Q&A: Questlove On Artistic Freedom, "Shuffle Culture," And Spreading The Springsteen Gospel

Anthony Pugh
In a recent tweet responding to a follower's assertion that he was a celebrity, the drummer and head Root Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson demurred, claiming he was merely "a personality." The follower had a point, though; according to a website devoted to Quest's blogs about meeting famous people, for instance, the man has gone on dates with Natalie Portman, turned down a European tour with Justin Timberlake, and napped in Spike Lee's office. But what's not up for debate is how he got to wherever he is. A brief tangle with Michele Bachmann supporters notwithstanding, Questlove has risen to fame on the strength of his drumming, which can be heard on D'Angelo's Voodoo, Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun, Common's Like Water for Chocolate, Jay-Z's Unplugged, and Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine, not to mention thirteen albums by the Roots. By staying impossibly funky and perilously behind the beat, he has boom-bapped his way into the ears and, with his high-profile stint as Paul Shaffer to Jimmy Fallon's David Letterman, eyes of the mainstream. "Shuffle Culture," running this Thursday and Friday at BAM, should only bolster his ascent.

As one might assume, Questlove is an especially fun interview. In the Voice this week, we talk about everything from Back to the Future to Lorne Michaels; here, we pinball from Sun Ra to Sesame Street. Drummers, it is often said, have the best seat in the house; in the case of Questlove, he's also got the best stories.

Is the idea of "shuffle culture" personal for you? One minute you're a producer, the next you're a bandleader, a clothing store owner, a chef.

It's not like I specifically chose that [lifestyle]. My manager and I always seem to think if I throw various spaghetti pasta on the wall, one of them is bound to stick. Rigatoni might be my Roots life, but maybe the DJ stuff can stick a little better than rigatoni can to the wall. So maybe that is my calling. The way that my whole career is designed, I kinda have to commit to eight different pairs of shoes. Basically, ten minutes each. That's why I'm always envious of a figure like Jay-Z. Or, just, overall figures that can actually commit to one form. But I definitely feel as though I'm the one that's stretching that limit as far as I can, as far as trying to brand myself. A lot of it has to do with survival and a lot of it has to do with how we're built as a society.

Who are some of the artists who couldn't make "Shuffle Culture"?

I've been talking to Fiona [Apple] for a good period. She only comes out of her shell once in a blue moon. But because of her album about to take off, she's kind of on a pre-tour, and can't do it right now. Justin Vernon, from Bon Iver, we've definitely been talking about working together for a long, long time. He's often sat in with us. Not even, like, live on the show, but if we do a warm-up song or whatever. He's definitely a friend of the show. A few other, kind of, jazz luminaries as well. They had commitments.

How did you meet pianist D.D. Jackson?

I was backstage at a Neil Young event at Carnegie Hall. And we were in our dressing room, and someone happened to be on YouTube, and just happened to have D.D. Jackson's page on YouTube. And we were watching him. You know, there's a Muppet character from Sesame Street called Don Music, who's world-famous for, like, banging his head in frustration on the piano. With such violence. And besides Tori Amos, I've just never seen anybody be that violent to a piano. [laughs] But I was utterly amazed and just captivated by [Jackson's] work. And I was just, "Find me this guy. Where do we find this guy at?" And it just so happens that about two hours later, I had seen [saxophonist] David Murray, my go-to guy. He knows every obscure musician on earth. He immediately got us in contact with him. And I'll say within three weeks, D.D. started working with us, first on the undun project. Since then, I've used him in my non-Roots ventures of this caliber. I did something at Carnegie [Hall] for Langston Hughes's "Ask Your Mama!" project with him. Every opportunity I can get. I'm just super-amazed that he's very cool and cavalier about exposing his talent more. I mean, he's down and grateful for the stuff that we're doing together, but I was just, like, "Yo, man. How come you're not out there more? You're still everyone's best-kept secret." When he performed with us on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, I've never gotten so many responses on my Twitter feed. And I was like, "Yo, you do have a Twitter page, right?" He was like, "No." I was like, "Aaaah!" He has to be from Brooklyn. [laughs] I would love to just sit and watch him perform. In order to play with this guy, I gotta be just as intense as he is. But he brings out the intensity, man. He's incredible.

Are you interested in doing more experimental music?

Absolutely. By default, the Roots are not really following the status quo of where hip-hop is. I try to sneak it in as much as I can. Like, you know, I worked with [jazz bagpiper] Rufus Harley. And I work with David Murray. And D.D.

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