An Interview with Ahmir Thompson (Questlove)

It could be argued that if hip hop were compared to high school, it would be a wild public school requiring ice to gain entry. The most popular students would be the toughest and wealthiest. Nevertheless, the ‘nerd element’ would remain, referring to those wishing to learn.

The Roots, however, have taken the mantle of De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest by creating an artful, machismo-free hip hop that proudly displays its intellectualism. They are so vital to the health of hip hop, that if they did not exist, they would have to be invented.

In 1987, the Square Roots quartet was formed, and for three years they played on street corners in Philadelphia to hone their abilities. After six years, they have released six albums, two of which have attained classic status – their major label debut.

Do You Want More? and their latest, Phrenology. Ahmir Thompson, otherwise known as Questlove or Questo, has always been the leader in the group and is well-loved for his big Afro and musical dynamism.

He possesses every episode of Soul Train and a plethora of videos featuring performances from the Yodas, or the legendary soul performers. He has also worked on some of the most iconic albums of the modern music era, including D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun.

We conducted our interview on a Tuesday between 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. in his room at the Paramount Hotel in Manhattan. He had on a yellow Muhammad Ali T-shirt and a red, black, and green wristband.

His tall, thin sister was also present. His phones kept ringing during our conversation; his tour manager inquiring when he would be finished, and the hotel asking when he would be checking out.

Each time, with a roll of his eyes, he informed the hotel he would be down in five minutes – then continued with the interview.

— Toure’s words

The words of Toure have been shared to the public, allowing everyone to get an insight into his thoughts and ideas. He has provided a unique perspective on the topic, which is certainly worth considering.

It may be considered blasphemous, but it is undeniable that crack has had a role in the emergence of hip hop.

The Believer inquires about the concept that African Americans have a greater ability to produce more impressive musical pieces while Republicans are in power. They ask to be enlightened on the subject and how it is applicable in the current political situation.

AHMIR THOMPSON: It is his belief that when society is feeling a depression, it often leads to African Americans producing great art. He cites Reagan and Bush as the reason for the success of hip hop, musing that had Carter or Mondale been in office, or if Jesse Jackson had been President from 1984-1988, hip hop would not have been the same or even exist.

He adds that there might have been more African American Tom Waitses and Marsalis albums going double platinum, and more black Joni Mitchells. Thompson then jokes that The Roots would have sold ten million albums.

One could speculate that had the Democrats been in control of the US during the 80s, hip hop would not have come about in its current form.

One could perhaps assume that, yet it would be contingent on who was taking their place. It is not certain if Gary Hart had a privileged spot in the hearts of African-Americans.

BLVR: Hip hop was first constructed starting as early as 1972 and some even argue it began in 1969.

As a result of Nixon’s presidency, certain conditions were allowed to persist that facilitated the influx of the crack epidemic, like Niagara Falls, into the ghettos.

Though it may seem blasphemous to say, it is actually this drug that is responsible for the birth of the hip hop movement. The politically correct way of saying it is that Reagan’s lack of attention to the inner city is what actually caused hip hop.

It is due to the conditions that crack created such as the easy money and violence, as well as the stories that it produced, that hip hop arose. I do believe that it did not happen by accident, leading me to become a bit of a conspiracy theorist.

BLVR: Don’t be hesitant. Tell it like it is. Are you suggesting that the government deliberately spread crack cocaine in the inner city regions of cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Washington D.C.?

Answer:Yes, this resulted in the establishment of a way of life where wordsmiths, turntablists, and the longstanding African tradition all had an impact on the development of hip hop.

BLVR: What do you mean when you say that crack has played a role in hip hop? Are you referring to the increased money availability to young dealers in the area? Might it be that the street atmosphere has been a motivating factor for certain individuals? Or is it the compelling tales that have come out of it?

To start, there was money from upstarts. Without the crack game, Eazy-E would have been unable to launch Ruthless Records, so Dr. Dre would have just been a copycat of Prince.

