June 20, 2013


Questlove Talks New Roots Album, 'Tonight Show' and Self-Doubt

Laura Cavanaugh/Getty Images
Laura Cavanaugh/Getty Images

A Questlove interview should always have the word “ostensibly” attached to it. We’re ostensibly on the phone to discuss Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove, his recently released meta-memoir detailing his career as co-founder of the Roots, but the avuncular drummer, DJ and tastemaker rarely is at a loss for other things on his mind.

The book is purposely not your standard music bio, including lists of Quest's favorite albums and passages on the history of music journalism, the nature of memory and post-modern race discussions. The “meta” part comes from published emails from co-writer Ben Greenman to editor Ben Greenberg about the book’s path, as well as conversations and footnotes by longtime Roots manager Rich Nichols that sometimes directly contradicts Questlove’s own memories. It accomplishes that rare feat of pleasing both music nerds and casual fans, never pandering to either but remaining compelling throughout.

What was supposed to be a 15-minute interview became a 55-minute discussion on music, release date timing, self-doubt, humblebrags, terrible interviews, mistaken identities, Coolio, Radiohead and Superhead’s Confessions of a Video Vixen. It gets weird like that.

So we should start with some disclosure: I'm only about 60% done with the book.

Don't worry. I wrote and proofread it chapter by chapter as I turned it in, but I haven't read it all the way through either.

Really? I feel better now.

Yeah. I started it yesterday. I'm kind of scared because I don't respect books that are really easy reads. Writing this was like being in college. This is nothing like serial tweeting. It was like turning in 18 Quest exams. There was one point, though, where I forgot I was reading my story and I was actually in third person reading this guy's story. But one of my biggest fears is that my story was boring and not exciting enough.

I resisted [writing the book] for a year and a half. When I told them I'd start, I was lying. They had to ambush me three times.

There's no coke-fueled orgy stories, but you've always been the link to so many disparate musical scenes and personalities.

Oh wow. Thanks. But as a lover of musical biographies, I resisted [writing the book] for a year and a half. When I told them I'd start, I was lying. They had to ambush me three times. It's weird because this is like the story of Steven Tyler where he thought he was going to rehearsal but instead, members of Aerosmith and his family cornered him to go to rehab. That's what it felt like for me. Like, "Yeah, Ahmir, we're going to have a meeting about this project we're working on." Next thing I know, Ben and Ben were there and I was like, "NOOOOOOO!!!!!" Not only did they know I was going to run to avoid them, but they all came from separate entrances of the building. They said, "Yeah, Rich told us that you would try to run out the back way."

How did you overcome that fear?

Once Greenman gave me a really great outline to do like, "Here you're going to talk about your first time with Soul Train. Here you're going to talk about your records. Here will be your first day of school," it got easier. Midway through the book, while still having a lot of self-doubt, I was trying to figure out a way that would make it interesting for me at least. I'm not saying that my life isn't exciting, but it's exciting for a fan. I really still consider myself the world's luckiest fan that has the best seat in the house as opposed to a musician that has had great experiences.

Were you concerned you'd come off as arrogant or boastful?

It would just sound like a bunch of humble bragging. I just felt like I didn't have enough experiences on my own to merit a book, so I came up with an idea that they all agreed to, which was basically, "Let Rich have a voice to counter [me]." I still think that he's the funnier and more level-headed voice of God in the book. I do the narration and he's the cynical, down-to-earth guy to give you two sides of the story. I thought it was much needed comic relief and a lot of truth to it. When I got to chapter 11 last night, i was really scared because I could name four books recently that I've finished in a day or so. One of them was Karrine Steffans' [salacious hip hop tell-all] Confessions of a Video Vixen. I hope my book isn't basic reading material that someone like Fran Lebowitz would just dismiss as fodder.

Wait, go back a bit. You read the Superhead book?

I was…I was…[Says each word slowly] I was amazed and ashamed that on a flight to California, I finished that entire book and didn't even skim.

You know you just wrote your own headline, right?

[Laughs] Well, you have to contextualize it. My whole point was that if I got through 11 chapters of my book without fail, then I was afraid that it would be too easy of a read.

