Questlove's Roots: A 'Meta' Memoir Of A Lifetime In Music
Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, the co-founder of and drummer for the hip-hop band The Roots, has been a musician since he was a teen. In Mo' Meta Blues, he explains how his musician father groomed him for a life in show business from an early age.
June 24, 2013
Guest: Questlove (Ahmir Thompson)
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The reason it's so important to keep down costs is so we keep college affordable.
JIMMY FALLON: And the president knows his stuff, y'all. That's why they call him the POTUS, which means person on top - what is it?
OBAMA: Jimmy, POTUS stands for president of the United States.
FALLON: (Singing) He's the POTUS with the most-us(ph).
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GROSS: That's President Obama making an appearance on Jimmy Fallon's regular feature "Slow Jamming the News" with my guest Questlove, Ahmir Thompson, on drums. He co-founded the hip-hop band The Roots, which is Fallon's late-night house band. Questlove describes The Roots as the last hip-hop band, the last of a dying breed in an era of solo acts. Dying breed maybe, but the band is sure doing well. They're preparing to move to "The Tonight Show," when Fallon takes over as the host in February.
This year, The Roots' 1999 album "Things Fall Apart" went platinum. Questlove grew up in west Philadelphia but spent a lot of time on the road, traveling with his father, Lee Andrews, of the doo-wop group Lee Andrews & The Hearts. Lee Andrews' record collection gave Questlove a head start in becoming an encyclopedia of music references, which is one of the reasons why, in addition to all the work he does with The Roots, he spends a lot of nights deejaying. Now Questlove has a new memoir called "Mo' Meta Blues."
Ahmir, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's great to have you back. Growing up with rap music and hip-hop, did you ever worry that the music you loved wouldn't have use for a drummer like you - because of drums machines, because of sampling?
AHMIR THOMPSON: Never. I break down hip-hop in sort of like five-year brackets. The first period of hip-hop, which is 1977 to 1982, was pretty much the idea, at least on wax, because of technology restrictions, the deejay would play the house band of the label that they were signed to. So let's say it's Sugar Hill Records. Grandmaster Flash would play, let's say, a particular break, like let's say get up and dance or the Apache break, like a well-known break that he would spin in clubs.
He would play it for the house band, which was Keith LaBlanc on drums and Doug Winbush on bass, and they would approximate it. So I meant the first five years of hip-hop were interpreted by a live band. And so, you know, it didn't sound foreign to me at all.
When drum machines came in, and then when sampling came in, especially in the age of Public Enemy's records, pretty much I just heard my father's entire record collection...
THOMPSON: Kind of amalgamated in these, you know, 60-minute cassettes. Like the - probably the most seminal moment for me is Public Enemy's "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back." When That album came out in 1988, that was a Sergeant Pepper's moment. That was a "Never Mind the Bullocks, Here Comes the Sex Pistols" moment.
And what they did was, I mean, they made a sound collage of my father's record collection. So at first it was a name-that-tune thing, like oh, OK, that's David Bowie, that's Funkadelic, that's James Brown. But then, you know, it was contextualized in a way that I could relate to. So I didn't feel a threat, like oh, I don't know how to fit in this world.
GROSS: You've had such a diverse career, you know, hip-hop band, you know, recording, performing, backing up other performers, producing, and for the past few years being the house band for Jimmy Fallon's late-night show, soon to be "The Tonight Show." And what I imagine was an incredible for you was when you backed up President Obama in a regular feature called "Slow Jamming The News."
And usually it's like Brian Williams reading a news story with Jimmy Fallon jumping in with kind of lewd comments on the news story while you a play a blues behind them. But you did that with Obama, with him talking about how Congress shouldn't allow interest rates on student loans to rise. I'm wondering what were the rehearsals like with President Obama? And what was the experience like for you? I doubt you ever expected to be backing up the president.
THOMPSON: Yeah, we didn't. What's funny is that he was probably the coolest of all of us. Like we were like over-preparing and nervous and going over each syllable, and, you know, usually when we do that, it takes like four or five rehearsals to nail it and especially when you're bringing someone in that doesn't have that experience of it. It could be a risk.
