Ahmir Thompson is a busy man. It’s not enough that Thompson – better known as ?uestlove – has a nightly gig with the Roots as house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. He is also a road warrior, filling practically every free moment from “Late Night” with a quick tour or all-night jam session with the Roots. So, when Thompson recently agreed to write the score for an upcoming Soul Train documentary, it seemed like the amply afro-ed drummer was going to need a few more hours in the day to fit it all in.
But, the choice of Thompson to write the score couldn’t have been better. The man is a walking encyclopedia of music. He can wax just as poetic about yacht rock (think Michael McDonald) as he can about Curtis Mayfield or Fab 5 Freddy. He has a deep understanding of hip-hop and where it came from – namely, the ’70s R&B artists who made Soul Train one of the longest-running and most popular television series in history.
Somehow, ?uestlove recently found the time to talk to Glide about the new documentary and his views on music, all while being frequently interrupted by Late Night staffers giving him instructions on upcoming sketches.
How did you get involved with the Soul Train documentary?
Soul Train is probably the most influential show of my entire life. It’s often pained me that I would have to go through extreme measure$ – and when you spell the word “measures,” there should be a dollar sign through the “s” at the end of “measures” – to collect the show. I guess the reason it’s so hard to get is, not foreseeing the future of VHS and DVDs, you know, a digital future, Don [Cornelius] really never made any publishing arrangements or artist arrangements for future reruns or reselling of the show. It prevented Soul Train from ever showing reruns, even though the original show lasted for a good 36 seasons.
In short, a group of cats out in New York called Mad Vision Entertainment got the rights, and it’s taken them about a year and a half to clear about ten years of episodes. They’re pretty much trying to re-launch the brand for 2010 – a heavy web appearance and an extremely heavy historical reinvention. And they’re bringing back the Soul Train Awards in November, and in February, they’re going to have for Soul Train’s upcoming 40th anniversary a three-hour documentary about the history of the show. It will have Don, the dancers, a lot of luminaries that appeared on the show, myself included, a lot of pop historian types, and we pretty much go through the entire show from 1971.
How did you approach writing the score for the documentary?
It’s a story being told. It’s a story of how a journalist who was covering the Civil Rights movement decides that one day he wants to elevate the images of black people on television, which at the time in Chicago was basically reduced to youth protesting, rioting, you know, that was pretty much the only images that you’d see of young black people. Civil unrest, arrests, water hosing. He decided, basically from a business point, that he could sell a show to America that had positive imaging of young black people. It’s the story of how that sort of morphed itself into a historical, cultural center of black music. Most documentaries need some sort of scoring to go along with it, and being that I’m sort of this Soul Train expert, the guys from Mad Vision asked me to participate in this process.
Was the writing process different from when you write for the Roots?
I’ve scored movies before, and it’s much easier when you’re doing an actual narrative and watching the action, and the action calls for something. You kind of have to immerse yourself into all these interviews. There’s not much visual narration going on, so it requires you to really pay attention to what’s being told. I guess the reason why I was chosen is because the majority of the story deals with 1971 to 1984. There’s a really heavy organic feel to the music, so that really gives me a chance to get my Isaac Hayes on, get my Dennis Coffey on. A lot of the music cues, they have to sound natural.
When I heard you were doing this, it seemed so obvious, because I’ve always thought of you as kind of a music historian. You seem to have a very deep understanding of music, history and where hip-hop comes from. How did you become that way?
I won’t say by force. There’s many ways to fall into that path. I probably inherited it the more natural way. That natural way is pretty much that television was 90 per cent eliminated from my childhood. Strange enough, the one of maybe four shows that I was allowed to watch in my childhood was Soul Train. So, this instantly became a labor of love because a lot of my memories of first seeing television, all of them have to do with Soul Train. It was kind of scaring people a little bit, because as they were showing me the reruns, I was recalling to them . . . At first, they didn’t believe me. They were like, “Ok, what three-year-old has a memory of Michael Jackson doing the robot for the first time?” It would be to the point where they would ask me, “Well, what are your memories of episode 206, with the Average White Band and the Main Ingredient?” And I’d be like, “Ok, they were performing on the floor. I remember Don Cornelius talking about collard greens and black-eyed peas in the introduction.” And they started jaw dropping, because they put the tape in, and you know, I’ve not seen this since I was a kid. It’s because it was the only thing I was allowed to watch. My parents didn’t want me sitting in front of a TV four to five hours a day. Instead, I sat in front of a turntable four to five hours a day.
