Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove
By Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson and Ben Greenman
"At the same time, though, I wrote that manifesto to fax over to the Source, which means that I thought that there was a principle at stake. It's still a principle, I think, and it's still at stake. Just recently, I was talking to a book editor about hip-hop. "Right," she said. "Is that the period where rappers were talking all about how they wanted to rape and beat women?" At first I bristled at the characterization. Then it hit me that I see hip-hop in much greater detail than most people. I've devoted at least half my life to it, so I'm connoisseur even if I don't always think of myself that way. Pick any era and I can retrieve a vast array of awesome thought-provoking hip-hop artists who were genuine political thinkers, artists who were genuine comedians. A more casual observer will only see what's put in their face. That was the problem with hip-hop in the Biggie era, and it's the problem with what passes for hip-hop now.
In general, I don't like to blame the creators. They are making work that appeals to them and the people in the room with them. They are making something that is, at some level, genuine. But the distributors, the networks that bring art to the population, they are the ones who ensure that there's a flattening and narrowing. The younger me may have sat up all night with bandmates raging against Puffy or DMX or whoever, but the fact is that they were never the problem. The problem was that someone in the corporate chain of command felt that there was a need to play those songs fourteen times a day and to eliminate alternatives."
"As I started to enter this alternate world of sound, where human error was perfection, where warmth and organic playing mattered more than precision, my relationship with D'Angelo became more and more central to my work. We had started work on his next album, which was now named Voodoo, and I knew I wanted to see that through to the end. The Roots were a dicier proposition, especially after Illadelph Halflife stalled, like its predecessor, after three hundred thousand copies. That's when Rich had a brainstorm. He decided that since we had a new label president--we had been transferred to MCA, still under the Geffen umbrella but a different part of the company--it was time to make some new demands. He told the label that we had simple needs: we wanted them to spring for a bunch of jam sessions at my house--I had my own house by now, a modest place on St. Albans in South Philadelphia--and two fifteen-passenger vans. We hired a chef to cook the best food, and that was the siren song that started bringing people in. Before I knew it, there was round-the-clock music: singers, musicians, MCs.
Some of the people there were from the Roots, but most weren't. Most were normal people who aspired to careers in entertainment. All were welcome. And so the next thing you know, the girl who worked at Jeans West wanted to sing. That was Jill Scott. The pizza delivery guy, Jamal, thought that maybe he'd take his turn on the microphone, too, because he had done some singing, and he thought he had something to contribute. That was Musiq Soulchild. The little teenager up past his bedtime, wailing jazz songs out of his mind, was Bilal. The stripper girl was Eve, who was still calling herself Eve of Destruction. A friend of mine visited from Atlanta and brought a girl with a guitar, and that was India.Arie. Jazmine Sullivan was there, ten years old but with the voice of a grown woman. Common was there. All of this was unfolded in my living room in South Philadelphia in the late nineties.
It was a madhouse. People were milling around outside, waking up the neighbors, playing loud music until all hours. But it wasn't people playing loud music on boom boxes or stereos. They were actually playing it on guitars and singing with microphones. They were making loud music, putting it into a space where there had been no music before. By the seventh week, I was calling the police to say "There's a disturbance at 2309 St. Albans." Just to get some sleep, I was calling the cops on myself! But when I think about that time, the most amazing thing is how many of those artists made it. There were at least eighteen record contracts in the room, and at least nine of the people who became recording artists ended up bigger than us. And yet, it was an indisputably magical time, a kind of rebirth. If hip-hop had died at the 1995 Source awards, I felt like something new was being born on St. Albans."
"I laugh so hard at those shows now. I have told Jimmy a million times that when we get to our thousandth show, we should air the first practice episode. Now we have such a perfect rhythm, almost telepathic, but back then everything was awkward in the extreme. Plus, Jimmy was dealing with pressures from the other side; I remember watching the way Lorne walked around the set pointing at things, and thinking how anal retentive he was about every little detail. He didn't like the cuts of the intro montage. He hated the curtains. He wanted certain lights to point in a different direction. At the time, he seemed like a fussy uncle; it didn't really occur to me that he was a guy who had run a late-night empire for almost forty years. As it turns out, those fixes weren't just minor details. They were major improvements. The difference between what the show is now and what it was in practice is vast, and more than a little was due to his initial detail mongering. Lorne used to say that the average late-night show didn't really catch on for about four years. It took us about a year."
"We went back to work the next day. We asked permission not to wear our suits, to wear Michael Jackson-related stuff instead. I got my T-shirt company to make me a quickie shirt, what I call Helvetica in Harlem, that had the six names of all the brothers. Other members of the band wore leather jackets and studs. Erykah Badu joined us in New York to sit in with us and we spent the day making sandwiches and trying to come to terms with Michael's death. And we played his songs on the air. Usually, they would be too expensive to use, but there is special stipulation, a death memorandum, that grants a 48-hour grace period where songs can be used for a standard rate for news purposes. I don't know if the full weight of the loss hit me then, or later, or if it has hit me yet. It wasn't that I expected him to make more great music, necessarily. I figure that with everyone who's designated a genius, especially people of color, has an expiration date. But Michael was so woven into the fabric of my life that it was painful and also unthinkable to have him suddenly gone."