Beloved for his prolific output and technical chops, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is widely regarded as one of the finest drummers of his era. The Philly native is best known for his work with the Roots, D’Angelo and Erykah Badu, and as part of the house band for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. He’s also loved for his big-hearted way of telling stories, as witnessed in this edited excerpt from Red Bull Radio’s Give The Drummer Some with host J-Zone – their free-flowing conversation is peppered with laughter, personal histories and technical insights. From joining his father’s band at the tender age of 12 to breaking down some of his favorite drum patterns from across the hip-hop spectrum, Questlove talks J-Zone through the many methodologies of rhythm that have shaped his life.
A lot of kids have musical families, but you were kind of thrown into the deep end from an early age like, “Hey, you’re going out on the road.”
I was tricked. To make the longest story in the world super short, my dad was the original doo-wop legend in the city of Philadelphia, and by the time I was born in the ’70s, the first wave of nostalgia kicked in. So, there was Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley and American Graffiti. The cats like Dick Clark would throw these oldie doo-wop extravaganzas in Madison Square Garden with 16 acts. So I grew up backstage in that environment. I started out as the family GPS. So my dad taught me how to read Rand McNally maps, so we were like the traveling Partridge Family. When school wasn’t in, and sometimes when school was in, I’d take two weeks off and my dad would do these residencies in the Poconos and the Catskills and Atlantic City and Vegas and Miami. He sort of morphed from just the oldies doo-wop circuit, and became a nightclub act. By the time I was seven, he put me on wardrobe, so I knew how to steam, how to iron... and get his rings ready and all that stuff.
And then, when I was nine, I guess I was the stage manager. What nightclub owner would let a nine year old walk in mid-afternoon, get the ladder and start cutting? Like I would cut gels for the spotlights, and then come and operate them, and these shows were ’til 1 AM. So I just think before scandal culture caught on in like the late ’80s and ’90s, I totally believe Brooke Shields when she’s like, “Yeah, I was going to Studio 54 when I was 13.” Yeah, I believe you, I too was in nightclubs since I was eight, ’cause they just wanted their eye on me. They didn’t want a stranger watching me.
So when I was 12, my dad’s drummer broke his arm in a motorcycle accident and we were at Radio City Music Hall, and he was just casual. He was like, “Well, you know the show, you drum.” And I became his band leader.
I was a hip-hop head without knowing I was a hip-hop head.
How long had you been playing for that point?
I started drumming rhythm, like an adult, when I was like two. I could play fair when I was seven, and in December of 1978, [I got a] brand new drum set. That was the best Christmas of my life. Now the other side of the coin was that practice was rigorous – like straight home. I had no outside experience, none of that, I was going to practice five hours a day. And first I was practicing to the radio, so I think at the time like “Aqua Boogie” by Parliament was hitting. There [were] a good 3,000 records in the crib, so even though I don’t know it’s hip-hop yet, you’re sitting there, you have the headphones on, you’re reading liner notes, all that education. I was a hip-hop head without knowing I was a hip-hop head.
What’s your definition of breakbeat drumming?
For me, breakbeat drumming is just taking all the elements away, and keeping it meat and potatoes. I think I represent those drummers that you won’t hear about in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and those brand-name drummers. Yeah, of course, [Bernard] Purdie’s gonna get his glory, and all the session drummers are, you know, Steve Ferrone’s gonna get his glory, and of course Stubblefield and Starks, but there’s just a whole slew of cats from these independent mom-and-pop labels. I feel like that’s what I represent. Like my two favorite early hip-hop obsession breaks were Pumpkins. So, those were like my go-to breaks back then.
Throughout this time, you’re playing for your dad, but you’re still a product of Gen X, hip-hop is a budding art form, and you’re coming from Philly, which had its own scene.
