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The past and the future of hip hop and American politics

Talking to The Roots' Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson: The LP version 

The past and the future of hip hop and American politics

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I was asked to interview Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson for a brief article in advance of his appearance with 9th Wonder and Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal as part of Duke University's Soul Power program. It was only supposed to be a 15-minute phone deal, but he was triple booked during my time slot. ?uest, being a good dude, apologized, and I offered to call back later.

We got to talking about hip hop, and history and the music industry. Let's just say I ended up with way more from our discussion than I could hope to squeeze into 1,000 words. But seeing as how ?uestlove is a living, breathing embodiment of the black musical continuum—full of unique insights on myriad subjects—and a pioneer in artist/audience interaction, I felt it only right post my interview and notes in entirety.

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: So you'll be on a panel with 9th at Duke—"Hip Hop Sampling Soul."

?UESTLOVE: The panel gets to the idea of what actually brought on hip hop—the idea of taking two records and extending it.

[?uest speaks on his first contact with 9th Wonder, then of Little Brother. Phonte, 9th and Big Pooh used to post on The Roots' Web site (www.okayplayer.com), and that played a big part in their development. They sent him a demo, and ?uest was so blown away that he actually used his bully pulpit on the site and in the industry to tell folks to buy the record. This is the lore of ?uestlove, okayplayer and Little Brother.]

Once I finally got in touch with 9th, after hearing the demo that eventually would become The Listening, I was like, "OK, well, what do you use?" He was like, "I don't," and I'm like, "Huh??? Is there a device, or anything?" and he was like, "I don't know how to use a drum machine." I was flabbergasted, because, even before me and Tariq got truly developed, we were making pause tapes, you know?

I definitely go back to that. I wrote an essay in a book called The Hip Hop Tree, in which I talk about going back like pause tapes and orange milk crates."

[I tell him I'm from South Jersey and used to hang out in Philly at the After Midnight, when it was on Cherry Street, next to the bus station. He tells me that he used to want to hang out there and was supposed to go to a show, but his moms hemmed him up, and in particular, there was one time when he was supposed to go the Public Enemy show there, and the cops shut it down.]

Back then, whenever Public Enemy made any type of noise or appearance, it was perceived as "instant danger." So I never got to get on the inside of there [the After Midnight], but I definitely knew the reputation of it, and from driving around the outside of it, seeing the people standing in line. Like, general population.

No doubt. And the chicks was harder than the dudes, too. They would come over the PA system talking bout, "Uhh, ladies, please remove your earrings before you leave, or they WILL get snatched out of your ears." [?uest laughs.]

With you having a jazz background, that really predates this whole discussion (of sampling). Back in the day I used to try to explain to folks who were into jazz that a lot of what's being done in hip hop in terms of sampling is just another manifestation of a fairly common practice in jazz wherein somebody plays a riff, a particular progression or something reminiscent of someone who came before him. That was more of an homage than something we'd consider a 'bite.'

It only became "stealing" once it became big business. And then it becomes an issue of whether it's, you know, creative sampling, or just blatant "phoning it in from home" sampling. Which is even crazier because, of course, when we think of the other side of the sampling [issue], you can't help but think of 1997 and the Puffy [Sean 'P Diddy' Combs] period.

[When Puffy was really blowing up, one of the practices he was known for—on the heels of folks like MC Hammer, who started paying for samples—was using obvious loops from popular songs as the backbone of production. Before folks started getting sued, and even after it, DJs and producers would try to take just four bars of a song, under the misguided assumption that if you only take four bars, you couldn't be sued. There was both a practical and artistic ethos of minimalism in which you didn't take too much of a song to construct a new one. Puffy threw all that shit out the window with his approach, and a lot of "purists" were pissed off, even though he was ruling the airwaves.]

What's even stranger now is that I'm so disenchanted by what we've got today, that, like, every time I DJ, I find myself thinking, "man ... Puffy ... maybe I was a little hard on Puff in '97." Today almost makes 1997 look like some of the best times in the history of music. But when I find myself thinking like that now, I catch myself. What I got from Listen Up! [documentary on iconic musician and producer Quincy Jones] was the sense of how "open" he was to ideas. That blew my mind, because, at around that time, I was having nightly arguments with my father. I remember I bought the Welcome To The Terrordome cassingle [by Public Enemy]. And he was like, "This is a bunch of noise. I don't get this." I'd say, "But dad, this is a reworking of 'Psychedelic Shack' by the Temptations. The Temps are your favorite group!" He couldn't hear it. I had to go get both records and compare it for him. Then he was like, "Yeah, well, they just basically took the Temptations' stuff." So we always had a yin/yang approach to the music, to hip hop.

