Ahmir Thompson, better known as Questlove, is regarded by many as the drummer - and joint frontman - of Philadelphia’s legendary Roots crew. That is rightfully enough reason to make him a contemporary icon, and yet, to end the description there you’d be missing out on so much of what this creative soul has contributed to the world, (and continues to contribute, to the point where we wonder how he has enough time in his days).
Questlove’s most recent intervention into my own life occurred last Summer, through his latest book, Creative Quest, while I was juggling a number of deadlines - including our Summer issue - with a relocation to London. During that stressful time, Questlove’s voice was with me at all times, mentoring me through the process.
As a result I’ve recommended the book - my own copy is scribbled in, underlined and heavily annotated - to almost everyone that I’ve had a remotely creative conversation with since, and it’s easily the most influential book I’ve read all year.
Similarly, Questlove is affecting people’s lives through his DJ sets, food salons, playlist curation, podcasts and all of the other projects that juggle around in his mind. Even as 2018 draws to a close, he’s working on a new album and show with The Roots, finishing off his next book, has recorded a podcast with Michelle Obama and is, later this week, appearing at London’s Royal Albert Hall as part of ‘4U: A Symphonic Celebration of Prince’ - “the first and only official Estate approved symphonic presentation of Prince's music” - that he’s been working on alongside Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and Brent Fischer.
Questlove doesn’t like to celebrate his achievements - Grammy awards are stored, along with the rest of his accolades, in his bathroom - but as another incredibly fruitful year for the renaissance man draws to a close, he graciously agreed to a conversation with Clash to reflect on the past 12 months, and give us a hint of what’s in store for the new year.
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How would you sum up Questlove’s 2018?
I live in a whole 'nother plane where time doesn’t exist. Time is one fluid existence. There’s still a lot to do. Right now I’m working on an entirely brand new [live] show. I’m still working on The Roots album every day. Put my finishing touches on the fifth book. Basically, just planning for 2019. My version of it is that you have to be six months ahead of the curve, so that’s pretty much what I’m up to.
Your latest book, Creative Quest, was very helpful to me this year and I’m sure it had an equally positive influence on many others. How was the response to that from your point of view?
I’ll be honest with you man, I’m really, really shocked! Because this is the book that my publisher wanted from the get go. I was really hesitant to to step up to the plate, to be the wise sage. I don’t know if it was reluctancy on my end to put on the emperor’s new clothes or if it felt like imposter syndrome.
At the end of the day I guess my publisher just talked me off the ledge, [advising me to,] “Just be rigorously honest about your daily routine.” Which is pretty much what I do. I document how things come about and how ideas come about. I also document how the failures occur. How it sets me back sometimes. All the steps in between.
I guess at the end of the day it didn’t seem that bad. It just took longer to get this particular story out. I guess I’m really reluctant in being a teacher position. I’d rather just be the student. Maybe that’s me not wanting to grow up. If anything, I needed it to grow myself.
I saw you posted on Instagram that Audible awarded you Self Dev Audiobook of the Year earlier...
I couldn’t believe that.
The idea of reading out loud for that long is so daunting to me, but it feels like you took a slightly unorthodox approach and had some fun with it. How was that process?
To me the best part of that whole thing was the audiobook. Because in my mind, one of my favourite records of all time is ‘De La Soul Is Dead’. The way that album is structured, it’s like a read along story book. I always wanted to put together an audiobook that was a full experience.
Where, I talk a lot about music, so I can demonstrate musically what I’m talking about. Even the failure stuff - the time I did a failed DJ gig for Barack Obama - putting that skit together, or silly things like Tariq [Black Thought] as Michael Jackson... I wanted to craft a book that I don’t often get. Often I just get the warm person reading. The most I’ll get is inflexions.
The response has been so good that I finally decided to find independent funding to do my first book, [Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove], which I always wanted to do. I always wanted to do an old timey radio show programme for my very first book, make it a fun radio listening experience. Or a movie without the visuals like back in the day. We’re going to work on that this year.
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Have you learned anything new about creativity, since putting out the book, that you wish you’d been able to include?
It’s weird, when I got to the failure portion - I hate saying failure - but I was actually living it in real time. I really wasn’t following my advice: I was panicking, I wasn’t meditating. I was taking it way more personal than I ever took any of my failures, and I went through a four month funk.
I held the book up for months. Nobody in the entertainment business really wants to be vulnerable and share something [that’s] not working out. They say to always put your best foot forward, but I felt like maybe the purpose of this book is to put my most genuine foot forward. So it’s definitely helped me - even the exercises that I talk about, like the pruning, word melding, shuffling songs, revisiting your old work.
The execution of some ideas - like writing a book for example - takes a lot more commitment than others. I wondered how you decide which ideas are worth committing to?
I’m at a very lucky place in my life, where I have just enough concentration to dabble in each department. I know some people just take one idea and one commitment, work on that until it’s done and then do the next thing. Whereas I’ll have three or four projects going at the same time, and I work on one until there’s nothing in me anymore and I just don’t have it in me to push myself. Then I leave it alone and go to the next thing, which is the total opposite of what I was working on.
That’s how I like to work, I bring fresh energy to each project. But I wouldn’t recommend it to other people! I’m in a very fortunate situation in which I have time on my hands and I work on projects way before they’re due - like six months to a year before they’re due - so it gives me a chance to try some ideas and if they don’t work, I can go to plan B, C, D or E. So I’m in a fortunate position.