Consequently, Public Enemy It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, a work of art, might not have been created. The narratives of hip hop would have been diminished, losing its street cred and sense of danger.

As a result, hip hop could have easily been reduced to a jazz-like form of virtuoso rhyming that would have been forgotten.

BLVR: The realm of the street is made increasingly more hazardous, speedy, and abundant in cash due to the presence of crack.

AT: Crack provided the inner-city youth who didn’t attend college with a great deal of money, making them entrepreneurs. It also made them familiar with handling guns. Furthermore, it numbed them. We must not overlook the fact that people actually used the drug!

BLVR: However, are those that actually ran with it, the ones influencing the hip hop culture? Or could it be the dealers and the people close to them that are truly making an impact?

Answer:I am aware of a few people in the entertainment business who achieved their best work while using crack cocaine.

BLVR: Are you being sincere?

Answer:Melle Mel is not going to deny it; they created the song “White Lines” to be a hit.

BLVR: Did he consume cocaine while creating the album?

AT: No, no, I’m referring to crack cocaine.

BLVR: Was he under the influence of cocaine while recording “White Lines”? Is this something that he was doing during that specific time of his life or was it during the studio session?

He remarked that the most ironic thing about recording the song “White Lines” was that he was snorting drugs while he sang the anti-drug message. He stated he was creating the classic anti-drug anthem while he was caught up in his own substance abuse.

BLVR: Astonishing.

Answer:I have witnessed two individuals make use of crack cocaine. The first was an unknown person on the streets of San Francisco, the other during a studio session. While some of us were taking a break to grab a snack, this man was determined to “get his mojo on” using the substance.

Prior to the performance, he was radiating joy.

He declared “I gotta get my mojo on” and left the space. I walked into the hallway and was overwhelmed by a wretched aroma. I asked “What is that smell?” and I was told “Oh, he’s smokin rocks.” It was something I had only ever seen on TV and never in my personal life.

BLVR: Could he be an effective contributor to the meeting after that incident?

Answer:It can be stated that his entire professional life is based on that particular idea.

BLVR: Pause. Here’s a query that requires a binary answer. Was it the rapper Flavor-Flav?

The answer is a definitive “no.”

Question:Did the ex-member of The Roots, Malik B., appear?

AT: Not surprisingly, I completely forgot about Malik. [He laughs]. It was a shock to me to realize my best track was born from a crack session. [He refers to the song “Water” on the album Phrenology]. Nonetheless, he was incredibly productive and continues to drive his creativity to this very day.

BLVR: Is it necessary for black art to have a link to social strife in a way that is not applicable to white art?

AT declared that African American music is frequently a way to merely get by in life and not necessarily an expression of art. He continued by saying that, for many, it is not a choice but a necessity to make money or else their life will be over.

As a result, African American people are forced to use extreme measures for their art due to the dire social conditions. He concluded by emphasizing that they “can’t be halfway crooks”.

BLVR: As per your hypothesis, the cause of a lot of African-American music becoming somewhat stagnant in the 90s, with the focus being mainly on ‘bling-bling’, can be attributed to Clinton.

AT: The days of Clinton were a collective sigh of relief, but what had we truly achieved? Chris Rock posed the question of what our reward was for his success, and I am inclined to agree.

It seemed like we were celebrating the victory of one of our own, and I even believed he was black. I had a vision of Clinton in Kentucky Fried Chicken, enjoying his meal. We had the sense that the White House finally had representation for our community.

BLVR: In The New Yorker, Toni Morrison proclaimed that he was the first black president.

Answer:It was universally accepted that this was true.

BLVR: There was a lot of discussion among Washington, DC’s African-American community about how Barack Obama was authentically part black.

The primary argument was that no one had ever seen his birth father. Additionally, many people pointed to Chelsea’s hair, as it was too curly for her to be completely Caucasian.

When Clinton assumed the presidency, African Americans experienced a sensation of comfort that had not been felt since the days of Kennedy.

During Kennedy’s term, a modicum of optimism was present. African Americans felt that, with this person in the Oval Office, there might be a glimmer of respect.