"I don't wanna be the dude that sits back and says, 'Back in my day.'"
From there it was just ingrained in my head that anyone over the age of 45 is just my enemy, musically. So then to see someone like Quincy Jones embracing it, the way that I wished my father would, I was just like, I wanna be that guy, the one to expand on culture and cross generational gaps. I don't wanna be the dude that sits back and says, "Back in my day."

[I wish I would have probed about his relationship with his father and how that played out through music. The "embrace" thing begs further analysis. Speaking as a son and as a father, I know from both sides that kids, especially teens, view their "culture" as an extension and reflection of themselves: When your parents reject your music, it feels as if they are rejecting you. ?uestlove is one of the most knowledgeable cats there is with regard to music. His pops was a professional musician, sang in a doo-wop group. His grandpop was one of The Dixie Hummingbirds. That's a hell of a legacy. I can only imagine that the pressures on him may have been more pronounced early on than they were the rest of us because he was a gifted musician—accepted to Julliard, for what it's worth—and not only chose hip hop as part of his generational stripe, but as a vocation.]

Aww, he ain't no Grandmaster Caz!

Exactly. And now that I DJ more consistently, I'm more accepting of where the music is now.

What do you see jumping off now with regard to the music?

The spirit of hip hop is alive, but I see it more consistently in other genres of music. Especially when I go to Baltimore and see—I have friends who take me to those Baltimore clubs—that is the closest thing that I see to our idea of some sort of utopian hip-hop heaven. I don't mean the music, but just the fact that there's no wallflowers there, people are extremely there for the music, such that it's more about that pure expression.

And that takes me back to a time—the night I got—man, I was one of the luckiest people in the world when I happened to be at the Bad Boy building and I got a white label of "Who Shot Ya?" before everyone did. The boy gave me "Who Shot Ya?," and he gave me a demo of "Benjamins," and they were on test pressing plates. And I remember I played that shit and the energy ... man, that's when you could play unproven songs and you got energy back off it, not like, "Oh, I'm familiar with this song, so I'll give it my approval."

That takes you back to them days when you first heard something and were just excited about it.

Not to say that I don't still have 'Oh shit!' moments. Like, Pharrell played me a bit of the new N.E.R.D. record, and you definitely know that he wants to come back with a vengeance. Like, I think Pharrell got something in his soul that's just saying, "I can't rely on just my good looks and fashion sense. Muhfuckas are tryna count me out, and I got to not just come back, but really kick their ass." I mean, the four or five songs I heard, it's like, this dude is coming back like he got a score to settle. So hopefully, that will just start a domino theory on everybody else.

Make everybody else step they game up.

Exactly.

Speaking of jazz, I've always thought of you, particularly, with regard to your work outside The Roots—like when the Soulquarians jumped off—in a Norman Connors type of way, the way that he had his name out there as a producer. Plus he was a drummer, but he just had this whole extended roster of ridiculously talented people who came through.

Norman Connors. [Laughs] It's funny you said that, because in '94, '95, I swore that was him, I didn't know that was Michael Henderson and not him singing all that stuff. It was crazy, like I didn't realize that it was Freddie Stone that was singing the majority of the Sly and the Family Stone stuff. Then I started getting heavy into liner notes and realized that, no, he was producing, but that was Michael Henderson singing.

Yeah. Norman was the nucleus for all of that amazing talent. Michael Henderson. Phyllis Hyman.

Jean Carne.

Oh yeah, can't forget Jean Carne. Yes. I'd like to be that kind of nucleus.

Let's talk a bit about the economics of the music business. The Roots have had their share of struggles with record labels in the past.

