Questlove On Prince, Doo-Wop And The Food Equivalent Of The 'Mona Lisa'
In an interview recorded onstage, Amir Questlove Thompson the cofounder and drummer of the Roots, the houseband for The Tonight Show talks with Terry Gross about music, his father doo wop singer Lee Andrews who died last month, and about Prince.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We have something special today - an interview with Questlove, Ahmir Thompson, that we recorded Sunday on stage in front of an audience of about 800 people. I think beloved isn't too strong a word to describe how fans and people in the music world feel about Questlove. He's the drummer and co-founder of The Roots, which became one of the first working bands in hip-hop at a time when the music was typically sampled or played by studio musicians. The Roots are also the house band for "The Tonight Show" with Jimmy Fallon. Questlove wrote the show's theme. He's produced recordings by D'Angelo and Jay-Z and the "Hamilton" cast album. He's considered one of the great DJs, drawing on his passion for music of all sorts. He also wrote a terrific memoir called "Mo' Meta Blues" and a book about "Soul Train," a show he's obsessed with.
He has a new book called "Something To Food About." It's a collection of his interviews with celebrated chefs about how the creative process applies to the preparation and presentation of food. As an interviewer, I really enjoyed reading his questions, which are filled with interesting parallels between making music and food and packed with great autobiographical references. I talked to him about the book, music, his father, who died last month, and he told some great stories about Prince. We recorded the interview at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in West Philadelphia, just about 20 blocks away from where Questlove grew up. We started by talking about his new book, "Something To Food About."
So, you know, you're interviewing all these, like, chefs who do very artistic food in a lot of ways. And you mention that when you were growing up your uncles would go hunting and they'd bring back, like, squirrel and possum (laughter).
AHMIR THOMPSON: Yeah, they did.
GROSS: And I'm thinking it's - like, squirrel is such not a West Philly dinner.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I had no...
GROSS: Squirrels are what you see running up the trees in West Philly.
THOMPSON: I had no idea where they went hunting, but that was a big thing, like...
GROSS: Is squirrel good?
THOMPSON: My father's brothers - he was one of eight and a lot of my uncles were military-based or police-based but they had - a few of them would actually go hunting, in particular my Uncle Roosevelt would always - like, stew was, like, my grandmother's - that was her forte. So one week was rabbit stew. The next week was veal stew, squirrel stew - like, every type of stew. But my cousins and I would always, like, try to dare each other to look into the bag to see...
GROSS: To see the dead animals?
THOMPSON: To see the - yeah, 'cause, you know, I mean, he'd come there. He'd come and clean it out in out the backyard and...
GROSS: Are you a vegetarian now?
THOMPSON: In my heart I am, yeah.
GROSS: So in interviewing chefs about their creative process, do you feel like you learned insights into how you work by listening to - into how your mind works?
THOMPSON: Well, I always say that I'm more obsessed with the journey of getting there than the destination. Like, my favorite part of touring is the journey, the traveling, you know? I'm more interested in the process. So the two things I became more curious about were the lives of comedians and how they use humor as a shield because, you know, seeing them on stage you'll laugh but then, like, when I'm talking to them, I'm like, oh, God, (laughter) you need a hug, you know?
THOMPSON: And then with chefs realizing that it's more art than anything, you know? And I explained in the book that I feel like a lot of these meals that you acquire are - they're works of art that you don't have evidence of, you know? So maybe I did have the equivalent of a "Mona Lisa" when I went to Jiro's (ph) restaurant in Japan, but now there's no evidence of that. You only have, like, my story to tell you. And there's no device that can ever re-create that magic again. So, yeah, I'm more interested in what leads up to that place.
GROSS: Right. The last time you and I spoke, you were preparing "The Tonight Show" theme. You were in the process of writing it.
GROSS: And I want to talk to you about that process, but first, I want to play a very short excerpt of the interview we did while you were writing the theme.
GROSS: OK, so here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Do you have to write a "Tonight Show" theme?
GROSS: Do I note a little anxiety in your voice?
