DATE February 6, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/Aâ¨ TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/Aâ¨ NETWORK NPRâ¨ PROGRAM Fresh Airâ¨â¨Interview: Ahmir Thompson discusses his hip-hop group The Roots,â¨his musical experiences and the current hip-hop environmentâ¨TERRY GROSS, host:â¨â¨This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.â¨â¨In the world of hip-hop, where most music is sampled, The Roots areâ¨exceptional. They play instruments. My guest ?uestlove is the band'sâ¨co-founder and drummer. Spin magazine included their latest CD "Phrenology"â¨on its list of the best albums of 2002. In GQ, rock critic Tom Moon wrote,â¨`The Roots have never been hit makers. Their vision for black music tears outâ¨in radical directions, encompassing jazz, trance, rock and Brazilian pop.â¨From the beginning, this group of jazz heads and rhyme warriors have doneâ¨things differently. They're a band, for starters, working in a genre in whichâ¨musicians were once thought irrelevant. Their orbit has included activists,â¨rappers and rock stars, anyone grappling with what it means to be black andâ¨alternative.'â¨â¨?uestlove, who is also known as Ahmir Thompson, grew up around music. Hisâ¨father Lee Andrews led the doo-wop group Lee Andrews & The Hearts which hadâ¨the hit "Tear Drops." ?uestlove co-founded The Roots in 1987, when he was aâ¨student at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts. Theâ¨Roots begin a national tour today. Let's start with a track from their latestâ¨CD "Phrenology." This is "The Seed (2.0)" with guest vocalist Cody Chesnutt.â¨â¨(Soundbite of "The Seed (2.0)")â¨â¨THE ROOTS: (Singing) Knocked up nine months ago, and what she's gonna have,â¨she don't know. She want neo soul 'cause hip-hop is old. She don't want noâ¨rock 'n' roll. She want platinum or ice and gold. She want a whole lot ofâ¨somethin' to fold. If you're an obstacle, she'll just drop you cold 'causeâ¨one monkey don't stop the show. Little Mary's bad. In these streets, sheâ¨done ran e'r since when the heat began. I told the girl, `Look here, calmâ¨down. I'm gonna hold you hand to enable you to peep the plan because you wasâ¨quick to learn and we can make money to burn. If you allow me to lay thisâ¨game, I don't ask for much, but enough room to spread my wings and the worldâ¨fittin' to know my name.'â¨â¨Mr. CODY CHESNUTT: (Singing) I don't ask for much these days, and I don'tâ¨bitch and whine if I don't get my way. I only wanna fertilize another behindâ¨my lover's back. I sit and watch it grow standin' where I'm at. Fertilizeâ¨another behind my lover's back, and I'm keeping my secrets mine. I push myâ¨seed in her bush for life. It's gonna work because I'm pushin' it right. Ifâ¨Mary dropped my baby girl tonight, I would name her rock 'n' roll.â¨â¨GROSS: That's music from The Roots' new CD "Phrenology," and my guest isâ¨?uestlove of The Roots.â¨â¨Welcome to FRESH AIR. Now...â¨â¨Mr. AHMIR THOMPSON (?uestlove, The Roots): Thanks for having me. Thank you.â¨â¨GROSS: ...one thing everybody who knows The Root, knows about The Roots isâ¨that you play your own instruments.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Right.â¨â¨GROSS: You're a drummer. How unusual is that in hip-hop?â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: To be honest with you, my manager, Richard Nichols, and I wereâ¨actually reflecting on kind of how sad it is that--he told me that, `Man, ifâ¨Ellington were alive today, he would turn over--I mean, he'd just turn over inâ¨his grave for the fact that actual musicianship is used as a novelty or aâ¨selling point to get a group over.' And, I mean, it's nothing that I think ofâ¨as quite unusual. And, you know, I mean, technically, because of samplingâ¨while I was in--and a lot of restrictions that are placed on hip-hop rightâ¨now--I mean, there are a lot of people that are utilizing, you know,â¨instruments in their work and even the early work of hip-hop before technologyâ¨sort of, you know, caught up with modern times. I mean, you pretty much hadâ¨to play a popular break beat to the house band on Chevy Hold Records(ph),â¨Grandmaster Flash would have to play a particular break beat or cut to a houseâ¨band and they would have to sort emulate it as if he were on the turntables.â¨â¨So, I mean, I guess it is unusual. I will say that we are probably one of theâ¨more popular bands. I mean, usually hip-hop that utilizes liveâ¨instrumentation is just, like, musicians for hire or as, you know, The Rootsâ¨are the actual focal point, you know, to the viewer, so to speak.â¨â¨GROSS: When you started playing drums as somebody who already loved rap--andâ¨this was, like, in the '80s--did you think there'd be a place for you in rapâ¨or hip-hop?â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: See, yeah, I kind of thought it was natural. You have toâ¨understand that when I was coming up, the first rap records that were out wereâ¨records that were played by musicians. So, you had Doug Wimbush, bassist Dougâ¨Wimbush, who plays for Living Colour right now, and Keith LeBlanc, who's aâ¨popular drummer in his own right. They were, I guess, the Sly & Robbie ofâ¨Sugar Hill Records. And then the Sugar Hills rival, Enjoy Records, the labelâ¨that had the Treacherous Three and Spoonie Gee, they were backed up by aâ¨percussionist named Pumpkin because he was the band leader and I guess theâ¨drummer. And the nucleus of his ensemble, a lot of the breaks that heâ¨performed--I mean, it just spoke to me. So I just thought it was a naturalâ¨thing.â¨â¨And coming up in high school when The Roots first started, you know, hip-hopâ¨really wasn't that elaborate an arrangement. I'm talking about hip-hop circaâ¨1984, '85, '86. I mean, it was pretty much just a simple drumbeat and a stabâ¨would be sort of like the exclamation point at the end of a sentence. Bap!