But with him, he rehearsed it once. He knew the timing of it. He knew that the red markers on the cue cards were his lines, and yeah, he was a pro. He nailed rehearsal once perfectly and even had a little swag at the end when he dropped his microphone, so...
GROSS: So what did it feel like for you to back up a president?
THOMPSON: It was a little surreal. It was a little surreal watching it. But I've got to tell you, Terry, I've learned long ago to curb my enthusiasm.
THOMPSON: And this is the one character trait in me that the people closest to me absolutely abhor, the fact that I've very nonchalant about everything. I'm not saying that it wasn't a big deal, but it's just that I've come to the realization that every day my life has this sort of Forrest Gump existence. Like every day is an I was there moment. So it just becomes, you know, a little redundant to get excited about every day when every day is sort of like a high.
I understand that they're high for other people, and I vicariously get excited. Like the day that the book came out, everyone called, like aren't you excited, aren't you excited, aren't you excited. And, you know, I was, like, trying to fake it, like yeah, I'm excited, I'm excited. But really I was like yeah, OK, that's nice.
You know, that's just how I am. I just, I don't mourn the bad. I don't celebrate the good. I just walk forward, that's all.
GROSS: So you write about when you were growing up and how, when you started listening to music, you didn't really focus on the melody or the lead singer. You say I seemed deaf to what was out in front of the mix. I was searching for a part of the song that was buried, a rare treasure that no one else knew about. Could you give us an example, a song that you listened to that had a kind of famous melody, but there was something else that you heard?
THOMPSON: That I totally ignored?
GROSS: Yeah, that you totally ignored and heard something else in your forefront, the forefront of your mind?
THOMPSON: All right, let's take "Where Did Our Love Go?" by The Supremes. This is a hypothetical example, but, I mean, to me the most important part of that song is the tenor sax part in the background. So while everyone will sing the lead - baby, baby, where did our love go - I will start singing - (humming). You know, I'll start singing the saxophone part that's like buried in the mix somewhere.
I have no idea why, that the small nuances of a song are more attractive to me than the actual song. This definitely explains why I have zero pop sensibility, you know. I mean, I've learned - the last time I was here, I was promoting, I believe, our six-album "Phrenology," which, you know, critics sort of held that as, like, our magnum opus because it was like an everything but the kitchen sink type of record, and it was a 14-minute free jazz experiments and all these things, which should normally be quasi-impressive to people.
But then I realized, like, oh, this is stuff I can do in my sleep. Like it's easy for me to make an 11-minute song that has, like, nine changes in it and all these time signatures. But if you told me to create the theme to, like, "Super Mario Brothers," something so elementary and something so basic, I would pull my afro out.
THOMPSON: Like it's one of the hardest things in the world.
GROSS: My guest is Questlove, Ahmir Thompson, the drummer and co-founder of the hip-hop band The Roots, which is the house band for "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." He has a new memoir called "Mo' Meta Blues." More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Questlove, Ahmir Thompson, and he is the drummer and founder, co-founder of the band The Roots, which is now the house band on Jimmy Fallon's late-night show.
Your father is Lee Andrews of Lee Andrews & The Hearts that had several hits in the 1950s, including "Teardrops," "Long, Lonely Nights," "Try the Impossible." It was a vocal harmony group.
THOMPSON: Yeah, doo-wop.
GROSS: Doo-wop. And did you grow up with the idea that performance was just like a natural part of life?
THOMPSON: Yeah, I kind of - my parents kind of tricked me into thinking - well no, I tricked myself into thinking that this was just a normal, everyday existence. My father had his first wave of notoriety in the late '50s, and then it cooled down a bit in the '60s. He retired, opened up a boutique store with my mother.
And then when the baby boom nostalgia kicked in, in the '70s, with doo-wap music and, you know, the onslaught of "Grease" and "American Graffiti" and "Laverne & Shirley" and that type of stuff, my father was first in line to sort of cash in on it to do these sort of like Dick Clark extravaganzas at Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden.
