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Questlove on His Musical Upbringing, Hip-Hop’s 40th, Soul Train and New Memoir, “Mo’ Meta Blues”

StoryAugust 14, 2013
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In a week where hip-hop culture is marking its 40th birthday — the anniversary of the first Bronx block party thrown by New York DJ Kool Herc — we’re joined by one of its most eclectic and influential voices, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. Born in West Philadelphia and immersed in music from an early age, Questlove rose to fame as the co-founder and drummer of The Roots, the legendary band that has helped define a new generation of neo-soul and conscientious rap. Well into their third decade as a group, The Roots are now the house band on NBC’s “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” Questlove is also a prolific music producer, a DJ, and an influential presence on social media, with some 2.6 million people following his tweets on everything from music to food to politics. Questlove joins us to discuss his upbringing, his musical interests, transitioning to “Late Night,” and his new memoir, “Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s “Wake Up Everybody,” John Legend and The Roots, with Questlove. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. And we are speaking to Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the hip-hop musician, producer and DJ, best known as the drummer of the group The Roots, the house band of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. He’s just out with his first book, Mo’ Meta Blues. I asked Questlove to talk about his childhood and his family.

AHMIRQUESTLOVETHOMPSON: My father was an oldies doo-wop—I’ll say “legend” of Philadelphia. He was on Chess Records. He had a group. He was Lee Andrews of Lee Andrews & The Hearts. So their period was in the early—late '50s, early ’60s. And they kind of imploded in the—1960, ’61. My mother was a print model from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They got married, had my sister, had me in the early ’70s. And I guess that was the first wave of nostalgia for the doo-wop generation, or baby boomers, if you have it. So, I kind of grew up in an atmosphere in which, you know, backstage at—Dick Clark would throw, you know, the Dick Clark Doo-Wop Extravaganza, and it would be like Sha Na Na and Frankie Lymon's Teenagers and Johnny Maestro & The Brooklyn Bridge and Harvey & The Moonglows, Don & Juan—all these ’50s luminaries.

So I kind of thought that that was contemporary music, and so by the time I got to the first grade, one of our assignments was, you know, bring your favorite single and your favorite 45. So, you know, at the time, '77, kids were bringing in like “Night Fever” and “Shadow Dancing” and “Disco Duck” by Rick Dees, and, you know, I had like “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” by Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers. And they were like, “No, that's—this is an old record, man, like this came out when I was a kid.” Like, and I couldn’t understand. I felt like my parents had played a trick on me. But it’s kind of happening now, like even with the kids of my bandmates. Like, some of them are growing up thinking that Off the Wall by Michael Jackson like just came out like last year.

AMY GOODMAN: But you were drumming when you were like what? How old?

AHMIRQUESTLOVETHOMPSON: I was two years old. My birth doctor was—he was also a child psychologist. So he kind of—you know, both him and my parents were like post-Boho '60s hippies trying to readjust to times in the ’70s, and my doctor told my mother, you know, like, “Let him”—he was very curious to see if the traits of my father, who was, you know, a singer and musician, would be passed to me in some sort of indirect way. And he kind of told my mom, just as a small aside, like, “Let him—let him be creative. Like, if he wants to make mud pies out of his mashed potatoes and his food, let him do it. If he wants to draw on the walls, let him do it.” Like, in black households, you don't do that, like there’s plastic covering everywhere. You don’t bang on furniture and that stuff. Like, you don’t do that stuff. And he specifically told them, like, “Let him find his creativity. Let him destroy stuff. Let him build things. Like, let him do it.” And, I mean, kind of much to their chagrin, like, I did those things, and I guess they had to refocus it. And by the age of three, they got me like a toy drum set, so I wouldn’t break the coffee table anymore, and that type of stuff.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you first publicly perform?