â¨You know? It could be scratched in or just like some sort of noise, anâ¨enforcement noise. And, you know, so in high school pretty much Blackâ¨Thought, or Tariq Trotter, would, you know, come up to me and just name anyâ¨popular song of that time and point and just say, `Yo, yo, play "Topâ¨Billin',"' and, you know, because it was a drum arrangement, I knew how toâ¨play it. And that was like the most amazing thing to him, `Oh, he can playâ¨"Top Billin'," he can play, you know, "The Bridge Is Over," he can play'--youâ¨know, just naming all these songs, and I could play them. I kind of thoughtâ¨it was natural.â¨â¨GROSS: OK. Well, I'm going to stop you right there because that's kind ofâ¨interesting. Since you came up in the era of sampling, as an actual musicianâ¨your friends expected you to basically play the samples.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, exactly.â¨â¨GROSS: You're still expected to play, like, other people's music.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Right. Well, I mean, hip-hop is audio pop art really and it'sâ¨just a collage of other ideas. And even at the time I didn't know that, OK,â¨sampling's the proper term for it. For the hip-hop nation pretty much theâ¨first introduction to real sampling that we've ever seen was this episode ofâ¨"The Cosby Show" when Stevie Wonder runs over the Huxtables' car with hisâ¨limousine. Well, not that violent, but, you know, he invites them to a studioâ¨session, and for the first time America got to see the process of sampling inâ¨which you say something and it's repeated back to you. And after me and myâ¨friends saw that episode, we were begging for whatever that machine wasâ¨called. We didn't know what it was called. You know, like, in our heads itâ¨was sort of like the "Flintstone" episode where, you know, like, the littleâ¨bird is inside of the machine and re-creating the noise. And we didn't knowâ¨how in the world that happened.â¨â¨So just during Christmas, Casio happened to make a product called an SK-1â¨machine, which allowed you about maybe three or four seconds' worth ofâ¨sampling time. And, you know, me and all my friends got this little toyâ¨keyboard for Christmas. And, you know, you mess around with it a littleâ¨while, you do, like, all the curse words, you know, and all that stuff. Andâ¨then you start getting serious about it. And that's when I would, like, runâ¨to the basement where my drum set was and try and cram in eight bars' worth ofâ¨drum breaks within three seconds, which, you know, you have to be pretty fastâ¨to do it.â¨â¨GROSS: Right.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: And then I just, you know, realized the endless possibilitiesâ¨of a sampler.â¨â¨GROSS: Well, while we're talking about musicianship and sampling, I thoughtâ¨this would be a good time to play "Rock You" from your new CD, "Phrenology"...â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Right.â¨â¨GROSS: ...because you're actually playing on this, but you're playing more orâ¨less a rhythm line from Queen's "We Will Rock You." But again, you're notâ¨sampling here, you're playing it.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Well, it's inspired by--yeah, we're not...â¨â¨GROSS: You're reinterpreting it, too.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: It's inspired by it, but yeah, we--yeah, some artists are aâ¨little iffy about sample clearances, so...â¨â¨GROSS: Got it. That's right. Anything else you want to say about "Rock You"â¨before we hear it?â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: In case their lawyers are listening.â¨â¨GROSS: Right. Anything else you want to say about "Rock You"?â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: "Rock You" is just our mission statement. You know, The Rootsâ¨is so associated with just a mellow atmosphere and I thought it was realâ¨important to start off the album with an exclamation point, you know. Soâ¨"Rock You" is our mission statement for the album.â¨â¨GROSS: OK. Let's hear it.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: OK.â¨â¨(Soundbite of "Rock You")â¨â¨THE ROOTS: Rock you. Rock you. Rock you. Rock you. Rock you. Rock you.â¨Come on, come on. Aiyyo y'all rappers less play, what I'm about to say willâ¨probably hit y'all niggas in a real strange way. Shmucks, ducks andâ¨half-hearted prankster crews Willie dank Langston Hughes, put shanks in crews.â¨I debut to make the news and I've been killing it since. Still in the trench,â¨buzzin' off the killer suspense. I want my niggas out that barb wire still inâ¨the fence. Verbal assassin I'm a killer still in a sense. Rhymes is graphic,â¨aimin' straight at your minds and blast that weak (censored). The pieces andâ¨particles of fragments mad vocabulist. Yes, I must confess I'm like Diddyâ¨trying to sink a slug in Elliot's chest. Just taste on that, it's black youâ¨can tally up that. You never...â¨â¨GROSS: That's The Roots from their new CD, "Phrenology." My guest isâ¨?uestlove, the drummer of the group and one of the founders.â¨â¨The word `niggas' is used on the track that we just heard.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Right.â¨â¨GROSS: When is it OK with you and when is it not OK with you to use the word?â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: You know, I could play the politically correct term and say,â¨you know, `OK, we know it's wrong,' I mean, but basically I think with blackâ¨people, we pretty much will turn any tragedy into a term of endearment. So,â¨you know, is it right? You know, I don't know if it's right or if it's wrong,â¨you know, personally. I don't think that black people haven't made up thatâ¨term, but I think that we've turned it around and it's just another, I guess,â¨like, colloquialism for `brother' to us, you know?â¨â¨GROSS: Mm-hmm.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: `What's up, my nigga? How you doin'?' you know?