July 12–19, 2001
Everywhere at once with Ahmir Thompson.
Being the James Brown freak he is, Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson might not like me saying this. Here it goes: Thompson — drummer, producer, central figure of The Roots —is the hardest working man in show business. Along with penning liner notes to JB’s remastered Live at The Apollo Vol. 2, Thompson’s 2000-2001 has been so busy, I figured an interview might remind him what he’s been up to: DJing hip-hop nights at Filo’s and Savannah; mixing (with Rick Rubin) an upcoming Macy Gray CD as well as drumming live dates for her (like he did for D’Angelo and his Voodoo); recording in one shot The Philadelphia Experiment with Christian McBride and Uri Caine; playing with Shuggie Otis, on Nikka Costa’s new CD, in sessions with Common and for Zach de la Rocha’s solo debut; producing Erykah Badu, Bilal and bits of Soulquarians with James Poyser; working with Nike on commercials and an upcoming off-Broadway musical; doing package tours under banners like his own Okayplayer revue (taking its name from his website, which he co-founded with authoress Angela Nissel) and Moby’s Area:One this week; spiritually overseeing his Black Lily showcases between here and New York (he still hopes to tour those folk); working on/recording soundtracks to Brooklyn Babylon and Bamboozled; producing and overseeing the next in the series of Red Hot projects: Red Hot +Riot, dedicated to Afrobeat god Fela Kuti (whose son Femi just left Philly after recording with Ahmir); running Motive (MCA) with manager Rich Nichols, which is set to release CDs by Black Thought, Jaguar and, oh yeah, The Roots. As soon as we finished this chat — unfinished at best — he was seeing Bilal’s show, then flying to Minneapolis to work with (an uncredited) Prince for the next Common record.
Q: With all this, in what stage is Introducing The Roots (due Feb. 2002, along with Black Thought’s Masterpiece Theater and Jaguar’s debut)?
A: With Introducing, we’re mid-point. Fine tune the music, then Tariq writes to it. He’s 95 percent finished with Masterpiece Theatre. Motive’ll get his stuff in August. We’re at a weird point with MCA.
Q: Uh-oh. The same sort of non-supportive stuff that happened when you were on Geffen?
A: It’s exactly Geffen; just two floors up in the same building.… MCA? They offer crumbs. They bought us a van to tour for Things Fall Apart.
Q: With all your touring, could you live without recording another record?
A: I don’t depend on recording for survival, but I like the art of making records. I like art directing, choosing font and photographers. Autograph sessions. I’m very patient where this industry’s concerned. With waiting our turn.
Q: Production’s become a true centerpoint for you. Sonically, what records or producers inspired that vision?
A: The pinnacle where hip-hop’s concerned is The Bomb Squad, though even they are hindered by the outstanding laws of sampling, which is all but illegal. DJ Premier. Jay Dee. Brian Wilson — his work on Pet Sounds and Smile. Clare Fischer — he did orchestral arrangements for [Pacific] jazz records in the ’60s, stuff with Rufus and Chaka Khan, wound up working with Prince during his creative zenith from ’78 to ’93. Shouldn’t say that — James and I are flying to Paisley Park to work with the guy.
Q: I know he’s a hero of yours; how’s that gonna work where Common’s concerned?
A: I’m in the dark with how the collab’s gonna work. Do I instruct Prince as to what his part is? Do we present the music and just let him play? Do we write? He’s in his uncredited phase. He just did the same thing on Macy’s record. I’m listening to something we did. I hear this piano. She turns and says, "Aw, Prince stopped by."
Q: You did the Macy record with Rick Rubin. The bits I’ve heard sound strange and powerful. How did that come together? I know we canceled a chat last week so you could play with her in Buffalo.
A: My position kept getting elevated. I started off a tambourine player. She kept saying, "Do more." So I became percussionist. "Do more" [a perfectly oxygenated Macy impersonation]. Now I have to get a hotel room. "Now mix it. Do that thing you do. Your sound." You mean produce it, Macy? [laughs]. This is her record. Dirty. Wild. Off-center drunken rhythms like what we do in Soulquarians. The guy who did her first record had just come off Fiona Apple. She didn’t dig it, but who’s to argue? Sold 12 million and she’s got a mansion next to the Jacksons. She brings in Rick, who you have to remember is the guy who invented the pop rap song. Verse, chorus, verse. Before him, hip-hop tunes were 16 minutes long.… [But] he doesn’t jeopardize the art of it.
Q: You knew Christian McBride back in Performing Arts high. What was it like hanging out?
A: It was like hanging with D’Angelo at first. Testing each other out. Jam sessions where you find who’s the biggest fan of Prince or who knows what glitch or nuance the other guy knows — like the drumstick dropping on The Time’s "Ice Cream Castles." We were sick enough to know that smallest mistake.… We used to get in trouble during 1989’s orchestral instrumental classes because we’d transform whoever — Beethoven, Stravinsky — into the James Brown shuffle. Ninety of James’ hits are key of D. We’d hear key of D, Chris would lay down the bass line, I’d come up with that classic James shuffle. Thrown out of class for playing "Hot Pants." Chris’ younger than me, but he used to intimidate me where jazz was concerned. Jazz cats at Performing Arts were snobs who knew the difference between big band Max Roach and Clifford Brown Max Roach. I was terrified to go to school. Know what I’ve never told anybody? That I used to look in his book bag, see what records he was listening to, buy ’em at Sound of Market, and then keep them on my record player with "repeat" arm over the album so that, subliminally, in my sleep, I would become a jazz guy.
Q: Philadelphia Experiment came together over Aaron Levinson’s provocations, right?
A: Yeah, I known him since Gutbucket. He came up with the name, Uri Caine, Pat Martino, the studio and the idea of us jamming on classic Philly jazz shit for a few days. He brought in a couple of albums like Catalyst and Grover, threw in Marvin Gaye because — six degrees of separation — he was a Frankie Beverly freak. But I was tied into learning 45 songs in nine days for the Okayplayer hip-hop variety tour. So I stopped taking Aaron’s phone calls. I hadn’t slept. Finally, I agreed. While we were rehearsing Okay, it became like "Flight of the Bumblebee." Back and forth between two studios, one rehearsing, one Philly Experiment.
Q: Navigating that must’ve been hell.
A: Nah. Uri was the navigator.… It all felt natural. It came together because it was three consummate professionals. I’m used to carrying more weight and playing traffic cop, reminding Kamal, "Here’s the piano part." This was the rare session where I was just a session guy. I mean, we spoke, but it was another language. And if you listen hard, you can hear me laughing at Christian riffing on all those old high school cues.