AHMIRQUESTLOVETHOMPSON: OK, so, my parents didn’t believe in babysitters in the early '70s, because I had to travel with them. I'll say that he left that oldies, Madison Square Garden, multi-act circuit in 1975 and started a nightclub circuit. You know, whereas now, you go to nightclubs, and DJs play. But back in the '70s, before DJ culture, they hired bands. So my father came up with a nightclub act that kept him busy like maybe like 150 nights out of the year. And I would often come to these shows. So, they didn't believe in babysitters, so pretty much I’ll say that I was my father’s human GPS by the age of seven or eight. No, I knew how to—I could navigate through a Rand McNally map just like that. I could get us to Virginia. I could get us to, you know, Connecticut. I knew how to read maps and write down how to get there, get instructions.

And then, when I was nine, he taught me about technology, so I started working the monitors, the soundboard. By 10, I knew how to cut light gels, so I was working the spotlight. And all this time, I always wondered, like, wait, didn’t the nightclubs have a problem with a 10-year-old like running their system? Like, I’d get there, get the ladder, put the—you know, “No, no, green doesn’t look good on black people; we need like a magenta color or pink.” You know, like I was that person. And eventually, a musician had got in an accident, sprained his arm. And it was the drummer. And my father was drummerless at a gig, and just kind of like, “Well, you know the show. You drum.” And I was 12 years old, and my first gig was at Radio City Music Hall. And that’s how I got my feet wet in performing.

AARON MATÉ: And tell us about your high school years, where you met Black Thought, going on to co-found The Roots with him, and how you guys came to collaborate.

AHMIRQUESTLOVETHOMPSON: He hates when I tell this story, especially now that it’s kind of immortalized in the book. So, he says that it wasn’t on the first or second day of school, but I definitely feel as though it was like the first three months. This was my first time in a public school experience, because, before, I was just in private schools up until—I was in private schools up until the 11th grade. And so, at Philadelphia High School of Creative and Performing Arts, I was in the principal’s office getting free bus tokens. And subsequently, he was getting ejected and suspended out of school for doing something that he shouldn’t have been doing in the girls’ bathroom with who knows what. And that’s how we kind of met, because he became a legend, as in this freshman who was with this girl in the bathroom. Like, you know, he became like the man. So that’s how I knew who Tariq Trotter was.

And I think the way that we started the group was by accident. I was trying to impress like the prettiest girl in school, and so I think I kind of lied and said I had a group. You know, it was about, like, who’s going to perform at the talent show for the Valentine’s Day talent show. And I was like, “Well, yeah, I’ve got a group.” And, you know, “Really?” “Yeah, with him, right there, Tariq.” So, I ran up to him, “Look, if anyone asks you, we’re a group. And, by the way, we’re going to do the talent show.” And so, that’s kind of how, like—

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Tariq wanted to do it, because he had something to prove.

AHMIRQUESTLOVETHOMPSON: He—well, Tariq also had decided in his mind that he, too, wanted to form a group, because there was a girl he was trying to impress, as well. And so, his motivation, I think, was to upstage one of our classmates, who eventually was in Boyz II Men. And my motivation was Amel Larrieux, a Grammy Award-winning singer.

AMY GOODMAN: You had an amazing school of musicians, artists.

AHMIRQUESTLOVETHOMPSON: Yeah, like, half the Cosby Show extras were in our school and a lot of—you know, the world of jazz rulers now, like these are guys that I went to school with. Joey DeFrancesco is considered like the greatest organ player in jazz; Christian McBride, who, you know, is basically our generation’s Mingus; Kurt Rosenwinkel—like, people who are now, you know, trailblazing in jazz now, they were young lions when I was in school.

AMY GOODMAN: And this was West Philly. And you—

AHMIRQUESTLOVETHOMPSON: Oh, I was born in West Philly, but Performing Arts School was in South Philadelphia. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And you lived on Osage Avenue?


AMY GOODMAN: So, tell us about the day—


AMY GOODMAN: —that the MOVE house was bombed. How old were you?

AHMIRQUESTLOVETHOMPSON: Well, most people—most people think that—I believe it was May 13th, 1985. Philadelphia historians note that as the day that our mayor gave permission to bomb my block. Well, I was eight blocks away from where that happened, but all week there was a standoff, like cars weren’t allowed. You know, there were—you’d see news camera people ducking, because it was a standoff between the MOVE organization and Philadelphia police.