THOMPSON: Oh, boy, I'm having these nightmares of duh duh duh (screaming) ah ah, waking up in the middle of the night.
THOMPSON: Like, I - yeah, this is - I'm going to - we're going to write a new theme. And I'm thinking about it every second. Even now as I talk to you, I'm thinking of that theme. Like - like, I will - we will be the first thing that is heard when the world is watching that new "Tonight Show..."
GROSS: Oh, yeah.
THOMPSON: ...In February - like, the music's going to be, so the music has to be inviting. Like, you think of Johnny Carson (imitating "The Tonight Show" theme song). Like, that's stuck in your head. It's - the pop song challenge, that is going to have to be the one. I have to visualize it and see it.
I have to figure out when the curtain opens and Jimmy walks out, like, what's that song? What's the song that 90 years from now when, you know, they're talking about "The Tonight Show" from this era, like - but I also know that overthinking it - it's not going to happen by overthinking it. So I'm literally - it's going to come to me. And, you know, I have time. Well, OK, I have six months, which is, like, a blink.
GROSS: So did it just come to you? Did you have to throw out a lot of themes before hitting on the one you liked?
THOMPSON: All right, let me tell you a quick side story.
THOMPSON: One of the 16 jobs is - I teach at NYU. So this year we're learning about - I'm teaching my class about the impact of Michael Jackson's "Thriller." So right now we're in the middle of it, so we're deep into side two. And I'm telling them the story of how "Human Nature" got on the album, which is strictly by accident.
The story is that Quincy Jones commissioned members of TOTO to submit some songs for them to consider for the album. And the guys in TOTO wrote some songs, realized they had no blank cassettes at their studio - they ran out of cassettes. So they ran to an ex-member's office who just had a blank cassette. He's like, well, there's something on it so, you know, rewind it to side B where there's blank space and put your songs on there.
So it gets to Quincy Jones, he listens to it, and then goes by, you know, by his business and then 18 minutes later of silence, the auto reverse comes on. And then suddenly Quincy hears a dummy demo of (singing) "they say why, why, tell 'em that it's human nature."
And Quincy's like that's the song. But of course it was by accident. That's how our theme song finally - by accident, my manager - well, we didn't do cassettes, we just sent a whole bunch of files. And he accidentally put a song in those files and that song coincidentally was the first - I call them sandwiches. Whenever we play instrumental breaks in between sets, they're called sandwiches.
Right now we're up to about - in the years of "Late Night" and "The Tonight Show," we're up to - I think we're up to 4,300 songs now. We work quick. We do, like, 10 to 15 songs a day without thinking. The very first song that we ever worked on at "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" - like a song we haven't touched. We - matter of fact, we never even touched it.
But Jimmy's like, that's the song, that's it. The hey, hey, hey, song - and we're like what hey, hey, hey? And he played it. And I was like oh, that was a mistake, man, that was like ugh. That - you don't want that. He said, no, that's what I want. So it was there all along. The very first song that The Roots ever worked on when we came to "30 Rock..."
GROSS: That's amazing.
THOMPSON: ...Which was really just a song - we were doing it just to test the speakers, you know, like...
THOMPSON: Like we came in the room for the first time and, you know, we had to play the sound check on the soundstage, and that's the song we made up. And then we never thought about it again. And somehow that just accidentally wound up in Jimmy's file and he said that's the song.
GROSS: And it's a great song. We're going to play it. We're going to play it right now.
THOMPSON: Ah, I'm cringing.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: From Studio 6B in Rockefeller Center, in the heart of New York City, it's "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon."
THE ROOTS: (Singing) Hey hey hey hey...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Tonight, join Jimmy and his guests - Robert De Niro, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, comedian Nick Guerra, and featuring the legendary Roots crew.
THE ROOTS: (Singing) Four, five, six - wooh.
THE ROOTS: And now, here he is - Jimmy Fallon.
THE ROOTS: (Singing) Hey hey hey hey. Hey hey hey hey...
GROSS: You happy playing it every night?