â¨â¨GROSS: Did you grow up with it that way?â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Pretty much. I mean, it was natural. I mean, there are--youâ¨know the difference between if you're being referred to as, you know, `myâ¨brother' or if it's used in a condescending term, you know?â¨â¨GROSS: My guest is ?uestlove, the co-founder and drummer of the hip-hop bandâ¨The Roots. Their latest CD is called "Phrenology." We'll talk more after aâ¨break. This is FRESH AIR.â¨â¨(Soundbite of music)â¨â¨GROSS: My guest is ?uestlove, the co-founder and drummer of the hip-hop bandâ¨The Roots. Their latest CD is called "Phrenology."â¨â¨You started playing drums when you were in high school, yes?â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: No.â¨â¨GROSS: Earlier than that?â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Actually I started when I was two.â¨â¨GROSS: Oh. OK.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: I was two years old. I started The Roots when I was in highâ¨school. My father is an oldies doo-wop singer from the Philadelphia area.â¨â¨GROSS: Lee Andrews of Lee Andrews & The Hearts.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, Lee Andrews & The Hearts. So pretty much--my childhoodâ¨is pretty much based just backstage at doo-wop extravaganza shows, you know,â¨like "Dick Clark Presents," you know, and it would be like 10 groups, Don &â¨Juan, Harvey and The Moonglows, The Tokens, you name it. If they were fromâ¨the '50s or the '60s, it would just be a big show at either, like, Madisonâ¨Square Garden or The Spectrum or out in The Forum in LA. So pretty much Iâ¨grew up backstage...â¨â¨GROSS: Now Lee Andrews...â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: ...watching all these groups.â¨â¨GROSS: Lee Andrews' biggest hit, I think, was "Tear Drops" in 1957?â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: "Tear Drops," yeah, '57. Yeah, yeah, '57.â¨â¨GROSS: Would you be willing to sing a few lines from it just to refreshâ¨listeners' memories?â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: I wouldn't want to scare your listeners. (Laughs)â¨â¨GROSS: OK. Well, how about this? How about we play a little bit of it?â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: We can do that, yeah.â¨â¨(Soundbite of "Tear Drops" by Lee Andrews & The Hearts)â¨â¨LEE ANDREWS & THE HEARTS: (Singing) I sit in my room looking out at the rain.â¨My tears are like crystals. They cover my windowpane. I'm thinking of ourâ¨lost romance and how it should have been. Oh, if we only could start overâ¨again. I know you'll never forgive me, dear, for running out on you. I wasâ¨wrong to take the chance with somebody new. I sit in my room looking out atâ¨the rain. My tears are like crystals. They cover my windowpane. I knowâ¨you'll never forgive me, dear, for running out on you.â¨â¨GROSS: OK, so that's Lee Andrews & The Hearts.â¨â¨So you grew up, you know, backstage and watching your father perform. Whatâ¨sense did it give you of what the music life was like? And then you probablyâ¨watched your father kind of drop out of sight after the doo-wop era was over,â¨so you also knew what it was like to no longer be in the limelight afterâ¨having been in it as a young man.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Well, I mean, I was born in the '70s, so pretty much I cameâ¨along when...â¨â¨GROSS: Oh, you came along, right, in the oldies show. You're--yeah.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, it really wasn't about--I mean, even though he made it aâ¨career, if anything, he taught me that there is a plan B, you know, and thatâ¨not everyone gets the plan A limelight.â¨â¨GROSS: Right. What was his plan B?â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: By the time I was born, you know, he had met and married myâ¨mother. I have a sister as well. And they had opened up a boutique store,â¨and they were quite content. And, you know, as with any music phenomenon thatâ¨occurs 20 years before, there's an upsurgence of it 20 years later. And Iâ¨guess most of that started with Sha Na Na appearing at Woodstock and thenâ¨pretty much after that just Dick Clark with a slew of shows just in theâ¨tristate area, in the New York area, anyplace that loved doo-wop. And myâ¨father just made a great living out of it. And...â¨â¨GROSS: Don't you often wonder if there's going to be, like, old-school rapâ¨shows like...â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Oh, there is right now.â¨â¨GROSS: Is there already?â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Totally. And the thing with hip-hop is the model for hip-hopâ¨is definitely here today and gone today. So...â¨â¨GROSS: Yeah, I know what you mean.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: ...anything under five years is pretty much consideredâ¨old-school. This weekend I was listening to a popular New York radio station.â¨And they were like, `Now back in the day, Wu-Tang Clan, da-da-da-da-da,â¨old-school.' I was like, `Wait a minute! Wu-Tang--six years ago!'â¨â¨GROSS: Right.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: It was like six, seven years ago. You know, old-school to meâ¨is, OK, maybe we can say, like, Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On," like a songâ¨that's definitely over 20 years old or something, you know, near 30 years old.â¨But yeah, pretty much in the hip-hop, it's here today and it's gone today.â¨â¨GROSS: Let's get back to your high-school years. And you went to the Highâ¨School of Creative and Performing Arts...â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Performing Arts, right.â¨â¨GROSS: ...in Philadelphia.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Yes.â¨â¨GROSS: And so that means that you were exposed at a young age to artists ofâ¨your age of every sort--you know...