But I mostly note that day as the day that, like, my high school girlfriend dumped me. So, you know, I kind of came home just wallowing in self-pity, and then, literally five minutes later, pfff! You heard it. We ran outside, and we just thought—I thought it was like just a gun battle. And then, once I turned on the news, I realized, like, “Oh, God, you know, they bombed that house.” And then, four hours later, we didn’t know whether or not we would have to vacate, because one fire had spread to three houses and then two blocks and then three blocks, and then we thought, “OK, four hours from now, this is going to be”—so the first thing I did was I grabbed my favorite records and my Soul Train collection. Like, I had them in a—just waiting, just in case. But the fire never reached 52nd Street, so…

AMY GOODMAN: The police killed—the bombing killed 11 people—


AMY GOODMAN: —five of them kids.


AMY GOODMAN: How did that affect you?

AHMIRQUESTLOVETHOMPSON: You know, at the time, I don’t know how—I mean, I didn’t know that much about the history of MOVE until I read what happened to them in 1977 by Frank Rizzo, with him sort of humiliating them and making them walk outside naked and beating them with—

AMY GOODMAN: The mayor.

AHMIRQUESTLOVETHOMPSON: —batons. Yeah, Mayor Frank Rizzo, who—yeah, I mean, it’s a wonder that we’ve survived as a city with him in office. And so, just at the time, like I—it didn’t register to me that, oh—like, oh, we’re seen as the enemy by—you know, because everyone wants to grow up with that sort of—you know, again, I was in a middle-class existence, because, you know, you were told and taught like, you know, oh, like, Officer Joe is your friend, and that type of thing. But that was also around the time in which I, too, started to quietly learn that, oh, maybe I could be, you know, in this position, in a snap.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re talking to Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. And his book is just out, a memoir; it’s called Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove. We’ve just passed what many call the 40th birthday of hip-hop.


AMY GOODMAN: August 11, 1973, a 16-year-old Jamaican immigrant named Clive Campbell, later known as Kool Herc, held his first block party at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. Can you talk about the significance of that day?

AHMIRQUESTLOVETHOMPSON: You know, Kirk—Kool Herc deserves like his own—it’s always been my dream to establish like hip-hop’s version of like, I guess, like the MacArthur Genius Grant or something like that, simply because he took, from his birthplace of Jamaica, the idea of Jamaican toasting, Jamaican parties. They built their own speakers. You know, you go out into the park, and you play these records. And he took that idea and just reapplied them to soul records—and more specifically, a lot of obscure soul records that were ignored but had a special element to them that seemed to be the favorite, which was basically the drum break, the idea of giving the drummer some, which you don’t take a solo, you just let the drummer play the break for eight bars. You know, that’s always like the highlight of any ’70s record. Once you gave the drummer some, that was your time to get down, you know. That was the most exciting part of the song. And, you know, for him to take that technology and that idea, and bring it to the masses—you know, not only Kool Herc, but also Afrika Bambaataa, who—you know, Kool Herc is known for The Herculoids, the idea of large speakers, because he comes from Jamaica. They build their own, you know, crates, their own woofers, their own tweeters, and have the loudest speaker systems ever.

Afrika Bambaataa, who wisely just donated his 40,000 records to a New York museum for display, like the actual record collection that invented hip-hop, you know, he was more or less known for his obscure selections. He told me, like, you know, the real definition of hip-hop is going to the Bronx River Projects and playing The Monkees and playing The Beatles, and your audience not being the wiser. There’s a drum brake in the reprise of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” that is a b-boy favorite. You play that for five minutes, and no one knows that’s The Beatles. You play “Mary, Mary” by The Monkees, no one knows that that’s The Monkees. They just see it as a great drum break to dance to.