Philly’s hip-hop scene is weird, because most of the Philly guys, their barometer of cool was the Philly drug dealer, so like Cool C and Steady B looked and dressed like the Philly drug dealer. I think that Tariq [Trotter, AKA Black Thought] and I wanted to represent a level of cool that Philly hadn’t reached yet. I had met Tariq at Performing Arts High School, we were both high school students. His level of thinking – like I’m scared at his level of thinking, because he was really good at the dozens. “You’re momma so fat, she...” that sort of thing, and he would rhyme that stuff. I was a musician dweeb, but because I know all the breakbeats that were coming up at the time, this was like ’88, it got me into the cool kids circle.
Tariq was intrigued by me because I was one of those kids that put acrylic paint on his Levi’s. So I was like an oddball to him. He’d never seen a black kid dress village hip before, so that’s the shit I was into, but then once De La [Soul] came along, they single-handedly ended any school bullying that I would have gotten, ’cause suddenly all the bullies on the block were like, “Oh, you like them De La kids and shit.” So suddenly I was cool.
We weren’t ever going to fit into anyone’s idea of what is real hip-hop or not real hip-hop.
With the album Illadelph Halflife, it was kind of like a turning point for the Roots.
I just think in general, because we weren’t from New York, there was already a bias thing, and sonically we were Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, you know what I mean? We weren’t ever going to fit into anyone’s idea of what is real hip-hop or not real hip-hop. So big changes happened, like Tariq’s obsession with freestyling halted, by half at least, and he was like, “No, I gotta concentrate on my narratives and on my writtens..I gotta become a full-fledged MC for these people to respect me.”
And then people are looking at me like, “Y’all gotta sound more hip-hop.’” And I’m like, wait, am I getting demoted in my own band? So, I took about five weeks before we officially went in the studio to start recording the album, and I listened to every Tribe, every Wu-Tang, and it was to tell my engineer like, this is what I have to sound like. Working with Bob Power, I realized if I study engineering, I can transform and morph this drum into any sound that I want to. Recording Illadelph Halflife, I was very angry for that record. I had something to prove. So for a lot of that stuff, Joe Tarsia, owner of Sigma Studios and engineer of all those Philadelphia International records, he said, “Stop playing so damn hard.”
Which I’ll admit, I would play a break so loud ’cause you're thinking you gotta play loud. But he’s like, “Yo man, you’re gonna kill your microphones, like ribbon microphones aren’t meant for this loud-ass playing.” Then we go into the control room, and he’s like, see now, you have leverage to turn this up loud, and then compress this, and then gating – he taught me about gating. Gating is where you can sort of choke off any extra noise, and it really tightens up your sound to make it sound like it’s synthetic. For example, in a song like “Push Up Ya Lighter,” which to me was my nod to DJ Premier.
Joe Tarsia also told me to start taping my drums. So I would obsessively put electric tape, deadening the sound. Like to the naked ear, this doesn’t sound appealing, but once you process and EQ, you have options to make it sound any way you want to, so at that point we were putting it through like the Yamaha filter, to tune it up higher, and anything to just fool DJs into thinking like, this is real hip-hop. And I was that way for two years, and then Dilla and D’Angelo just came and destroyed everything.
When you first heard Dilla, how did his production change your drumming style?
So we’re opening for the Pharcyde, in late ’95, and we go on first, and then usually after the show, someone’s picking me up to take me to a college radio station to do some interviews. And so, as I’m in the back of the club, getting in the car, I heard the Pharcyde start the show. And I said, “Wait a minute, pull over real quick.” Ran to the front of the club and I peeped in, and their first song was “Bullshit,” from Labcabincalifornia, and I was so frozen, man. It sounded like a drunk three year old programmed this kick drum.
And that moment changed everything, ’cause that’s all I could talk about. And the next day on the tour bus Skillz happened to be with us, and I told him about this song, like with the drunken three year old playing a kick drum. He’s like, “Yo man, I’ve been trying to tell you man, J Dilla.” Or Jay Dee back then, and he played me all these beats. The one beat that really just made that a religion to me was, A Tribe Called Quest, “Wordplay,” which is infamously like a ...