â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Exactly. You know. Growing up...â¨â¨GROSS: ...painters and dancers and people in theater and music of every sort.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Everything, Boyz II Men rehearsing in the...â¨â¨GROSS: Boyz II Men was in your school?â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: ...in the bathroom, always rehearsing.â¨â¨GROSS: Was it good to be exposed to so much?â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: It was perfect, you know. Like my first--Iâ¨actually--unfortunately, I came to performing arts high school in the 11thâ¨grade. I started--Performing Arts had a private school sector that I went toâ¨from first to eighth grade. Then my parents took me out of that school andâ¨tried to send me to a college prep school, which was good academic--you know,â¨I could wind up on "Jeopardy!" you know, you know, talk about "The Iliad" orâ¨something. But you know, my heart was with music development.â¨â¨And so I begged them to send me to the public school for performing arts andâ¨finally got my wish for the 11th and 12th grade. And walk in there--like I'dâ¨never been to public school, and pretty much my only exposure to that type ofâ¨school was watching the television show "Fame." And, you know, you're kindâ¨of wondering, like, `OK, is this the type of school that's going to be like aâ¨cliche? Like, are they gonna break out in dance numbers in the hallway and,â¨you know, just do all those things that you see on television?' And, youâ¨know, I was, like, real skeptical, like, `Ah, it's not going to be likeâ¨"Fame",' or whatever. And sure enough, like, you walk into class and, youâ¨know, they're singing--you know, Boyz II Men's practicing in the corner andâ¨you have, like, Christian McBride and Joey DeFrancesco trading fours and downâ¨the hallway...â¨â¨GROSS: These are now well-known jazz musicians.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Exactly. Like, you know, like the Who's Who of, like, theâ¨thespian world rehearsing, you know, their sonnets over there, and it's crazy.â¨It was really a weird experience for me.â¨â¨GROSS: Now, like, street credibility and authenticity is so important in rapâ¨and, you know, a lot of people believe that to just be a good rap group orâ¨hip-hop group, you have to, like, be from the ghetto, you have to beâ¨gangsters.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: The streets.â¨â¨GROSS: The streets.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Right.â¨â¨GROSS: Yeah. And so here you are, you know, you didn't go to the prepâ¨school, you went to the High School of Creative and Performing Arts. So wasâ¨this--did you ever see this as, like, an obstacle to doing what you wanted toâ¨do, because you might not be perceived to have the street cred?â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Well, The Roots are also made up of six other people. I justâ¨happen to be the mouthpiece of The Roots.â¨â¨GROSS: So it's OK that you don't have street cred?â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: But my--yeah--no...â¨â¨GROSS: They had it.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: I mean, my credibility comes from the fact that when it comesâ¨to music, you have to have a vast vocabulary of musical knowledge, at leastâ¨for me. I mean, now I'm pretty much--hip-hop is in its `just add water'â¨stage, which is, you know, just turn on a beat machine. You know, you have aâ¨lot of producers saying with great pride and alacrity, like, `Oh, you know, Iâ¨made this beat in three minutes,' you know, which--like, wow, OK. Whereas Iâ¨think that for me, a requirement for a good producer in hip-hop is one thatâ¨has to have a vast knowledge of musical substance. You know, I don't know.â¨Just the cats that I look up to, they collect records, they know certainâ¨musicians. You know, you know that there's a vast vocabulary that you have toâ¨know.â¨â¨GROSS: ?uestlove is the co-founder and drummer of the hip-hop band The Roots.â¨Their latest CD is called "Phrenology." He'll be back in the second half ofâ¨the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.â¨â¨(Soundbite of music)â¨â¨Ms. ERYKAH BADU: (Singing) If you were worried 'bout where I been or who Iâ¨saw or what club I went to with my homies, baby, don't worry, you know thatâ¨you got me. If you were worried 'bout where I been or who I saw or what clubâ¨I went to with my homies, baby, don't worry, you know that you got me.â¨â¨Mr. TARIQ TROTTER (Black Thought): (Singing) Somebody told me that thisâ¨planet was small...â¨â¨(Announcements)â¨â¨GROSS: Coming up, drummer ?uestlove of The Roots reveals his five paths aâ¨young black male can take to success in life and entertainment, including whatâ¨he describes as the Mandingo factor. And we talk with David Cross, co-creatorâ¨and co-star of the former HBO sketch comedy series "Mr. Show." He has a newâ¨live CD of his stand-up tour.â¨â¨(Soundbite of music)â¨â¨GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with ?uestlove, theâ¨co-founder and drummer of the hip-hop band The Roots. They begin a nationalâ¨tour today. Their latest CD is called "Phrenology." After it was released, aâ¨review in Details magazine said, `Hip-hop's best live band may have justâ¨served notice that they're hip-hop's best band, period.' I asked if itâ¨bothers him when people think the most important thing in hip-hop is streetâ¨credibility rather than musical ability.