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Drummer Ahmir Thompson

He is also known as "Questlove" of the hip-hop group The Roots. The Grammy award-winning sextet has six albums to its credit. Their latest CD is Phrenology. Their first single from the album is "Break You Off." One reviewer writes, "To fully savor the sound, you've got to commit to spending time with The Roots, to wallow in both the music and the message. There's Chuck Berry-style rock-and-roll, jazz fusion, funk, poetry, shoutouts to hip-hop pioneers, lyrical slaps upside the heads of money-mad rappers, black nationalism and some groove-laden neo-soul musings."

34:52

Other segments from the episode on February 6, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 6, 2003: Interview with Ahmir Questlove Thompson; Interview with David Cross.

Transcript

DATE February 6, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
 TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
 NETWORK NPR
 PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Ahmir Thompson discusses his hip-hop group The Roots,
his musical experiences and the current hip-hop environment
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In the world of hip-hop, where most music is sampled, The Roots are
exceptional. They play instruments. My guest ?uestlove is the band's
co-founder and drummer. Spin magazine included their latest CD "Phrenology"
on its list of the best albums of 2002. In GQ, rock critic Tom Moon wrote,
`The Roots have never been hit makers. Their vision for black music tears out
in radical directions, encompassing jazz, trance, rock and Brazilian pop.
From the beginning, this group of jazz heads and rhyme warriors have done
things differently. They're a band, for starters, working in a genre in which
musicians were once thought irrelevant. Their orbit has included activists,
rappers and rock stars, anyone grappling with what it means to be black and
alternative.'

?uestlove, who is also known as Ahmir Thompson, grew up around music. His
father Lee Andrews led the doo-wop group Lee Andrews & The Hearts which had
the hit "Tear Drops." ?uestlove co-founded The Roots in 1987, when he was a
student at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts. The
Roots begin a national tour today. Let's start with a track from their latest
CD "Phrenology." This is "The Seed (2.0)" with guest vocalist Cody Chesnutt.

(Soundbite of "The Seed (2.0)")

THE ROOTS: (Singing) Knocked up nine months ago, and what she's gonna have,
she don't know. She want neo soul 'cause hip-hop is old. She don't want no
rock 'n' roll. She want platinum or ice and gold. She want a whole lot of
somethin' to fold. If you're an obstacle, she'll just drop you cold 'cause
one monkey don't stop the show. Little Mary's bad. In these streets, she
done ran e'r since when the heat began. I told the girl, `Look here, calm
down. I'm gonna hold you hand to enable you to peep the plan because you was
quick to learn and we can make money to burn. If you allow me to lay this
game, I don't ask for much, but enough room to spread my wings and the world
fittin' to know my name.'

Mr. CODY CHESNUTT: (Singing) I don't ask for much these days, and I don't
bitch and whine if I don't get my way. I only wanna fertilize another behind
my lover's back. I sit and watch it grow standin' where I'm at. Fertilize
another behind my lover's back, and I'm keeping my secrets mine. I push my
seed in her bush for life. It's gonna work because I'm pushin' it right. If
Mary dropped my baby girl tonight, I would name her rock 'n' roll.

GROSS: That's music from The Roots' new CD "Phrenology," and my guest is
?uestlove of The Roots.

Welcome to FRESH AIR. Now...

Mr. AHMIR THOMPSON (?uestlove, The Roots): Thanks for having me. Thank you.

GROSS: ...one thing everybody who knows The Root, knows about The Roots is
that you play your own instruments.

Mr. THOMPSON: Right.

GROSS: You're a drummer. How unusual is that in hip-hop?

Mr. THOMPSON: To be honest with you, my manager, Richard Nichols, and I were
actually reflecting on kind of how sad it is that--he told me that, `Man, if
Ellington were alive today, he would turn over--I mean, he'd just turn over in
his grave for the fact that actual musicianship is used as a novelty or a
selling point to get a group over.' And, I mean, it's nothing that I think of
as quite unusual. And, you know, I mean, technically, because of sampling
while I was in--and a lot of restrictions that are placed on hip-hop right
now--I mean, there are a lot of people that are utilizing, you know,
instruments in their work and even the early work of hip-hop before technology
sort of, you know, caught up with modern times. I mean, you pretty much had
to play a popular break beat to the house band on Chevy Hold Records(ph),
Grandmaster Flash would have to play a particular break beat or cut to a house
band and they would have to sort emulate it as if he were on the turntables.

So, I mean, I guess it is unusual. I will say that we are probably one of the
more popular bands. I mean, usually hip-hop that utilizes live
instrumentation is just, like, musicians for hire or as, you know, The Roots
are the actual focal point, you know, to the viewer, so to speak.

GROSS: When you started playing drums as somebody who already loved rap--and
this was, like, in the '80s--did you think there'd be a place for you in rap
or hip-hop?

