Fresh Air in 2003 about his career in the hip-hop group The Roots." />
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Ahmir Thompson Reflects On His 'Roots'

Ahmir Thompson, aka Questlove (Getty Images)

In the world of hip-hop, where most music is sampled, The Roots are exceptional: They play their own instruments.

Ahmir Thompson, also known as Questlove, is the drummer for the Grammy-winning group — a Philadelphia-based sextet that's recently found a new audience as the house band for NBC's Late Night, where Jimmy Fallon just took over for departing host Conan O'Brien. Questlove founded The Roots in 1987 while he was a student at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts.

Reviewing The Roots' 2002 album Phrenology for GQ magazine, rock critic Tom Moon wrote that "their vision for black music tears out in radical directions, encompassing jazz, trance, rock and Brazilian pop. ... Their orbit has included activists, rappers and rock stars, anyone grappling with what it means to be black and alternative."

Questlove grew up around music. His father Lee Andrews led the doo-wop group Lee Andrews & The Hearts, which had the hit "Tear Drops." He talks to Fresh Air host Terry Gross about a childhood spent backstage, about what he sees as African-American culture's transgressive-transformative approach to language, and about what it means to bring musicianship to bear in a genre that doesn't necessarily expect it.

This interview originally aired Feb. 6, 2003.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. The latest entry in the late night TV talk show wars arrived on NBC with a lot of big names, not the least of which was the exciting, innovative house band.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: In the world of hip-hop, where most music is sampled, The Roots are exceptional. They play instruments, everything from electric guitar to tuba. And on TV they're lot more entertaining and more prominent than your everyday, or every night, house band. Last night on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," Jimmy gave The Roots a chance to show off its improv skills.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon")

Mr. JIMMY FALLON: We're fortunate to have the greatest band on late night with us, The Roots. Give it up for The Roots, everybody.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. FALLON: I love you guys. You guys are amazing. You can play any type of music, right?

Unidentified Man: Yeah, you know, you name it, we can do it.

Mr. FALLON: All right, well, great. Let's play with that a little bit. I'm going to, what if I pick someone from the audience and we'll see if The Roots can make up a song about this person in the audience? Is that cool? Are you ready?

Unidentified Man: We're ready.

Mr. FALLON: How about you guys, you guys ready?

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. FALLON: How about you guys? With the red hair. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, you look perfect. What's your name?

JENNY: Jenny.

Mr. FALLON: Okay, Jenny, this is all helping our tune. What's your favorite color?

JENNY: Purple.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FALLON: You're not going to make it easy on them at all, are you? What's going to rhyme with purple? Where are you from?

JENNY: Hartville, Ohio.

Mr. FALLON: Hartville, Ohio. All right, Roots, here's the deal. We got Jenny, she's from Hartfield, Ohio. This is not easy. All right. Hartfield - and she loves the color purple. Let's see what happens.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. AHMIR THOMPSON (The Roots): (Singing) Questlove, deep seek, he got the nerdy lock (ph)/ We finishing the second week here at 30 Rock / My man Jimmy, yeah I know you heard he's hot, How he matches his ties up with whatever shirt he got / Speaking of colors, on shows we got many / Like purple, that's the favorite color of Jenny, Word, when I split rhymes, you know the thought ill, So take that song back to your people in Hartsville...

(Soundbite of cheering)

BIANCULLI: Our next guest, Questlove, is the cofounder and drummer of The Roots. Terry spoke with him in 2003. Questlove, also known as Ahmir Thompson, grew up in Philadelphia around music. His father, Lee Andrews, lead the doo-wop group Lee Andrews and The Hearts, which had the hit single "Teardrops." Questlove co-founded The Root in 1987, when he was a student at the Philadelphia High School for creative and performing arts. That was back when sampling, not live drumming, provided most of the beats in hip-hop music.

Mr. THOMPSON: Coming up in high school, when The Roots first started, you know, hip-hop really wasn't that elaborate an arrangement. I'm talking about hip-hop circa 1984,'85, '86, when it's pretty much just a drumbeat, a simple drumbeat and a stab - a stab would be sort of like the exclamation point at the end of the sentence. Bahhh. You know, it could be scratched in or just like some sort of noise, an enforcement noise.