Grand Central Publishing
Grand Central Publishing

In keeping with the book's theme, I wanted to ask you a few questions about interviews.

Okay, so we're going meta, huh? This is good.

Tell me about your first-ever interview.

My very first interview was with an unknown Touré in 1993. Our first publicist was a student at Temple University at the time and we were trying to drum up local publicity for [the Roots' debut album] Organix. He said, "I'm a budding journalist and I feel like you guys are going to make an impact one day. I want to be your first interview." He wound up getting it in a local paper. We sat on the floor of an apartment foyer in Philadelphia. We used to throw water balloons and eggs out the window of this building and I think one old lady that walked inside asked, "You guys aren't the ones on the rooftop throwing eggs, right?" We're like, "No. What are you talking about? We don't even live here." And they shuffled off, like we were going to admit that.

Is there one question you hope you will never get asked again by a journalist?

I did a college paper once in upstate New York and the girl asked me, "Was Lauryn Hill sick? Is that why she didn't make the show?" She thought we were the Fugees. You know who made that mistake too? Coolio.

Wait, what? How does he factor in this?

He came up to me once and was like, "Where's the girl at? Where she at?"

Did he think you were Wyclef or Pras?

Dude, you don't get it. There's still, "Well, you guys are the Fugees" to this day. There's a certain freedom I get walking in the hood because no one knows who we truly are. There's always that one guy who'll be like, "Black Eyed Peas, right?" Even to this day, black people think that I'm the drummer in Black Eyed Peas.

I was interviewed by a college paper and the girl asked me, "Was Lauryn Hill sick?" She thought we were the Fugees.

What was the worst interview you've ever had?

That was in Hull, England. I have a tendency to give in-depth interviews to even the smallest of publications. Wendy Goldstein, our A&R advisor and the woman who discovered us, told me to always shake hands and kiss babies and whenever you're at any industry function, be nice to the lowest person on the totem pole because today's intern is tomorrow's CEO. And she's 100% correct. So in my hope to make even a small college paper feel like they're doing an in-depth interview, I had spent five hours giving a really detailed interview and photo shoot only to find out 1. The tape recorder was never running and 2. The shutter on the camera was messed up and didn't take any pictures. No pictures, no interview. I was so livid.

Is there a question you've never been asked that you've always wanted to?

[Pauses] I understand the game now and back then I didn't. I thought everyone had the passion for music that a young Cameron Crowe had. I grew up as that person. Almost Famous was my story; not from the journalist end, but from the music end. I'm a tad bit chagrined that music journalists really don't [pauses]…things that I think are impressive about the Roots aren't necessarily all that interesting. One day, I actually snapped at a reporter for just not caring about the music.

What happened?

I'm really good friends with [former Source Editor-in-Chief] Kim Osorio to this day. But our very first interview was this pent-up, aggressive interview. At the time, I felt slighted because i knew The Source brass as far as their A-list writers and she was an upstart. Why would they send her down; the person that's not even informed about the Roots or even knows or cares? She came in and I just had to explain basic, elementary schematics of studio recording.

She didn't understand how it was possible that all members of the Roots weren't present in the studio while making the record. I was like, "Well, we do our stuff separately." She said, "Well, how do you do it that way?" She just wasn't getting it. Instead of snapping, I just said, "Listen, I'm just going to make up a track and you can now see how a band can do this." I'm also a condescending f-ck when it comes to these types of things, so there's music snobbery on my part. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise because the track I wound up making was "Ain't Sayin' Nothin' New" off Things Fall Apart. What started out as a very aggressive, defensive response to someone that I felt didn't know much about music turned out being one of the better moments on that album.

In the book, you discuss collecting back issues of Rolling Stone and memorizing record ratings. How deep down the wormhole did you go?

It was all about spending every Saturday at the library after Soul Train from 2pm until closing and being obsessed with those record reviews. Each Saturday, I'd go through a specific year, like on April 12, 1986, I'll go through the entire 1971 issues and copy and study the reviews. At the time, when I was 15, I didn't know that this is what I'd definitively do for the rest of my life, but I noticed the pattern at least for records that they gravitated towards. Once I started making records, it was like, "I want to make the kind of records that 2040 version of me would like."