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Well, that becomes a problem in hip-hop, because prettyâ¨much--well, in life or in entertainment in general, there's only five routesâ¨that, I see, one's allowed to take, at least as a young black male--that oneâ¨is allowed to take in order to achieve any type of success. Number one,â¨obviously, is the over-the-top vicarious fantasy gangster image that peopleâ¨are in love with. Number two is the Mandingo factor, I like to say--theâ¨Mandingo factor which sort of reinforces the sexual stud, overtly sexualâ¨stereotype. Number three is I guess the over-the-top personality. I reallyâ¨want to go there and say coon, but that's a little too harsh, but it's just anâ¨over-the-top personality. Number four is the sugar pop sort of diluted,â¨apolitical, ambiguous area. And number five, unfortunately, is the one I tryâ¨and walk on, but it doesn't seem to work: the `art for art's sake' route,â¨which is pretty much a neutral ground.â¨â¨And that becomes a problem because it forces people to actually have to reallyâ¨focus on the character and figure out what they are, you know. I mean, Theâ¨Roots aren't gangster. The Roots aren't political. The Roots aren't overtlyâ¨sexual. The Roots aren't clowns. The Roots aren't easily categorized. Andâ¨as a result, you know, it's just a slow, slow journey to--it's sort of likeâ¨the tortoise and the hare. It's just a slower journey to the finish line...â¨â¨GROSS: Well, the...â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: ...but you eventually get there.â¨â¨GROSS: ...the `art for art's sake' group isn't usually the group with theâ¨biggest commercial success.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. It doesn't seem that interesting, you know. But you getâ¨a lot of people, they're, `Oh, you know, what type of microphones do you'--youâ¨know, like a lot of art-for-art's-sake questions, you know, which I don'tâ¨necessarily mind, but sometimes it does get frustrating, you know, becauseâ¨you're not fulfilling a particular requirement for people.â¨â¨GROSS: Now The Roots are from Philly, and for...â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah.â¨â¨GROSS: ...a lot of rappers, the place they're from becomes, like,â¨mythologized through their raps.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Right.â¨â¨GROSS: What do you think you've done, like, to create a Philadelphia in yourâ¨music?â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Well, Philadelphia had sort of a bad/nondescript reputationâ¨between...â¨â¨GROSS: In hip-hop, you mean, because there...â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: In hip-hop.â¨â¨GROSS: ...was the Philly sound before that that...â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah.â¨â¨GROSS: ...began in the '70s--Gamble & Huff.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: I'm just talking about in terms of hip-hop.â¨â¨GROSS: Yeah. Right.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Even though I'll say two of the major important factors ofâ¨hip-hop history have originated in Philadelphia. Number one, gangstaâ¨rap--pretty much, there's debate as to whether Ice-T, who's from LA, orâ¨Schooly D, who's from 52nd and Parkside, was the first, quote, unquote,â¨"gangsta rapper." And pretty much anybody that's familiar with Schooly D canâ¨give you pretty much an account of where they were the first time they everâ¨heard his classic, "P.S.K. What Does It Mean?" you know, because we'd justâ¨never heard a rap that explicit. You know, pretty much hip-hop before thenâ¨was about partying and, you know, there were some reality rhymes here andâ¨there, you know, "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and maybe "It's Like That"â¨by Run-DMC. But, you know, pretty much everyone's been like politicallyâ¨correct. You didn't hear that much profanity, that much cursing and that muchâ¨honesty. You know, Schooly D talked like your older cousin on the corner, youâ¨know, or the guys that you knew down the street on the corner. And, you know,â¨he was very influential to a lot of...â¨â¨GROSS: Right.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: ...people, The Beastie Boys and the list goes on. And also...â¨â¨GROSS: Yeah. So what's your image of Philly in your music?â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Well, we had to take that and--well, let me just quickly sayâ¨that the other important element was the art of deejaying. Philadelphia hasâ¨four very important pioneers in deejaying: Jazzy Jeff, DJ Cash Money, DJ Mizâ¨and DJ Chief, all from the tristate area. And they're pretty much theâ¨standard for which deejays today are basing their skills on, when you talkâ¨about deejays doing the `look, ma, no hand' tricks and whatnot. So prettyâ¨much, that's all that Philly--those were the two major factors that Phillyâ¨offered in the '80s. And, you know, living under New York's shadow didn'tâ¨help matters much, because, you know, they were the creme de la creme ofâ¨culture.â¨â¨GROSS: Right. So what's the picture of Philly that you think your musicâ¨gives in the stories that it tells?â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Right now, I guess the sound of Philly is the sound of a termâ¨that they've coined called neo-soul, which is pretty much a musical backdropâ¨of lush arrangements, Fender Rhodes, like a lush jazzy '70s jazz arrangements,â¨the same instruments that a Roy Ayers would use, a Fender Rhodes, an uprightâ¨bass, lush strings, you know, keeping the strings from the originalâ¨Philadelphia sound. The drums are just a little more, quote, unquote,â¨"crunk," meaning more street. So basically it's like street drums over a lushâ¨arrangement, sort of the contrast there. And that's pretty much the sound ofâ¨Philadelphia. That's the sound of Jill Scott. That's the sound of music.â¨That's the sound that we were a part of developing. Of course, "Phrenology"â¨is the exact opposite of that sound, because we don't want to get typecastâ¨into just one particular sound.â¨â¨GROSS: One last thing. I'm interested in your record collection.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah.â¨â¨GROSS: I understand you have a really big one. What's the range of thingsâ¨that you listen to?