I learned long ago to never depend on the record deal as your sole means of survival and expression. It amazes me that there are artists today who live for their record deal and nothing else.
A few months back, The Roots rolled through Atlanta for a Red Bull-sponsored “Battle of the Bands” against Shiny Toy Guns. The former’s highly-respected leader, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, was gracious enough before the show to speak to Beats, Boxing & Mayhem on an array of topics ranging from President Obama and Jay-Z, to Amy Winehouse and artist reliance on record deals. 19 years removed from his first album, ?uestlove remains devoted to his craft of music before anything else. Retirement? Slowing down? Those are not words in this man’s vocabulary.
Beats, Boxing & Mayhem: A lot of artists who have experimented with other genres say they do so because they get “bored” with Hip-Hop. Have you ever felt that way in your career?
?uestlove: Nah, Hip-Hop is a stew. It’s a mixture and amalgamation of all these other genres. Sort of like pop art during the post-Pittsburgh Warhol factory period, that whole “is it art?” era. I asked Afrika Bambaataa about when he was spinning all these breakbeats back at the Bronx River Projects with all these gang wars, and he said basically the breakbeats is what calmed them down. When you get to the drum part, just for like 10 seconds you had relief because the park was so funky. You weren’t thinking of robbing anybody. So he was always on a mission to find breakbeats just to calm people down.
Breakbeats was saving lives up there. Once he started throwing parties and just spinning them, that’s all he was concerned about, keeping the peace. He didn’t care where he found it. There’s a drum break on Archie’s “Sugar Sugar.” Can you imagine playing Archie, a cartoon group, for someone right now? They’d look at you like you’re crazy. But back then you could play “Mary, Mary” by the Monkees, “Honkey Tonk Woman” by the Rolling Stones, and “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin just because they had a drum break. That’s what made them adaptable to Hip-Hop culture.
What’s happened is you have tastemakers and gatekeepers. Before 1992, the tastemakers determined what was cool. I had a tastemaker in high school that was like “yo, you need to check this out.” And it was a cassette called Straight Outta Compton. One dude recommended it and next thing you know everyone is jamming it. That’s the power of the tastemaker. Now the gatekeepers control radio and what you see on television. They determine who gets through the floodgate and they’re silencing the tastemaker.
I think people are feeling that totalitarian, oppressive pressure. I can’t describe it but it’s like a dictatorship rule in which one person or group determines what you hear. I go on the internet so I don’t depend on the radio to give me anything nutritious. Not saying all radio is like that, or I’m against commercial radio. I like Waka Flocka like the next dude, but I don’t want to hear it 20 times a day. I like variety. I like Foreign Exchange. I like Led Zeppelin. I like a little Ke$ha. Give me a little bit of everything.
Hip-Hop is mainly a tool of survival. Before, it was a creative art expression. When we came up making records, our first thought before anything was “when Q-tip hears this shit…When RZA hears this…Dilla’s gonna be mad…” That was my whole thing. But now your deal is all you have. If you’re dependent on a record deal, you’re thinking of how to not get dropped off the label. You’re thinking “I have to do what’s popular in the marketplace.” That’s when you get in trouble.
A lot of us are one check away from being messed up in the game. So there’s not a lot of risk-taking. No one is going to turn in the Hip-Hop equivalent of Pet Sounds or anything. They can’t afford to do that. They literally cannot afford to take any misstep in their career.
Beats, Boxing & Mayhem: Considering what you mentioned about labels, you’re currently on the biggest and most storied Hip-Hop one, Def Jam. And yet despite complaints from a lot of your label mates, you guys are doing well and getting albums out without the pressure of trying to craft commercial singles. How’d that happen?
?uestlove: They promised to leave us alone. I want to end this misconception that we’re all about making art records and that type of thing. I would love nothing more than for people to embrace what we create. We slave over this stuff. For every song you hear on the album, know that we’ve spent anywhere from 60-120 painstaking days over details from the quality of the hi-hats to every string arrangement and lyrics. We’re hurling chairs at each other. You can tell we care about our product by the way we present it.
The Roots can hold ourselves high above water without having a record deal. At this point, releasing records is a small reminder to people we’re still here. But now we have late night television. Anything that exposes us to a new audience I’m with it. But I learned long ago to never depend on the record deal as your sole means of survival and expression. It amazes me that there are artists today who live for their record deal and nothing else.
We’re dealing with the cult of personality. Take Jay-Z, for instance. He’s more of a business mogul on a monopoly board. It just so happens that one of his properties is that he makes records. I don’t see the monopoly board as Jay-Z’s recording history. I kind of see Mediterranean Ave. or New York Ave. as it, and he makes records as well. He has stake in a basketball team, a record label and management label. In New York alone, I can count 16 businesses he has his hands in. That’s the most extreme example I can give because he’s like Megaman.