[For the next 15 minutes, Questlove will reel off a savant-like knowledge of Rolling Stone record reviews, touching on Michael Jackson's Off the Wall, George Clinton's Computer Games, Bell Biv Devoe's Poison and a slew of other albums. He will not only give the year, label and producers, but recite how many stars each review got, whether it was a lead review or not and which specific sentences he enjoyed.]

Once I started making records, it was like, "I want to make the kind of records that 2040 version of me would like."

Now, as a person who's as much of a fan of music journalists as artists to whom they write about, there's a void in my heart that's left me a tad bit indifferent to music journalism. I find myself celebrating more when a journalist has left the publication. The problem with letting people know my passion for journalism is that I also feel there's one or two writers out there who just for the spite of it will snark me to make a mark.

What did they do to earn your ire?

They're highly uninformed. The first time that one of them swiped us, I would go to their byline and obsessively read everything they ever wrote. It was elementary journalism and I felt like, "Okay, you're preparing gourmet soufflé for someone who just wants cheeseburgers." To say that makes it sound like I'm high and mighty and pretentious. I don't hardly take myself that serious, but I do expect that the work I put in to a certain project is at least received by someone that isn't skimming through.

But is that also a function of the sheer amount of product out now versus when the Roots began to see success?

Absolutely. When Things Fall Apart came out, you had to turn an album in three months ahead of time, so you were able to live with it for a while. Now, not so much. That's actually the prime reason why I've cut Roots albums in half now.

Because you expect people to spend less time with each album?

Definitely. [Public Enemy's] It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back ushered in a movement; the first single album I knew that had 18 songs on it and the single record that had a double-record mentality. Back then, it was typical to have 15 or 20 songs. When I go to [Stevie Wonder's] Innervisions or a Michael Jackson record, those records were under 38 minutes and it was perfect. Not to mention that as a form of exercise, I always felt that we were the masters of meandering. It always became a question of, "Can you guys still make an impact in under 37 minutes?"

Was this a conscious decision made during the recording process or the natural effect of too much product in the world?

100% conscious, because there were three songs that I took off [the Roots' 2011 album] Undun that were bangers, but didn't fit the storyline. Even with the new Roots album, we know that there's 11 slots to fill.

In our database in the last four years, we've recorded 4,812 songs [for 'Fallon'].

In January, you announced that the new album would be called & Then You Shoot Your Cousin and then things went silent. Any update?

At the time, we were messing around with Elvis [Costello], it was so much of a hobby that suddenly, it became a real album and we decided to put all of our eggs in that basket. Not to mention that knowing our recording habits, I personally don't want to release any Roots proper album unless we can do it in either February or April. We released our last three records in the second half of the year, which is dangerous. Unless you're an A-list artist—Justin Timberlake, Kanye, Jay-Z—you ain't got no business in the third or the fourth quarter. It's playing Frogger on the 405 in Los Angeles when all the cars are doing 90 mph. You're gonna get hit. [The Roots' 2002 album] Phrenology met that fate, but we generally got lucky.

But Cousin is still a work in progress. There's four or five tracks made, but as far as priorities go, I have to get some things out of the way first. We have this Elvis record, not to mention two or three secret, major musical projects that I'm working on that I can't really talk about.

You'll become The Tonight Show bandleader next February. What changes can we expect compared to Jimmy Fallon?

One thing I'm definitely certain is that we're going to have to start again at ground zero, so I don't know how much of the traditional stuff that was Late Night's property will come to The Tonight Show. I will only assume that we will start fresh again with new sketches and new music. In our database in the last four years, we've recorded 4,812 songs, including music to play between breaks, walk-on songs, game show songs, etc. I want to get back to that three-to-five hour rehearsals every day, 20 songs a day schedule.

And in the interim, you'll eventually finish reading your book.

No! I don't want people to finish it. I want it to be a very hard read. I don't want them to be done in one minute. I'll feel better if they take two weeks to read it.

Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove is out now via Grand Central Publishing