â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Anything. I'm just into anything musical, you know. You know,â¨I like the incredible Bongo Rock group. I like David Bowie. You know, Iâ¨collect a lot of rare hip-hop records, and I collect just a lot of obscureâ¨records, records that have been used in samples. I'm very curious in theâ¨ingredients that other producers have used to make their records, you know.â¨It's sort of like someone going out and buying a cookbook to see theâ¨ingredients that went...â¨â¨GROSS: Right, right.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: ...inside of a particular stew. So I collect those type ofâ¨things.â¨â¨GROSS: Do you collect a lot of vinyl?â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. I'm about 27,000 strong right now.â¨â¨GROSS: Of vinyl?â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. I know that's not messing with DJ Shadow's collection.â¨I heard he's up to 60,000, so...â¨â¨GROSS: Wow. That's mighty impressive, though.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: I got some ways to go, but, yeah, I'll get there.â¨â¨GROSS: OK. And one final question.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Yes.â¨â¨GROSS: How come you wear an Afro?â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Because I'm secretly a Chia Pet.â¨â¨GROSS: I won't sing the theme.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Right, right. Chi-Chi-Chi-Chia.â¨â¨GROSS: Yeah.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: My hair just grows. I come from a family that--you know, Iâ¨don't have the patience, nor the time to go to a barbershop and get it cutâ¨every three seconds, so my hair just grows. It's always been problematic forâ¨me. Just thank God it's in style now. Imagine me trying to get through thisâ¨hairstyle in the late '80s and the early '90s, you know. Back then, I couldâ¨do a flat-top thing, but, no, I keep it. It's my crown, you know. It's sortâ¨of symbolic now, but, yeah, it was a problem back in the day, you know, peopleâ¨staring at me, like, `Oh, my God.' You know, now it's no thing becauseâ¨everyone has it.â¨â¨GROSS: Besides you're you, so...â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, exactly.â¨â¨GROSS: ...you can do it now.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: I'm an individual.â¨â¨GROSS: That's right. Thank you so much.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Or one of the missing Jacksons.â¨â¨GROSS: That's right.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: All right, thank you.â¨â¨GROSS: Thanks so much for talking with us.â¨â¨Mr. THOMPSON: Thank you. I appreciate it, Terry.â¨â¨GROSS: ?uestlove is the drummer and co-founder of the hip-hop band The Roots.â¨Their latest CD is called "Phrenology." The band starts a national tour today.â¨â¨(Soundbite of music)â¨â¨THE ROOTS: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible). It's the top of the hour. We'reâ¨about to prepare you for another two hours of music-free commercials. But,â¨hey, it's the stroke of midnight, and you know that means. It's the many ofâ¨malt liquor sponsored shabulo(ph) roll call hour, giving our respect and loveâ¨to the architects who designed this culture. Grandmaster Flash and Theâ¨Furious Five, Tone Loc, Sequence, Brady B(ph), Above the Law, Jazzy Fourâ¨and...â¨â¨GROSS: Coming up, comic David Cross, co-host of the former HBO sketch comedyâ¨series "Mr. Show." This is FRESH AIR.â¨â¨(Soundbite of music)â¨â¨* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *â¨â¨Interview: David Cross discusses his first CD and his careerâ¨TERRY GROSS, host:â¨â¨Comic David Cross has his first CD recorded live on his stand-up comedy tourâ¨last spring and summer. I can't really say the title on the radio, so let'sâ¨just call it "Shut Up You"--expletive--"Baby." Cross is best-known as theâ¨co-founder and co-star with Bob Odenkirk of the former HBO sketch comedyâ¨series "Mr. Show." The first and second seasons are collected on DVD.â¨Newsweek called Cross and Odenkirk the goofball gurus of the alternativeâ¨comedy movement. On the other hand, an article in The Washington Postâ¨described the two as sharing an acidic intellectual approach to humor. Crossâ¨started doing stand-up in 1982. He's appeared in several films and TV series,â¨including "Ghost World," "Men in Black," "Waiting for Guffman," "Just Shootâ¨Me" and "The Drew Carey Show." Before we meet him, here's an excerpt of hisâ¨new CD in which he's talking about growing up Jewish in a suburb of Atlanta,â¨Georgia.â¨â¨(Soundbite from CD)â¨â¨Mr. DAVID CROSS (Comic): All the parents see you as is Jew, I'm a Jewish kid.â¨I'm like a (censored) alien to them, you know. I'm a freak, and I'm in theirâ¨living room, you know, and (censored) Dunwitty(ph). What's happening? What'sâ¨happening? And so like if I slept over a friend's house and I'd always haveâ¨to deal with these questions in the morning, like, you know, Mom come in,â¨going, `David, I'm so sorry to have to ask you this. I'm so sorry. I'mâ¨fixing to make breakfast for everybody, and I certainly want to include you.'â¨â¨(Soundbite of laughter)â¨â¨(Soundbite from CD)â¨â¨Mr. CROSS: `And I just--I don't now--I'm just having some questions I wasâ¨hoping you could answer. Do y'all's people eat oatmeal?' you know.â¨â¨(Soundbite of laughter)â¨â¨Mr. CROSS: `What? Yeah. What is this? Is there something in the Torah thatâ¨says we shouldn't eat oatmeal? What are you talking about? Why wouldn't weâ¨eat oatmeal? What?' `No. I don't know much about y'all's peoples. That'sâ¨all. I just don't know. I know y'all hate Jesus. I know y'all hate Jesus.'â¨â¨(Soundbite of laughter)â¨â¨Mr. CROSS: `That much, I do know. And I know y'all have seven Jew bankersâ¨that control the world's money supply, right, in a bunker somewhere about aâ¨mile into the Earth's core. Is that right, yeah? And y'all do like dances inâ¨the woods. Y'all wear cloaks and do secret services and burn potions andâ¨whatnots and y'all have horns. That's all I know about y'all's people.'