And you know, so in high school pretty much, Black Thought, Tariq Trotter, would, you know, come up to me and just name any popular song at that time in point and just say, yo, yo, play "Top billing." You know, because it was a drum arrangement, I'm going to play it, and that was like the most amazing thing to him. Oh, he can play "Top billing," he could play, you know, "The Bridge is Over," he could play - you know, just naming all these songs and I could play them. I kind of thought it was natural.

GROSS: Okay, I want to stop you right there, because that's kind of interesting. Since you came up in the era of sampling, as an actual musician your friends expected you to basically play the samples.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You're still expected to play...

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, exactly.

GROSS: You're still expected to play like other people's music.

Mr. THOMPSON: Right. Well, I mean that's - hip-hop is audio pop art, really, it's just a collage of other ideas. And even at the time I didn't know that - okay, sampling's the proper term for it. For the hip-hop nation pretty much the first introduction to real sampling that we've ever seen was this episode of "The Cosby Show," when Stevie Wonder runs over the Huxtables' car with his limousine - well, not that violent. But you know, he invites them to a studio session and for the first time America got to see the process of sampling, in which you say something and it's repeated back to you. And after me and my friend saw that episode, we were begging for whatever that machine was called; we didn't know what it was called.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: You know, like in our heads it was sort of like the Flintstone episode where, you know, like the little bird is inside of the machine and recreating the noise, and we didn't how in the world that happened. So just during Christmas, Casio happened to make a product called an SK-1 machine, which allowed you about maybe three or four seconds' worth of sampling time. And you know, me and all my friends got this little toy keyboard for Christmas, and you know, you mess around with it a little while, you do like all the curse words you know and all that stuff, and then you start getting serious about it, and that's when I would like run to the basement where my drum set was and try and cram in eight bars worth of drum breaks within three seconds, which, you know, you have to be pretty fast to do it.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. THOMPSON: And then I just, you know, realized the endless possibilities of a sampler, you know.

GROSS: You started playing drums when you were in high school, yes?

Mr. THOMPSON: No, actually I started when I was two.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh, okay.

Mr. THOMPSON: I was two years old. I started The Roots when I was in high school. My father is an oldies doo-wop singer from the Philadelphia area.

GROSS: Lee Andrews of Lee Andrews and The Hearts.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, Lee Andrews and the Hearts. So I pretty much - my childhood is pretty much based just backstage at doo-wop extravaganza shows, you know, like Dick Clark presents, you know, and it would be like 10 groups - (unintelligible) Harvey and The Moonglows, The Tokens -you name it. If they were from the '50s or the '60s, it would just be a big show at either like at Madison Square Garden or the Spectrum or in the Forum in LA, so pretty much that's - I grew up backstage, watching all these groups.

GROSS: Now, Lee Andrews' biggest hit, I think, was "Teardrops" in 1957?

Mr. THOMPSON: "Teardrops," yeah, '57? Yeah, yeah, '57.

GROSS: Would you mind to sing a few lines from it just to refresh listeners' memories?

Mr. THOMPSON: I wouldn't want to scare your listeners.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay, how about this - how about we play a little bit of it?

Mr. THOMPSON: We can do that, yeah.

(Soundbite of song, "Teardrops")

Mr. LEE ANDREWS: (Singing) I sit in my room looking out at the rain, My tears are like crystals, they cover my window pane, I'm thinking of our lost romance and how it should have been, Oh if we only could start over again, I know you never forgive me dear, for running out on you, I was wrong to take a chance with somebody new, I sit in my room looking out at the rain, My tears are like crystals, they cover my window pane, I know you never forgive me dear, for running out on you.

GROSS: Okay, so that's Lee Andrews and the Hearts. So you grew up, you know, backstage and watching your father perform; what sense did it give you of what the music life was like? And then you probably watched your father kind of drop out of sight after the doo-wop era was over. So you also knew what it was like to no longer be in the limelight after having being in it as a young man.

Mr. THOMPSON: I mean, I was born in the '70s so pretty much I came along...

GROSS: Oh, you came along right in the...

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, it really wasn't about it...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, it really wasn't about a - I mean, even though he made it a career, if anything he taught me that there is a Plan B, you know, and that not everyone gets the Plan A limelight.

GROSS: Right. What was his Plan B?