One of the reasons I created okayplayer.com was to be sort of a life raft or safety zone, just in case there was some sort of tsunami in the future. A lot of folks, especially in hip hop, think in the near-term. Most think, "I'ma tour from May to August ... after that, I don't know what I'll do." I credit Chuck D [of Public Enemy] for giving me that long-term outlook. He'd say, back in the '90s, "What do you see yourself doing in 2011?" He was thinking in decades instead of years.

From a 1992 perspective, 1999 was the future. I figured there'd be all kinds of spaceships and technology by now. [Laughs] The class of '97 is getting caught out there now. You have to think long-term. It's a shame that Prodigy [of Mobb Deep] has to have three years of his life taken away [he is facing impending incarceration]. But now he's living every breath like it's the last. He's doing daily updates on his Web site. Daily blogs. Why? He's not taking time for granted.

That mindset seems to come when folks have their backs to the wall. I hate that prison is his motivation, but I love that particular hustle and grind. That's what everybody should be doing. That's why I make a point of being on okayplayer for three hours a day.

I never saw the old system of selling records as a way to provide any type of survival or career sustenance. And I see it now as simply a way to promote the group. If there's a way to let three million people know that a Roots album is coming out on April 29 without going through all of this, I'm all for it. But for now, this is what we have to work with; this system that has robbed, stolen from and used up our artists for the last 100 years.

It's not significantly different from back in the day when white folks would go drive a car or truck through the Deep South, find some old black musician playing guitar on their porch, pay them a pittance to record the music, then go release it and profit.

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One of my favorite songs ... it's a prison song by Alan—whatshisname? [?uest stops talking, frustrated.] Augh! Why don't I remember this? You'll have to excuse me man ... [He Googles it.] Lomax!! Alan Lomax!

Yeah, he built his whole empire, going around down South and sliding a few hundred to prison guards to let him record chain gangs. But the music was amazing. They're on iTunes right now. The compilation is called The Land Where Blues Began. There's a song called "Early in the Morning." Dude who actually wrote it was named Prisoner No. 22. If anything, that song is a precursor to funk music, especially because of the particular way that they had shovels or something—don't know if they were digging graves or ditches or whatever—but they were banging with a heavy emphasis on the two and the four. The beat was reminiscent of an early version of "We Will Rock You." You could have easily slid a breakbeat behind that and rocked it today, but it was made in the '30s.

If I find that, I'm illegally downloading it off general principle.

[Laughs] I doubt that any of those cats are getting royalties off of that. That reminds me ... in South Africa, there was a dude who wrote the lyrics to the song "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." Folks took that song and ran with it. He never got paid and passed away, poor and penniless. He had like 15 children. But I heard recently that they successfully sued, and got paid something crazy, like $17 million or something. But on the larger, historical scale? Nah. Folks haven't really gotten their due.

I don't have much invested in this industry. I'm not particularly saddened now that the bottom is falling out. Well, at least not philosophically. But it does affect us, slightly, and I'll tell you how. You know that The Roots have never really lived off of record sales. [Understatement of the year: The Roots are known as The Grateful Dead of hip hop, and keep up a frenetic, legendary touring pace for most of the year, every year.] Now that the bottom is falling out of the industry, other acts are starting to tour more, kind of infringing on this live show playing field that we've more or less had to ourselves for 16 years. So the game—circa late '07, now that we see all these other cats in our lane—is to think, "Hey, don't we normally do Howard University around this time of year?" and actually call them up. Because there's more competition now. Between '92 and '06, we were just about the only option. So I look at it as us having to go to Plan C. We're Will Smith in the back of the taxi, tryna figure out that Rubik's Cube.

[Will is from Philly, as is ?uest; I'm from South Jersey. Knowing his penchant for oblique references, I thought he was making a reference to the opening sequence from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, signifying that he's been spending a lot of time out in California lately. He laughs and clarifies that he meant the scene in Pursuit of Happyness where the down-on-his-luck protagonist bets an exec at a brokerage firm by solving the unsolvable puzzle, with the reward being a job interview.]

Ahh. I see. I get where you were going with that. Yeah, we've been a fish out of water, too, so both Will Smith taxi references apply.

Speaking of Will, he parlayed the rap career into that good, good Hollywood money. Could that be the answer to your Rubik's Cube?