THOMPSON: It's the best job ever. And at the time I didn't know it because, you know, when Jimmy first approached us to do it, I think initially in our heads - we have worked and clawed our way to whatever your vision of the top is. Like, we had clawed our way to a certain place financially where seven people - well, it's never the seven of us. It's seven of us and a crew of - so, I mean, you're really thinking about 19, 20 people - that we could really make a good living. And so, like, who would ever step away, after struggling for 19 years to get to this place of zen, to go to an uncertain future?
So, I mean, at the time, you know, we entertained the conversation and everything. But in our heads, we were like, there's no way we're going to do "The Tonight Show," forget it. And suddenly, the moment that really nailed it - we were at UCLA and Jimmy was at the show. And I had to do a quick backstage interview. And I came outside my trailer, and I walked outside and I went on the campus.
There - like, you know, you see the football field and everything. And my - well, now deceased manager, Richard Nichols, and I - we saw a sight that we just couldn't - we never thought we'd ever see in a million years. And it was Jimmy and The Roots in a "Eight is Enough" human pyramid.
THOMPSON: And, you know - and again, we were only entertaining the talk simply because like, OK, maybe one day we'll need to come on "The Tonight Show." It's good to have a friend in Jimmy Fallon.
But when I looked at how silly they looked doing this human pyramid thing - and we're so guarded, and we're so cynical, and we're so snarky. I mean, like, we're a bunch of wise [expletive], you know? And I just looked at my manager and I'm just like, we're stuck with this guy, aren't we?
GROSS: We're listening to the onstage interview I recorded Sunday with Questlove, the co-founder and drummer of the hip-hop band The Roots, which is the house band for "The Tonight Show" with Jimmy Fallon. Questlove has a new book of his interviews with chefs called "Something To Food About." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the onstage interview I recorded Sunday with Questlove, the co-founder and drummer of The Roots. He's written a new book collecting his interviews with chefs called "Something To Food About." Questlove's band plays hip-hop. His father sang doo-wop, leading the group Lee Andrews and The Hearts.
So I want to ask you a little bit about your father - Lee Andrews Thompson, who died last month at the age of 79 - very sorry. And you wrote a beautiful tribute to him on your famous Instagram account. And you called him the greatest teacher of my life. And you said - writing to him you said, I understand why you were so hard on me, praying I didn't succumb to a fate not meant for a teenager in west Philly in the mid-'80s. I didn't understand it at the time, but I appreciate it now. What did he do at the time, when you were a teenager, that was hard for you to take?
THOMPSON: I mean, my parents were, in my eyes, extremely strict on me being home. Like, the rule was do not let the "Oprah" theme come on and you're not home. So even if I lollygagged a little bit and go to the record store, like, to the arcade or something, like, when 10 minutes are left and I'm, like, eight blocks away, I'm, like, humming (humming).
THOMPSON: Like, that's my "Flight Of The Bumblebee." Like, that "Oprah" theme was, like - (laughter) like, I'm serious. Not even one minute after. One minute after, they knew exactly - it was like, no "Soul Train" like no...
GROSS: That was the punishment?
THOMPSON: Yeah, right? Exactly. Yeah, just having to practice a lot. I mean, I...
GROSS: Did he get you to practice or were you obsessive about practicing yourself?
THOMPSON: I think - I mean, at the time, you don't know. Like, if anyone aspires to be great, you know, now Malcolm Gladwell's book is sort of in our daily lexicon and, you know, everyone knows the 10,000 hours equals genius thing. But, you know, 10,000 hours is a long time, especially when you're doing paradiddles for a half-hour in a row.
You don't think (imitating paradiddles) is how you're going to, like, buy your mom her first house. Like, you're not thinking long term like that. You're just - you want to - you know, you want to watch TV and look at cartoons and, you know, call your friends up on the three-way. And, you know, that was the original group chat back in the day.
THOMPSON: You call your friend that has three-way and then he calls a friend that has three-way and then there's like seven of you all on the phone. So, you know, now I absolutely - I absolutely get it. Like, if anything I probably have turned into my dad as far as my - you know, I know I have very little tolerance for mistakes made. I'm working on that. You know, I work on that a lot - mistakes made in the show, careless mistakes and those things.