Grand Wizard Theodore, who invented scratching, you know, and of course Grandmaster Flash, who did so many innovations with the turntable—I mean, it’s the birth of a hip-hop nation. It’s very important. And, you know, I’m happy to—not even be a part of it; I’m happy to actually bear witness to it. And that, to me, is probably the great last American music revolution, in my opinion.

AARON MATÉ: Can you talk about this incident that you describe in the book with The Notorious B.I.G.? The Roots video, “What They Do,” sort of lampoons the materialistic culture of some in hip-hop at the time. You write a manifesto—


AARON MATÉ: —about hip-hop, which you then burned when he was—when he was killed.

AHMIRQUESTLOVETHOMPSON: Yeah. You know, and 1996 was, I guess you can say, a crucial year for hip-hop culture. Basically, that’s when I think the apartheid movement started inside the culture, where suddenly there were haves and have-nots. And I was starting to see the results of it, because on my block, you know, kids were like, “Yo, why do you still take a cab? Like, you were just on BET a second ago. Like, why are you still taking a taxi cab? Like, how come—you know, how come you never wear jewelry? Like, you know, you’re a rap star. Like, aren’t you supposed to have these things?” And so, you know, I wanted to do a video that pretty much showed that being an MC and being an artist isn’t about being a personality, but more or less, you know, a human being.

Unfortunately, you know, the commentary cut a little deep with some in the hip-hop community that felt that we were taking potshots at them. What I didn’t know was that we had taken—we had taken a swipe at an actual Biggie video. I wasn’t aware that we had done something scene for scene. And, you know, of course I can see how you think we’re mocking him, because this is exactly his video scene. So he wasn’t too happy about that.

The thing was, is, though, we were always in Europe. Nobody in hip-hop wanted to ever tour Europe, especially when they were successful in the States. So we had heard talk of, like, you know, “Yeah, I’m gonna see them, and, you know, it’s on when I see them.” So, at the time, The Source magazine had kind of asked me to respond to Biggie’s statement of how, you know, he was upset. And, you know, he had really—he had championed us in a lot of books, so this really came as a swipe, from his point of view, as in like, “Wait a minute, I said they were like one of my favorite groups ever. Like, why would they do this to me?”

So, my manager and I, the same manager that, you know, does the commentary in my book, the footnotes, we wrote a manifesto about how we see the dangers of the seeds that is the apartheid movement, the fact that, you know, hip-hop used to be an all-inclusive thing. When Run-D.M.C. sing about “My Adidas,” you can actually get a pair of Adidas and feel like you belonged in it. Now, suddenly, you know, rappers are like, “Well, this is my mansion and my boat,” and it’s like the Trayvon thing all again. “You ain’t ish.” You know, like “I have something you don’t, so I’m better than you.” And that’s not too inclusive. Hip-hop used to be inclusive. And so, we wrote this like nine-page manifesto.

And then, on the morning of March 10th, I called The Source offices to fax them this—this is before the Internet—to fax it, and the person was like, “Well, I don’t know. Like, you do know what happened, right?” I was like, “No, what happened?” Was like, “Biggie’s dead.” And that just like felt—I really felt horrible, because, one, I just—I was like, “Wow, he actually left Earth thinking that, you know, we were really going at his neck.”

And we weren’t. You know, we were kind of going at the neck of the idea of what was about to happen. And eventually that’s what happened, like it just sort of separated. And then, now, if you’re not part of the winner’s circle—you know, no one aspires to be the working man. Everyone aspires to be the man, you know? So, it’s kind of—it manifested. And, unfortunately, you know, he was a part of that manifestation.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, drummer, co-founder of The Roots, the legendary hip-hop group and house band on NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. He’s also a DJ, music scholar, author of the new memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove. When we come back, he talks about working with Jimmy Fallon. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: The Roots, “Guns Are Drawn.” This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re speaking to Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of the group The Roots. He is just out with his first book, Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove. It’s the 40th anniversary of hip-hop. I asked Questlove to talk about the TV show Soul Train and its host Don Cornelius, who created the first black-owned nationally syndicated TV franchise. But first, a few highlights from Soul Train.