Mr. THOMPSON: By the time I was born, you know, he had met and married my mother. I have a sister as well, and they had opened up a boutique store and they were quite content, and you know, as with any music phenomenon that occurs 20 years before, there's an upsurgence of it 20 years later, and I guess most of that started when - Sha Na Na appearing at Woodstock and then pretty much after that just Dick Clark would throw a slew of shows just in the Tri-State area, the New York area, any place that loved doo-wop, and my father just made a great living out of it, and...

GROSS: Don't you often wonder if there's going to be like old school rap shows? Like...

Mr. THOMPSON: Oh, there is right now.

GROSS: Is there already?

Mr. THOMPSON: Totally. And the thing with hip-hop is - the model for hip-hop is definitely here today and gone today, so...

GROSS: Yeah, I know what you mean...

Mr. THOMPSON: Anything under five years is pretty much considered old school. This weekend I was listening to a popular New York radio station and they were like: Now back in the day, Wu Tang Clan, da da da da, old school.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: I was like, wait a minute, Wu Tang? That's six years ago.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. THOMPSON: Six, seven years ago. You know, old school to me is, okay, maybe we can say like Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On," like a song that's definitely over 20 years old or something, you know, near 30 years old. But yeah, pretty much in the hip-hop it's here today and it's gone today.

BIANCULLI: Questlove, also known as Ahmir Thompson, speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2003 interview with Ahmir Thompson, a.k.a. Questlove, co-founder of and drummer for The Roots. The Roots is now on the view as the house band for "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" on NBC.

GROSS: Let's get back to your high school years, and you went to the High School of Creative and Performing Arts.

Mr. THOMPSON: Performing Arts, right.

GROSS: In Philadelphia. So that means that you were exposed at a young age to artists of your age of every sort.

Mr. THOMPSON: Exactly, you know...

GROSS: You know painters and dancers and people in theater and music of every sort.

Mr. THOMPSON: Boyz II Men rehearsing in the...

GROSS: Boyz II Men was in your school?

Mr. THOMPSON: In the bathroom, always rehearsing.

GROSS: Was it good to be exposed to so much?

Mr. THOMPSON: It was perfect, you know, like my first - I actually - unfortunately, I came to Performing Arts High School in the eleventh grade. I had started - Performing Arts had a private school sector that I went to from first to eighth grade. Then my parents took me out of that school and tried to send me to a college prep school, which was good academic - you know. I could wind up on "Jeopardy," you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: You know, talk about "The Iliad" or something. But you know, my heart was with music development, and so I begged them to send me to the public school for performing arts and finally got my wish for the eleventh and twelfth grade. And I walk in there, like I had never been to public school and pretty much my only exposure to that type of a school was watching the television show "Fame."

GROSS: Mm hmm.

Mr. THOMPSON: And you know, you're kind of wondering, like, is this the type of school that's going to be like a cliche, like are they going to break out in dance numbers in the hallway. And you know, do all those things that you see on television. And you know, I was like real skeptical of it, like it's not going be like "Fame" or whatever. And sure enough, like, you walk in the class and, you know, they're singing, you know, Boyz II Men's practicing in the corner and you have like Christian McBride and Joey DeFrancesco trading fours down the hallway.

GROSS: These are now well-known jazz musicians.

Mr. THOMPSON: Exactly like, you know, like the who's who of like the thespian world.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: Rehearsing, you know, their sonnets over there and it's just crazy. It was really a weird experience for me.

GROSS: The Roots are from Philly and for a lot of rappers, like, the place they are from becomes, like, mythologized through their rap.

Mr. THOMPSON: Right.

GROSS: What do you think you've done like to create a Philadelphia in your music?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, Philadelphia had sort of a bad/nondescript reputation between…

GROSS: In hip-hop you mean, because there was the Philly Sound before that…

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah I'm just talking in the terms of…

GROSS: …in the '70s, Gamble and Huff. Mm hmm, right.

Mr. THOMPSON: Even though - I'll say two of the major important factors of hip-hop history have originated in Philadelphia. Number one: Gangsta rap pretty much - there is debate as to whether Ice-T, who is from LA or Schoolly D who is from 52nd and Parkside, was the first, quote unquote, gangsta rapper. And pretty much - anybody that's familiar with Schoolly D can give you pretty much an account of where they were the first time they ever heard his classic "PSK What Does It Mean?" You know because we just never heard a rap that explicit. You know pretty much hip-hop before then was about partying. And you know there was some reality rhymes here and there, you know, "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash…

GROSS: Mm hmm.

