ABOVE: AHMIR “QUESTLOVE” THOMPSON. PHOTO COURTESY OF DANNY CLINCH
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson knows more about music than you do. Growing up in West Philadelphia, Thompson started drumming before he even started elementary school. Now 42, he is a founding member of the Roots, a beloved DJ, television bandleader on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, producer, and tastemaker. Inspired by the in-depth lists of influential records in his memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues (Grand Central Publishing), out this month, we asked Thompson to list the bands he wished he’d been in, events he’d have liked to witness, and what annoys him the most. Over the course of our conversation, we also touched on Prince, D’Angelo, the late, great J Dilla—all of whom play a role in Mo’ Meta.
EMMA BROWN: What qualities do you look for in a friend?
AHMIR THOMPSON: I don’t have friends, and it’s hard for me to make new friends. Right now, the people that are in my life are the people that I work with. I’m not trying to offend anyone—is it possible to be friends with someone and work with them? Absolutely. My engineer and my assistant are my best friends ever, but I tend to notice if the business acts like a friendship, then so does the camaraderie. I’ve had people who worked for me two or three years ago, either they had to move to another city or we just ended our relationship and then we just don’t hear from each other again. That’s the downside of being friends with someone; real friendship is supposed to outlast the business. I have people I work with, I have girls I date, and I have family members. The capacity is kind of full after that.
BROWN: Looking back, is there any advice you would give to your 18-year-old self?
THOMPSON: I actually started a Twitter account of my 18-year-old self. I’ve been real bad with it this year, but I’m going to bring it back. Basically whoever I was 20 years ago is tweeting now. I guess my last tweet, that person was very amazed at the sophomore effort by the Beastie Boys called Paul’s Boutique.
My 18-year-old self is naïve. My manager and I often wonder: if we knew then what we know now, we would have still taken this journey? You don’t hear much about the tortoise and the hare journey in hip-hop. Hip-hop is an instant gratification, winners and losers circle, and often those who are losing give up after three or four, five years. I’m probably trendier now as a 42-year-old than I’ve ever been. I mean, I started when I was 22. If you would have told me at 22: “The accolades and the comfort—just the ability to relax in your career and not panic every three seconds—will elude you until 20 years from now, do you still want to continue on this journey?” I don’t know. I think I might have to think twice about it.
BROWN: In Mo’ Meta Blues, you theorize that hip-hop runs in five-year cycles. According to your timeline, the cycle we’re in now started in 2012. What is it?
THOMPSON: Hands down the Molly stage. I first heard about Molly via Madonna and Deadmau5. Deadmau5 was sort of ragging on Madonna: “Why are you promoting youth drug culture?” Her naming that album MDNA, I just thought, That’s a clever way to abbreviate your name. I had no clue. Now, everyone [in hip-hop] is “Pop the Molly. I’m sweating.” Of course Rick Ross got in trouble for his Molly reference. We will be in this Molly phase until 2017 and then there will be yet another drug that will be 2017-2022.
BROWN: Do you still religiously read Rolling Stone reviews?
QUESTLOVE: Yeah. This Vampire Weekend record better be the shizzit, or else. [laughs] I’m so obsessed with the review process. Rob Sheffield is one of my favorite reviewers. He’s like the last of the Mohicans. I’m glad he’s still working there.
BROWN: This is your first time in Interview.
THOMPSON: Yeah, you guys must have new management, because whoever was the editor between ’94 and 2007—we were kind of blacklisted. Just not cool enough or not worthy enough. Better late than never. 20 years later, I’m worthy of Interview magazine. This is a milestone. I begged for this moment and I just gave up. You know how Kiss was never allowed to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame according to the guys at Rolling Stone, we were kind of told that in 2003, “You can stop giving us Roots material. They will never be in this magazine.”
BROWN: Whom would you most like to interview?
THOMPSON: I learned that none of my idols are ever going to be forthcoming. They’ll be cool, they’ll be polite, but I now know if I want to find out stuff about my idols, I have to ask those close to them. I’ve got to ask Larry Graham [Jr.] about Sly Stone; Wendy [Melvoin] and Lisa [Coleman] about Prince; Chris Rock about Eddie Murphy; Gary Hill about Stevie Wonder. I’m just learning that if you ever want to truly know someone—an entity or historical figure—you’ve got to go to 10 people in their circle, and that’s how you get the story. That’s why I let Rich [Nichols, The Root’s manager] speak. Really, I wanted everyone to speak.
BROWN: So, if I want to find out about D’Angelo I should just interview you?