Mr. THOMPSON: See, yeah, I kind of thought it was natural. You have to
understand that when I was coming up, the first rap records that were out were
records that were played by musicians. So, you had Doug Wimbush, bassist Doug
Wimbush, who plays for Living Colour right now, and Keith LeBlanc, who's a
popular drummer in his own right. They were, I guess, the Sly & Robbie of
Sugar Hill Records. And then the Sugar Hills rival, Enjoy Records, the label
that had the Treacherous Three and Spoonie Gee, they were backed up by a
percussionist named Pumpkin because he was the band leader and I guess the
drummer. And the nucleus of his ensemble, a lot of the breaks that he
performed--I mean, it just spoke to me. So I just thought it was a natural
thing.

And coming up in high school when The Roots first started, you know, hip-hop
really wasn't that elaborate an arrangement. I'm talking about hip-hop circa
1984, '85, '86. I mean, it was pretty much just a simple drumbeat and a stab
would be sort of like the exclamation point at the end of a sentence. Bap!
You know? It could be scratched in or just like some sort of noise, an
enforcement noise. And, you know, so in high school pretty much Black
Thought, or Tariq Trotter, would, you know, come up to me and just name any
popular song of that time and point and just say, `Yo, yo, play "Top
Billin',"' and, you know, because it was a drum arrangement, I knew how to
play it. And that was like the most amazing thing to him, `Oh, he can play
"Top Billin'," he can play, you know, "The Bridge Is Over," he can play'--you
know, just naming all these songs, and I could play them. I kind of thought
it was natural.

GROSS: OK. Well, I'm going to stop you right there because that's kind of
interesting. Since you came up in the era of sampling, as an actual musician
your friends expected you to basically play the samples.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, exactly.

GROSS: You're still expected to play, like, other people's music.

Mr. THOMPSON: Right. Well, I mean, hip-hop is audio pop art really and it's
just a collage of other ideas. And even at the time I didn't know that, OK,
sampling's the proper term for it. For the hip-hop nation pretty much the
first introduction to real sampling that we've ever seen was this episode of
"The Cosby Show" when Stevie Wonder runs over the Huxtables' car with his
limousine. Well, not that violent, but, you know, he invites them to a studio
session, and for the first time America got to see the process of sampling in
which you say something and it's repeated back to you. And after me and my
friends saw that episode, we were begging for whatever that machine was
called. We didn't know what it was called. You know, like, in our heads it
was sort of like the "Flintstone" episode where, you know, like, the little
bird is inside of the machine and re-creating the noise. And we didn't know
how in the world that happened.

So just during Christmas, Casio happened to make a product called an SK-1
machine, which allowed you about maybe three or four seconds' worth of
sampling time. And, you know, me and all my friends got this little toy
keyboard for Christmas. And, you know, you mess around with it a little
while, you do, like, all the curse words, you know, and all that stuff. And
then you start getting serious about it. And that's when I would, like, run
to the basement where my drum set was and try and cram in eight bars' worth of
drum breaks within three seconds, which, you know, you have to be pretty fast
to do it.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. THOMPSON: And then I just, you know, realized the endless possibilities
of a sampler.

GROSS: Well, while we're talking about musicianship and sampling, I thought
this would be a good time to play "Rock You" from your new CD, "Phrenology"...

Mr. THOMPSON: Right.

GROSS: ...because you're actually playing on this, but you're playing more or
less a rhythm line from Queen's "We Will Rock You." But again, you're not
sampling here, you're playing it.

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, it's inspired by--yeah, we're not...

GROSS: You're reinterpreting it, too.

Mr. THOMPSON: It's inspired by it, but yeah, we--yeah, some artists are a
little iffy about sample clearances, so...

GROSS: Got it. That's right. Anything else you want to say about "Rock You"
before we hear it?

Mr. THOMPSON: In case their lawyers are listening.

GROSS: Right. Anything else you want to say about "Rock You"?

Mr. THOMPSON: "Rock You" is just our mission statement. You know, The Roots
is so associated with just a mellow atmosphere and I thought it was real
important to start off the album with an exclamation point, you know. So
"Rock You" is our mission statement for the album.

GROSS: OK. Let's hear it.

Mr. THOMPSON: OK.

(Soundbite of "Rock You")

THE ROOTS: Rock you. Rock you. Rock you. Rock you. Rock you. Rock you.
Come on, come on. Aiyyo y'all rappers less play, what I'm about to say will
probably hit y'all niggas in a real strange way. Shmucks, ducks and
half-hearted prankster crews Willie dank Langston Hughes, put shanks in crews.
I debut to make the news and I've been killing it since. Still in the trench,
buzzin' off the killer suspense. I want my niggas out that barb wire still in
the fence. Verbal assassin I'm a killer still in a sense. Rhymes is graphic,
aimin' straight at your minds and blast that weak (censored). The pieces and
particles of fragments mad vocabulist. Yes, I must confess I'm like Diddy
trying to sink a slug in Elliot's chest. Just taste on that, it's black you
can tally up that. You never...

GROSS: That's The Roots from their new CD, "Phrenology." My guest is
?uestlove, the drummer of the group and one of the founders.