Like, my father was that type of bandleader. Like, he was the James Brown level of - that's $20 right there. Like, that's four records I could've broke that week. So, you know, just - that's - I get it now. But then I didn't.
GROSS: He, of course, was the lead singer of the group Lee Andrews and The Hearts, a doo-wop group from the '50s - "Teardrops," "Long Lonely Nights," "Maybe You'll Be There." I'm going to play a little bit of one of his songs, of his big hit, "Long Lonely Nights."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONG LONELY NIGHTS")
LEE ANDREWS: (Singing) Long, long and lonely nights. I cry my eyes out over you, wondering if I did right and why you left me with a broken heart. Oh long, long and...
GROSS: What do his records and what did his records, when you were growing up, mean to you? You traveled with him on the road, I know. You were real showbiz kids - kid - you did lighting for him, you played drums with him when you were, like, 11 or something. But in terms of his records, what have they meant to you over the years?
THOMPSON: Well, the one question I'm always obsessed with, with parents today with their kids when I meet them, I always often wonder, do they trick their kids into their taste? And, you know, sometimes - yeah. Like, a lot of times I'll meet kids that are 2 and 3 years old and they know every word to "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough" or "Billie Jean." And my parents wisely tricked me into thinking that doo-wop music was current music.
THOMPSON: In first grade, I went to Philadelphia - the private school version of creative and performing arts. First day of school, our assignment was to bring in your favorite 45. And so the next day kids were bringing in "Shadow Dancing" by Andy Gibb or Yvonne Elliman or "Disco Duck" by Rick Dees.
THOMPSON: And I brought in Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers' "Why Do Fools Fall In Love." And my teacher started laughing, like, you listen to this? And I was like yeah. And she didn't believe me. And she was like, oh man, this is music when I was a kid. And then suddenly I realized, oh my parents tricked me, like, these are...
THOMPSON: ...These are old records, you know?
GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded on stage Sunday with Questlove, the co-founder and leader of the hip-hop band The Roots. His new book of interviews with chefs is called "Something To Food About." On Sunday, he told some great stories about Prince. We'll hear that after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the onstage interview I recorded Sunday with Questlove of the hip-hop band The Roots, which is the house band for "The Tonight Show" with Jimmy Fallon. He's just written his third book. It's a collection of his interviews with celebrated chefs about their creative process in preparing and presenting food.
I want to ask you about Prince. I know Prince meant a lot to you musically and as a person. You've told this story on our show and in your book and in other places about how when you were 12 you kept buying one of his albums. And your parents, who had become Christian, kept, like, throwing it out.
THOMPSON: Throwing the records away, right.
GROSS: So you had to keep rebuying it and hiding it, like, I don't know, eight or 12 times over and over again. Like, what impact did he have on you? Like, if that was your first exposure to certain language or certain principles of sex (laughter) and your parents didn't want you to hear it but you were kind of sneaking it in and you were getting punished as a result of it - no "Soul Train." So what impact did hearing sexual things through his music or was it not about that for you? I mean, you had such a music head.
THOMPSON: The weird thing was that I was absolutely hypnotized by his drum programming. The "1999" album sounded so futuristic. I mean, this is one of the first documented times - that and Michael Jackson's "Thriller," both three weeks within each other in the month of November of '82, come out really introducing a new electronic vocabulary. I mean, this is the first times that we're hearing Oberheim synthesizers and Roger Linn drum programming.
I mean, when you heard these instruments played, it was done in such a distinctive way that it was the Prince sound. You instantly knew this is Prince. And so I was just so hypnotized by it. I mean, yeah, like, I - one time I, you know, I heard the word - I didn't know what whore meant and accidentally called - using it as a noun but not knowing what a whore meant, like what's up, whore, you know?
