Questlove is the Hardest-Working Man in Showbiz, and He is Lonely Enough to Prove It
Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson is a man of many responsibilities.
In the past six days, he's DJed five events, performed twice with his band, the Roots, taped four episodes of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, opened a restaurant that serves fried chicken he can't eat on his current diet, graded his students' final performances for the New York University class he co-teaches, performed at Radio City Music Hall, and auditioned for an American Express ad. (He didn't get it.)
He's also preparing to publish a memoir, Mo' Meta Blues, and working on the two Roots releases anticipated this year.
"You know, after work, everyone hangs and they go to a bar and stuff?" says Thompson, sounding a bit like an anthropologist who has just pinpointed a key habit of a strange tribe. "I don't socialize that way. I don't have a posse. I don't have friends. I got the people I work with. I got a mom and a sister."
Thompson lives alone in a pristine apartment with dramatic views of the East River bridges. His pants and T-shirts are hung the same way from matching flocked hangers. He's not dating anyone seriously.
Questlove Extras: Leftover Quotes and Anecdotes From This Week's Cover Story
"I'm very guarded, because I'm very vulnerable. Which really reads as gullible. . . . I guess the downside of that is that the guardedness that Questlove has to use to protect himself has now absolutely done overages and bleeded over into Ahmir Thompson's life."
The Roots are in many ways a band at odds with the prevailing cultural mood. They are album artists in a singles world, undisputed stars whose most commercially successful record took 14 years to go platinum, a group that plays live instruments in a genre where solo performers and turntables are the norm. "The Roots are not aspirational," says Thompson flatly. "There's no 'Started from the bottom now we here.'"
"In black culture," says Rich Nichols, the group's longtime manager, "It's difficult to have a point of view that's not about winning." The Roots' lyrics are often political, never materialistic, and generally out of step with mainstream hip-hop.
"The other day I heard the new 2 Chainz record," says Nichols in Mo' Meta Blues. "And it's a fucking object lesson in thematic narrowness, one dumbass idea repeated over and over again. There's a song called 'Crack!' and then a song called 'Dope Peddler,' right next to each other. Then a little later there's a song called 'I Luv Dem Strippers.' I'm not knocking 2 Chainz, but what kind of market elevates him like that, at the expense of everything else?"
Thompson sometimes seems a little out of place in the world. Drummers are not usually frontmen, and yet Thompson's profile arguably eclipses that of his band. Co-founder Tariq Trotter, the group's telegenic primary lyricist and MC (he goes by the name Black Thought), has 27,000 Twitter followers to Thompson's 2.6 million. The Roots' official account has 68,000.
Thompson did not want to write a memoir. He says it took four years for his publisher to convince him. Nichols joined in the urging, and worked with Thompson to find a co-author in Ben Greenman, the novelist and New Yorker editor.
Nichols says he felt it was important for Thompson to write the book in part because it's the story of a black man that isn't framed by violence, drugs, criminality, or the glorification of same. "Stories that revolve around black people, the shit has to be this weird sort of outlawish type of existence for people to get into it," says Nichols. "For some reason, theres this idea, post-hip-hop, that black peoples lives are always on the edge."