The word `niggas' is used on the track that we just heard.

Mr. THOMPSON: Right.

GROSS: When is it OK with you and when is it not OK with you to use the word?

Mr. THOMPSON: You know, I could play the politically correct term and say,
you know, `OK, we know it's wrong,' I mean, but basically I think with black
people, we pretty much will turn any tragedy into a term of endearment. So,
you know, is it right? You know, I don't know if it's right or if it's wrong,
you know, personally. I don't think that black people haven't made up that
term, but I think that we've turned it around and it's just another, I guess,
like, colloquialism for `brother' to us, you know?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. THOMPSON: `What's up, my nigga? How you doin'?' you know?

GROSS: Did you grow up with it that way?

Mr. THOMPSON: Pretty much. I mean, it was natural. I mean, there are--you
know the difference between if you're being referred to as, you know, `my
brother' or if it's used in a condescending term, you know?

GROSS: My guest is ?uestlove, the co-founder and drummer of the hip-hop band
The Roots. Their latest CD is called "Phrenology." We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is ?uestlove, the co-founder and drummer of the hip-hop band
The Roots. Their latest CD is called "Phrenology."

You started playing drums when you were in high school, yes?

Mr. THOMPSON: No.

GROSS: Earlier than that?

Mr. THOMPSON: Actually I started when I was two.

GROSS: Oh. OK.

Mr. THOMPSON: I was two years old. I started The Roots when I was in high
school. My father is an oldies doo-wop singer from the Philadelphia area.

GROSS: Lee Andrews of Lee Andrews & The Hearts.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, Lee Andrews & The Hearts. So pretty much--my childhood
is pretty much based just backstage at doo-wop extravaganza shows, you know,
like "Dick Clark Presents," you know, and it would be like 10 groups, Don &
Juan, Harvey and The Moonglows, The Tokens, you name it. If they were from
the '50s or the '60s, it would just be a big show at either, like, Madison
Square Garden or The Spectrum or out in The Forum in LA. So pretty much I
grew up backstage...

GROSS: Now Lee Andrews...

Mr. THOMPSON: ...watching all these groups.

GROSS: Lee Andrews' biggest hit, I think, was "Tear Drops" in 1957?

Mr. THOMPSON: "Tear Drops," yeah, '57. Yeah, yeah, '57.

GROSS: Would you be willing to sing a few lines from it just to refresh
listeners' memories?

Mr. THOMPSON: I wouldn't want to scare your listeners. (Laughs)

GROSS: OK. Well, how about this? How about we play a little bit of it?

Mr. THOMPSON: We can do that, yeah.

(Soundbite of "Tear Drops" by Lee Andrews & The Hearts)

LEE ANDREWS & THE HEARTS: (Singing) I sit in my room looking out at the rain.
My tears are like crystals. They cover my windowpane. I'm thinking of our
lost romance and how it should have been. Oh, if we only could start over
again. I know you'll never forgive me, dear, for running out on you. I was
wrong to take the chance with somebody new. I sit in my room looking out at
the rain. My tears are like crystals. They cover my windowpane. I know
you'll never forgive me, dear, for running out on you.

GROSS: OK, so that's Lee Andrews & The Hearts.

So you grew up, you know, backstage and watching your father perform. What
sense did it give you of what the music life was like? And then you probably
watched your father kind of drop out of sight after the doo-wop era was over,
so you also knew what it was like to no longer be in the limelight after
having been in it as a young man.

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, I mean, I was born in the '70s, so pretty much I came
along when...

GROSS: Oh, you came along, right, in the oldies show. You're--yeah.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, it really wasn't about--I mean, even though he made it a
career, if anything, he taught me that there is a plan B, you know, and that
not everyone gets the plan A limelight.

GROSS: Right. What was his plan B?

Mr. THOMPSON: By the time I was born, you know, he had met and married my
mother. I have a sister as well. And they had opened up a boutique store,
and they were quite content. And, you know, as with any music phenomenon that
occurs 20 years before, there's an upsurgence of it 20 years later. And I
guess most of that started with Sha Na Na appearing at Woodstock and then
pretty much after that just Dick Clark with a slew of shows just in the
tristate area, in the New York area, anyplace that loved doo-wop. And my
father just made a great living out of it. And...

GROSS: Don't you often wonder if there's going to be, like, old-school rap
shows like...

Mr. THOMPSON: Oh, there is right now.

GROSS: Is there already?

Mr. THOMPSON: Totally. And the thing with hip-hop is the model for hip-hop
is definitely here today and gone today. So...

GROSS: Yeah, I know what you mean.

Mr. THOMPSON: ...anything under five years is pretty much considered
old-school. This weekend I was listening to a popular New York radio station.
And they were like, `Now back in the day, Wu-Tang Clan, da-da-da-da-da,
old-school.' I was like, `Wait a minute! Wu-Tang--six years ago!'

GROSS: Right.