THOMPSON: Ahmir, I'm telling your grandmother. I'm like, I didn't know. I didn't know what it meant. I don't know what it meant. Where did you learn that from, Ahmir? I don't know. I, like, blame my cousin or something. But I'm not saying that it affected me because I remember it. But from a musical standpoint, that's where my Prince obsession always lied.
GROSS: And you knew Prince. I don't know - how well did you know him as a person? And was it possible to know him as a person?
THOMPSON: It was a complex relationship because I could literally tell you - I guess we've had maybe, like, a good - if you have a good 20 interactions with someone, that's knowing them, right, a little bit?
THOMPSON: I mean, each of them varies to a degree. I mean, in the beginning, it's fearful, like, because you're meeting your - I don't even think I said words the first time I met him. It was just all this nonsensical...
GROSS: Because he meant so much to you when you were 12. That's such a formative year.
GROSS: I mean, the effort that you went through to be able to listen to him.
THOMPSON: Yeah, a lot of my punishments were, you know, from Oprah themes and Prince songs.
THOMPSON: Yeah, so the first time it was just like - and plus he acknowledged what I did. He was, like, I really liked that video. (Unintelligible) Like, I was just talking backwards, like, how do you know? I can't even say it now, like, how does he know I'm alive? Like, does he know I exist?
The second time we spoke, I kind of asked him. I said, yo, like, I got to let you know. Like, you're mad normal. Like, I didn't expect - and he laughed. He said, what, you think I wouldn't be? And at the time I was with D'Angelo and I was, like - like, why are you so nice to us? Like, we didn't think you'd be this normal and speak complete sentences, like...
THOMPSON: I mean, you know, like, the kung fu grasshopper voice that you expect Prince to have, like, well done, sensei. You know, that sort of thing.
THOMPSON: And then one night, just out the blue, he ambushed us. I was working on Common's "Electric Circus" album and the phone rang and the receptionist said, you know, it's for you. And I picked up and he says, hello, can I speak to Prince? I said, who? He's like, you know your name means prince, right? I said, who's this? He said Prince.
GROSS: And Ahmir does mean prince.
THOMPSON: Yeah, it does.
GROSS: I looked it up (laughter).
THOMPSON: Yeah. And he's like, are you going to be there for a little bit? And I was like, yeah, you know, we're mixing. And he came by at - it was already 3 in the morning. Like, we played him some songs we were working on and then he gave us, like - it was a four-hour lecture on religion.
GROSS: He was a Jehovah's Witness.
THOMPSON: OK, the thing about...
THOMPSON: Like, when people find, like, newfound religion, it's like they're so on fire for it for, like, the first seven years. So I think I caught, like, year three...
THOMPSON: ...Where he was just, like, at the pinnacle of it. And so it's me, 3lau a singer we worked with - marvelous, like, one of my favorite singers ever - and Common. And you remember the cover of The Who's "The Kids Are Alright?" Like, they're all asleep on each other's shoulders.
THOMPSON: Cut to 7 o'clock in the morning and, like - it's just, like, me, 3lau, Common, one other person. Like, we're just literally, like - yes, we - yeah, we get it. We get it. We get it, you know, and Prince is like a coach. Like, furthermore, you have to duh, duh, duh, duh, duh (ph). And I was just like, yo, like, that's so surreal. Like, the guy that got me on the most punishment and the guy that introduced, like, the concept of anything lewd or sexual is, like, now - turned into my parents, like...
THOMPSON: When did this happen?
GROSS: Could you ask him anything like that? Like, why did you convert? Or when did you become this person?
THOMPSON: Well, OK, so there was one time at the studio. He has a curse jar, a cuss jar.
GROSS: You had to put money in it if you curse?
THOMPSON: OK, so I'm at...
THOMPSON: I'm at - we're at Paisley Park and I don't know. Maybe I let the S-word slip. I don't know what your...
GROSS: This will be broadcast.
THOMPSON: Thank you.
THOMPSON: And he was like, yeah, that'll be a dollar. And he grabbed the - it was like a - you know, like, the water bottles - the water bottles that you put in - he was like, that's a dollar. He said, actually, no you're rich. That's $20.