How do you know when an idea has run its course?
Usually when my manager is threatening me, or my manager is threatening me that the client is threatening me! Probably the only time I will take it to the limit is with making records, but with other projects I’m very responsible with deadlines.
In the case of DJing, I’ll say December is a very weird month for me because I have to take into consideration that the next year’s going to bring a whole other age group that’s never been to the club, I always say, “Man, it’s going to be another generation that doesn’t know Michael Jackson’s ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’.” That sort of thing. So probably the hardest part is also what I call re-pruning and farming, which is harvesting your crops and knowing which ones to keep and which ones to put to the side and figure out what to do with later.
So I always promise to myself never to stick to my comfort zone. For me, December also means kicking my Jenga game to the floor and starting all over again. So this is interesting.
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On Thursday you’ve got ‘4U: A Symphonic Celebration of Prince’ at the Royal Albert Hall. How did you get involved in that, and why do you think it’s important to present Prince’s music in that way?
I was shocked when they asked me to put it together because at that point I realised that Prince’s legacy was about to be spread wide open, and there were two ways to approach it. Either, as the world’s biggest Prince fan, to dive in head-on and be part of the legacy and participate. Or to just be a fan and sit on the sidelines.
For two years I decided to just be a fan and not get emotionally attached in any way: not get angry when this project comes up that I don’t think is right, or get too excited when another project comes up. I just decided to [wait] it out. But once this project came to me, I took it because this was going to be the first of many Prince projects to come.
And what I wanted to do was, I really wanted to give fans a chance to mourn, if you will. Prince is world famous for his exit strategy without giving you a warning. He just “Poof” out of nowhere and disappears. And I know that for a lot of us that knew him, there wasn’t a proper service or anything because he’s a Jehovah’s Witness, so we’ve never really had a moment to process his death and say goodbye in a proper way. This is my way to give fans a chance to have that moment.
It’s a celebration, it’s sombre, it’s emotional and his catalogue, he’s one of the few people whose catalogue could really be translated so many ways. You do jazz interpretations, you can do orchestral interpretations, you can do rap interpretations. You can interpret his music so many ways because it’s so richly textured with the right amount of melodic and the right type of chords.
And once I was able to bring Brent Fischer about - Brent’s father is Clare Fischer, who structured all of Prince’s music for all the orchestration stuff that Prince did in the mid-80s. Brent and Clare were a part of that. His genius, his work, his textures, and his absence.
You also just created this huge three volume ‘Musiaqualogy’ playlist for Michelle Obama’s book tour. How did you approach that?
She asked me to do it and I started reading the book. Everything she’s describing I was imagining as a movie and I was trying to figure out, “What song would I put here in this particular scene?”
And so I decided it was going to be way too overwhelming to just do 1000 songs so I decided to start from the moment she was born and figure out what was popular on the radio in January 1964 and just give you, the listener, a walk through of her life, what was musically there, and make it flow like a soundtrack so you can use it. I’ve used it for dinner parties, I’ve used it for so many projects, so it works in many types of ways.
And Michelle is going to be making an appearance on your Pandora show.
Yeah she will be on Questlove Supreme in two weeks.
How did you prepare for that?
We’re good enough friends that we can actually just have a fluid conversation. She rolls her eyes at the whole, “Your Majesty,” “Oh, my First Lady.” She’s just like, “Dude, just call me Michelle. I’m not a Queen, I’m like seven years older than you!”
She’s so down to earth and so approachable, and just really cool and an inspiration. So we just talked a lot about her musical life in Chicago, parties she would go to. Chicago’s such a rich town with so much history with music that it was a really great conversation.
What’s been the most useful thing that you’ve learned from one of your podcast guests?
I think Greg Phillinganes probably hit it on the head, which was the Quincy Jones method. Quincy Jones does this thing called the Alpha State Test, and what he does is he makes the musicians on the song come to the studio around like 7PM and then he feeds them the best food and wine from 8 until maybe 10 PM. They just eat for two hours and then they doze off. And then around one in the morning he starts having them one by one play their parts on the record.
And what [Greg] told me was, “For him, right when they’re tired is when he gets the best performances out, because they don’t overthink it: they’re not overly excited, they don’t question a particular chord or rhythm. It’s almost as if he has them in a hypnotised space and they do exactly what the song is called for.”
To me, he’s demonstrating the most natural way to do an Alpha State. Of course, artists are world famous for other ways of [reaching] the Alpha State via drinking, drugs, being in other states of mind besides their present state of mind. But when [Greg] told me that was Quincy Jones’ method of recording his musicians I was just like, ‘Wow. That’s so genius.” You do your best work when you’re sleepy, when you’re not overthinking it.
What’s been the most difficult thing that you’ve had to overcome this year, and how did you achieve that?
I’m kind of dealing with it right now. I’m completely throwing away a perfectly great, tried and tested Roots show and I’m starting all over from scratch, which is exciting me and also scaring the bejeezus out of me. Because again, you have the perfect vehicle.
We’ve been working on this shit, we’ve been using it for seven years straight. And now it’s like, I know my manager [Richard Nichols], who passed away, I know that he would say that it’s time to change the show and do something different.
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Words: Grant Brydon
4U: A Symphonic Celebration of Prince takes place on December 13th at the Royal Albert Hall, London.
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