Mr. THOMPSON: It was like six, seven years ago. You know, old-school to me
is, OK, maybe we can say, like, Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On," like a song
that's definitely over 20 years old or something, you know, near 30 years old.
But yeah, pretty much in the hip-hop, it's here today and it's gone today.

GROSS: Let's get back to your high-school years. And you went to the High
School of Creative and Performing Arts...

Mr. THOMPSON: Performing Arts, right.

GROSS: ...in Philadelphia.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yes.

GROSS: And so that means that you were exposed at a young age to artists of
your age of every sort--you know...

Mr. THOMPSON: Exactly. You know. Growing up...

GROSS: ...painters and dancers and people in theater and music of every sort.

Mr. THOMPSON: Everything, Boyz II Men rehearsing in the...

GROSS: Boyz II Men was in your school?

Mr. THOMPSON: ...in the bathroom, always rehearsing.

GROSS: Was it good to be exposed to so much?

Mr. THOMPSON: It was perfect, you know. Like my first--I
actually--unfortunately, I came to performing arts high school in the 11th
grade. I started--Performing Arts had a private school sector that I went to
from first to eighth grade. Then my parents took me out of that school and
tried to send me to a college prep school, which was good academic--you know,
I could wind up on "Jeopardy!" you know, you know, talk about "The Iliad" or
something. But you know, my heart was with music development.

And so I begged them to send me to the public school for performing arts and
finally got my wish for the 11th and 12th grade. And walk in there--like I'd
never been to public school, and pretty much my only exposure to that type of
school was watching the television show "Fame." And, you know, you're kind
of wondering, like, `OK, is this the type of school that's going to be like a
cliche? Like, are they gonna break out in dance numbers in the hallway and,
you know, just do all those things that you see on television?' And, you
know, I was, like, real skeptical, like, `Ah, it's not going to be like
"Fame",' or whatever. And sure enough, like, you walk into class and, you
know, they're singing--you know, Boyz II Men's practicing in the corner and
you have, like, Christian McBride and Joey DeFrancesco trading fours and down
the hallway...

GROSS: These are now well-known jazz musicians.

Mr. THOMPSON: Exactly. Like, you know, like the Who's Who of, like, the
thespian world rehearsing, you know, their sonnets over there, and it's crazy.
It was really a weird experience for me.

GROSS: Now, like, street credibility and authenticity is so important in rap
and, you know, a lot of people believe that to just be a good rap group or
hip-hop group, you have to, like, be from the ghetto, you have to be
gangsters.

Mr. THOMPSON: The streets.

GROSS: The streets.

Mr. THOMPSON: Right.

GROSS: Yeah. And so here you are, you know, you didn't go to the prep
school, you went to the High School of Creative and Performing Arts. So was
this--did you ever see this as, like, an obstacle to doing what you wanted to
do, because you might not be perceived to have the street cred?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, The Roots are also made up of six other people. I just
happen to be the mouthpiece of The Roots.

GROSS: So it's OK that you don't have street cred?

Mr. THOMPSON: But my--yeah--no...

GROSS: They had it.

Mr. THOMPSON: I mean, my credibility comes from the fact that when it comes
to music, you have to have a vast vocabulary of musical knowledge, at least
for me. I mean, now I'm pretty much--hip-hop is in its `just add water'
stage, which is, you know, just turn on a beat machine. You know, you have a
lot of producers saying with great pride and alacrity, like, `Oh, you know, I
made this beat in three minutes,' you know, which--like, wow, OK. Whereas I
think that for me, a requirement for a good producer in hip-hop is one that
has to have a vast knowledge of musical substance. You know, I don't know.
Just the cats that I look up to, they collect records, they know certain
musicians. You know, you know that there's a vast vocabulary that you have to
know.

GROSS: ?uestlove is the co-founder and drummer of the hip-hop band The Roots.
Their latest CD is called "Phrenology." He'll be back in the second half of
the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ERYKAH BADU: (Singing) If you were worried 'bout where I been or who I
saw or what club I went to with my homies, baby, don't worry, you know that
you got me. If you were worried 'bout where I been or who I saw or what club
I went to with my homies, baby, don't worry, you know that you got me.

Mr. TARIQ TROTTER (Black Thought): (Singing) Somebody told me that this
planet was small...

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, drummer ?uestlove of The Roots reveals his five paths a
young black male can take to success in life and entertainment, including what
he describes as the Mandingo factor. And we talk with David Cross, co-creator
and co-star of the former HBO sketch comedy series "Mr. Show." He has a new
live CD of his stand-up tour.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with ?uestlove, the
co-founder and drummer of the hip-hop band The Roots. They begin a national
tour today. Their latest CD is called "Phrenology." After it was released, a
review in Details magazine said, `Hip-hop's best live band may have just
served notice that they're hip-hop's best band, period.' I asked if it
bothers him when people think the most important thing in hip-hop is street
credibility rather than musical ability.

