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."
Mo' Meta Blues took Thompson and Greenman the better part of a year. The result is a text of overlapping voices (and probably the only book to be blurbed by both Fred Armisen and Dr. Cornel West). Interwoven with the story of Thompson's life are lists of favorite albums, e-mails between Greenman and the book's editor, and footnoted commentary from Nichols. "There are no trashed hotel rooms," says Greenman.
A perfectionist and studio rat, Thompson has collaborated with artists from Christina Aguilera to D'Angelo, whose acclaimed 2000 record, Voodoo, he produced, and whose upcoming album he's working on as well. He DJs almost every night and has a Thursday residency at the Brooklyn Bowl, a party called Bowl Train, where he shows old Soul Train clips matched to the night's theme. (He's working on a book about Soul Train.)
Thompson is 6-foot-2, but seems taller because of his signature afro. Right now he weighs 350 pounds. His weight has yo-yoed throughout his adult life—he once topped 440 pounds—but for the past six months he has been following the diet in Timothy Ferriss' The 4-Hour Body. (He has lost 56 pounds so far.)
Before heading to Brooklyn Bowl, he stops by his apartment to pick up a plastic container of lasagna. "I just found out I can have vegan cheese," he says. The noodles are zucchini.
He approaches DJing with the same focus as he does drumming, producing, and songwriting. He does not like to be shoulder-tapped or spoken to while at his DJ computer. Once at Brooklyn Bowl, the fire alarm went off, and even then he was reluctant to leave the booth.
"There's an immense concentration that I need, that I personally need, when I'm DJing," he says. "I'm thinking 10 records from now."
Crafting the narrative of a set takes time. Thompson's standard DJ contract charges more for a one-hour gig than for a three-and-a-half-hour set. "Promoters don't get it," he laughs. "There are two things I don't know how to do: One is write a pop song in three minutes, the other is DJ for an hour."
Silently, on the video screens that dot the room, James Brown ages before our eyes. In honor of what would have been the King of Soul's 80th birthday, Thompson is playing an all-Brown set, which the crowd—mostly white hipsters—is enjoying. Todd Rundgren, out bowling with his family, stops for a photo, which Thompson promptly tweets.
Thompson has edited together every James Brown Soul Train appearance, so that James Brown in a powder-blue suit becomes James Brown in a brown three-piece and no shirt becomes James Brown in a satin bomber and a moustache.
Soul Train is one of the many foci of Thompson's obsessive mind. Some of his most vivid childhood and adolescent memories are mapped to the show.
Thompson has "like 700 episodes" specially digitized for his library. The aesthetic resonance is clear in his work, both with the Roots—a hip-hop group that has a "stubborn hold on the funk and soul that had come before us," as Thompson writes, and with neo-soul artists like Jill Scott. In the '90s, Thompson and D'Angelo were founding members of the musical collective known as the Soulquarians.
"For black music specifically, the Soulquarians were my heroes," says Solange Knowles. "And Ahmir was a driving force in that movement. So much of what he was responsible for creating inspired a generation in a completely new and original way."
Thompson grew up in West Philadelphia, but it is perhaps more accurate to say that he grew up on the stage. His father, the singer Lee Andrews, had a handful of hits in the 1950s. His mother, Jacqui, was a model and dancer. In the 1970s, riding the same '50s nostalgia wave that gave the country Grease and American Graffiti, the couple formed a band and began touring, with Jacqui playing the June Carter to Lee's Johnny Cash.
They took the kids on the road. Thompson's tasks included everything from tour van navigator to spotlight operator to selecting the song that would keep the driver awake at 3 a.m. somewhere outside Muncie, Indiana.
He learned which color gels suited his father's complexion and how to time introductions for maximum audience reaction. Having studied the instrument since the age of two, he became the group's drummer at 12. The first venue he played was Radio City Music Hall.
Family life wasn't always easy. Thompson says his dad had a "stage-father pathology," although he wasn't "abusive, exactly." His parents divorced when he was 22. But his childhood, for all the traveling, was structured and secure. The family home was an oasis of music and culture. In a neighborhood that was crumbling due to unemployment, crime, and drugs, Thompson had weekend trips to the symphony, summers playing hotels in the Virgin Islands, and Soul Train.
