Amir “Questlove” Thompson can literally talk your ear off. Never one to shy away from a controversial topic, the outspoken leader, producer and drummer of the acclaimed hip-hop band The Roots exhibits as much passion when he breaks down studio engineering secrets for making live instrumentation sound like a sample as he does explaining why mainstream rhyme darling Drake deserves to be taken seriously by true rap aficionados. But it’s the Root’s bold and times uncompromising new release How I Got Over that evokes the most intensity from Quest. He calls the veteran Philadelphia outfit’s ninth album hip-hop’s most serious over-40 statement to date. The influential beat man discusses staring down rap’s midlife crises and more.—Keith Murphy
VIBE: There’s a
lot of talk among critics and fans that How I Got Over is the first album to address turning 40 in a
truly serious manner. Do you agree with that assessment?
Questlove: Well, we are not the first to do it. That’s
Jay-Z’s whole mark…Ma, I did
good..I’ve grown up. But
Jay’s 40 is more of an aspirational 40; like a victory lap. Whereas the
Roots’ 40 is definitely one long, hard look in the mirror. With most rap
records it’s like, Alright,
let me do my girl jawn; let me do my political jawn; let me do my party
jawn. You know, the tried
and true subject matter. But this album asks some serious questions.
There’s a book that guided us through this record. It’s Malcolm
Gladwell’sOutliers. Which for those who follow the Roots, Malcolm’s second book, The Tipping Point, is what we named our last album after. But Outliers is a sort of an exercise in how to perfect your craft.
What was the most challenging aspect when it
came to recording How I Got
The fact that this is
the first album since Tipping
Point that I had little to
do with the engineering. I knew if I would have went in there with that
itch that De Niro had in Heat…that just-one-more-score,
I-can’t-leave-it-alone itch. If I had listened to that itch then I would
have overproduced the record. To me, it was more important that people
understand that the Roots is still a band. I knew that our engineer
would actually present what we gave to him, which is a band type of
Would you say its your first garage band album, given the
record’s raw, one-take sound?
Yeah, I’ll say that
probably since Organix, this marks the first time the entire band
jelled together and played at the same time in the studio. There are
diehard fans for a lot of phases of the Roots. For every fan of Things Fall Apart, there’s a Do You Want More?
fan that’s like, “Now, this is what y’all should be sounding like.” Then
there are people who live and breath with Prenology. But I’m very careful not to mislead fans of Organix and Do You Want More? as a return to that form, simply because
there are no jazz elements on How
I Got Over. There’s no
upright bass or scatting.
that stands out on this album is the drum sounds. They are the hardest
I’ve heard on a Roots album. It sounds like you were trying to kill the
I told the engineer,
“Please, make my shit sound banging.” At the end of the day, I would
just come in at night and approve the mix as opposed to just standing
over his shoulder. But I did give myself one song to really go ape shit
on. And that was “Web 20-20.” Because that’s that one song that both
Tariq [Black Thought] and I had to get out our hip-hop aggression. For Tipping Point it was “Web.” For Rising Down it was “75 Bars.” Now if I had engineered the entire album the
whole record would have sounded like “Web 20/20.” I just really wish
that people understood that damn near 95 percent of everything they’ve
listened to by the Roots was created by us. It’s just that we had the
engineering know-how. It’s like a chef that knows how to turn soy into
chicken. That’s our craft in the studio.
Can you talk
about the project the Roots have been recording with John Legend?
It’s called Wake Up. At first it was just a John Legend record, but now it’s being
billed as John Legend & The Roots. I won’t hesitate to say that this
album will be John’s most loved record. Sonically, he let me go there
as the producer. And the subject matter has to do with struggling. It’s a
real political album.
When the news
first came out about the Roots collaborating with Legend it seemed like
an odd pairing given that you guys come off as much more stripped down
and loose while John seems more polished.
Well, it was a battle. I
told John, “Look, when we embark on this mission please, without
sounding arrogant, don’t question my judgment on the mixes.” Because I
know that he’s a stickler for perfection. Technically, John is a perfect
singer. His voice is velvety smooth…it’s beautiful. But after listening
to all three of his records, I decided to take on this mission. I
obviously had to take him to a place he’s never been before. So I was
choosing, in his eyes, all the bad takes. There was a lot of debate.
John would say, “My voice is cracking…this is not my normal mic.” I took
him out of his element. I wanted him to sound dirty. I wanted him to
sound human. You are really going to believe in the lyrics that he’s
singing because it really sounds like a man of struggle. Again, it’s a
political album. So you are really not going to believe in the music if
John’s voice is coming out velvety smooth. This is his first gutbucket
project. This is probably the most fun that I’ve had working on a non
hip-hop album since [D’Angelo’s]Voodoo.
Then I’m working on
another project with Booker T, formerly of Booker T & The MG’s. He
won best instrumental record at the Grammy’s this year. And we saw each
other and he was like, “Maybe I can work with you guys one day. [The
Roots] can be the MG’s.” And I took him on that. The Roots fans have
always wanted to see if we could cut it just as an instrumental group
without lyrics. They wanted to see if we were indeed break-beatable.
Could we make that funky instrumental? Well, pretty much with Booker T’s
record, we achieved that. One of the masterstrokes we both agreed upon
was that Gabriel Roth, the bass player and engineer of the Dap Kings,
would engineer the album. Pretty much, this record is an instrumental
album that puts us in that 1960’s Dap Kings, Amy Winehouse, and Raphael
Saadiq’s last record sort of light, with Booker T at the helm. It’s
almost like a Meters album. And of course, I almost forgot about the
When do you find
time to breath?
[Laughs] I worked on the Duffy album so long ago that I totally forgot
that I produced it. We are doing the strings on her record right now.
As a hip-hop fan
what is your take on the hype surrounding Drake?
…to read the rest of this article check out http://www.vibe.com/content/long-convo-withquestlove