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, that becomes a problem in hip-hop, because pretty
much--well, in life or in entertainment in general, there's only five routes
that, I see, one's allowed to take, at least as a young black male--that one
is allowed to take in order to achieve any type of success. Number one,
obviously, is the over-the-top vicarious fantasy gangster image that people
are in love with. Number two is the Mandingo factor, I like to say--the
Mandingo factor which sort of reinforces the sexual stud, overtly sexual
stereotype. Number three is I guess the over-the-top personality. I really
want to go there and say coon, but that's a little too harsh, but it's just an
over-the-top personality. Number four is the sugar pop sort of diluted,
apolitical, ambiguous area. And number five, unfortunately, is the one I try
and walk on, but it doesn't seem to work: the `art for art's sake' route,
which is pretty much a neutral ground.

And that becomes a problem because it forces people to actually have to really
focus on the character and figure out what they are, you know. I mean, The
Roots aren't gangster. The Roots aren't political. The Roots aren't overtly
sexual. The Roots aren't clowns. The Roots aren't easily categorized. And
as a result, you know, it's just a slow, slow journey to--it's sort of like
the tortoise and the hare. It's just a slower journey to the finish line...

GROSS: Well, the...

Mr. THOMPSON: ...but you eventually get there.

GROSS: ...the `art for art's sake' group isn't usually the group with the
biggest commercial success.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. It doesn't seem that interesting, you know. But you get
a lot of people, they're, `Oh, you know, what type of microphones do you'--you
know, like a lot of art-for-art's-sake questions, you know, which I don't
necessarily mind, but sometimes it does get frustrating, you know, because
you're not fulfilling a particular requirement for people.

GROSS: Now The Roots are from Philly, and for...

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...a lot of rappers, the place they're from becomes, like,
mythologized through their raps.

Mr. THOMPSON: Right.

GROSS: What do you think you've done, like, to create a Philadelphia in your
music?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, Philadelphia had sort of a bad/nondescript reputation
between...

GROSS: In hip-hop, you mean, because there...

Mr. THOMPSON: In hip-hop.

GROSS: ...was the Philly sound before that that...

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...began in the '70s--Gamble & Huff.

Mr. THOMPSON: I'm just talking about in terms of hip-hop.

GROSS: Yeah. Right.

Mr. THOMPSON: Even though I'll say two of the major important factors of
hip-hop history have originated in Philadelphia. Number one, gangsta
rap--pretty much, there's debate as to whether Ice-T, who's from LA, or
Schooly D, who's from 52nd and Parkside, was the first, quote, unquote,
"gangsta rapper." And pretty much anybody that's familiar with Schooly D can
give you pretty much an account of where they were the first time they ever
heard his classic, "P.S.K. What Does It Mean?" you know, because we'd just
never heard a rap that explicit. You know, pretty much hip-hop before then
was about partying and, you know, there were some reality rhymes here and
there, you know, "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and maybe "It's Like That"
by Run-DMC. But, you know, pretty much everyone's been like politically
correct. You didn't hear that much profanity, that much cursing and that much
honesty. You know, Schooly D talked like your older cousin on the corner, you
know, or the guys that you knew down the street on the corner. And, you know,
he was very influential to a lot of...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. THOMPSON: ...people, The Beastie Boys and the list goes on. And also...

GROSS: Yeah. So what's your image of Philly in your music?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, we had to take that and--well, let me just quickly say
that the other important element was the art of deejaying. Philadelphia has
four very important pioneers in deejaying: Jazzy Jeff, DJ Cash Money, DJ Miz
and DJ Chief, all from the tristate area. And they're pretty much the
standard for which deejays today are basing their skills on, when you talk
about deejays doing the `look, ma, no hand' tricks and whatnot. So pretty
much, that's all that Philly--those were the two major factors that Philly
offered in the '80s. And, you know, living under New York's shadow didn't
help matters much, because, you know, they were the creme de la creme of
culture.

GROSS: Right. So what's the picture of Philly that you think your music
gives in the stories that it tells?

Mr. THOMPSON: Right now, I guess the sound of Philly is the sound of a term
that they've coined called neo-soul, which is pretty much a musical backdrop
of lush arrangements, Fender Rhodes, like a lush jazzy '70s jazz arrangements,
the same instruments that a Roy Ayers would use, a Fender Rhodes, an upright
bass, lush strings, you know, keeping the strings from the original
Philadelphia sound. The drums are just a little more, quote, unquote,
"crunk," meaning more street. So basically it's like street drums over a lush
arrangement, sort of the contrast there. And that's pretty much the sound of
Philadelphia. That's the sound of Jill Scott. That's the sound of music.
That's the sound that we were a part of developing. Of course, "Phrenology"
is the exact opposite of that sound, because we don't want to get typecast
into just one particular sound.

GROSS: One last thing. I'm interested in your record collection.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah.

GROSS: I understand you have a really big one. What's the range of things
that you listen to?