Thompson attended the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. That he didn't particularly stand out at CAPA is a testament to the extraordinary musical talents coming of age in Philadelphia in the late 1980s and early '90s. It was the kind of school where the jazz kids—including the future bassist Christian McBride and the guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel—were at the top of the social pyramid. Thompson's prom date was the Grammy-winning singer Amel Larrieux. He and Trotter lost a school talent contest to the future members of Boyz II Men.
"Tariq is probably the most consistent relationship I've ever had in my life," says Thompson.
Trotter was admitted to CAPA as a visual artist, but he also showed talent as a lyricist. He was Thompson's opposite in nearly every way: Thompson's parents were Baptists who wanted their son to go to Juilliard; his greatest rebellion was hiding Prince cassettes in a snare drum. Trotter's father was murdered when he was two, his mother was stabbed to death when he was in high school, and as a child he burned down the family home. Trotter wore "Run-D.M.C. sweatsuits and whatever else was considered authorized thug fashion," Thompson recalls. Thompson wore thrift-store shirts and jeans with holes in the knees. Trotter played dozens; Thompson played Scrabble.
Questlove Extras: Leftover Quotes and Anecdotes From This Week's Cover Story
"I was the dweeb and he was the cool kid," Thompson writes in Mo' Meta Blues. "We were like mirror images, each of us seeing in the other something they had never seen before."
"We kind of completed one another," says Trotter.
One May afternoon, Thompson is sitting in a makeup artist's chair on the seventh floor of Rockefeller Center, watching Touré talk on Martin Bashir's show about how black men in the public eye have to be "perfect." Charles Ramsey, the black man who was hailed as a hero for helping three kidnapped women escape from their captor's Cleveland home, has come under fire for his past convictions for domestic violence. "And when we have to be perfect to get that full acceptance," says Touré, "that is too high a burden."
The other guest, political strategist Angela Rye, says, "When I think of black men in my family, when I think of my father's friends, when I think of colleagues, they are literally self-conscious to walk down the street in the dark by a white woman."
A makeup artist applies cleanser and then a Clarisonic brush to Thompson's face. Meanwhile, a hair stylist sections and blows out his afro. From his Blackberry, @Questlove tweets his agreement with @angela_rye. The makeup artist wraps a tissue around each index finger and begins performing extractions. Thompson squirms.
"Sit still," she commands. "This is your diet. All this is coming out in your skin. See?" She points a tissue-wrapped finger at his face.
Most members of the Roots arrive at the Late Night offices by noon every day. The band occupies two sets of dressing rooms on the sixth floor of NBC headquarters. Like the group's two tour buses, one is the domain of Thompson, the other of Trotter. Thompson says that's part of "the ongoing Slytherin/Gryffindor thing" between them. ("I'm not even into that Harry Potter shit," says Trotter. "I'm not really the pop culture dude.") .
Trotter does not invite me into his rehearsal suite, and he never enters Thompson's on the days I visit. My only offstage glimpse of Trotter is after a show taping, when he passes Thompson in the hallway, trailing two men carrying Louis Vuitton bags.
"It's like a hoarder's paradise," says Thompson about his room, which is windowless and barely bigger than the drum kit it contains. The shelves are packed with CDs, records, and knickknacks. An open suitcase on his drummer's throne contains three laptops. Thompson says he has about 70,000 songs on his DJ computer; he saves all his old sets. These are labeled things like "Mr. and Mrs. David Cross" and "Mayorfest." The comedian Amy Schumer has a set—"She likes really inappropriate hip-hop." Spare afro picks rest on the skins of his drums like sticks.
"In response, black people were like, 'Who's John Mayer?'" reads an old cue card tacked on the wall in the suite outside, where Steve Mandel, a recording engineer and producer who has worked with Thompson since the Voodoo days, is sitting at a sound board.
Mark Kelley, the Roots' bassist, comes in, followed by guitarist "Captain" Kirk Douglas. On a shelf, a Barack Obama piggy bank—Change We Can Believe In—is in its box. Frank Knuckles, the Roots' percussionist, is sitting on a couch, wearing sunglasses.
"I was trying to hide the fact you're here for the Voice so all these people would behave like normal," says Thompson conspiratorially. "You say 'Village Voice cover,' and suddenly everyone starts talking all Elizabethan."
On his screen, Mandel has the tracks of a song from the Roots upcoming album with Elvis Costello. "You know you're deep into it when you're trying to edit out the breaths," he says to Thompson. "I'm like, that breaths off rhythm."