And so I grew up, at the age of two, backstage, watching, you know, Harvey and the Moonglows and Frankie Lymon's Teenagers and Reparata and the Delrons and Johnny Maestro & the Brooklyn Bridge, all these oldies acts. Like I grew up thinking that was contemporary music, even to the point where in music class in the first grade, when we had to bring in our favorite single - we'd bring in 45 records to play - you know, all the other kids were bringing in contemporary stuff.
They were bringing in like "Shadow Dancing" by Andy Gibb and, you know, "Macho Man" by The Village People. And I was bringing in like "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, thinking that this was new music.
THOMPSON: And my teacher's like no, this was popular when I was 14. And I didn't get that. But yeah, that was probably the best education I ever had because my father literally groomed me for show business. Like at first he taught me how to read a Rand McNally map so I could navigate - I was a human GPS by the age of six.
THOMPSON: By seven I graduated to wardrobe. So he taught me how to steam, how to iron, how to clean suede and leather, how to shine shoes, all those things. So I knew how to do wardrobe by seven. By nine, he taught me how to do - cut light gels. And so I became - I ran the light system. So yeah, I was a 10-year-old kid in these nightclubs getting ladders, setting up lights, setting up spotlights, doing their show.
Like I was their light director. And then one day when the drummer - he wasn't sick, he got in an accident, and his arm was sprained, and the drummer couldn't play. And with the casualness of me today, my dad just said: You know the show, just go play it. And I was 12 years old, and that venue was Radio City Music Hall.
Ironically, right across the street from 30 Rock, where I work today, so like my very first drumming gig was at Radio City Music Hall at the age of 12.
GROSS: And you were, of course, already a drummer, I mean you - not a professional, but you'd already been learning drums and playing drums.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I mean, I knew how to...
GROSS: It's not like you just put sticks in your hand and said go out there.
THOMPSON: No, I could drum like an adult by the age of eight. I was that good.
GROSS: So were you thrown by that when your father said you take over?
THOMPSON: Funny story about that, getting onstage in front of 7,000 people, no problem. Seeing Susan from "Sesame Street," who was then the wife of the keyboard player in the band, who I didn't know, seeing her, yeah, that caused me to run to a trashcan and regurgitate, like...
THOMPSON: Yeah, like Susan from "Sesame Street," like I grew up on "Sesame Street."
GROSS: So your father's from the doo-wop era, and you started performing on your own in the hip-hop era. So would you compare his performance ethic and yours and what he thought was good showmanship and what you did and do?
THOMPSON: I based a lot of the pacing of our shows on my father's roadmap because there was a point where - like during the first initial wave of the nostalgia, you know, we only had 20 minutes. Like there's 10 acts on the bill. So by the time the late '70s to early '80s arrived, I'll say that the initial doo-wop nostalgia sort of cooled down, and people were making way for, like, the British invasion nostalgia.
My father wisely kind of got off that platform and went to another platform that no one was on, which was the nightclub circuit. And, you know, we'd do the Atlantic City, the Poconos, the Catskills, Vegas, like places where there would be casinos and the need for this type of entertainment.
So he would pace - I mean, some of these shows require five shows to be performed, and each show different. It wasn't until later that I found out that he could have just did the same, you know, 45-minute set each time out, and it wouldn't have made a difference, it was probably like a new audience. But I don't know. In his head, like if one person decided to stay for all five shows, then he was going to make it worth their while.
And so he knew how to perfectly pace it. He knew which cover songs to cover that were universal. He knew how to utilize my mother, who I guess you could say was like the June Carter to his Johnny Cash. My mother, gorgeous, beautiful and had an awesome comic timing, since she knew - like she did audience participation well. Like, she's really the star of the show.
And so seeing this stuff, you know, I just applied it to pacing The Roots' shows, which I felt gave us kind of a leg up more than just, you know, the average throw your hands in the air and wave them like just don't care banter of hip-hop back when I first started.
GROSS: Yeah, well, your father's era, I mean, there's a lot of showmanship, and you talk about like you had to get the clothes pressed and use the right colored gels for the lights. You know, there's this sense of, like, you know, performance, showmanship and polish, whereas in hip-hop, I mean, a lot of performers are into, like, street credibility and just, like, the baggy jeans and the hoodie.