THOMPSON: And I said, huh? He said, no cursing. I said cursing? I was like, wait. You're the one that taught me how to curse.
THOMPSON: But the thing was is that when I said that, I was really saying it to get out of paying 20 bucks. But when I saw the look on his face and when I walked away that night and went back to the hotel, I was like, wow, I wonder if he really felt bad about that, like if he thinks in his head, like, man, I've ruined a generation, like, I've...
THOMPSON: No, but he really felt that. And I felt that with a lot of his secret philanthropy and a lot of the Robin Hood stuff that he was doing. And I mean real deep political, like saving schools and people to this day not knowing where this $3 million check came from. Like, that was all him. I felt like maybe in the last 20 years of his life he felt the need to overcompensate or pay forward what he feels that maybe he damaged some of us who grew up listening to his music.
This is weird but, I mean, more than that, I mean, he was also like a real funny person. One of my favorite moments ever was the night that Winnie Fallon, Jimmy's first daughter, was born, I got a call on the bat signal. When Prince calls you, it's kind of presidential. Like, an assistant calls an assistant It's like real meta. Like, he will talk to you now.
THOMPSON: And that sort of thing. And so the assistant was like, where's Jimmy at? And I said, oh, man, his daughter came today. So, you know, we had the night off. We're going to show a rerun tonight. And he says, well, relay this message. Prince will be at Susan Sarandon's SPiN. Susan Sarandon owns a chain of pingpong clubs where you go in - it's like a bowling alley but for pingpong. He says, so Prince will be at Susan Sarandon's SPiN till about 1 a.m. and he wants to challenge Jimmy to a game.
THOMPSON: And so I responded. I said, OK, well, all right, but, you know, she just had the baby, so I'll make sure he gets it. And then the response was, OK, just let him know around, like, midnight tonight Prince will be there. And I was like, no, no, no, no, no. No, I don't think he could - he had a baby, like...
THOMPSON: OK, well, he'll be at SPiN - like, wait - it was like - he was totally missing it. So I hang up the phone. I kind of doze off a little bit and around 11:30 I was just like, wait, what part of baby did he not get? I said, wait a minute. So then I call Jimmy. I'm like, yo, man. I said, Prince just hit me up, said he going to be at Susan Sarandon's SPiN around, like, midnight or so and wants to challenge you to a, you know, game of pingpong. And then Jimmy responded, wait, right now?
THOMPSON: I was like, dude, you just had a baby. You're not going to do this right now, are you? Do you think I should?
THOMPSON: I was like, dude, you know you can't do it. He's like, yeah, but this is Prince we're talking about. This is once - like, who gets to play pingpong with Prince? I said, look - and then I connected the two of them. So the next day in - at a camera blocking...
GROSS: Did he go?
THOMPSON: The next day at camera blocking rehearsal Jimmy says 10:30 tonight it's going down. I said, what? He's like, I'm going to challenge him. So I said, am I allowed to watch this or, you know? Jimmy says, yeah, you can come through - 10:30 tonight. So of course on Ahmir time, 10:30 means, like, 10:50.
So I get there almost, like, 10 minutes to 11 and this gust of wind passes me by my back and I don't even notice it. I see one of our showrunners and producers outside smoking a cigarette. I said, so did I miss it? Did I miss it? She's like, wait, you just missed him. There he goes. I said, huh? And I turn around. SUV's about to pull off. I'm like, yo, wait. And I run to the corner. It's a red light. And just like the Grey Poupon commercial, like...
THOMPSON: The window comes down real slow. And it's Prince, right, with a paddle in his hand.
THOMPSON: And he's kind of doing tricks with it. He's like flipping it in his hands. And I said, wait, wait. I missed it. I missed it. What happened? What happened? And he says, green light, ask your boy. And he goes up.
THOMPSON: But then - I follow him. I say, whoa, whoa, whoa, wait, whoa, and then...
THOMPSON: I say, you have a golden pingpong paddle?