Almost sounds like a broken Black Sabbath...
Oh my God, yes. I didn’t incorporate it fully into my work until we were on tour with the Fugees. By this time, I had famously turned down a chance to be on the “Brown Sugar” record with D’Angelo, because Bob Power, that whole time we were mixing Do You Want More?!!!??!, was trying to tell me that this guy is the future of soul, and you should really be down with this guy. He sings beautiful, like Al Green and everything. And I was just like, corny R&B dude, you know, I’m cool. So, it’s April 1st, 1996, and it’s the Goodie Mob, the Roots and the Fugees on tour with each other, and it’s the Soul Train awards, and Goodie Mob’s on first, we’re on second.
We didn’t have a rivalry with the Fugees, but it was sort of like a battle of the bands thing, and this was our chance to stick it to them, and we’re a well-oiled machine by the time we got to LA, so the show was perfect. And I saw this figure with cornrows, smoking a cigarette in the audience, and I knew this is my second chance to be down with this guy [D’Angelo]. I ruined it by rejecting playing on “Brown Sugar” and meeting him, but I now feel like this guy is going to be the future of music, so I’m going to impress him. And what I did was, I called an audible. Everything I was supposed to do in the Roots show, I didn’t do, and it’s totally throwing my guys off. We had a routine that we did on “Proceed,” and instead I said, I think he’s into Prince. Like I was going to communicate with him, we speak the same language, so my first thing was, I said “OK, I’m gonna play this break by Madhouse, and see if it catches [him].”
And the second I did, that silhouette stood up at attention. And what [D’Angelo] said was, he was like, “Yeah, I knew that moment we was brothers.” And then we started Voodoo two months later.
How hard was it to unlearn the precision, because we grow up playing to metronomes, so you have to kind of unlearn it, and it’s more difficult than you think to play that way.
So using that sloppy drumming method to get to D’Angelo’s intention, that’s one thing, but now playing with D’Angelo is another thing, because the thing is, is that if you’re playing behind the beat, he’s really playing behind the beat. And I would fight it, because then my ego would be like, yo, like the community is gonna think that I don’t know how to drum. I just got their respect playing like a drum machine, like we’ve arrived, and now he wants me to just knock down that entire Jenga game, and come even sloppier than I was before. Before, I was just playing without a click, but now I gotta program myself.
So Voodoo is such a storied album because for so many years there was no follow-up, and that’s part of his legend and the legend of the album, so how do you compare your role on Voodoo versus Black Messiah, which came way later?
Black Messiah came 15 years later, and he and I have had our agreements and disagreement, and part of it is like, he really never truly got to see the ripple effect of how Voodoo has affected people. So like, he’s mindblown that there’s a generation of hipsters in Brooklyn that worship this record, so when he’s playing me the tracks from the new album, he plays me “Sugar Daddy,” which is James Gadson on the drums. So it’s like, we’re already repairing our fragile friendship and our brotherhood, and it’s kind of hard for him to accept, like OK, I now have a day job at this television show, and I can’t be at your beck and call, I can’t be your co-pilot the way I was with Voodoo, but I’m here when you need me, if I can make it.
So he’s playing me “Sugar Daddy,” and in my head man, I’m like, “Yo, I’m not gonna be on the funk centerpiece of this record.” I feel some sort of way, like I’m gonna be in the trunk of the car. So in my mind I said, “OK, don’t have a heart attack, think like Quincy Jones.” And Quincy Jones says, you love “Billie Jean,” but “Billie Jean” sounds way better with “Beat It” coming before it, and “Human Nature” coming afterwards. What song do I want to create, that comes before “Sugar Daddy?”
And it was 2 AM, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is on, and I could see Carlton, and I said to myself, “What song can I do to make motherfuckers want to do the Carlton dance?” I want to figure out how to get black people to do that preppy Carlton dance, and that be the song before we get to “Sugar Daddy.” So in my head, I was like, alright, don’t do Tom Jones, like slow that shit down. I gotta do the exact opposite of what I did on Voodoo. So, I’m not doing any of this, none of this like post-Dilla, none of that stuff. So I’m like, OK, I’m gonna go tribal, so I’m gonna turn my snare off, what else is the opposite of Voodoo?