Mr. THOMPSON: Anything. I'm just into anything musical, you know. You know,
I like the incredible Bongo Rock group. I like David Bowie. You know, I
collect a lot of rare hip-hop records, and I collect just a lot of obscure
records, records that have been used in samples. I'm very curious in the
ingredients that other producers have used to make their records, you know.
It's sort of like someone going out and buying a cookbook to see the
ingredients that went...

GROSS: Right, right.

Mr. THOMPSON: ...inside of a particular stew. So I collect those type of
things.

GROSS: Do you collect a lot of vinyl?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. I'm about 27,000 strong right now.

GROSS: Of vinyl?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. I know that's not messing with DJ Shadow's collection.
I heard he's up to 60,000, so...

GROSS: Wow. That's mighty impressive, though.

Mr. THOMPSON: I got some ways to go, but, yeah, I'll get there.

GROSS: OK. And one final question.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yes.

GROSS: How come you wear an Afro?

Mr. THOMPSON: Because I'm secretly a Chia Pet.

GROSS: I won't sing the theme.

Mr. THOMPSON: Right, right. Chi-Chi-Chi-Chia.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. THOMPSON: My hair just grows. I come from a family that--you know, I
don't have the patience, nor the time to go to a barbershop and get it cut
every three seconds, so my hair just grows. It's always been problematic for
me. Just thank God it's in style now. Imagine me trying to get through this
hairstyle in the late '80s and the early '90s, you know. Back then, I could
do a flat-top thing, but, no, I keep it. It's my crown, you know. It's sort
of symbolic now, but, yeah, it was a problem back in the day, you know, people
staring at me, like, `Oh, my God.' You know, now it's no thing because
everyone has it.

GROSS: Besides you're you, so...

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, exactly.

GROSS: ...you can do it now.

Mr. THOMPSON: I'm an individual.

GROSS: That's right. Thank you so much.

Mr. THOMPSON: Or one of the missing Jacksons.

GROSS: That's right.

Mr. THOMPSON: All right, thank you.

GROSS: Thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. THOMPSON: Thank you. I appreciate it, Terry.

GROSS: ?uestlove is the drummer and co-founder of the hip-hop band The Roots.
Their latest CD is called "Phrenology." The band starts a national tour today.

(Soundbite of music)

THE ROOTS: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible). It's the top of the hour. We're
about to prepare you for another two hours of music-free commercials. But,
hey, it's the stroke of midnight, and you know that means. It's the many of
malt liquor sponsored shabulo(ph) roll call hour, giving our respect and love
to the architects who designed this culture. Grandmaster Flash and The
Furious Five, Tone Loc, Sequence, Brady B(ph), Above the Law, Jazzy Four
and...

GROSS: Coming up, comic David Cross, co-host of the former HBO sketch comedy
series "Mr. Show." This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: David Cross discusses his first CD and his career
TERRY GROSS, host:

Comic David Cross has his first CD recorded live on his stand-up comedy tour
last spring and summer. I can't really say the title on the radio, so let's
just call it "Shut Up You"--expletive--"Baby." Cross is best-known as the
co-founder and co-star with Bob Odenkirk of the former HBO sketch comedy
series "Mr. Show." The first and second seasons are collected on DVD.
Newsweek called Cross and Odenkirk the goofball gurus of the alternative
comedy movement. On the other hand, an article in The Washington Post
described the two as sharing an acidic intellectual approach to humor. Cross
started doing stand-up in 1982. He's appeared in several films and TV series,
including "Ghost World," "Men in Black," "Waiting for Guffman," "Just Shoot
Me" and "The Drew Carey Show." Before we meet him, here's an excerpt of his
new CD in which he's talking about growing up Jewish in a suburb of Atlanta,
Georgia.

(Soundbite from CD)

Mr. DAVID CROSS (Comic): All the parents see you as is Jew, I'm a Jewish kid.
I'm like a (censored) alien to them, you know. I'm a freak, and I'm in their
living room, you know, and (censored) Dunwitty(ph). What's happening? What's
happening? And so like if I slept over a friend's house and I'd always have
to deal with these questions in the morning, like, you know, Mom come in,
going, `David, I'm so sorry to have to ask you this. I'm so sorry. I'm
fixing to make breakfast for everybody, and I certainly want to include you.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite from CD)

Mr. CROSS: `And I just--I don't now--I'm just having some questions I was
hoping you could answer. Do y'all's people eat oatmeal?' you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CROSS: `What? Yeah. What is this? Is there something in the Torah that
says we shouldn't eat oatmeal? What are you talking about? Why wouldn't we
eat oatmeal? What?' `No. I don't know much about y'all's peoples. That's
all. I just don't know. I know y'all hate Jesus. I know y'all hate Jesus.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CROSS: `That much, I do know. And I know y'all have seven Jew bankers
that control the world's money supply, right, in a bunker somewhere about a
mile into the Earth's core. Is that right, yeah? And y'all do like dances in
the woods. Y'all wear cloaks and do secret services and burn potions and
whatnots and y'all have horns. That's all I know about y'all's people.'
Yeah.