Mr. THOMPSON: ...and maybe "It's Like That" by Run DMC. But you know pretty much, everyone's been like politically correct. You didn't hear that much profanity, that much cursing and that much honesty. You know, Schoolly D talked like your older cousin on the corner, you know, or the guys that you knew down the street on the corner. And you know, he was very influential to a lot of people - the Beastie Boys, and the list goes on.

GROSS: So, what's your image of Philly in your music?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, we had to take that and well, let me just quickly say that the other important element was the art of deejaying. Philadelphia has four very important pioneers in deejaying - Jazzy Jeff, DJ Cash Money, DJ Maze, and DJ Cheese(ph) - all from the tri-state area. And they're pretty much the standard for which deejay's today are basing their skills on. When you talk about deejay's doing the look-ma-no-hands tricks and what not. So pretty much that's all that Philly - those were the two major factors that Philly offered in '80s. And you know living under New York's shadow didn't help matters much because, you know, they were the creme de la creme of culture.

GROSS: Right. One last thing, I'm interested in your record collection.

Mr. THOMPSON: Mm hmm. Yeah.

GROSS: I understand you have a really big one. What's the range of things that you listen to?

Mr. THOMPSON: Anything. I'm just into anything musical, you know. I like the Incredible Bongo Rock group. I like David Bowie. I like you know - I collect a lot of rare hip-hop records. And I collect just a lot of obscure records - records that have been use in samples. I'm very curious in the ingredients that other producers have used to make their records, you know, sort of like someone going out and buying a cookbook to see the ingredients that went inside a particular stew…

GROSS: Right, right.

Mr. THOMPSON: So I collect those type of things.

GROSS: You collect a lot of vinyl.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, I'm about 27,000 strong right now.

GROSS: Of vinyl?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. I know that's not my sort of DJ Shadow's collection. I heard he's up to 60,000.

GROSS: Wow, mighty impressive, though.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: I've got some ways to go. But, you know I'll get there.

GROSS: Okay and one final question…

Mr. THOMPSON: Yes.

GROSS: How come you wear an afro?

Mr. THOMPSON: Because I'm secretly a chia pet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I won't sing the theme.

Mr. THOMPSON: Right. Ch-ch-ch-chia.

GROSS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: My hair just grows. I come from a family that - you know I don't have the patience - I don't have the patience, nor the time to go to a barbershop and get a cut every three seconds. So, my hair just grows. It's always been problematic for me. It's just - thank God, it's in style now. Imagine me trying to get through this hairstyle in the late '80s and the early '90s, you know? Back then, I could do a flattop thing. But, nom I just - I just keep it. It's my crown, you know, sort of symbolic now. But, yeah, it was a problem back in the day. You know, people staring at me like oh my God. You know, now it's a no thing because everyone has it.

GROSS: And besides, you're you, so…

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, exactly.

GROSS: You can do it now.

Mr. THOMPSON: I'm an individual.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Thank you so much.

Mr. THOMPSON: Or one of the Mr. Jacksons.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. THOMPSON: Thank you. I appreciate it, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Ahmir Thompson, aka Questlove, speaking with Terry Gross in 2003. His band The Roots is now on TV every weeknight as the house band on NBC's "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." Here's a track from the latest CD by The Roots, "Rising Down."

(Soundbite of song, "Criminal")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Monday they predict the storm, Tuesday they predict the bang, Wednesday they cover the crash, and I can see it's all about cash, and they got the nerve to hunt down my ass and treat me like a criminal.

Mr. TARIK TROTTER (MC, The Roots): (Rapping) Look, it is what it is because of what it was, I did what I did 'cause it does what it does, I don't put nothin' above what I am, what I love, my family, my blood, my city and my hood, hater for the greater good, I'm back from Hollywood, and I ain't changed a lick, though I know I probably should, but, what I'm doin' is not a good look, I never did it by the good book as a lifetime crook, all the petty crime took a toll on me.

I look around at my homies that's getting' old on me, but still somethin gotta hold on me, maybe it's faith, if it's comin', yo I'm willing to wait, I'm not runnin', I done ran through the muck, I done scrambled and such, I done robbed an odd job and gambled enough, till I'm put up in handcuffs and pissin' in a cup, if there's a God I don't know if he listenin' or what?

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Monday they predict the storm, Tuesday they predict the bang. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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