Now that you mention that, I am working on a film project, and it'll be starring Sam Jackson and Bernie Mac. It's a musical film by Malcolm Lee (The Best Man, Roll Bounce). Since it's a musical film, I won't be straying too far afield in terms of my role.

They gonna give you some production credit for making sure that all of the music is on point?

No! I've given up that game. I was doing a lot of that, serving as music supervisor for movies. But I had to give that up. James [Poyser, a longtime collaborator, member of Soulquarians, and, with ?uestlove, comprises The Randy Watson Project] has taken that over. It irks the shit out of me.

I thought I was the only one who got upset over stuff like that.

Man, that is the most frustrating thing, doing that full time. When I was music supervisor for Chappelle's Show, it wasn't that bad. There wasn't much of anything that required time sequencing. They weren't trying to hurt the budget, so I would play a lot of things. Rick James stuff, Outkast, they let Dave use their music. But something like the Chris Rock show [Everybody Hates Chris, which is an autobiographical comedy set in the early to mid-'80s] would drive me crazy. They'll have a scene and be playing one song and it's supposed to be '84 or '85 ...

... and the next song they play is from '81 or '87 ...

Exactly! Ugh. And directors don't care. I used to do this a lot on movies. And they'll request a song and I'll say, "No, that song wasn't out at that time," and they're like, "I don't care. I want that song." Ugh. James can have that. [He pauses to take a phone call, something about high hats being too loud.] My bad. We're working on Corrine Bailey Rae's record [he's executive producing].

When is that dropping?

She says it should be out sometime between September and November. [She calls two or three times during the hour when we're on the phone. ?uest has the multitasking thing down. He'll give a quick suggestion or instruction, and then back to the interview.]

Let's shift gears and talk more about the economics of the biz. It really messed me up when I read back in the day that Tribe only saw, like, in aggregate, $250,000 from their first three, classic, absolutely seminal albums.

Oh yeah, man. Like, especially with hip hop. Cause you're giving up your publishing. That's why you see me in a Scion! Youknowhamsayin? It's real out here. And the thing is ... the thing I want people to know, the reason I'm so open on okayplayer about my personal life, is just to let people know that you don't need some kind of hyperbolic, over-inflated existence to survive in hip hop.

Because a lot of times you have characters. And you have people who have this larger-than-life existence, and then once it deflates slightly, there's this whole banishment thing where they isolate. This is why ... half the people that you're wondering where they are, when they can't live like that anymore, they can't deal with it. The same people you see coming up are the same people you're gonna see when you're going down.

But still, you know, I think that it's very possible if you're wise with your finances. If a doctor can make $300k a year, they are considered successful. I think it's possible for an underground emcee, if he's hustling, to make around $200,000-$300,000 a year. An unsigned rapper may be able to pull down around $1,500 per week. If a manager of an establishment can make and survive off of that kind of money, so can you. But if you're making $1,500 per week and you want a Bentley coupe, then that's different. You've got a problem.

It says a lot about our perspective when we can view a doctor as a success pulling down around $300,000 but we see the rapper making the same money as a failure. That's why I reveal all of the details of my life on my site, in interviews, etc., even to the level of why a muhfucka can't have a successful relationship and a career. That's what I see as realness. Like with me getting stopped by the cops last week.

[We segue into discussion of the Roots' history, the Soulquarians (a collective of like-minded artists who had an explosion of creative, groundbreaking albums around the turn of the century). The whole neo-soul movement bears ?uest's fingerprints. But there's always backlash, ebb and flow. This picks up with him reflecting on why it kind of fell apart.]

People just want their own sandbox at the end of the day. You have to break it down to possession. Put a child in a sandbox with other children and watch the dynamic. "This is mine." That has always irked me about my particular movement. I'll watch documentaries on VH-1 Soul and there's always one or two artists on there saying "I'm not neo-soul." I mean, for a guy that raps a lot, that's just a convenient paraphrase. Saying "neo-soul" means you don't have to say "post-'70s smooth jazz over breakbeats" or something equally unwieldy.

