Rooted in rhythm - Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson marches to his own beat as drummer, writer, producer and DJ
Rooted in rhythm
Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson marches to his own beat as drummer, writer, producer and DJ
By Rashod D. Ollison
Sun Pop Music Critic
Originally published July 13, 2006
Music - buying it, making it, spinning it for others - consumes so much of Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson's life these days that sleep is a rare luxury.
But he wouldn't have it any other way.
When the Philadelphia-based drummer isn't in the studio or on the road with his band, the Roots, playing more than 200 dates a year, he's beating the skins for other acts (Jay-Z, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Jaguar Wright, Christina Aguilera, the list flows on). And when he isn't keeping time on the drums, he's accelerating or suspending it as a DJ on the turntables.
In the next two weeks, Baltimore hip-hop heads will get a generous taste of Thompson's impressive skills as a beat maker. On Saturday, he'll anchor the Roots at Rams Head Live, and July 23 he'll perform a set on the DJ stage at Artscape.
"People are under the impression that I'm just the drummer guy," says Thompson, 34. "But I write, produce; I DJ. If you want to inspect further, my true passion is with DJing."
It's a passion Thompson discovered during his childhood, not long after he started drumming professionally at age 7. Thompson's father, Lee Andrews, was the leader of a '50s doo-wop group, Lee Andrews & the Hearts. Although the drummer didn't take up vocalizing, he absorbed his father's eclectic record collection, which included 5,000 discs. Not only did the family music library spark Thompson's interest in DJing, it also served as the foundation for the artist's encyclopedic knowledge of black music - from be-bop to rock, from doo-wop to hip-hop.
In his teens, Thompson tested his burgeoning skills on the turntables at family barbecues. But he "got serious" about DJing in 1999, shortly after the release of the Roots' commercial breakthrough, Things Fall Apart. Named after the 1958 Chinua Achebe novel, the album hit the streets in February of that year. At that point, Thompson had been leading the band on the drums for nearly a decade. The bearded, Afro'd artist began to see how one art informed the other.
One of the most acclaimed groups in hip-hop and the only self-contained black band releasing major albums these days, the Roots are known among rap aficionados for its lyrical proficiency and musical adventurousness. The group's songs, driven by Thompson's hard, metronomical drumming, dexterously meld elements of various styles. The precision and spontaneity with which the artist plays the drums apply when he's splicing and mixing beats on the turntables.
"Having good rhythm helps," says Thompson, who last week was in Miami performing with the Roots. "I treat each, the drumming and the DJing, with the same scrutiny. ... There's a psychology and art to both gigs. You learn by trial and error. Like with DJing, I don't like to play more than one verse of a song. The first 10 seconds of 'Make It Last Forever' by Keith Sweat, for instance, can get the adrenaline pumping in anyone between 30 and 35, then you go into something else. A DJ has got to be prepared with an in-depth collection and go with the energy of the crowd. And you're working off the energy of the crowd when you're onstage on the drums."
In the past six years among industry insiders and underground soul and hip-hop fans, Thompson's reputation as a DJ has mushroomed.
"He really knows the essence of hip-hop," says producer-rapper Kerry "Krucial" Brothers, who is renowned for his work with multi-Grammy winner Alicia Keys, acclaimed R&B newcomer Keyshia Cole and others. "I've heard his sets on this online show called The Lesson on BBC, and he's playing all these records where a lot of hip-hop samples came from. ?uestlove knows his stuff, and the way he mixes the music, what he plays is very eclectic."
Because of his celebrity, Thompson gets away with mixing disparate styles in his sets. Some DJs feel constrained by the demands of the dance crowd to play the same records over and over. But Thompson aims to blend elements of familiar tunes with unlikely beats.
"I resent the fact that DJs are held hostage by the audience," Thompson says. "Their palate is only used to what's fed to them. DJs don't get to break stuff [introduce new music] as much anymore. But I can get away with blending Johnny Cash with [Afro-beat innovator] Fela Kuti because Johnny's brand of country was so rhythmic and the guitars work perfectly with the drumming on Fela's records."
As he does when he's crafting Roots albums, Thompson the DJ weaves various musical elements to create a mood, building to a climax. This wild sense of musical experimentation has helped (and perhaps in some cases, hindered) Thompson's work with his Grammy-winning band, whose new album, Game Theory, drops in stores Aug. 29.