â¨Yeah.â¨â¨GROSS: David Cross does a lot of religious, political and sexual humor. Nowâ¨that he's pretty well-known, he feels like he's often preaching to theâ¨converted, but sometimes he has a date where the audience is unprepared forâ¨what they're about to hear, and he doesn't mind.â¨â¨Mr. CROSS: Well, I did one show fairly recently, and I got picked up by twoâ¨of the students, and they were driving me to the college or the university,â¨and I said, `So tell me a little bit about the school,' and they go, `Well,â¨you know, it was founded in 18-whatever, and it's a Jesuit school and'--I wasâ¨like, `What?' `Yeah, it's a Jesuit school.' And then I said, `Well, have youâ¨guys seen my act?' `No, no, but, you know, we saw you did "Just Shoot Me" andâ¨you were in "Men in Black." That was pretty funny.' And so then I was like,â¨`All right, fine.' And I went up there and had 300 walkouts and...â¨â¨GROSS: Wow. That's more than are in many audiences.â¨â¨Mr. CROSS: Yeah. It was pretty impressive.â¨â¨GROSS: Now you describe yourself as an atheist, Jewish born, and as youâ¨describe on the CD, once you're born Jewish, you kind of stay Jewish, even ifâ¨you are an atheist, because that's the rules of the game.â¨â¨Mr. CROSS: Right. That's...â¨â¨GROSS: So how did you become an atheist?â¨â¨Mr. CROSS: I was about 10 years old. I knew I'd just moved back to Georgia,â¨and I was about 10 years old, and I was in synagogue one day, and it didn'tâ¨like just hit me, but I just got a very strong, almost spiritual, if you will,â¨feeling of, `This is wrong. This is garbage. This is obvious, and it'sâ¨obvious in the ways that this is superstition,' you know, and I didn't haveâ¨it formulated at the age of 10, but I just had that feeling. And then I wentâ¨through a little phase where I felt very guilty about it, because that's oneâ¨of the things that Judaism does very well, is it will guilt you into stayingâ¨in the fold, you know. They're very good at, you know, making you feel veryâ¨terrible about turning your back on the faith. And I went through this phaseâ¨where I went to a stricter synagogue for about half a year, and even though itâ¨was...â¨â¨GROSS: Why'd you do that?â¨â¨Mr. CROSS: Because I felt guilty about it, and I really tried hard to findâ¨some faith. And I was thinking about being a rabbi, and then, you know, I gotâ¨bar mitzvahed, and then I woke up from that and said, `This is just not trueâ¨to what I really believe, and I'm not being true to myself, and I think thisâ¨is nonsense.' And I think all religion is, you know, based on historicalâ¨fallacy, and I understand why it exists, and especially when you look at theâ¨history of Catholicism. That's a particularly gross and terrible, you know,â¨mean-spirited...â¨â¨GROSS: Oh, this would be a good time to give our e-mail address. But let meâ¨ask you this: Do you ever consider that religion might be, you know, aâ¨beautiful metaphor to guide you through life and to help you find a place forâ¨yourself in the world?â¨â¨Mr. CROSS: Sure. But I will counter that--and I will agree with you, butâ¨I'll counter that by saying I have not needed it. I do not need a Bible or aâ¨Torah or anything of that nature to tell me what is right and what is wrong.â¨â¨GROSS: So you grew up Jewish before becoming an atheist in Georgia. You grewâ¨up in a suburb of Atlanta. Were there a lot of, like, stereotypes orâ¨misconceptions about Judaism that you were exposed to?â¨â¨Mr. CROSS: Oh, sure. Maybe not stereotypes that I saw in particular, becauseâ¨we were poor, too, which was also strange for people to grasp their, you know,â¨heads around, the idea that, wait, I thought you people hoarded money, but weâ¨were on welfare and we were living in this dumpy apartment and, you know, onâ¨Medicare, and my dad had left. So, you know, here's some Jews that are notâ¨controlling the media and hoarding money, and I don't know what to think, butâ¨they still found it in their heart to spit on us and beat us up on occasion,â¨so that was all right, which happened a number of times. I got confrontedâ¨with anti-Semitism quite a bit.â¨â¨GROSS: Were you considered a nerd in high school?â¨â¨Mr. CROSS: Yes, very much so. Very much so. And, you know, I had kind ofâ¨that Jew-fro, glasses at an early age. I read, you know, things like that.â¨â¨GROSS: What did you read?â¨â¨Mr. CROSS: You know, books, novels. I remember getting in trouble for--Mrs.â¨Allen, my English teacher in seventh grade--I didn't go out to the field forâ¨PE, and I sat in the class, which you're not supposed to do. I could haveâ¨gone out there. I don't know what made me sit in the class. I think I was atâ¨the very end of "Gone with the Wind," and I was reading it and I just wantedâ¨to finish it before I went out there. And she came back in the room, and Iâ¨was sitting way in the back and just sitting there reading with my head in theâ¨book, and she accused me of being up to something, and then the way sheâ¨substantiated that was by saying, `There's no way I would be reading "Goneâ¨with the Wind."' And that's a true story.â¨â¨GROSS: I think you got started doing comedy in Boston after dropping out ofâ¨Emerson College. Why did you drop out and what were your early routines likeâ¨after you did?â¨â¨Mr. CROSS: Well, I actually started in Atlanta. I started just before highâ¨school ended and did open mike nights there for a little while, and I took aâ¨year off before I went to college, and I had just started--I mean, justâ¨started to get, like, 50 bucks here and there to emcee a show and host a show,â¨and then I went up to Emerson in Boston and kind of stopped for a while, but Iâ¨did a sketch group in college. And then dropped out of Emerson prettyâ¨quickly. And I just started doing stand-up and continuing to perform in theseâ¨little underground comedy groups here and there.