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Ahmir Khalib-Thompson, aka ?uestlove, drummer and bandleader of the hip-hop combo called the Roots, has been among the few rap personalities to actively criticize some of his peers for talking trash, endorsing anti-intellectualism and promoting a criminal lifestyle guaranteed to result in the bodies of more young men littering inner-city streets. But he understands why more performers have not raised their voices along with his.
"Some people just don't want to go through certain troubles that come along with giving quotes or discussing things like that, because hip-hop is the only confrontational music left," he says. "You remember back when Kurt Cobain was doing interviews about how he thought Pearl Jam sucked? Well, if they had been into hip-hop, Eddie Vedder would have busted a cap in his ass."
Wisdom like this is typical of ?uestlove, who in a few short years has seen the Roots (also featuring bassist Leonard "Hub" Hubbard, rappers Malik B and Black Thought, keyboard player Kamal and racket-master Rahzel the Godfather of Noyze) go from an underground phenomenon in his native Philadelphia to an act at the very pinnacle of the hip-hop medium. And make no mistake about it: The Roots see their music not simply as an avenue to untold riches, but as a vibrant field that affords them the opportunity to communicate and educate even as they crank out the jams. By betting on the brains of the audience in this manner, ?uestlove recognizes that the Roots are taking a financial risk; despite the quality of the outfit's three discs (1993's independently released Organix, 1994's Do You Want More?!!!??! and last year's impressive Illadelph Halflife), he grumbles that "we only seem to do 300,000 albums every time we come out." But that doesn't mean he's ready to sell his soul for a platter made of platinum.
"The way the market is set up now, you're left with a watered-down, desensitizing process," he points out. "A lot of people say the music that comes out of it is commercial, and a lot of people say it's a sellout. But what I'm finding out is that a lot of hip-hop artists are at the crossroads. They can either take the left road, which is the road that allows them to be creative and to really express themselves, or they can take the right road, which says, 'Okay, you've got bills to pay and you have to survive and you can't stay in the same neighborhood where you're at or else motherfuckers are going to rob you. And the only way to get out is to get a radio hit.'
"All we ever hear about is this East Coast-West Coast thing," he goes on. "But in New York, there's another war--a big-ass civil war between artists who want to keep the art form as creative as they can and other artists who are saying, 'Fuck that shit. I've been trying to keep it real for three years and I'm still living in my mama's crib. Fuck that--I need a hit now.' It's an attitude that's so much about money and about materialism that you've got motherfuckers dying for it. And that's something I can't keep quiet about."
?uestlove has so much to say, in fact, that he's lately branched out into print. For the past several months he has penned a column for Rap Pages, one of the key hip-hop publications in the country. However, he has not used this forum as an opportunity to launch fusillades at the rhymers who he feels come up short in the positivity department. "I wanted to avoid being seen as the hip-hop Andy Rooney," he notes. "So I've tried to write about our experiences and what we've gone through. A recent one was about what it's like in Japan right now. And one of my favorites was this writeup about why I think Prince belongs in the hip-hop hall of fame. I showed how his career mirrored what a lot of hip-hop artists go through--how his albums were stickered for lyrical content and how he uses metaphors for sex and so on. I came up with, like, fifteen comparisons."
Assembling such a list was a snap for ?uestlove, a passionate student of music who was raised in a soulful environment. His father, Lee Andrews, is a professional musician best known for his work with the Hearts, a Philadelphia-based doo-wop group that enjoyed some minor chart successes during the late Fifties. By the time ?uestlove was five years old, he was already a regular feature of the Hearts' live shows. He took up the drums seriously a couple of years later and became so good so fast that Andrews put him in charge of the band as a whole when he was only twelve. Because ?uestlove has been on the road steadily since then, living out of a suitcase is second nature to him. "I was raised to be in show business," he declares. Nevertheless, he understands what a grind a string of one-night stands can be. Malik B, a key part of the Roots' recordings, quit traveling with the group several years ago, and ?uestlove fully grasps why he made this decision.