BLVR: When did the theory start? The late sixties and early seventies had some of the greatest soul music during Nixon’s presidency; Carter’s era brought disco.

AT: To understand this, we must journey back to the time of the Great Depression.

BLVR: It is fascinating to note that the period of the Great Depression and the Harlem Renaissance occurred concurrently.

Regardless of how far back one wishes to go, it is a fact that black music has been most successful in times of social and financial depression and a general sense of hopelessness.

Starting with King Oliver, Ma Rainey, and Louis Armstrong, gospel music began during slavery, blues during the Depression, and jazz post-Depression. During the civil rights movement, doo-wop, rock ‘n’ roll, and soul were popular.

All of this was held together by a spiritual bond that is lacking in today’s music. What made hip-hop so great in the eighties was that spiritual connection, however, with the current president, war, and al-Qaeda, one would expect to hear the best music. Unfortunately, this is not the case.


Question:In your opinion, what is your take on hip hop music at the present time?

I’m currently going through a period of self-reflection, wanting to know if I’m rebelling for the sake of rebelling or if my preference for the White Stripes over hip hop is genuine.

I’m not sure, but I’m still willing to give all kinds of music a chance, and I’m not afraid to relisten to something multiple times. For example, I find myself buying the Jungle Brothers’ Straight Out the Jungle album over and over, as if it were my first time listening to it.

BLVR: Could you repeat that, please?

Answer:I seem to have a habit of purchasing records and then purposely losing them, as if I’m subconsciously anticipating the prospect of going shopping for more.

BLVR suggested that one can experience that “first-time-getting-it feeling” multiple times.

Answer:I have bought a classic hip hop record ten times, just for that feeling. When I opened up Apocalypse ’91 by Public Enemy and heard the first song, “Lost at Birth,” and the siren going off, it was a remarkable experience.

I had no clue what to anticipate, and when I put my headphones on full blast, it was an incredible moment. I remember one day when I passed Tower, I felt the strong urge to hear it right away, even though I already had the record at home, on my iPod and at my hotel.

BLVR: So [astonished] you actually made your way into the store and purchased it?

Answer:I reason that purchasing a record is comparable to voting for president. To help increase Soundscan numbers, I’ve bought your record and I’m hoping Chuck will be rewarded with a 2 million plaque by 2014 when I have acquired my 500th copy. That’s how I go about things.

Question:What prompts you to pay attention to things you don’t enjoy?

Answer::I no longer see a difference between good and bad music. At times, I just want to feel good, so I play a song, but mostly I’m listening to decide whether it is effective or not. For example, if I’m listening to Ashanti’s new album, I’m trying to figure out why it’s popular.

It’s like the house slave getting air conditioning; he didn’t ask to be a slave, yet we don’t hate him for it. I think the Roots have mastered the groove, the lyrics, and the art, but we haven’t mastered writing pop songs.

That’s why people like Prince; he wrote amazing songs. I’ll never forget this one time when I was walking past a couple, and the guy stopped in his tracks while the girl kept going. He was like, “Questlove?”

When I turned around, he said, “Ohmigod!” But the girl didn’t seem to recognize me and kept walking. The guy then said, “Baby wait! It’s Questlove from the Roots.” To which she replied, “Who?”

BLVR: Thus, you are esteemed, but you would prefer to be cherished in its place.

AT: Wow. That’s really it! I was trying to think of a way to express all these emotions in one go, and you nailed it.

The hair on the top of one’s head, often referred to as the “fro,” can be seen as a symbol of power and pride. It is a style that is often embraced by people who have an affinity for expressing themselves through their look. It is also a sign of liberation and a way to represent one’s culture.

BLVR: We should discuss your renowned hair. It is essentially the same style as mine, so can you share your hair care routine?

Answer:I haven’t given my hair much attention – basically just ten strokes when I wake up and wash it, and maybe a braid if I need to look nice for something special.

I’m not trying to make a statement with it, but it’s become a kind of marketing thing now. I’ve thought of getting rid of it a few times, but now I’m stuck with it.