And at the same time, though, there's a lot of showmanship. I mean, there are so many hip-hop groups that have, you know, extravagant stage shows and, like, dozens of dancers behind them and incredible choreography.
THOMPSON: Well, in the beginning, mind you hip-hop and I kind of grew up together. So, you know, in '77 I was six years old. So by the time that "Rapper's Delight" came out, and the first wave of groups from that era were getting national exposure, like doing shows, opening for The Commodores and opening for Cameo and that type of stuff that I got to witness, you know, I was 10 years old, and those initial acts, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the Cold Crush Brothers, the Fantastic Romantic, the Treacherous Three, believe it or not those groups were more derivative of '70s soul groups.
So they had the mentality that they had to be like The Temptations, like Blue Magic, like The Main Ingredient, like a lot of these '70s groups. So, you know, often in their shows they, too, would do singing routines, they'd do dancing routines, they wore flashy outfits. You know, the king of the '70s, in my opinion as far as taking black theater to the highest level, was George Clinton and him bringing theater and that type of visual wonderment to the stage.
These groups, these initial groups, ate it up, which is precisely the reason why Russell Simmons kind of pressed the red panic button and said wait a minute, you know, this isn't real hip-hop. Like you guys are just basing your act off these '70s groups with these flashy outfits. You guys look like Earth, Wind and Fire. So the appeal of Run DMC and the idea of the street mentality is, sort of - you have to imagine the same thing that Kurt Cobain did for the grunge moment, kind of wiping the slate clean from hair metal and all the glam associated with that, that's what Run DMC did to the hip-hop that came before it.
Russell Simmons said that hip-hop should be guys next door, the people that you see on your corner. You should look like them. And for all this musicianship, no, it should just be very simple drums and voice. And so that is what ushers in the hip-hop as we know it as far as street credibility. But before 1982, no, I mean, hip-hop bands felt they had to compete with Earth, Wind and Fire and P-Funk.
GROSS: So where did you see yourself fitting in when you started to perform?
THOMPSON: I didn't. I was strictly a fan. And it wasn't until De La Soul came aboard - I think before De La Soul, I saw myself fitting more into the music that Prince was putting out, his particular period at that point. You know, he had massive success with "Purple Rain." Then he was sort of going through this hippy, jazzy period in the mid-'80s that I really, that I thought he could do no wrong.
And it really wasn't until De La Soul came out, De La Soul is a trio from Long Island that, you know, dressed in their parents' clothes, they wore their hair in these outlandish styles, and they were sampling the music that you would normally ignore, like who's going to put Harry Nilsson in a hip-hop song.
And so once they came out in 1989 with "3 Feet High &Rising," then I just knew, like OK, this is my calling. Like that was my moment.
GROSS: Questlove, Ahmir Thompson, will be back in the second half of the show. His new memoir is called "Mo' Meta Blues." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Questlove, Ahmir Thompson, the drummer and co-founder of the hip-hop band, The Roots. They're famous for their recordings and concerts, and for being the house band on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." The band is moving with Fallon to "The Tonight Show." Questlove has a new memoir called "Mo 'Meta Blues."
In your memoir you write...
GROSS: ...I wasn't a normal kid. And you say your parents took you to see if something was wrong. And you say I don't think autistic was a common term back then.
GROSS: So do you think that if you were growing up today and behaved like you did when you were a child, that your parents would have gotten a diagnosis of autism?
THOMPSON: I believe there are different degrees of autism. And I'm not saying that, you know, initially at first, a lot of this was also said in jest, in joking, but I mean they did worry for a second because I was obsessed and sort of, I was always in a trance with things that spun. So I mean...
GROSS: Including albums.
THOMPSON: Well, especially records.
GROSS: Records. Yeah.
THOMPSON: I mean so it's one thing to sit there at a turntable endlessly. My babysitters and my aunts used to always say, like he is the first child to never give us trouble. Like he doesn't scream. He doesn't even talk. Like he just sits at the - all you have to do is get a stack of records, put them on the turntable and he'll literally just sit there and watch them turn. And then, you know, after the third or fourth hour of it, then they started to wonder, like well, OK, does he do anything else or does he do that? And then there were points where, I mean, they asked me why did I constantly - on my index finger I would take my dad's records and just spin them on my index finger to watch them twirl. I liked the way the logo looked in rotation. They just thought that was kind of strange.