THOMPSON: So Jimmy's story was that Prince was being nice to him for the first two rounds and then dusted him 19 to 2. But on the very last one, he did a slam. Like, if you remember how, like, Tom Hanks was in "Forrest Gump," like he's that level of competition.
So Jimmy says the last round he was toying with him and he just decided to just slam the ball. So Jimmy went over to get the ball, like, from under the table and they got up and said, hey, good - and Prince was gone.
GROSS: We're listening to the onstage interview I recorded Sunday with Questlove, the co-founder and drummer of the hip-hop band The Roots, which is the house band for "The Tonight Show" with Jimmy Fallon. Questlove has a new book of his interviews with chefs called "Something To Food About." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the onstage interview I recorded Sunday with Questlove, the co-founder and drummer of the hip-hop band The Roots, the house band for "The Tonight Show." His father was the leader of the doo-wop group Lee Andrews and The Hearts.
So your grandfather, I think on your father's side, was a member of The Dixie Hummingbirds, the great gospel group.
GROSS: And of course doo-wop and gospel harmonies are very connected.
GROSS: And I know your father didn't really like hip-hop, at least not at first. He didn't like rap.
GROSS: Did your grandfather not like your father's music?
THOMPSON: I've got to really, really be honest with you - see, you're kind of disarming in your conversation and, like, now I've got to be honest with you. For the longest, journalists would come and talk about William Beachy Thompson...
GROSS: Your grandfather, yeah.
THOMPSON: ...Of The Dixie Hummingbirds. And I would deny it. That's not my grandfather. No, you're wrong. And then I'd go to my Wikipedia page and someone keeps putting it back.
GROSS: You mean - is that true? It's really not your grandfather?
THOMPSON: Hear me out.
THOMPSON: I mean, this is going on forever and forever and forever. Now, what I did know of my grandfather's relationship with his children - it was a short run and there really wasn't that much love in the household. It was a very volatile situation, my father's rearing - his growing up in that household. So he really didn't have fond memories of my grandfather.
Now four months before he passed, The Roots got honored on Broad Street with one of those - the Walk Of Fame things. And yet the umpteenth journalist was like, this is amazing, three generations of Thompsons on Broad Street - you, your grandfather. And I was like, don't say it. And, you know, and finally I went to my dad and I was like - I said, Dad. I said, I got to tell you something.
You know, for like the last 12 years all these journalists and everybody up have been coming up to me saying that William Beachy Thompson from The Dixie Hummingbirds is my grandfather. Is that true? And it was the most painful kind of ambiguous denial ever. Like, my dad sort of, like, matrixed his way, like, out of...
THOMPSON: He said, well, you know, I - you know, that's what they say. And I said, Dad, is my grandfather William Beachy Thompson of The Dixie Hummingbirds or not? And he finally said, yes he is. OK, there. He is. And that's kind of how I find out.
Now I feel horrible for all the countless cousins, all the countless family members down south that have, like, hey cousin, William Beachy Thompson. That's not my grandfather. You know, that, like, I've had millions of those moments. So right now I'm slowly doing research because I just got this confirmation four or five months ago.
GROSS: Shortly before he died, shortly before your father died.
GROSS: I'm glad you were able to ask him. Why didn't he tell you with pride?
THOMPSON: Because they did not have a good relationship. And I don't know. Like, I kind of wanted to go there but at the time my dad was in the hospital sick. So I didn't want to get into - Dad, I would've loved to have known this - you know, that sort of thing.
GROSS: So has finding out that your grandfather really was a member of The Dixie Hummingbirds gotten you in a more kind of gospel direction in terms of your listening?
THOMPSON: No. I mean, I've always - I'm on a gospel kick before the ironic reasons. The last, like, two months my broker has been, like, scouring, like, all of these gospel records for me.
GROSS: You've got somebody buying records for you?
THOMPSON: That sounded real 1 percent, didn't it?