I think you can draw a straight line from someone like Curtis Mayfield to guys like Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy, and you can draw a pretty straight line from them to the Roots . . .
It’s funny you say that, because a big Rubicon, if you will, of this documentary was how Don was able to successfully navigate this train through the various obstacles – from organizing it from a very claustrophobic, localized dance show in Chicago to expanding it in L.A. and still having production problems of hiring guests and that type of thing. And then, meeting his first snag, which was Dick Clark trying to compete against him by having his own soul show that only lasted for about half a year. And then, trying to figure out how to handle disco, which, in his words, blindsided him. And then, to really deal with his very honest, ambivalent feelings about hip-hop, which I was extremely shocked at.
So, he didn’t like hip-hop? It seems that when hip-hop started, it was so clearly a descendent of the socially conscious soul music of the ’70s.
Yeah, one of the cool things about this job is that it gives you access to damn near every episode of the show, which I was obsessively watching. And, Curtis Blow made it abundantly clear how hurt his feelings were with his interview segment with Don Cornelius. And, you know, Don was like, “Well, an old guy like myself really don’t understand this type of stuff, but my job is to deal with it and not offer an opinion.”
It’s just crazy. Like, I always wondered if Don understood that there was a whole parallel cycle happening, where in the 60s, you had a disenfranchised movement and you put something together from nothing, and it started a revolution. I was shocked that he somehow didn’t see that hip-hop was sort of the result of a broken Civil Rights movement, dealing with the Reaganomics era – just the whole social “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer” game that hip-hoppers had to go through. I mean, for all intents and purposes, those guys were outcasts. Their first shows were in a gymnasium at the Y.M.C.A. or at the Police Athletic League. They weren’t allowed in Studio 54, so they had to create their own world, and hip-hop basically became the very thing that the soul movement was for before it got tainted with the glitz and glamour of the disco era. It’s kind of weird, because I may have slight disdain for modern “hip-hop,” which I definitely separate from the classic era, and I wonder if Don ever sees it as, “The very thing I was fighting against actually turns out to be the gold standard of what this culture is about.” Who’s to say? But there’s definitely a parallel.
You just answered the next three questions I had.
Oh, sorry about that [laughs].
That’s OK. I actually wanted to ask you about hip-hop and Civil Rights. It always seemed to me that hip-hop was born out of the death of the Civil Rights movement. Like, Civil Rights was all about pushing for a better day and dreaming of how it could be, where hip-hop seemed like the fallout, saying “Here’s the reality; here’s how it actually is.”
Metaphorically speaking, I guess you could say that the Civil Rights movement was a car. The Civil Rights movement was the end of the horse-and-buggy era for African-Americans sort of acquiring their first car that was second-hand parts, barely getting you from A to B. And, I feel as though the ’70s, somehow that car broke down and we just lost hope of ever getting that again. I feel as though hip-hop was the result of the children of the owners of the broken-down dream, or the broken-down vehicle that was getting us ahead, using their resources – sort of similar to Doc Brown in Back to the Future replacing plutonium with garbage, like, “Where we go, we don’t need any roads,” like, we’re going to invent something.
And, actually, this happens with music. Music can be a great indicator of what the social topics are. This is the one thing that you always can see about any American art form invented. A sub-culture is born, and it gives itself its own music, its own style of life, its own language, its own dance, that type of thing. And then, usually by the tenth or eleventh year, it’s discovered, and it’s marketed, and it’s like that first hit of crack. It’s so good that you just have to overdo it. The same with blues having its golden era of the ’30s and ’40s, and it sort of being resold as rock ‘n’ roll, and with jazz music having its golden era of the ’40s, and it becoming supper-club music. The same could be said about the soul movement. Most people will accredit some of the best soul music to come from the late ’60s to mid-’70s.
Even for all the disdain of the disco era of the ’70s, I definitely have a great quality collection of some nice disco stuff – I mean, pre-"Disco Duck" stuff, but there was really some nice shit coming along. My town was the birth of disco. The sound of Philadelphia is the whole idea of strings, and extended song, and percussion and dance rhythms. And the same for hip-hop. It’s frowned-upon and then suddenly it becomes your parents’ music. I’m one that’s still trying to look on the bright side. There are some things I like about modern hip-hop today; there are some things I don’t like. As long as our minds don’t go too lazy, hopefully musicianship will not die. Right now, my only fear is that musicianship will go out the window.