GROSS: You deejay a lot.
GROSS: So when you're deejaying and you're using turntables and they're spinning around, does it ever kind of put you in a trance? Is it ever incredibly distracting to you?
THOMPSON: Yeah. It relaxes me. And I, you know, I joke often, people say like well, you know, you do these marathon deejay gigs. And I tell them like it's, some music acts need cocaine to wind down or something, like I deejay. Like I don't - last night I went to a party for the first time and I wasn't the deejay. And I was telling my friend, Steve, I was like, ah, like I'm so uncomfortable. I feel like Linus without his blanket. Like and every three seconds I was judging the deejay's segues, like oh, that's a horrible segue. Like he can't go from 120 beats per minute to 87. It just doesn't make musical sense. And she's not spinning on the one and like after a while I was just a neurotic about it. It was turning into like a Woody Allen scene, so I left the party. But, yeah, I, for me...
GROSS: This was your own party. This was your book party, right?
GROSS: No? OK.
THOMPSON: Last night I don't know how, I wound up at Madonna's party for her movie.
GROSS: Oh. Oh. OK.
THOMPSON: And, yeah, casual say, and yeah, a party for Madonna. So, of course, instead of, you're going to meet her? You're going to meet her? No, I ran right to the turntables to...
THOMPSON: ...to hide. I did talk to Simon Brodsky, though. That was cool.
GROSS: But getting back to the revolving turntables. Since you to just like, you know, obsessed on anything that was rotating, when you're deejaying, does it ever kind of kind of distract you and put you in a trance?
THOMPSON: Yes and no. I mean I'm not hypnotized by watching it. I'm more, when I'm deejaying I have a rule of thumb. People always ask me for tips on deejaying. And I'm a person that knows - I believe the number one rule of DJ is: You have to immerse yourself in music. Immerse. Not love music, you have to immerse yourself. And the formula for me is: For every record you spin, you have to know five records that go perfectly with that record. So for me it's like a chess game. I'm thinking about the payoff song that's going to be 20 songs from now and how can I build up to that moment. Which is why people that aren't too happy with me, the only time that I will be a complete ass to a person is when I'm deejaying. I absolutely want zero interruptions, because I'm in a trance and you're breaking my trance, and I need to know how to get from point A to point B. and because of modern technology, this is not like back in the day where I could just pack up 200 records and hope that you like 200 of those records. I now have a computer system that has 70,000 songs in them, you know, so I can go anywhere. I can play "Happy Feet" by Kermit the Frog. I can play a song by Skrillex. I can play a song by James Brown. I could play the new Kanye West. I could play the old Kanye West. I mean, you know, that world is my oyster and I need complete absolute concentration.
GROSS: So if I had quizzed you on the 70,000 records that you have on your computer that you bring with you when you deejay, would you know the number of beats per minute on most of those 70,000 records?
THOMPSON: Oh. Oh. Without a doubt.
GROSS: Mm. So you have a great memory and must be incredibly obsessive too. I think we've established that.
THOMPSON: Oh, OK. I have an obsessive memory on things that I think are important.
GROSS: Yes. Right. Right.
THOMPSON: Now, you know, if...
GROSS: And you tune out a lot too, probably.
THOMPSON: Well, no, no, no. I just mean like I probably have more useless information.
THOMPSON: I mean I can tell you the amount of times that "Soul Train" has used a green and a yellow lighting motif.
THOMPSON: ...on their performances.
GROSS: Seriously? Could you really tell me that?
THOMPSON: Marvin Gaye. Like I judge "Soul Train" performances also on the color combination of the performances, sort of like my Nike collection. Like Marvin Gaye has a great green and yellow, for his first time on "Soul Train," color scheme. The Stylistics had a really great sky blue and fire red color combination. The Jacksons had a very dismal beige and white background, I didn't like too much. I thought they could have maximized it more. But then again, you know, I've watched every episode of soldiering worth watching at least 30 times each, so after a while you just stop watching the main thing and you just look at background parts, I guess. I don't know.
