?uestlove needs no introduction. As you know, the legendary drummer/DJ/producer of “The Roots” fame is a charismatic and benevolent grandmaster of hip hop swagger. Lucky enough for us, we were able to catch up with him last week at Captain Morgan’s launch party for Captain Morgan Black Spiced Rum, featuring Queso on the tables and two sets by The Walkmen.
What follows is our Q/A with Questlove on electronic music, how “Watch the Throne” has ushered in a new era of “arena hip hop,” and how American culture “isn’t built for preservation” when it comes to crafting art.
BroBible: What do you like about DJing?
Questlove: I feel like when I came up, the DJ was the tastemaker, the one that put people onto stuff. I’m slowly seeing people forgetting about music. A lot of the times I bring up a lot of older stuff ‘cuz people forget, so I kind of have to take advantage of the nostalgia of it all and play that role. Not to mention, I could probably get away with a lot of things that the average DJ can’t get away with. So I take advantage of that, you know? I see a lot of Shazam-ing. At the end of the day, as long as people are Shazam-ing when I do parties and doing research and getting into the music, that’s important to me.
How do you feel about the massive surge in popularity of electronic music?
What goes around comes around. When I was a kid, my sister was really, really into Kraftwerk, so I was lucky enough to grow up in that time period. She had “Autobahn” and their “Tour de France” record. The ‘hood really embraced it because a lot of electronica music was very important for the development of, like, b-boy culture as far as dance is concerned. Electronic music was faster in rhythm, it wasn’t cheap, and the only thing that was that rhythmic and syncopated was disco, but that was a little too cheesy. That type of music eventually morphed into Miami bass once it got Americanized.
I mean, it’s important to the development. There’s no genre in music I don’t like, it’s just that, as an American culture, we’ve gotta get more of a variety going. We tend to grasp onto one and only one thing, and it’s usually that one thing that everyone else grasps onto because that’s the cool thing to do. But for every cool thing, there’s the grass and there’s a whole bunch of underground stuff not even discovered.
Anyone in the electronic scene that you like in particular?
I saw my first Skrillex show during the Grammy period. I gotta admit, man, that sh*t was…
I’ve seen him, Afrojack, and Deadmau5 during the Grammys this past year. Deadmau5, well, he was dope, but especially Afrojack… I’ve just never seen someone hypnotize an entire audience. I wasn’t familiar with this stuff and the fact that he was working with five turntables and using a lot of digital technology… I was floored. It was like a religious experience. I really haven’t seen a DJ that captivating since I lived in London, where there was a DJ that only operated with one turntable. He was a South African DJ named Aba Shanti and he did reggae dub with one turntable. That’s how charismatic he was. He used one turntable and one echo machine.
That’s the level I want to get to. I don’t feel it’s necessary to say, “Oh, I gotta do what the kids want today.” Instead, I could put the same intensity and preparation to the kind of music I like and people will feel it. That’s what it taught me, to just stick to my guns and be original and put people onto stuff.
“Undun” was such a bold new direction for The Roots. Have you wanted to make a concept album for a long time?
Black artists really aren’t afforded the luxury of experimenting too much in their music. A lot of music created from black artists is a matter of survival: “I must succeed so that I can make a living.” And a lot of times, one false step and either your fan base turns its back on you or your label drops you. A lot of times, I meet my peers in the industry and they all say the same thing: “Man, we wish we had the freedom y’all had, cuz we gotta work with this producer, work with that producer.”
I met way-established acts that want to do their version of “Kid A” or “In Rainbows” but they’re not afforded that luxury because hip-hop culture really still is not looked at as a work of art. It’s still a disposable culture. So, it’s like you either have to be winning and winning massively or you’re forgotten about, which is sad. The very lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky fortunate few that make music and records that are definitely from the heart get to because there are other ways and means to survive. So now a lot of my music is reflecting sh*t I always wanted to do, not like, “Oh my God! We better make this work or else we’re done!”
Have younger guys said they’re envious that you can work on something like that?
All the time, all the time. Jay-Z wishes. He wants to do some crazy experimental stuff but he knows the parameters for which his audience will allow him to move.
Is that sad to you?
I mean, it’s sad to me that American culture really isn’t built for preservation. American culture is based on innovation, dreams, and luck. But, as far as preservation, we’re like kids. We get a toy, we like it, and then in two seconds we forget about it. Whereas, I go to Europe and… man! Like, in France they uphold music like it’s valuable. That’s why a lot of artists can still make a living over in Europe. A lot of artists can make a living in Japan, other parts of Asia, so it’s just a shame that with America, because freedom is so abundant and the right to choose is so abundant, that you don’t appreciate it. That is sad to me.
What are some of your favorite albums in recent memory? Your rant on “Watch the Throne” was such an amazing opus…
It’s hard for a lot of people to praise new sh*t and I usually don’t make a judgment call that soon, but “Watch the Throne” has ushered in a new era which is “arena hip hop.” The music on that album was created with thousands and thousands of people in mind and it works well in a stadium, which is why the concert is so epic, you know what I mean? I know that a majority of hip hop is in-the-basement, in-the-cellar, do-it-yourself. The biggest we ever brought it was a club; that’s where Dr. Dre brought it, up to a club. I believe that along with “My Twisted Dark Fantasy,” “Watch the Throne” was probably the first album which they thought in terms of coliseums and open stadiums. I know they’re doing a few dates in Europe, I might catch them on some summer festivals. I can’t wait to see it. I want to see how it works over there.
So what’s the next step for The Roots in the wake of Undun?
Right now we’re just doing a lot of individual ventures. I’m actually starting a food venture right now with a little help from my friend Graham Elliot, who was a “Top Chef” winner. He and I have started partnering up to do catering events where I DJ. More like in some sort of weird, hip-hop fashion. It’s a new venture but as far as the group, we’re doing more shows: In the middle of the month, April 19th and 20th, I’m doing a project at BAM called “Shuffle Culture,” which is the idea of mixing different genres. So Reggie Watts, myself, Sasha Grey, Deerhoof, D.D. Jackson, and a few classical luminaries. We’re going to be touring this summer, going to Europe to do a bunch of festivals.
Do you think the residency at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon has helped “The Roots” artistically compared to “The Roots” of the late 90s?
By the time that we started the show, we literally didn’t rehearse that much with each other. And we really didn’t interact with each other, we just did the show and went our separate ways. Being in this situation, it kind of forces us to play a lot with each other, so we’ve gotten better, so it’s the best thing that ever happened.
And I have to ask… Your thoughts on Philly sports?
I’ve learned never to jinx any team or any time I put myself emotionally involved, I get my heart broken. I don’t know what’s gonna happen with the Eagles. The Sixers? Say goodbye, whatever. We had a nice little run, I thought we’d make it to at least the Atlantic Championship, but we’ll see. I don’t wanna jinx it. I promised all my sports teams I’d never ever, ever speak because I jinx them. I did it to the Eagles last year when we had that lineup. We were like, “Oh man! We’re gonna make it!” And we didn’t. So… I don’t jinx.