QUESTLOVE: Pretty much. If you want to know about Voodoo, you would interview me. [Or] Alan Leeds. I’m satisfied with my life because I know him. Alan Leeds is, in my opinion, the Forrest Gump of soul music. He’s been James Brown’s tour manager, from ’68-’74. I think he did a stint with Parliament-Funkadelic in the ’70s. Then he went to Kiss for two years when they took the makeup off. And then Prince took him from 1983 to, like, 1992. Then he went to Chris Rock. Then he went to Maxwell. Then he went to D’Angelo and made a lot of stops in between. He’s one of my heroes. He’s a historian; he collects strange artifacts. He still has the food rider from the Purple Rain tour, you know. I know everyone’s code names from that tour.
BROWN: What were their code names?
QUESTLOVE: I can’t reveal that, because I think he still uses that now. Those are the artifacts that I love. There was one band member who was often tardy to the tour bus at lobby call. So I saw a memo stating, “You will get left and/or fined if you’re not on the tour bus between these minutes of lobby call.” I like the behind-the-scenes.
BROWN: You should prank call Prince if he goes on tour again.
QUESTLOVE: [laughs] I don’t want to burn those bridges. We have a good camaraderie.
BROWN: Q-Tip keeps popping up in Mo’ Meta Blues as this central character who is always connecting people.
THOMPSON: He was the role that I feel like I am now. He was the center between New York hip hoppers and West Coasters; the center between actors and actresses. Tip was the one that introduced me to Rashida Jones, to Quincy Jones, to Prince. I would say he’s the center; my role is closer to like a bridge. I connect people and make sure they work together.
BROWN: So many young, rising rappers will release songs over J Dilla beats. How do you feel about that?
THOMPSON: I’m not mad at all that J Dilla is getting Bob Marley or Hendrix status in the hip-hop world. I use and need his music; the power of it is that it’s still exciting and innovative to me. He’s been gone now for seven years and the music is still powerful, it hasn’t dated all that much, and he’s left an abundance of it. I’m just trying to take all the lessons that he taught and really apply it to my work.
BROWN: I want to ask you some questions we once asked Bob Dylan.
THOMPSON: [laughs] Okay. Glad I’m worthy.
BROWN: What are some bands you wish that you’d been in, by decade?
THOMPSON: The ’70s: The Average White Band, which would also make me the one black member of a band whose novelty was that they’re white. The ’80s: Prince and the Revolution. The ’90s: N.W.A. I could’ve been the Poindexter—then they would’ve had all the black stereotypes: the black geek, the gangster, the player … Lord knows I have the hair for it. The ’00s: D’Angelo and the Soultronics—I actually took the year off in 2000 to become a member. Me and D’Angelo Blues Brothers-style recruited the best musicians: Roy Hargrove, Pino Palladino, Anthony Hamilton, Shelby Johnson, Russell Gunn, James Poyser. It’s D’s dream to get us all [back]. He’s definitely the one person that’s in denial of my third stage of life: normalcy. “We’ll take a year off and then we’ll do this that and the other thing.” And I’m like, “It doesn’t work like that man. I still have meetings at 11 in the morning. Regular stuff. This is a real job.” People still tweet me now, “How long is this TV show for? When do you guys become the regular Roots again?” This is my job for life.
BROWN: Which historical events would you most like to have witnessed?
THOMPSON: Woodstock, primarily to see the band Mountain perform; the Beach Boys do radio promos; James Brown dance at the T.A.M.I. Show in 1964; the Run-DMC concert in 1986, when Run told everyone to put one sneaker in the air and the entirety of Madison Square Garden had on Adidas.
BROWN: What are some questions you can’t answer?
THOMPSON: When do you sleep? Why didn’t you call me back?
BROWN: Name one thing you’d like to improve about yourself.
THOMPSON: My fear of speaking in public. I do secret stand-up shows around New York. I announce and tweet this to nobody—I get onstage and I do a quick five minutes. I’m not even hilarious, but it just helps.
BROWN: Actor you’d most like to play you in the Roots biopic?
THOMPSON: I want the Roots biopic to be animated—I see Charles Schulz drawing us. I think it would be more hilarious with the voices of children.
BROWN: Do you have a pet peeve?
THOMPSON: More than taxes, I hate the question, “You don’t remember me, do you?”
BROWN: The best cure for the blues.
THOMPSON: Cat videos.
BROWN: How do you let her down easy?
THOMPSON: I asked myself that this morning.
BROWN: Do you want to hear Bob Dylan’s answer? “Tell her you’re down and out.”
THOMPSON: Oh, Jesus. “Tell her you’re down and out?” No, that’s not going to work on my woman. Ten years ago I would’ve figured out a way to start an argument in which I appeared to be an asshole, but that’s too transparent now.
MO’ META BLUES COMES OUT TOMORROW, JUNE 18, AND IS AVAILABLE TO ORDER ON AMAZON. QUESTLOVE DJs EVERY THURSDAY AT BROOKLYN BOWL IN WILLIAMSBURG AND IS THE BANDLEADER ON LATE NIGHT WITH JIMMY FALLON ON NBC.