GROSS: When you what "Soul Train," in addition to the color combination in the background, what are you watching for? Is it the music, how the band moves, the dancers?
THOMPSON: My favorite, my all time favorite part of "Soul Train" is, without a doubt, the first 60 seconds. People ask like what are you looking for? And well, let's establish, first of all, "Soul Train" was the only show that my parents - was one of the few shows that my parents - allowed me to watch when I was a kid. I could watch music programs and I could watch PBS. But, you know, I wasn't big on sitcoms and cartoons and those things. So "Soul Train" starts, always starts with a 30 second animation of a train dancing in outer space behind the shape of the earth. And then at the 10 second mark, Joe Cobb, a deejay from Chicago, yells at the highest volume - the soul train. I don't have my voice now, but most people know that iconic scream.
So there's already like a scary element that attracts you. Like, you're attracted to things that are frightening. People go see horror films, people riding roller coasters. I watched the first 30 seconds of "Soul Train."
THOMPSON: It's the same scary thrill. And then the next 30 seconds on my all time parts of "Soul Train" - which is basically Sid McCoy, another announcer who had the smoothest voice. He had a very deep cadence in his voice and he would say very soothing: "Soul Train." The hippest trip in America. With guest stars, The Temptations. And to me, just the introduction of "Soul Train," probably the craziest thing I could ever do is I could sit and watch all 1,100 episodes of just the intros of "Soul Train." For me the show is over once they say: And now, here's your host, Don Cornelius. Like anything after that is gravy. If it's an act I liked, yes. I love Don Cornelius. I love the show. I love the dancing - Rosie Perez was great.
THOMPSON: I love the "Soul Train" line. The fashion was cool. Everything is great. But for me, the animation was great. Joe Cobb yelling, "Soul Train" was awesome. But this 30 seconds that Sid McCoy has to announce who the guest stars are, and them showing that five second action shot of the guest on the show today - that to me was the highlight of my life.
GROSS: You know what I love? I love that you know that the guy who shouts soul train happens at the 10 second mark.
THOMPSON: That's how obsessive I am with unnecessary information. Sorry.
GROSS: So were you ever on "Soul Train"? Was your father ever on "Soul Train"?
THOMPSON: I was on "Soul Train" twice. And this also plays into...
GROSS: With The Roots?
THOMPSON: Once with The Roots and once with an artist that I produced name Common. The first time with The Roots. This also adds to my kind of the adage of never meet your heroes, and never get excited about anything. So if you want to know why like, you know, playing with Obama was just like another day at the office, is because, you know, when I did "Soul Train," I'll probably say that was probably one of the experiences that like told me like oh, OK, everything that glitters isn't golden. The grass is always greener on the other side. Like, you know, it was nice but it wasn't what it was in my dreams. Like Don Cornelius' first words to me was like, you can't stand there, son.
THOMPSON: Go move over there, you know. And I'm like dude, I'm a walking "Soul Train" Smithsonian. Like, I'm the future of your show.
THOMPSON: Like you don't know this but one day I'm going to write a novel. Like I'm working on two books. I just finished the "Soul Train" coffee table book, which will come out in October. But, yeah, I mean I went there. It was nice. But it was very anti-climactic. And I also got to steal the letter Q from the "Soul Train" Scramble Board...
THOMPSON: ...which was kind of cool. Actually, both times I was on "Soul Train" I took the Q. Quincy Jones was the scramble board for when I was on the show. And Queen Latifah was the scramble board when I was on the show the second time.
GROSS: That's hysterical.
GROSS: So you're writing a book about "Soul Train" and a book about James Brown, right?
THOMPSON: No. No. No. Just about "Soul Train." I'm writing...
GROSS: Just about "Soul Train." OK.
THOMPSON: Yeah. It's a coffee table book that I've been working on the last - this is like my dream project, you know.
GROSS: Yeah. Well...
THOMPSON: And even then they told me to sort of like, you know, keep in mind that everyone doesn't have the "Soul Train" IQ I do, so it's not necessarily...