BLVR: I am a huge fan of Kiehl’s leave-in conditioner – I literally won’t leave my house without it. I’m so fond of it that I would do an advertisement for it if I had the chance. It’s unbelievable to me that you don’t have a beauty product that you swear by.

I’m meant to plait my hair every night and then undo it in the morning, but I don’t. I haven’t cut this mane since the night of my prom, June 2, 1989.

BLVR: Is it true that you haven’t had a trim in fourteen years? You must be joking.

Back in 1989 my hair was of a similar length to Malcolm Jamal-Warner’s.

BLVR asked why the length of the person’s hair wasn’t more extended.

AT: Right. If I followed the routine I’m meant to do–oil and braid it every night, then take it out–it would be huge, even bigger than it is now. It does take effort to make it appear disheveled.

I am certain I understand the situation.

I take a quick shower, allowing my hair to shrink, and then form it however I desire before moving forward with my activities for the day.

Had D’Angelo been aware of the potential results of his song “Untitled”, it is unlikely he would have released it.

Question:What can you tell me about the Yodas?

Answer:Back in 1997, D’Angelo and I were almost like living out the plot of Star Wars, however, I’m likely the only person alive who hasn’t seen it.

BLVR: Astounding.

When I was six, I made the trip to the cinema to watch a movie but unfortunately dozed off. When it was rereleased four decades later, I returned to the same theater and, to my dismay, found myself caught up in slumber again.

Question:Do you typically drift off during films?

Answer:I first became aware that I would fall asleep if I sat still for more than two hours after watching Rain Man.

I had never seen Star Wars, but one day my friend D said to me, in a deep voice, as if he was smoking a joint, that the media and radio stations were like the Death Star and he was going to be Luke Skywalker.

Lauryn Hill was Princess Leia, Erykah Badu was Queen Amidala and I was to be Chewbacca, though I had no idea who that was.

He said that Yoda would be made up of different people such as Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Bob Marley, George Clinton, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Miles Davis and Nina Simone, with Joni Mitchell as the “token white entry”.

The youngest entry of all the Yodas is Prince. These people are referred to as Yoda when we discuss the topic.

BLVR: Who is presently in the scene to serve as a mentor for your children in the next three decades?

AT: D’Angelo. I wanted to be a part of something that could be great, and that’s why I contributed to Voodoo. My kids may one day look back and be proud that their Dad helped make the album. My involvement was never about money, and I never received the remainder of my payment.

BLVR: Have you been remunerated for Voodoo yet?

AT: Cease the activity.

BLVR: To what extent do you have a debt to be paid?

AT: Quit fooling around! You know that it is not possible for me to be there.

BLVR: What are we looking at in terms of numbers? Are we talking four or five?

AT: Music-making was like socialism for us. John Mayer is incredibly underrated, despite his public persona. When we worked together, we were doing sorts of things like the music from Voodoo, and then we went on to create five other songs.

When I told my manager this, he was surprised we had done six songs. His manager then said we needed to focus on the song we were supposed to be doing and that our extracurricular jamming was costing money.

We had a different approach to creating music during Voodoo, as we just wanted to get it done and figure out the business side of things later.

BLVR: You contributed your writing and producing talents to Voodoo , yet you were not financially rewarded nor given credit as a producer.

Answer:I was remunerated for my efforts on Voodoo.

BLVR: You received compensation as a session musician, not as a songwriter and producer.

I did not do that.

BLVR queried how much money was due to the individual in question.

Toure, I’m sorry, but I can’t reveal that information. However, I just wanted to emphasize that I viewed him as the destined one.

Many individuals assumed that to be the case.

I continue to believe it, despite the fact that we’re not on good terms. No matter what, I still believe it.

BLVR asked if there had been a disagreement.

I’m transforming and evolving, and part of the transformation was an abandonment of my habit of enabling others. I’m no longer able to control my own environment while simultaneously managing someone else’s.

Creating music with D’Angelo involves more than just going to a studio and spontaneously playing?