DON CORNELIUS: Soul Train, the hippest trip in America. … And it’s always in parting we wish you love, peace and soul!

AARON MATÉ: Those are some clips from Soul Train. Ahmir, you have a book coming out pretty soon—


AARON MATÉ: —about that show. And you actually tweet pretty frequently, showing the clips that you have in your personal library.

AHMIRQUESTLOVETHOMPSON: My collection, yeah. Yeah, Soul Train is probably—you know, I grew up in a household where TV really wasn’t allowed. If it were educational programs or PBS, we were allowed to watch it—and music programs, I was allowed to watch. So, often, my parents would let me wake up a little bit after midnight so I could watch the night special or In Concert or Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert or even musical acts on SNL. And so, for me, Soul Train was probably the most important show of all, because before the age of video, like where are you going to see your favorite acts perform? And this is how I got to know, you know, musicians I admired—The Ohio Players; The O’Jays; Earth, Wind & Fire; Mandrill; The Manhattans.

But also, you know, Soul Train's greatest trick was that it taught—it taught African Americans Afrocentricity, which is probably—I mean, that's Don Cornelius’s greatest trick, was that he used the commercials. Johnson hair products were the sponsor of the show, so he used those Afro Sheen commercials and those Ultra Sheen cosmetic commercials to basically teach about African pride and taking pride in yourself, which was important because during that time period, you know, to be called an African, when I was a kid, that was like a sign of shame, like that was the worst diss that any schoolyard dozens could be played. Like, “Oh, yeah? Your mom’s so fat, when she get on the scale, it could be 'to be continued.'” “Oh, yeah? Well, you dirty African”—and then it would be like, “Yo, it’s time to fight. You called me an African. I ain’t no African!” It was a sign of shame. And what Soul Train wound up doing was teaching like African history, without you even knowing it. And that’s the beautiful thing. Like, one of their first campaigns was the Watu Wazuri Afro Sheen, teaching them Swahili while applying their hair, or having like Frederick Douglass teach you how to style your afro, or the story of Hannibal conquering Europe on his elephants. Like, they were teaching history lessons on the show. And so, that, to me, was a sign of brilliance. So, even without knowing it, he was teaching you pride. And his whole goal was basically to show the young black teenager in a positive light, which hadn’t happened before, because the only time you saw teenagers on TV was either mired in controversy, violence, protesting, being hosed down, being attacked by dogs. So this is the first time that you really got to see another slice of life, and it was important. So, I felt like that’s my passion project. I own about 600 or 700 episodes of the show.

AMY GOODMAN: Questlove is with us, Ahmir Thompson. Can you talk about Jimmy Fallon and what your—


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the whole experience. Talk about Roots there, what you’re trying to convey, what you’re doing.

AHMIRQUESTLOVETHOMPSON: At the end of the day, this is probably the best move for us. We took the move knowing that we would be severely underestimated. I think it was that once said that the idea of The Roots going to Fallon’s show is the equivalent of Miles Davis becoming a street musician. So, that was the kind of—that’s the kind of energy I wanted, going into it. I wanted people to underestimate us, because I personally wanted to make this a cool thing. I didn’t want to make this like it was community college. Everyone at community college is like, “Yeah, I go to city college, but I’m going to NYU in the fall,” like that’s their thing. I didn’t want to make it a shame-based thing. I wanted to make it like, yeah, we’re going to take this gig and make it good.

And, you know, it’s probably one of the best experiences ever. For starters, to much people’s surprise, this is the only time that The Roots have ever rehearsed as a band. We never, ever rehearsed as a group when we were The Roots, because we’re just spontaneity-based, like we just don’t plan stuff. And so, you know, this made us better musicians, better song writers, better craftmen. I enjoy it.

AARON MATÉ: Was it a tough sell for the executives at NBC to bring on a rap group for this franchise?