THOMPSON: It's not necessary to write a chapter on, you know, the stage dimensions throughout the years or that type of thing.
GROSS: My guest is Questlove, Ahmir Thompson, the drummer and co-founder of the hip-hop band The Roots, which is the house band for "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." He has a new memoir called "Mo 'Meta Blues."
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Questlove, Ahmir Thompson, the co-founder and drummer of the hip-hop band The Roots, which in addition to having their recording and performing career, are now the house band of Jimmy Fallon's late-night show, and will soon be the house band for "The Tonight Show."
When you were growing up, you know, in addition to traveling on the road with your father, doing the oldies acts and night club performances, at some point your parents became Christians. And how did that change the music in your house? And what was expected of you as the son?
THOMPSON: OK. Well, there's a period in the late '70s, I'll say around '78, '79, where suddenly we were always watching "The PTL Club" and "The 700 Club."
GROSS: And for people who don't remember, those were the really big Christian shows.
THOMPSON: Yeah. Well, I believe the PTL - P...
THOMPSON: "PTL Club" was Jim and Tammy Faye Baker. And I believe what, Pat Robertson was...
GROSS: Yeah "700 Club."
THOMPSON: ..."The 700 Club," obsessively. We would always have this on. And suddenly we became a Christian household. And then suddenly we're celebrating the fact that oh, Donna Summers is now a Christian. And we're celebrating the fact that this formerly secular singers is now Christian. Meanwhile, I'm coming of age and the one person that your parents don't want you to come of age with in 1980 was Prince. And the weird thing is, is that the album of his that I got in trouble for the most - I'll say that between 1982 and 1987, I have purchased and subsequently got punished for purchasing Prince's 1999 record.
At least - I'll say I've purchased this album about 11 times in that period. They'd find it; I'd get in trouble. I get lectured, I get punished. They'd crack it, throw it in the trash. You know, then three weeks later I have it again. And a month later I have it again. And was it worth being sent to my room for three weeks with no TV or nothing?
I don't know. But, I mean, to me that album was a game changer and a life changer for me. So, yeah, there was a lot of hiding. It was contraband. Music suddenly became contraband in my household.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Questlove - Ahmir Thompson - the co-founder and drummer of the hip-hop band The Roots. Which, in addition to having their recording and performing career, are now the house band of Jimmy Fallon's "Late Night Show" and will be soon be the house band for "The Tonight Show." So let's talk about how you met your co-founder in The Roots, Tariq Trotter, "Black Thought."
GROSS: And you met him in high school in Philadelphia at the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, which is known as CAPA, the acronym.
GROSS: And, you know, you describe in your book how opposite you were in terms of the way you were brought up and the life you were exposed to as children. Make that comparison for us.
THOMPSON: He and I were just constant opposites. I mean, then I was more like a black boho hippie. My mom let me cut holes in my jeans. You know, black parents wouldn't let you do that. Like, you know, Tariq was like, wait. Your mom will let you destroy your jeans and put all that acrylic paint on your jacket? Like waste a good jacket like that? Are you crazy?
Do rags. Like, he never saw me - like, anybody rocking a do rag. Like, to him, I guess he thought that I had, like, arty white person sensibility of dressing. So, you know, he kind of teased me about it. He was more street with it. But for some reason the thing that brought us together was our love for hip-hop. He was an MC. He loved rhyming off the top of his head.
Me, I loved the music that was making hip-hop. So, thus, he would name a beat or he would name a song and ask me to do that song. But I knew that some from which the sample that it came. So he would say, all right, play a "Kick the Ball" by Crown Rulers. They were a local Jersey group. I knew that as Herbie Hancock and the Head Hunters' "God Made Me Funky," an old jazz record from, like, 1975.
So that's kind of how we conducted. Like, oh, OK, so all these songs that I like are made of older songs from your dad's record collection. I'm like, yeah, don't you get it? So that's how we connected. We became a group because I had overheard a girl, who was like the prettiest girl in school, talking about a record that she liked. And somehow I just managed to butt my way into the conversation. And then I found myself saying this lie to her.