AT: It’s not just something; it’s a lifestyle.

BLVR: What is it that makes him so extraordinary? Could it be his intelligence or perhaps his difficulties?

AT said D’Angelo was incredibly insecure, beyond the usual amount. He would sometimes obsess over his appearance; an example being looking in the mirror and wishing he looked like he did in the music video [‘Untitled’] which featured a toned, shirtless version of himself.

It became a Kate Moss situation, where he would try to do extra exercises to make himself feel better. This event led to some shows being canceled, as he felt he was not in the right mindset or his physique was not up to par. In the end, this was all a delusion.

BLVR: A common mistake women make is believing they are overweight when they are actually healthy.

It was a satisfying experience for any woman who has ever felt sexually harassed or had to work harder than her male colleagues when Voodoo was launched. We wanted to create something that was solely ours and that people would appreciate as art.

Unfortunately, during the first night of the tour, the crowd began chanting “take it off” not even ten minutes into the show. The duration of the show was three hours.

He had honed all the tricks from the Yodas, such as Al Green’s technique of winking and singing without the microphone. However, the “take it off” chants added too much pressure on him.

BLVR: To be a master of the art of lovemaking.

AT: Yeah. After four nights, he was feeling mad and bitter. He kept asking, “Is this what you wanted? This what you wanted?”

BLVR: He was seen as a source of carnal pleasure, not of intellectual prowess.

AT: They were indifferent to the art, disregarding the fact that Jeff Lee Johnson was playing the exact same “Crosstown Traffic” solo in–

BLVR: They desired to observe the abdominal muscles, the physique.

The team wanted “Untitled” to be the last song, but he detested it. This made it a challenge to get him motivated for night four. He’d suggest that they do “Untitled” sooner, but they refused.

To prevent the audience from starting chants of “take it off,” they had to find a way to stop the bleeding. Unfortunately, this was a struggle every night. After three weeks of it, they couldn’t take it anymore.

Therefore, they resorted to cheerleading. If they needed him to overcome his sadness, they would try to make him happy all day, like going shopping for records and going to Roscoe’s. Mark, the physical trainer, would also come to assist.

They’d watch Prince and get amped, then Mark would help him get ready. On good nights, the plan worked, but other times he would be too psychosomatic. He wanted respect not love, whereas the team wanted love not respect.

It’s a common desire for people to desire what they do not possess.

He complained that people did not comprehend his situation, saying that they simply desired him to strip. As such, every night for the period of eight months, he was obliged to solve a Rubik’s Cube in precisely one minute before the bomb triggered. He claimed he did not succeed at times.

BLVR: Unfortunately, the show was not performed.

The performance did not take place.

BLVR asked how many events had been called off.

We estimate that we lost about three weeks in Japan, with at least two of those weeks having been thrown away.

BLVR: That’s unbelievable. So what is the current state of his career? Has he stepped away from the field?

I was told he was laying down his tracks, with four complete songs. Apparently, he’s content with the amount. What he does desire, however, is to add on the pounds. He doesn’t want his stylist to struggle with his locks.

He’s not looking to make waves with any bulges in his abdomen. Most notably, he doesn’t want any stress of being in the spotlight with a music video.

BLVR: Thus, we’ll not experience that same type of uninhibited sensuality from him again.

I’m uncertain.

BLVR: Was it a mistake to make “Untitled”? I seem to recall him not wanting to shoot the video, and it took some convincing to get him to do it. In hindsight, maybe he was right to not want it as it created a lot of expectations that he wasn’t ready to handle.

If he had been aware of the possible effects of his actions, it’s unlikely that he would have gone through with “Untitled”.


BLVR: It’s simple for a hip hop historian to declare, “The Roots are a post-Native Tongues group that follows in the footsteps of bands like De La Soul.” But do you personally feel a relationship with them, or is this something people have created?

AT: Just like a white child would recognize themselves in Eminem, I saw De La Soul and felt the same way. At first, the Jungle Brothers were what made me feel that connection, but De La Soul took it even further.

