the hip-hop game
If you’re an endangered species and if you’re the only one of your kind, it’s game over. It’s like having an Olympic ceremony for one player, one athlete. Of course, you’re going to win. Unless there’s someone around to compare you to, you’re not going to know the level of how good you are.
In our case, because we came out first with this live show presentation, I think it did harm to us. There’s a book out called The 48 Rules of Power and rule number one is you never let the teacher know how smart you are. In our case, we were so eager to place at first because there were so many folded arms so we went overboard in preperation and performance. We ensured our safety but we also discouraged other bands from successfully getting to the other side. We got to the other side of the bridge and then we burned the bridge to keep everyone else on the other side.
If you were going live hip-hop, you’re eventually going to get compared to the Roots. I’ve seen some bands start out and they just don’t want to stick with it for the long haul. It took us seven years to get a national hit and it took us 18 years to get to the comfortable financial stability that some in the hip-hop community want on their second or third year. We roughed it out for nearly two decades before we put our feet up on the table and had a sigh of relief.
It’s hard to tell if we were revolutionary or not because people can also take you for granted. They expect you to be around. We did an extensive tour of Europe earlier this month and it was our first time doing that in four years so I have learned the power of saying no, the power of not being too eager. Before, there was never a gig we’d say no to. Strategically, we wanted to lay low for five years and see if we were missed. And that paid off because people seem to appreciate us more when we came back and we did a superb job over there. The energy was at a level we never expected.
On The Roots’ gig as house band on the Late Night With Jimmy Fallon TV show
It’s not like the four to six million people who watch us on the TV are out buying Roots records, The majority of them think of us as Jimmy’s new cool band. We were always under-estimated. For the longest time, people thought we were the Fugees. People would go ‘hey, where’s the girl at?’ That happened a lot. People used to confuse us with The Nappy Roots too.
The idea of being on Fallon was supposed to be about taking a break or a sabbatical and it actually made us more busier than we’ve ever been in our entire career. The show also helped humanise us in the States which is hard to do in hip-hop. Hip-hop is so much about character and caricature that people just see you as a character. Very rarely are you flesh and bone to people. This allowed us to show people that we had a sense of humour. The last four or five records were so dark and political and down that your personality gets lost behind all that political content.
The most important aspect of doing the show that I’m glad about is that this is the first time as a band that we rehearse, which I know is hard to believe. People always laugh when I say that. Once we got in our stride by 1996 and started doing 200 two to three hour shows a year, there is no need for rehearsal. We would treat shows in places like Hull or Brighton as rehearsals and London would be the show in our heads. Believe it or not, the best shows were the rehearsal shows, the shows that were not the pressure ones because the audiences are so much more appreciate of what you’re doing. Now, I dread doing major cities because your hopes are high. Because it’s London or Los Angeles or New York or Tokyo, people see this type of entertainment every day.
On the books he’s current writing
I’m writing two books right now. The working title for the Questlove book is Mo Metta Blues and that will be probably out by May 2013. And the passion project is a coffee table book on iconic American institution Soul Train. I begged and begged and begged to do it. I told the publisher of the Questlove book that I had to get the Soul Train book done first and he went ‘are you crazy?’. Soul Train is my life
It’s weird. I’m a 24 hour tweet machine, I’m a 24 hour blogger. When there’s no pressure on me, I can talk and write and lecture with the best of them. But put a deadline on me and I start getting writer’s block. It’s a very interesting process to write and write and write and have someone else edit your stuff.