Rhythm seems to be what drives new forms of music. It all starts with rhythm. Being a drummer, do you have any feelings of what the next rhythm is that’s going to usher in the next form of music?
It’s funny you say that, because just in the age of snap music – or this being sort of the end of the era, because I think that each age of hip-hop is a five to seven year thing. Usually, the second year and the seventh year of a decade is what’s going to define what the next thing is. It’s kind of funny that snap music was totally driven by what you didn’t hear.
I mean, if you listen to a song like “Laffy Taffy”, the fact that people would go ape-shit in a club and really get down to it, but it really doesn’t contain any elements of going forward, like percussion or movement. It was almost like the silent part was the loudest part of the song. What was itching me – and I don’t mean irking, I don’t mean bothering – but, when I was listening to Gang Starr’s “The Owners,” I was like, “something’s missing.” It was sort of like an itch on my back that I couldn’t locate that was driving me crazy. And, a month into it, someone was like, “Man, how come [DJ] Premier didn’t use hi-hats on this record?” And I was like, “Oh shit, the hi-hats are missing. That’s why it sound weird.” And I thought maybe he’s trying to be deep with it. Because sometimes Premier has been known to do something really radical.
If you listen to Jeru the Demaja’s debut album [The Sun Rises in the East], the inside joke of that record that people are really yet to get was the fact that all of the musical backdrops contain drums that were considered taboo – i.e. the Ultimate Beats and Breaks collection. Like, no producer in his right mind was going to go to the Ultimate Beats and Breaks collection to use it in 1994. This is the diggin’-in-the-crates era; this is when you were not using the cheat sheet that hip-hop provided for us.
So, using those samples was seen as being lazy?
Well, it was “Cliff’s Notes.” I mean, A Tribe Called Quest really established the masters-degree era of hip-hop production, where it’s not enough to go to your aunt’s house and steal her soul records. Between 1986 and 1991, which is a long-ass time, we used all of the breaks provided for us in the Ultimate Beats and Breaks collection. It’s now sort of time to take off that ankle bracelet and go into the world and mine your own gold, find your own breaks. The curious thing that I found about the album that most consider to be Premier’s gold standard is the fact that every drum break used on that record was taboo. He used “Billie Jean.” I mean, no one in their right mind in 1994 was going to use “Billie Jean.” So, with snap music, I had to wonder, “Is he making some low-speed album, or is he trying to give me a statement with this no hi-hat shit?” Unknowingly, or knowingly, he had his finger on the pulse. And pretty much all of hip-hop follows.
I’ve seen you say in previous interviews that the best forms of Black music have been created during times of social and economic upheaval. I’m wondering what you think the election of the first Black president is going to do to hip-hop?
It’s really up in the air, because I swore the Bush era was going to inspire the best from us, but what I realized is that America took a cue from Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, and they all had an unofficial meeting, and they all decided to shut the fuck up, which shocked the shit out of me. I mean, I called it. I was like, “Wow, I know Zach de la Rocha is going to be on the most-wanted list. He’s going to set this administration on fire, son.” Nothing. Nobody. Everyone was silent, and it was killing me. If anything, I think that it bred apathy and indifference and silence.
Of course, we had initial celebration songs from the Obama period, but I don’t know if people truly understand what’s going on here, you know what I mean? I kind of see this as a frat house that’s five stories big and there’s one person that’s supposed to clean out all these beer cans, all this vomit on the rug, and repair your parents’ vases and all this other stuff. He has three days to do it. And he said in his acceptance speech, “This is going to be worse before it gets better.” I think people are learning that now. Those who are crying, “Oh, he’s not doing nothing,” those are the people who are expecting some sort of instant miracle to occur. That’s pretty much why we’re naming the album How I Got Over. It’s not necessarily a celebration thing, like, “Oh, we made it.” A lot of the album deals with the whole transition of finding some sort of light at the end of the tunnel.
Someone comes in the room and tells ?uestlove that he has to go to a rehearsal for Late Night.
Wait, we’re doing rehearsals? I thought it was 3:30. Ah, fuck.