Starting with 1993's Organix, the Roots have released seven albums, two of which (1999's soulful Things Fall Apart and its follow-up, 2002's rock-oriented Phrenology) have been certified gold. Since 1996's Illadelph Halflife, the band members have been critical darlings, hailed for their daring if sometimes self-indulgent instrumental workouts. Although the Roots entered Billboard's pop album charts at No. 4, the band's last album, 2004's unfocused The Tipping Point, garnered mixed reviews and failed to match the gold sales of its predecessors. Though for years hip-hop - a genre in which the music is often synthesized - was underappreciated by mainstream critics, members of the Roots earned admiration early on for their musicianship.
"Everyone respects hip-hop now because of how much money it's making," says Brothers, who's overseeing Keys' coming album and will next week release his rapping debut, Take the Hood Back. "But the Roots have shown that hip-hop has all different styles. They've brought respect to the music of hip-hop. Without the Roots' musicianship, hip-hop wouldn't have that respect. They're not the alternative; they're the original. People forget that rap records started on live music and bands."
Another reason the Roots rarely appear on BET or MTV is because the band's rapper and chief lyricist, the refined and often serious Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter, eschews topics often celebrated in rap, such as gross materialism and misogyny. The band has sometimes taken shots at pop-rap acts who seem to have bought into the hype. With the release of the video for the 1996 single "What They Do," for example, the band parodied over-the-top hip-hop acts with a tongue-in-cheek, how-to guide for making blinged-out rap clips.
"The Roots are an important musical group because they represent the intellectual side of hip-hop," says Carla Lynne Hall, a musician and author of The DIY Guide to the Music Biz. "From the very start, their lyrics were constantly socially conscious and respectful of women. ... I think that the urban music industry tends to glorify more of the violent and sexual themes in order to generate sales. And since the Roots prefer to stay focused on the positive themes, their record label has to work a bit harder to build their publicity campaign."
Mark Anthony Neal, professor of black popular culture at Duke University, says the Roots' stance - in a market where thug-like antics seem to sell truck loads of albums - may mean the band's commercial returns will be limited.
"The Roots have long understood that the price they pay for their artistry and their refusal to make singles that might garner them more radio play is that they have to live on the road to make a living," he says. "In this regard, they hark back to the days of the chitlin' circuit, when black artists had little chance to crossover or get mainstream radio airplay, and thus had to take their music to the people."
Given all that, it's amazing that the band has kept its contract with a major label. (Previously on Geffen Records, the band is now signed to Def Jam.) Although in the past Thompson and his band mates made musical concessions to the suits at the label, he says Game Theory will be more beats-and-rhymes driven. It's a direction the group wanted to take.
"You can't please everybody," he says. "But we feel like the classic hip-hop fans, that section of our fan base that likes the boom-bap, have been neglected. The challenge is making an album that's 100 percent cohesive and 100 percent different from the rest. It's not like any record we've done before, but it wasn't planned that way. It's probably our darkest record."
With Thompson directing the grooves, the music is bound to be exploratory, even as the band streamlines its sound a little more.
"I don't think the Roots are all that geared to clubs," he says. "But we're always true to what it is we do, and there's something in there some section of our fan base will feel."
Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson
Born: Ahmir Khalib Thompson in 1971 in Philadelphia.
Education: Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, where he founded the Roots (then known as the Square Roots) with longtime friend, rapper Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter. Thompson's classmates included jazz bassist Christian McBride and members of the hit '90s group Boyz II Men.
Highlights: The Roots released their debut, Organix, in 1993. In 1999, the band issued its commercial breakthrough, Things Fall Apart, whose lead single, "You Got Me" featuring Erykah Badu, won a Grammy the next year.
Albums by the Roots
• Organix (1993)
• Do You Want More?!!!??! (1995)
• Illadelph Halflife (1996)
• Things Fall Apart (1999)
• The Roots Come Alive (1999)
• Phrenology (2002)
• The Tipping Point (2004)
• Game Theory (2006)
If You Go ... The Roots perform Saturday at 8 p.m. at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place. Call 410-244-1131 or visit ramsheadlive.com. ?uestlove performs at Artscape on the DJ Culture Stage, Mount Royal Avenue and Charles Street, July 23 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Free.