When we were out there on The Chronic battlefield, from '92 to '97, me and Rich [The Roots' longtime manager] were racking our brains on how to escape from the pack, how to matter. A lot of people accuse of us over-thinking. And that's OK. But we looked at every successful artist. We pored over charts in industry magazines going back decades, looking for commonality. And what we found was that anyone who was successful was not isolated. Besides a couple of one-hit wonders in the '60s (there was no 'movement' behind "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" or "Monstermash"), every big act was part of a larger movement. The Beatles were by no means by themselves. The British Invasion also meant that you had the Stones, the Kinks, The Who. Likewise with hard rock—Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin—or the Philadelphia sound—Billy Paul, Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, the Three Degrees.

Once Illadeph (Illadelphia Halflife, The Roots' third studio release) came out, me and Rich were like, we've got to get a movement. We weren't trying to be the Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer of this. So around '97 or '98, when we went to Geffen, we told them upfront that the only way this was gonna work was if we could be like Noah and bring a bunch of other complementary artists on board with us. We told them about Common. Blackstar. We tried to get Slum Village. Instead, they gave the late J Dilla a label. The only person that Geffen was lukewarm on was Jill [Scott].

Yeah. They really played themselves on that one.

We told them you've got to help create this movement for us. It happened, but then somehow we all forgot that we needed each other. All the sudden it became about 'This person sounds like me.' That type of thing. Then the isolation set in. I can't force people at gunpoint to organize like we used to, like when you'd go to Electric Lady [famed recording studio in New York that was home to the recording of some of the best music in history, and which ?uestlove and his camp used as a muse] and Mos, Com, Kweli, Erykah, D' would be there and, Dilla would be playing brand new records. We used to do that a lot. It was like an auction for Dilla beats. The night we created "Ghetto Heaven" was the first really heated argument. Common originally had [the track to] "Chicken Grease," and D'Angelo had "Ghetto Heaven." They ended up trading. Somehow we lost that.

Let's talk about politics.

I've become an Obama supporter because I believe in him. It's not like I wanted to believe in him. And I'm not for him because he's, like, the lesser of eight evils. It's just from truly seeing him speak and thoroughly investigating him. Everyone won't believe or agree.

That's what's killing me about this "not being black enough" thing. He's trying to repeal three strikes, and end racial profiling, and all of that. That's black enough for me. Nobody else is mentioning that the prison industry is modern day slavery, or talking about viewing prison more in terms of a rehab. He's the only cat talking about after-programs. You know how many brothers I know who've been sent up? Tariq's brother. He's been locked up since like, '87, imprisoned for our entire careers. This brother came out of prison and felt like he was in prison. That's how acclimated he was to the inside. He got out and was like, "I've got to go back to the world I know." If he's conditioned to think that his world is prison....

He's talking 'bout, "I'm not gonna go see my P.O., because I don't know what to do out here." It's like that scene in Shawshank, where the dude got out and they wouldn't lock him up, and he was so lost on the outside that he killed himself.

The fact Obama is talking about rehabilitation for prisoners and drug addicts, to help them so they don't have to go through that again. That is black enough for me. If you really wanna know, I went on every candidate's Web site before making my decision. I read everything about their positions. If you saw McCain's or even Hillary's, it was just very cold. Uninviting. Kudos to whoever built Obama's Web site, for starters. It makes it clear as day what his agenda is.

"The only thing that concerns me is that, before you build a house, you have to build a foundation. And if you are building on an existing site, and everything is a complete mess, like our economy is, you are going to have to tear down some stuff, and get rid of a bunch of stuff before you start building."
I got up two days, 4 a.m. in the morning, campaigning. I could have done the celebrity thing, but I wanted to be grassroots. I had a car and a team. They gave me directions. I knocked on doors over the course of 48 hours straight. I'm gonna do it in Penn., too. I'll take days off, whatever I have to do. Drive vans.

Twenty-five years of Reaganomics. [?uest includes a lot of the more draconian things like the continued skyrocketing of the prison industrial complex, NAFTA, and so-called Welfare Reform that took place under Clinton to be, at best, a passive-aggressive extension of what Reagan started in 1980.] People are literally dying for a real change. The only thing that concerns me is that, before you build a house, you have to build a foundation. And if you are building on an existing site, and everything is a complete mess, like our economy is, you are going to have to tear down some stuff, and get rid of a bunch of stuff before you start building.

I'm optimistic. But it's gonna be a slow cleanup. I hope America is open for an eight- or 16-year cleanup period.

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