GROSS: David Cross does a lot of religious, political and sexual humor. Now
that he's pretty well-known, he feels like he's often preaching to the
converted, but sometimes he has a date where the audience is unprepared for
what they're about to hear, and he doesn't mind.

Mr. CROSS: Well, I did one show fairly recently, and I got picked up by two
of the students, and they were driving me to the college or the university,
and I said, `So tell me a little bit about the school,' and they go, `Well,
you know, it was founded in 18-whatever, and it's a Jesuit school and'--I was
like, `What?' `Yeah, it's a Jesuit school.' And then I said, `Well, have you
guys seen my act?' `No, no, but, you know, we saw you did "Just Shoot Me" and
you were in "Men in Black." That was pretty funny.' And so then I was like,
`All right, fine.' And I went up there and had 300 walkouts and...

GROSS: Wow. That's more than are in many audiences.

Mr. CROSS: Yeah. It was pretty impressive.

GROSS: Now you describe yourself as an atheist, Jewish born, and as you
describe on the CD, once you're born Jewish, you kind of stay Jewish, even if
you are an atheist, because that's the rules of the game.

Mr. CROSS: Right. That's...

GROSS: So how did you become an atheist?

Mr. CROSS: I was about 10 years old. I knew I'd just moved back to Georgia,
and I was about 10 years old, and I was in synagogue one day, and it didn't
like just hit me, but I just got a very strong, almost spiritual, if you will,
feeling of, `This is wrong. This is garbage. This is obvious, and it's
obvious in the ways that this is superstition,' you know, and I didn't have
it formulated at the age of 10, but I just had that feeling. And then I went
through a little phase where I felt very guilty about it, because that's one
of the things that Judaism does very well, is it will guilt you into staying
in the fold, you know. They're very good at, you know, making you feel very
terrible about turning your back on the faith. And I went through this phase
where I went to a stricter synagogue for about half a year, and even though it
was...

GROSS: Why'd you do that?

Mr. CROSS: Because I felt guilty about it, and I really tried hard to find
some faith. And I was thinking about being a rabbi, and then, you know, I got
bar mitzvahed, and then I woke up from that and said, `This is just not true
to what I really believe, and I'm not being true to myself, and I think this
is nonsense.' And I think all religion is, you know, based on historical
fallacy, and I understand why it exists, and especially when you look at the
history of Catholicism. That's a particularly gross and terrible, you know,
mean-spirited...

GROSS: Oh, this would be a good time to give our e-mail address. But let me
ask you this: Do you ever consider that religion might be, you know, a
beautiful metaphor to guide you through life and to help you find a place for
yourself in the world?

Mr. CROSS: Sure. But I will counter that--and I will agree with you, but
I'll counter that by saying I have not needed it. I do not need a Bible or a
Torah or anything of that nature to tell me what is right and what is wrong.

GROSS: So you grew up Jewish before becoming an atheist in Georgia. You grew
up in a suburb of Atlanta. Were there a lot of, like, stereotypes or
misconceptions about Judaism that you were exposed to?

Mr. CROSS: Oh, sure. Maybe not stereotypes that I saw in particular, because
we were poor, too, which was also strange for people to grasp their, you know,
heads around, the idea that, wait, I thought you people hoarded money, but we
were on welfare and we were living in this dumpy apartment and, you know, on
Medicare, and my dad had left. So, you know, here's some Jews that are not
controlling the media and hoarding money, and I don't know what to think, but
they still found it in their heart to spit on us and beat us up on occasion,
so that was all right, which happened a number of times. I got confronted
with anti-Semitism quite a bit.

GROSS: Were you considered a nerd in high school?

Mr. CROSS: Yes, very much so. Very much so. And, you know, I had kind of
that Jew-fro, glasses at an early age. I read, you know, things like that.

GROSS: What did you read?

Mr. CROSS: You know, books, novels. I remember getting in trouble for--Mrs.
Allen, my English teacher in seventh grade--I didn't go out to the field for
PE, and I sat in the class, which you're not supposed to do. I could have
gone out there. I don't know what made me sit in the class. I think I was at
the very end of "Gone with the Wind," and I was reading it and I just wanted
to finish it before I went out there. And she came back in the room, and I
was sitting way in the back and just sitting there reading with my head in the
book, and she accused me of being up to something, and then the way she
substantiated that was by saying, `There's no way I would be reading "Gone
with the Wind."' And that's a true story.

GROSS: I think you got started doing comedy in Boston after dropping out of
Emerson College. Why did you drop out and what were your early routines like
after you did?

Mr. CROSS: Well, I actually started in Atlanta. I started just before high
school ended and did open mike nights there for a little while, and I took a
year off before I went to college, and I had just started--I mean, just
started to get, like, 50 bucks here and there to emcee a show and host a show,
and then I went up to Emerson in Boston and kind of stopped for a while, but I
did a sketch group in college. And then dropped out of Emerson pretty
quickly. And I just started doing stand-up and continuing to perform in these
little underground comedy groups here and there.