I’m gonna tune this stuff real low, so I’m turning the snare off, and now I’m turning my snare into a tom. In my head I’m trying to get scientific. And it’s weird, like our rhythm, our chemistry together, usually by three minutes, I’ll have a groove. But it was like I was trying to force this on him, and I felt like our friendship was on the line here, because we’re looking at each other, and I’m like playing this beat, and I’m trying to sell him this beat in a way I’ve never done before.
Even though Voodoo is the more iconic album, for me Black Messiah is where I had a lot of fun not being me.
Like Pharrell is world famous for selling a beat by performing it for you, like in that Kanye way, he’ll perform the video for you, and he’ll get you amped, and then you’ll be like, yeah, I need this beat. So I’m looking at D, and he’s past the three minute mark, and I’m saying to myself, “Come on motherfucker.” I was like alright, let me change, let me put the snare back on, maybe that will make him feel comfortable. So what if I go faster, like one, two... and then once I got faster, then he started to slowly...[singing]
In my head, my attitude was like, ah, OK, he came up with something, but inside I was like, alright, he’s saving our friendship, ’cause again, it was a tense moment for us, and that’s how “Charade” slowly came to be. Even though Voodoo is the more iconic album, for me Black Messiah is where I had a lot of fun not being me.
Your work with Al Green, Booker T, Everything is Everything is just like mega funk, so how does that feel to come full circle, not only with the hip-hop and all this stuff, but to go way back into your parents’ generation and work with these people?
For me, one of the best things about The Tonight Show was the opportunity to kind of bucket list, and what I say is once a year I’ll work with just one artist, and really put my all in that particular project. So the first year that we started Fallon was also when we did Al Green’s Lay It Down and at the time he was signed to Blue Note Records, and I just told those guys, “Look, I’ve heard these last five records of his, and no disrespect to Willie, but I think I can approximate what makes Al Green, Al Green, better than these last few records that you guys have been releasing, like, let me get a shot at him.” And we brought him to Electric Lady Studios. We were jamming in the C Room upstairs, what eventually became the title track, but for me I morphed into Al Jackson, like I lowered the shit out of my snare.
Howard Grimes and Al Jackson.
Howard Grimes, yeah, and Al Jackson, and I think it freaked him out a little bit, to hear it sound so close to what it was. So, the first hour I didn’t even talk to Al Green about a concept or anything, we were just jamming, waiting for him to get to the studio, and he started singing...suddenly he’s just freestyling.
My challenge was to get him his first Grammy for soul music. All of his Grammy’s were for gospel and for pop, and so we did that for him, and then the other albums were just sit in – Booker T sat in with us, and his manager was like, “Yo, why don’t you do an album with the Roots?” In my head I was like, “Oh, that should be an easy Grammy,” and sure enough it became that, and then next was Elvis Costello, which was our longtime engineer Steve Mandell’s dream project, so I really wanted that for him and for me.
So how do you continue to draw inspiration from the past, but not let it trap you there, but rather keep continuing to grow and make new music?
There was a period after Dilla died, that I feel like maybe my whole entire movement lost gas, and lost its inspiration. D’Angelo didn’t want to do much anymore. It’s hard getting Erykah to do something, like all the left-of-center people were just like falling by the wayside. My whole movement, which was once thriving and moving forward, suddenly like lost its wings, and I fell into that funk maybe around 2014, when our producer, Richard Nichols, passed away. I was actually coarse, I was like “Well, I guess this is the end.” And I stopped, and it was a hard thing to do, to walk away from the sport I love so much, not having an album out in time for the Grammys, and touring, and having new material, like it was killing me inside, but I had to find other interests, and other inspiration elsewhere. And now I’m at the point, four or five years later now, where I can’t wait.