You have to supplement your recording career with something else. Most people do acting. For people who just strictly make records and nothing else? I don’t know. That’s like living in a straw house knowing a tsunami’s coming in a week. Good luck with that one [laughs].
On the Political Debate about Education in America
?uestlove: I want to see what happens with education. Its one thing to say everyone doesn’t need healthcare. But I would like to see Republicans start denying our children a proper education. That’s when I think shit will really hit the fan.
The day after we lost the House, Obama gathered about 50 of us on the phone for a pick me up because a lot of us were now depressed over what it could mean. It could be a lame duck sort of term. I wish he would put a coalition together to actually teach Americans what the political process is. So when we do this again, they’ll understand that mid-term elections are just as important as the four year elections. That’s one of my passions.
On Working with Amy Winehouse, Jay-Z Debates and Genius vs. Maverick
?uestlove: She has to get her visa shit together. More than anything she’s a jazz head, between the 1930s and 50s. She’s a walking jazz tribute Smithsonian. She pretty much wants to do a collaboration album. It was me, Mos Def and Amy.
I believe how it happened is that a journalist from Rolling Stone happened to be in our dressing for the Fallon show doing a story about us, and he happened to see me Skyping Amy. And I guess someone told him we’re trying to do this project. That’s how that rumor got out we’re doing something with her and Raphael Saadiq. Then Raphael hit me like “I heard we’re doing a project together [laughs].” As long as she can’t come to the States, we can say we’re having the ashes of Michael Jackson join us. Ain’t nothing gonna happen yet because she doesn’t have her visa straight.
For all intent and purposes, all the parties have said yes. It’s just that none of us can go to her. She just thinks “leave your TV show for 3 weeks and come cut with me.” It doesn’t work like that. We got responsibilities, I have a 9-5 [laughs].
Me and Jay-Z has these Malcolm and Martin debates. I know that 50 years from now if I still have my Gmail account, all the conversations me and Jay have could be the most hilarious musical version of Malcolm and Martin. I’m trying to explain to him the difference between genius and maverick. He has guys like Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones together with Kanye. The difference between you guys to me is that being a genius is the ability to think on another level from the average human being. But being a maverick is when geniuses can figure out a way not to ruin it.
Basically, geniuses are crazy and will always figure out a way to ruin it because they don’t know how to stay in place and be normal. They’ve got to figure out a way to self-sabotage it. Which is why they’re all the people you’re waiting for: the D’Angelos, the Lauryn Hills, Dave Chappelles, and Zack De La Rochas of the world. Anybody you’ve been craving that’s not made a record in 10 years. What’s taking them so long? I don’t think they even know or would characterize themselves with self-sabotage. It’s a sub-conscious fear that’s makes you psychosomatic or ruin it and not deliver product. The fact there’s a group of people who have genius and have delivered is great. That was a very interesting exchange we had.
On Balancing All His Projects
?uestlove: Basically 97% of my life is work-related. 3% of my life is personal related. The real question is when am I going to the alter and have kids? You always say ok, I’m 27 now. I’ll wait until I’m 30. Then I’ll wait until I’m 33. Then I’ll wait until I’m 37. And now I’m 40. Now I’ll say 42. I don’t know. Right now with my life I’m totally devoted to working. I’m not doing it based on a fear of losing it.
In 1992 when we first started, I thought 1999 was far ahead and would be some Jetson, futuristic spaceship type thing. Now 1999 seems like its 1950, so long ago. In 1994 when Do You Want More came out, [if you asked] where are you going to be in 10 years, Amir? I couldn’t even imagine. I figured we’d be done by then. Most rap groups fall off after about their third or fourth record and stop recording. The fact we’ve been here for 19 years is mind-boggling.
With all 12 of our records, you at least know hard work was put into it. I’m not the biggest Arcade Fire fan, but after seeing them I totally respect what they do. Even if all 12 Roots records aren’t your favorite, you at least know we work hard. That’s important. You only get one chance in life.
I have so many stories of cats who were Jesus Christ back in ’94 or like ’96 giving us the Martin hand. One guy was like “What? You guys are a rap group? You want to give me your demo or something?” And this was like during the Things Fall Apart period. [laughs] Shit, even now! I was at a Saturday Night Live after-party, and an actor who was a little inebriated came up to me and said “You know what, you look important. You may be a regular person, but you walk around like you’re important.” I tried to explain who I was. He was like “Roots?! When that show came out, we all watched it!” That’s when I smelled the alcohol and I escaped.
I don’t imagine a finish line with this race. I run. When it’s time to stop, I’ll know. I can’t stop now.