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Questlove on the Satirical Michele Bachmann Tribute That Almost Booted The Roots from “Late Night”

Web ExclusiveAugust 13, 2013
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Since 2009, the legendary hip-hop group The Roots have made an unlikely transition as the nightly house band on NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. In this Democracy Now! web exclusive, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, The Roots’ drummer and Late Night musical director, talks about the 2011 controversy that almost got them fired: For the walkout music introducing guest Michele Bachmann, the Republican lawmaker and then-presidential candidate, The Roots played the Fishbone song “Lyin’ Ass Bitch.” See all of our extended interview with Questlove.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about make-or-break moments, you have to talk to us—

AHMIRQUESTLOVETHOMPSON: Bachmann.

AMY GOODMAN: —about Michele Bachmann.

AHMIRQUESTLOVETHOMPSON: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: OK, let’s play the clip. And people aren’t going to get it, but just let’s play it. It’s the walk-over. Is that what it’s called?

AHMIRQUESTLOVETHOMPSON: Yeah, the walk-over.

JIMMY FALLON: Please welcome to the show Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

THE ROOTS: She’s just a la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la
She’s just a la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la
She’s just a la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la
She’s just a la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la
She’s just a la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Michele Bachmann sits down, the congresswoman. And talk about your musical choice.

AHMIRQUESTLOVETHOMPSON: At that time, I felt like we wanted—I personally wanted our trademark to be kind of like the kings of the walk-on. Paul Shaffer is the Lord Jesus Christ of the walk-on, the idea of customizing a popular song as commentary for a person who walks on the show. You know, Paul Shaffer invented that on the Letterman show. But it was kind of restricted to someone’s name. You know, Julia Roberts comes on; they’ll do “Julia” by The Beatles. You know, if we could clear the Beatles song, maybe I would have did “Michelle,” I don’t know.

But I just felt like the trait that she was most known for was just her—her kind of revisionist theories about and her offensive theories about—I mean, that morning, I had read that—you know, that blacks should be happy that slavery happened, because, you know, they were taken care of on these plantations and antebellums. And, you know, I just—in my head, I was trying to think of a way to play a song that had “lying” in it, but without having to sing lyrics. So there were three options, two of which had the—you had to sing “lies,” and I didn’t want to do that. I just figured, OK, I’ll play an iconic Fishbone song, that Fishbone fans are going to know what the song is without us even having to say a word of it. And we did it.

And I—you know, I was kind of feeling myself. It was like the beginning of social media. So someone said, “Wait, was that 'Lyin' Ass Bitch’ by Fishbone?” And I was like, it’s a itch I had to scratch. I was feeling myself, and I was like, “Yeah, we did it!” Like, I was feeling myself. And this is like the reverse tooth fairy situation. I woke up the next morning, and I looked at my phone, and it was like 32 missed phone calls. And I was like, “Oh, God.” I’ve never had 32 missed phone calls. Like, the last time I had that many missed phone calls was like 9/11. And none of them were from my mother. And I was like, “Oh, God. I did it now.” And NBC was not happy at all.

So, you know, in hindsight, probably the thing that I am, you know, regretful of. One, I never saw myself as a misogynistic person, because a lot of feminist groups were upset, like, you know, “How could you, you know, use a song that had the word 'bitch' in it? Like, you know, I don’t even agree with her theories, but you’re forcing me to”—you know, and then I thought about it, like, “Oh, God, like I didn’t even think about the misogynist angle of it,” like I was just so desperate to get a song about lying in there that I didn’t have to sing, that I didn’t even think at that moment. So that’s, you know, what I’m regretful about. I, you know, don’t want to be seen as this evil, misogynistic band leader.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jimmy Fallon went to bat for you. You didn’t get fired. And also the news helped, right? Wasn’t—weren’t you overwhelmed by—

AHMIRQUESTLOVETHOMPSON: Well, it was Thanksgiving—it was Thanksgiving, and she had inadvertently let out some secret information during a debate that kind of took the focus away from us and into her. And then, you know, on top of that, Fox News—like, my friends at Fox News were—they spent like three to four hours like combing through every Roots lyric to search for something, and they were like—they gave up after the fourth hour. It was like, “You guys don’t say anything controversial, like you’re probably the most thoughtful group in hip-hop.”

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