And I think, you know, I've evolved quite a bit, not necessarily for the
better, but my act has evolved from more of a kind of dry, more esoteric type
of humor and a lot of stuff where I would go up as a fake character. Like I'd
go up as a really nervous, very effeminate, gay, shaky guy who was trying
comedy for his first time, and then I'd twist it at the end, or I'd go up as a
retarded person or just do these different characters, where it would work and
I'd make the audience uncomfortable because they didn't know who I was, and
they didn't know what to expect, and I'd always push that as far as I could.
And then I started getting more personal pretty quickly, telling personal
stories and, you know, would go up there with my note pad and talk about stuff
that had just happened to me, and it kind of evolved into where I am now, and
unfortunately, I can't do fake characters. I can't go up on stage as, you
know...

GROSS: Because we'll recognize you.

Mr. CROSS: Yeah. Especially if you're there to see me, you know.

GROSS: Right. Right.

Mr. CROSS: It doesn't matter if I slap a wig on, people still know it's me,
and so you lose that quality.

GROSS: My guest is David Cross. He has a new live comedy CD. We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is David Cross, the former host and the co-founder of the
former HBO comedy series "Mr. Show." He has a new live comedy CD.

I'd love to hear more about the characters who you would do without people
realizing that you were in character and not being yourself.

Mr. CROSS: Well, as I said, one of them that I used to love was I'd go up as
a guy named Daniel James Napoleon(ph), and it was my first time, and I would
do this joke about my two dogs, you know, and I'd dress the part, and I'd be a
little--like a little nervous. `This is my first time, and any-hoo, I have
two adorable Pekingese and'--sprinkle some pepper--and then I would just tell
this very unfunny joke about them watching TV and they saw a commercial with a
dog on it. They thought the dog was real, and then nobody would laugh. And
then I'd just kind of fumble around, and I'd do something where I'd get them
to laugh, and then I'd say, `I don't know if you're laughing with me or
laughing at me,' and then I'd say that they're all laughing at me, and then
I would, you know, tell them that they were cruel, they're mean.

You know, people would really bum out. And I'd go, `What do you want, some
macho thing? Is that it?' This is in the era of Andrew Dice Clay, by the
way. I should have prefaced that. `Is that it? Do you want macho? Is
that--strong men talking about men jokes? Is that it?' And then I'd turn
around and then I'd--I can't say it on the air, but, you know, do some really,
really crude Andrew Dice Clay things, really nasty, like over the top, not
funny; mean, nasty, sexist, awful humor. And then they'd laugh.

And then again, I'd go up occasionally as a retarded guy, you know, a special
guy and have the host walk me up, and I would just barely be able to get
anything out and really make people feel uncomfortable, and then I'd freak out
at the end. And, you know, those are two of my favorites.

GROSS: It almost sounds like an Andy Kaufman type of thing.

Mr. CROSS: It was. I like really ripped off a lot of his ideas at that point
and at that stage in my career and really was enamored and in awe of him and
what he did and how he expanded the definition of what stand-up comedy is and
could be. And, yeah, I used to go up as a really angry Southerner guy, too,
who'd talk about--really upset with the comics that came prior to me, you
know, the language and making fun of the Bible, and then just start slowly
getting more and more kind of crazy in that Art Bell conspiracy way, and that
was a fun one to do.

GROSS: So where's the joy in totally confusing the audience and getting them
to think that you're a terribly unfunny comic?

Mr. CROSS: Well, I mean, it's all right there. You're absolutely, completely
in control of them, and they don't even know it. It's a really powerful, fun
thing to do. I mean, they don't know that I'm faking it, but I do, and
they're all like--I'm completely controlling the entire time I'm on stage, the
set; whether I do well, whether I'm perceived as doing well or poorly.

And then also, part of the joy is that I'm doing something that clearly is not
like any of the acts you've seen so far, you know. And I would especially
love that when I'd go out to LA and do these showcases where you'd just get
the worst comics cultivating their best/worst five minutes and it's just
garbage and they're just pandering and they're trying to get a sitcom. And,
you know, then I'd go up there and I'd pretend that I had throat cancer, you
know...

GROSS: Oh, gosh.

Mr. CROSS: ...and I'm trying to do these impressions that I was an
impressionist and I do impressions but I have throat cancer, so I have one of
those--(talks in hoarse voice) you know--you know, (talks in hoarse voice)
those things--you know, those things that make you talk like that. And, you
know, you just get to watch the audience go, `Oh, my God. What is this guy?
Why'd they put him on? I was so enjoying the gentleman who, you know, made
fun of Tarzan.' You know, and then you'd kind of flip it on them. But again,
it doesn't translate to work.

GROSS: Oh, right.

Mr. CROSS: I've just always been a comedian, a comic's comic, but I didn't
really get a lot of work out of it.

GROSS: David Cross. His new live comedy CD, whose full title I can't say on
the radio, is called, "Shut Up You"--expletive--"Baby."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

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