I was like, well, I've got a group. And then the lie became more outlandish. And then the next thing I know I had to rush and find Tariq. Like, yo, we're in a group and we're also going to play in the talent contest. And that girl wound up being Amel Larrieux. She's a Grammy winner, formerly of a group called Groove Theory. But she's, like, one of my favorite singers ever. And I went to high school with her.
And, yeah, kind a white lie turned into a career for me.
GROSS: My guest is Questlove, Ahmir Thompson, the drummer and co-founder of the hip-hop band The Roots which is the house band for "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." He has a new memoir called "Mo Meta Blues." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Questlove, Ahmir Thompson, the drummer and co-founder of the band The Roots which is now the band on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." He has a new memoir. It's called "Mo Meta Blues." You write in your book that you wanted to know, like, how does a hip hop band survive middle age? How do they make it into middle age and still, you know, remain fresh and meaningful.
And has part of - I mean, I don't think you're quite middle aged yet, but has being on television in the Jimmy Fallon "Late Night" band opened things up for you? And I don't even mean financially here; I mean artistically because you play with so many different performers on it. And you're doing comedy and you're doing, you know, just, you know, music of every kind.
THOMPSON: Hip-hop is - you've got to see hip-hop in dog years.
THOMPSON: And for it, yeah, OK. I'll say hip-hop is more in pit bull years. You have to - you know, most acts kind of peak, you know, at their second, third, fourth record. Most acts, their best record is, like, their second album. And somehow we miraculously made it to our 15th record. I will say that initially when we took on Fallon I guess you could say that I saw it as a great retirement.
I thought what goes up comes down and this is probably the best way for us to land, you know, on concrete the feather's way. We'll just - you know, the initial pitch was like, look, you guys will be in one place. You'll get to see your family more. You're only doing eight minutes of music combined a week. You know, it's a great check. Have fun.
And so what I didn't necessarily think was that this would open more doors than ever. So, yeah, it's made me more aware of music. And it's made me, you know, it's put me right in the eye of the storm of - this is my dream job. I guess you could say this is kind of my destiny.
You know, I didn't think, like, back when I was a kid, like, man. Doc Sev - I would've been watching "The Tonight Show" more than "Soul Train" if that was the case. Like, you know, I didn't think that, oh, this is where your future's going to be. Like, you know, taking the baton from Doc Severinsen. And, you know, to me this is a win-win all around. You know, as a band this is the most rehearsing we've ever done. This is the most music we've ever created. You know, it's a real job but it's - this is a great beginning for us.
GROSS: Do you have to write a "Tonight Show" theme?
THOMPSON: (whispers) Yeah.
GROSS: Do I note a little anxiety in your voice?
THOMPSON: Oh, boy. I'm having these nightmares of da-da-da-ah. Ah. Waking up in the middle of the night. Oh, my god. 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 - we will be the first thing that is heard when the world is watching that new "Tonight Show."
GROSS: Oh, yeah.
THOMPSON: In February.
THOMPSON: Like the music's going to be. So the music has to be inviting. Like, you think of Johnny Carson (hums "The Tonight Show" theme). Like, that's stuck in your head. It's the pop song challenge. That is going to have to be the one.
GROSS: You know, is it going to have a lyric? Like Jimmy Kimmel has a lyric.
THOMPSON: Nah. I mean, Tariq might write something for it but, you know, right now it's just 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 over-thinking it - it's not going to happen by over-thinking 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: How long is that in dog years?
THOMPSON: I have 24 weeks.
THOMPSON: I have three days to come up with something.
GROSS: It has been so wonderful to talk with you. Thank you so much for coming back to the show.
THOMPSON: I appreciate this. Thank you.
GROSS: Good luck writing the "Tonight Show" theme.
THOMPSON: I'm such a fan of you. Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: It's so exciting.
GROSS: Oh, I really look forward to it.
THOMPSON: Pressure. No pressure.
GROSS: No pressure.
THOMPSON: No pressure.
GROSS: No, exactly. Exactly.
GROSS: And congratulations on the book and thank you so much.
THOMPSON: I appreciate this. Thank you.
GROSS: Questlove, Ahmir Thompson, has a new memoir called "Mo Meta Blues." You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.or where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
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