â¨â¨And I think, you know, I've evolved quite a bit, not necessarily for theâ¨better, but my act has evolved from more of a kind of dry, more esoteric typeâ¨of humor and a lot of stuff where I would go up as a fake character. Like I'dâ¨go up as a really nervous, very effeminate, gay, shaky guy who was tryingâ¨comedy for his first time, and then I'd twist it at the end, or I'd go up as aâ¨retarded person or just do these different characters, where it would work andâ¨I'd make the audience uncomfortable because they didn't know who I was, andâ¨they didn't know what to expect, and I'd always push that as far as I could.â¨And then I started getting more personal pretty quickly, telling personalâ¨stories and, you know, would go up there with my note pad and talk about stuffâ¨that had just happened to me, and it kind of evolved into where I am now, andâ¨unfortunately, I can't do fake characters. I can't go up on stage as, youâ¨know...â¨â¨GROSS: Because we'll recognize you.â¨â¨Mr. CROSS: Yeah. Especially if you're there to see me, you know.â¨â¨GROSS: Right. Right.â¨â¨Mr. CROSS: It doesn't matter if I slap a wig on, people still know it's me,â¨and so you lose that quality.â¨â¨GROSS: My guest is David Cross. He has a new live comedy CD. We'll talkâ¨more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.â¨â¨(Soundbite of music)â¨â¨GROSS: My guest is David Cross, the former host and the co-founder of theâ¨former HBO comedy series "Mr. Show." He has a new live comedy CD.â¨â¨I'd love to hear more about the characters who you would do without peopleâ¨realizing that you were in character and not being yourself.â¨â¨Mr. CROSS: Well, as I said, one of them that I used to love was I'd go up asâ¨a guy named Daniel James Napoleon(ph), and it was my first time, and I wouldâ¨do this joke about my two dogs, you know, and I'd dress the part, and I'd be aâ¨little--like a little nervous. `This is my first time, and any-hoo, I haveâ¨two adorable Pekingese and'--sprinkle some pepper--and then I would just tellâ¨this very unfunny joke about them watching TV and they saw a commercial with aâ¨dog on it. They thought the dog was real, and then nobody would laugh. Andâ¨then I'd just kind of fumble around, and I'd do something where I'd get themâ¨to laugh, and then I'd say, `I don't know if you're laughing with me orâ¨laughing at me,' and then I'd say that they're all laughing at me, and thenâ¨I would, you know, tell them that they were cruel, they're mean.â¨â¨You know, people would really bum out. And I'd go, `What do you want, someâ¨macho thing? Is that it?' This is in the era of Andrew Dice Clay, by theâ¨way. I should have prefaced that. `Is that it? Do you want macho? Isâ¨that--strong men talking about men jokes? Is that it?' And then I'd turnâ¨around and then I'd--I can't say it on the air, but, you know, do some really,â¨really crude Andrew Dice Clay things, really nasty, like over the top, notâ¨funny; mean, nasty, sexist, awful humor. And then they'd laugh.â¨â¨And then again, I'd go up occasionally as a retarded guy, you know, a specialâ¨guy and have the host walk me up, and I would just barely be able to getâ¨anything out and really make people feel uncomfortable, and then I'd freak outâ¨at the end. And, you know, those are two of my favorites.â¨â¨GROSS: It almost sounds like an Andy Kaufman type of thing.â¨â¨Mr. CROSS: It was. I like really ripped off a lot of his ideas at that pointâ¨and at that stage in my career and really was enamored and in awe of him andâ¨what he did and how he expanded the definition of what stand-up comedy is andâ¨could be. And, yeah, I used to go up as a really angry Southerner guy, too,â¨who'd talk about--really upset with the comics that came prior to me, youâ¨know, the language and making fun of the Bible, and then just start slowlyâ¨getting more and more kind of crazy in that Art Bell conspiracy way, and thatâ¨was a fun one to do.â¨â¨GROSS: So where's the joy in totally confusing the audience and getting themâ¨to think that you're a terribly unfunny comic?â¨â¨Mr. CROSS: Well, I mean, it's all right there. You're absolutely, completelyâ¨in control of them, and they don't even know it. It's a really powerful, funâ¨thing to do. I mean, they don't know that I'm faking it, but I do, andâ¨they're all like--I'm completely controlling the entire time I'm on stage, theâ¨set; whether I do well, whether I'm perceived as doing well or poorly.â¨â¨And then also, part of the joy is that I'm doing something that clearly is notâ¨like any of the acts you've seen so far, you know. And I would especiallyâ¨love that when I'd go out to LA and do these showcases where you'd just getâ¨the worst comics cultivating their best/worst five minutes and it's justâ¨garbage and they're just pandering and they're trying to get a sitcom. And,â¨you know, then I'd go up there and I'd pretend that I had throat cancer, youâ¨know...â¨â¨GROSS: Oh, gosh.â¨â¨Mr. CROSS: ...and I'm trying to do these impressions that I was anâ¨impressionist and I do impressions but I have throat cancer, so I have one ofâ¨those--(talks in hoarse voice) you know--you know, (talks in hoarse voice)â¨those things--you know, those things that make you talk like that. And, youâ¨know, you just get to watch the audience go, `Oh, my God. What is this guy?â¨Why'd they put him on? I was so enjoying the gentleman who, you know, madeâ¨fun of Tarzan.' You know, and then you'd kind of flip it on them. But again,â¨it doesn't translate to work.â¨â¨GROSS: Oh, right.â¨â¨Mr. CROSS: I've just always been a comedian, a comic's comic, but I didn'tâ¨really get a lot of work out of it.â¨â¨GROSS: David Cross. His new live comedy CD, whose full title I can't say onâ¨the radio, is called, "Shut Up You"--expletive--"Baby."â¨â¨(Credits)â¨â¨GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.