They were full of private jokes and references that only I understood. Additionally, they used samples from Led Zeppelin.

BLVR noted that suburban life, being multilingual, and being intellectual were not things they were scared of.

For me, AT, having De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising was like a badge of honor. It was my foray into hip hop. Back when I worked at Sam Goody, I took the promotional cassette as part of my first act of thievery. I was able to make a lifestyle out of it.

With Nation of Millions I heard my father’s record collection within it, and I thought to myself: how can I use this to make something of it? That’s when De La really provided me with the lifestyle I could identify with. They gave me validation.

BLVR: They gave you the permission to be true to who you are, not having to act out the stereotyped behavior of being ‘ghetto’, ‘thuggish’ or ‘anti-intellectual’.

I’m absolutely delighted when people refer to us as being “post-Native Tongues”. It’s something I’m proud of; I’ve always aspired to be part of that group. Our approach, the clothes we wore, our lifestyle and our desire to stand out from the crowd was very similar to De La Soul. We ultimately found our own unique space in the world.

The cost of producing Phrenology was approximately two million dollars.

Question:What regulations would you introduce if you had the power to control the hiphop industry as its commissioner?

My ultimate aim is to find a balance between sampling being permissible and the right people profiting from it. Regulations on sampling need to exist as the preservation of hip hop is contingent upon them.

Simply make it lawful and have a reasonable rate for it. Pete Rock is missing out on some of his best years because he is hindered by the unaffordable costs of sampling.

Jay-Z was able to create The Blueprint [containing great soul samples] since he had a $2 million recording budget, allowing him to purchase samples without difficulty.

BLVR: Is that sort of expenditure something you can manage?

AT: All of Roots’ albums have been expensive, with some reaching up to $3 million. Phrenology was particularly costly, with an estimated $2 million spent in its production.

Question;What type of sum is equivalent to two million dollars?

The majority of my time is spent in the studio. I always pick the best ones. The microphones I use are rather costly. If you would like an instrument from 1940 that Louis Armstrong played on, and it is still in good shape, that will cost you about $300 for a day.

Engineers come with a hefty price tag, too. Bob Power, who is considered to be the most renowned hip hop engineer, will charge you $5,000 for a simple conversation. Every day at the studio will add up to around five figures.

BLVR asked what the financial cost was for Jay-Z’s album, The Blueprint, taking into account all of the samples utilized for the project.

AT: Impressive. The cost of samples varies, and this is why George Clinton is often chosen – as his rate is quite economical.

BLVR: What are some cost-effective options?

You can obtain tracks from George for a fixed cost of around $5,000 and he’ll even send you the master tape – something AT would never do. He’s like a shrewd street dealer, which is why his sound became so popular; he let people sample his work.

Prince, on the other hand, does not allow anyone to utilize his material as his agreement with Warner Bros. would leave them with the majority of the profits. He goes so far as to tell people not to cover his music as he won’t receive the money.


BLVR: Most people in hip hop have a compilation of their most beloved five rappers of all time. Who makes your top five?

Positioned at the top of lyricism is the unheralded hero, Posdnous of De La. In fourth place stands KRS-One. Coming in at third is Biggie and second is Melle Mel.

BLVR: You have an extensive history with that person.

AT: One must recognize Melle Mel as the source. Rakim is the Christopher Columbus of the genre- the first of the kind. Although there are more intricate artists, he is the pioneer and so deserves the credit.

BLVR: You say that your days of aiding others are done, but who are you helping in your free moments?

At present, Cuba is just beginning to explore hip hop. Turntables are not yet available there, though hiphop is.

I’m hoping to make a similar impact on Cuba that Dizzy Gillespie had, by introducing something new. I’ve always wanted to find an area with little understanding of hip hop, so if I can go there and create something entirely new, I would be respected.

Could be of Interest

The ability to reword a text in order to avoid plagiarism is an important skill to master. It involves changing the structure, while maintaining the same context and meaning of the original.

This can be accomplished by ensuring that the original message is still conveyed, but the words and phrasing are altered.

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