AHMIRQUESTLOVETHOMPSON: There was concern—there was concern over—you know, Jimmy is very excited about a lot of things. And, you know, not behind his back, but they were basically like, “Look, you know, Jimmy’s over the moon about you guys, but, look, this is what you’ve got to understand. Like, you know, we know that you’re good in your environment. But can you be good and have range?” So, I think that the question up in the air was: How much range do they have as musicians? Like, we know that they give a great show, we know that they’re a good rap group, but, you know, what if Kenny Chesney comes on the show? Can they pull it off? What if we say we need an Andrew Lloyd Webber reference? Can they pull it off?” So the—we were there on like a probation period. It was going to be a thing of like, “OK, every 12 weeks we’ll have a meeting on whether or not The Roots fit the show or not; if not, we’ll just get regular, real musicians.”

So they invented this bit called “Freestylin’ with The Roots,” in which Jimmy would randomly name a genre of music and also name facts about the said audience member that’s next to him, and we’d have to make songs up on the spot. And the very first time we did it, then I started to notice like a lot of people were like peeking their heads in the room. Like, I could tell like, oh, executives, executives, executives, like they—this is the make-or-break moment for The Roots. And I was like, “Oh, you—we live for this moment. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for.” And so, once we did it, just the collective sigh of “phew” from the entire staff, you know, they threw the probation thing away. They were like, “OK, you are our band.”

AMY GOODMAN: Ahmir, as we wrap up, what are you most proud of? And as you move on to this main stage of The Tonight Show from Late Night, you—I mean, social justice is—you’re imbued with it, you are driven by it. What do you most want to accomplish still?

AHMIRQUESTLOVETHOMPSON: Amy, I’ve got to tell you, that’s the hardest—that’s the hardest question I’ve ever had to answer. Just like chapter one was the hardest—that was the last thing written for this book—because I couldn’t answer the question: Why is my story important? I don’t know how I program myself, but I never—I always felt like the downfall of any artist was to ever—kind of like this Lot’s wife theory of like if I ever did this and looked at my accomplishments—oh, yeah, you see me right there—that I’d turn into a pillar of salt or something. I can’t tell you what I’m most proud of. I mean, I’m grateful. I’m extremely grateful that I made it. I mean, some days, you know, I feel like, “OK, yeah, I did stuff.” And other days, you know, most days, I just feel like, “Ah, I haven’t made my mark yet, like I still—I’ve got a long ways to go.” So, a lot of the times, I feel like it will be the downfall of me if I say, you know, when we won this or when we did this or when I met this particular person. I mean, my whole life is full of super highs, like in the average, everyday person’s like life highlight, is like an everyday occurrence. Half the time I just can’t talk about it, because it just always seems like—they have a thing called “humble brags” on Twitter. So, I can’t just say, “Oh, so the other day, you know, I was with da da da da da da, and then Jay Z walked in and said, 'Da da da da da.'” They’re just like, “Ah, humble brag.”

So, it’s just—you know, I’m grateful. I’m extremely grateful to have survived, literally just survived, because, you know, I’m still wondering: Will anyone in the hip-hop culture ever make it to 65? Like, will we have our first hip-hop senior citizen? Like, that’s an amazing thing for me. No, because if they don’t—if they escape bullets, they still have to escape strokes and their health, you know, Chuck D, Ice-T and Flavor Flav right now are kind of leading the pack, like they’re in their mid to late fifties, so it looks like they will get to that finish line. Like, that, to me, is an amazing achievement. But all I want to do is have the option to want to do this. I don’t want to be escorted out the building because I’m too old to do something or not have the ability to do it, or—you know, but I love my life the way it is.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, drummer and co-founder of the legendary hip-hop band The Roots, the house band of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, soon to become The Tonight Show. He is just out with his first book, Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove. I interviewed him with Democracy Now!’s Aaron Maté. Visit our website at to see more of our interview with Questlove, talking about Michele Bachmann and the music he chose to play when she came on Jimmy Fallon, and how it almost got Questlove fired. He also talks about how an appearance by Stevie Wonder on The Cosby Show influenced a generation of hip-hop artists, and why Questlove has been called the Paul Revere of Occupy Wall Street.

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