"You're gonna choke the life out the record," says Thompson. "Just leave it, man."
The Roots are contracted to play Late Night 200 days a year. On those days, the band performs its own music—its song "Here I Come" is the Late Night theme—and learns songs for commercial intros and outros (Thompson favors funk and soul covers). If the Roots are backing a musical guest, the members also have to learn those songs.
But the band's signature creative outlet on the show is probably the songs with which they introduce each guest—"walkovers," in TV parlance. Thompson is famous for walkovers that are unexpected, or that offer sly commentary on the guest.
In 2011, Thompson's walkover for Representative Michele Bachmann (R–Minn.) during her presidential campaign—Fishbone's "Lyin' Ass Bitch"—was heavily criticized by conservatives and some feminists. (NBC apologized.) Mostly, Thompson loves to surprise people with their own pasts. Salma Hayek walked on to the theme of the soap opera that made her famous in Mexico.
During a show taping in May, Alyson Hannigan's face crumpled into a smile when she heard the Roots playing a lullaby that her How I Met Your Mother character plays for her baby. LL Cool J, another guest, got Elvis Costello's "Accidents will Happen." The rapper was fresh off the controversy from his "Accidental Racist" duet with Brad Paisley.
Sometimes, Thompson wonders if the obscurity of his walkovers "might annoy Jimmy a little bit. His concern is like, 'Well, how come you guys just don't do a song that the world knows? You know, if Alyson comes on the show, why don't we do Costello's 'Alison'?'"
"I don't like to know what they're going to play before a guest comes out," says Fallon. "I like to be surprised. And I almost always am."
Late Night was not Thompson's first experience in television—he music- directed Chappelle's Show and Schumer's new sketch series, Inside Amy Schumer—and the Roots fit into Fallon's format fairly naturally. But the band's move to the show was in many ways surprising.
Talk show bands have traditionally comprised mostly jobbing musicians whose relative anonymity is as much a selling point with networks as their talent. The Roots were stars, international touring artists with eight albums under their belts, when Fallon came calling.
A group that brought with it an established identity—especially a hip-hop group—wasn't an obvious choice for a house band. There are guests who prefer not to work with them (Aretha Franklin has appeared on the show three times and never asked the band to back her).
But the Roots have shown a virtuosic flexibility. "I always say, Bruce Springsteen doesn't leave his band at home very often," says Jonathan Cohen, Late Night's music booker. "Neither does Elvis Costello or Paul Simon. We have something very special with the Roots."
Cohen points out that the Roots' album with Costello, titled Wise Up Ghost and due in September, happened after the Roots met the British musician during a taping. "I'm pretty sure that's the first album that had its genesis in a late-night TV show," he says.
Still, for a band so omnivorously talented, can the talk-show format, with its repetitiveness and necessary element of hamminess, offer a sustaining creative challenge? Is there a greater point to doing what Nichols calls "witty walk-ons and shit?"
"I often wonder, when will I phone it in from home?" says Thompson. "The first year we started, I saw the Letterman cats just walking on the street. It's like, 'Whoa, y'all, you guys aren't at the theater?' He's like, 'Yeah, we're not needed till 4:30.' I was just like, 'So what time you get there?' He was like, 'Uh, 4:25.'"
Max Weinberg, the drummer for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band and Conan O'Brien's bandleader, once told Thompson that the first five years of doing television are "magic." The Roots have been on Late Night for four years, three months.
At the same time, many touring artists—which is what the Roots were before the show—play the same set every night for as many months as the tour lasts, which is hardly creatively stimulating. For Late Night, the Roots have to master new material every day. Then there's when some "holy-shit moment happens," says Thompson. "Prince breaking Kirk's guitar. Playing 'Because the Night' with Springsteen. Becoming buds with Elvis Costello. Like, Clyde Stubblefield sits in with you. The bucket list just keeps getting checked."
And Thompson, who has spent his entire life honing his stagecraft, is well-suited to a working environment that privileges rehearsing. Thompson says he felt like he'd hit something of a rut after the release of the Roots' sixth album, The Tipping Point, which television helped jolt him out of.
"After 2004, then I just felt like, all right, let's just be the road band," he says. "Our time has passed. Let's just grow old and die." (Tipping Point also garnered historically terrible reviews, at least by Roots standards; Pitchfork gave it a 5.4 out of 10.) "We had gotten so tired of each other," says Thompson.