THOMPSON: I'm sorry.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded on stage Sunday with Questlove, the co-founder and leader of the hip-hop band The Roots, the house band for "The Tonight Show." His new book of interviews with chefs is called "Something To Food About." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded Sunday with Questlove, the drummer and co-founder of the hip-hop band The Roots. He's written a new book collecting his interviews with celebrated chefs. Questlove's father led the doo-wop group Lee Andrews & the Hearts. His grandfather sang with the gospel group The Dixie Hummingbirds.
So it turns out genealogically you're from this harmony family.
GROSS: Right? And you come of age musically as a performer in a kind of music where it's just not about vocal harmony. It's just not. It's rapping, and with The Roots, a band. So do you miss that kind of harmony? It must be so in your blood.
THOMPSON: Part of me misses it. At my dad's service, he wanted members of certain doo-wop groups to come back and sing together one more time. So...
THOMPSON: ...I drummed and I sang, and when I was singing it I was just thinking about being 12, 13 years old, singing all those parts. And yeah I missed it 'cause I haven't done it in such a long time. So part of me does miss the memories of those moments of playing doo-wop music. Like, my father - I always tell this story and people think I'm kidding - my father did not know about The Roots until our second album.
GROSS: Did you not tell him? Why didn't he know?
THOMPSON: Hell no, I didn't tell my dad.
GROSS: Why didn't you tell him?
THOMPSON: Because, I meant, his - oh, man, our legendary bickering over the merits and the artistic value of hip-hop - you know, some people will go by the radio and hear, like, one line and like, ugh, get that garbage off. Or, you know, in his case, like we just got cable and so, you know, you might see one NWA video in passing and like, ugh, you think that's art? Like that's supposed to be better than "Pet Sounds" and totally, like, dismiss a whole culture. But I kind of had to let him know because, like, we were in newspapers by that point. So it was like, yeah, I got a record deal by the way. Sorry, you know.
GROSS: So before he died, did he come around to accepting that your music was really valuable - that meant an enormous amount to so many people...
THOMPSON: I'm going to tell you that I had the perfect TV-movie-ending conversation with my dad in which we were able to - for like three hours - really have that talk where he said, you know, I know you thought I was hard on you and I do apologize for the things that you didn't agree with and dah dah dah dah dah (ph). But I wanted to let you know that I'm really proud of you.
And like the thing that you would want - that validation that you'd been dying for your parents to say to you on their like, dying day, like, I had that conversation. And I knew that was my last conversation with him. And it was perfect. So I have no issues whatsoever with, you know, how it ended. It was - a lot of turbulence, but it landed perfectly.
GROSS: And did he acknowledge in that conversation your talent, your gift, your contribution to American culture?
THOMPSON: He said, you know - it's every parent's dream for their offspring to leave, metaphorically - he said like mural-art or some sort of graffiti-art contribution that can never be taken down. And he said, like - and I knew he wasn't blowing smoke, and you know, sometimes parents will just, like, oh, yeah, I'm so proud of you.
And you know, as a kid you dismiss it like, oh, you're just saying that 'cause you're my - but he says - he's like, son, I - if this is my last week on the - I know, my greatest pride is that I created someone who's going to, you know, who's contributed something that could possibly last time. Like, that to me, that just validated a lot. That made it worth the journey. That made it worth it. That was a great end game.
GROSS: That is beautiful.
GROSS: I'm glad you had that.
THOMPSON: God, this is like therapy.
GROSS: I just want to say you are so wonderful and I am so thrilled that we had the chance to do this today...
THOMPSON: I enjoyed this, you are my favorite...
GROSS: Thank you for doing it. And Questlove is just...
THOMPSON: Give it up for Terry Gross ladies and gentlemen.
GROSS: Thank you so much. And thank you for coming.
GROSS: My interview with Questlove was recorded Sunday afternoon on stage at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. And the name of Questlove's new book again is "Something To Food About."
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GROSS: Our thanks to WHYY's Brittany Smith who organized the event and was going up and down the stairs Sunday, taking care of last-minute details even though she's due to have her first baby this week. The event was recorded by Adam Staniszewski and Al Banks and produced and edited for radio by Sam Briger and Therese Madden. And of course, our thanks to Ahmir Questlove Thompson for doing the interview.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.