Outside of sound checks, the group had rarely practiced—by Thompson's count, maybe 15 times in 26 years of him and Trotter performing. Television forced the Roots into the rehearsal room.
"That January in 2009, it was like we were all naked together," he says. "Six months into it, we were just a whole new monster. Practicing made us better musicians, and then that made the show better, and then we had more ideas. And not to mention, not playing 217 shows a year, and doing something normal, like only maybe 43 shows a year or 50 shows a year, we're much nicer to each other."
Nichols notes that Late Night, among other things, has allowed the band members to come home from the road and "watch their children grow the fuck up."
It's a warm Friday night in the far West 50s, and the Roots are about to play a private concert at an Audi dealership. Thompson is wearing red Ray-Bans and a plaid sport coat. The gig is on the roof, and guests corkscrew up the garage ramp in white golf carts.
Trotter takes the stage and introduces the band. "You may recognize some of us from hanging around with Questlove," he adds dryly.
The band opens with "Table of Contents." Almost immediately, things go wrong. Thompson's bottom snare mic cuts out, and the band has earpiece problems, which means they can barely hear each other. The stage is so cramped that the keyboards almost fall over during Douglas's solo, and again during Tuba Gooding Jr.'s. Knuckles's pads keep cutting in and out. Kelley's shoulder strap breaks, so for several minutes he has to crouch, cradling his bass to play.
But the Roots do play. And they play well. If anyone in the audience notices the frantic eye contact between the musicians, they don't let on. They do "You Got Me," "Here I Come," and "The Seed (2.0)," before launching into a medley that winds through David Bowie and Guns N' Roses.
Outside, Thompson climbs into the back seat of his black Mercedes sedan, and his driver heads downtown. He wasn't offended by Trotter's dig. "That's him being sarcastic," he says.
Thompson compares their relationship to an open marriage: Each partner can work on whatever side projects he likes. Trotter has acted in several films, and is working on a memoir with music writer Jeff Chang and filmmaker Maori Karmael Holmes. "But at the end of the day, you know where your loyalty lies, and you know who you're coming home to," says Thompson. "And I think that's why we manage to last."
The creative tension between Questlove and Black Thought, drummer and rapper, sheltered Christian kid and at-risk teen, has been the driving force behind the Roots' best songwriting, but it is not without its toll.
"I feel like Tariq's the person with the power," says Thompson. "Tariq probably feels like I'm the person with the power. But at the end of the day, I could slave over a song for nine months, but if nothing comes out, and he can't write to it, he gets final say."
He adds, "I've spent many a night auditioning for my own band."
"Each submission, each verse that I write, is itself an audition for my own band, too," Trotter responds. "That's the way we have this machine set up."
Besides, Trotter adds, "He's the musical director on stage and on the Fallon show, and I feel like that's equally as important a position to hold. He determines what songs we're gonna play and when we're gonna play it. . . . The Roots has two leaders, Ahmir and I. We have an equal stake in the companies that make up the Roots corporation, so to speak."
It's after 11 p.m. and Thompson is home. "Music's spiritual to me," he says, unpacking takeout sashimi at his coffee table. "And I'm watching my words carefully, because I know in print this will sound real self-important. But music is a very sacred, spiritual thing for me. And not just something I want to pop on when I wanna feel 'street,' or 'cool,' or 'sexy.' It's literally a spiritual cleanser for me. That's what I want people to have."
"Sometimes I feel like what drives Ahmir as an artist is popularity," says Trotter. "His father was a celebrity some years ago. I feel like there's a certain amount of legacy that he may be concerned with upholding.
"It's hard work to be a superstar, to be a pop star," adds Trotter. "And a lot of sacrifice has to be made. Sometimes that sacrifice is friends, sometimes it's family, sometimes it's relationships, or all of the above."
Trotter named his eldest son Ahmir, after Thompson.
Thompson's next project is a theme song for The Tonight Show, where Fallon is headed in February 2014. "I feel like we have to write, we must write an iconic theme," he says.
"We gotta make a theme that will make hip-hop guys want to sample it. That will make music-lovers want to hum to it when they're folding their clothes," he continues. "I'm gonna get on some [Malcolm] Gladwell 10,000-hour concentration thing. It'll come."