Q&A with Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson of the Roots

The Q&A below starring Roots drummer Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson, whose band opens for Westword profile and Q&A subject Erykah Badu, represented a first for yours truly. Never before had I conducted an interview with an artist who spent the first portion of the conversation on a treadmill. But Thompson is nothing if not a multi-tasker, and he managed to offer typically insightful quotes even as he huffed and puffed.

Thompson, making his second Westword appearance (access an intriguing 1997 article about the Roots here), takes on those music critics who’ve lowered their grade for Rising Down, the outfit’s latest album, because of its overt seriousness; mentions his devotion to the Barack Obama campaign; compares his group’s audience to Badu fans, complete with references to The Jeffersons and Malcolm In the Middle; talks about the development of a conscious hip-hop movement in the late ‘90s facilitated in part by a record executive who’d threatened to drop the act’s contract just a few years earlier; debunks rumors about a collaboration with Fall Out Boy lead singer Patrick Stump, who contributed to a tune that was ultimately left off domestic versions of Rising Down; and talks about how the pressure on the group to shift units is alleviated to at least a small degree by the success of the latest Mariah Carey CD. As a bonus, Thompson discusses his production of Lay It Down, the new CD by soul icon Al Green, which recently received a glowing notice in these pages. Included: shit talk, tech talk and the revelation that he next hopes to use his studio magic to revive the career of none other than Tom Jones.

In this context, it’s not unusual at all.

Westword (Michael Roberts): Most of the reviews of the new album have been positive, but there have been quite a few that have complained about how heavy it is, how serious it is. Has that reaction surprised you?

Ahmir Thompson: Nothing surprises me. I don’t know what type of world they live in, but there’s clearly a generational gap that doesn’t see hip-hop as anything but playful fodder, pastime music. I come from a place where this is actually a normal record. This would be a normal record for Boogie Down Productions or Public Enemy. Not to be dismissive of them, but those are probably the same people who think half of the bullshit you hear on the radio is the best songs of the year. Hip-hop is not a playful took for me, meant to sort of dumb down a generation. Hip-hop to me is about enlightenment. That’s the prime reason we made this record – simply because of our anger at hip-hop being afraid to take a stand.

Most of hip-hop’s generation is like, “Who cares about the political process when people are going to do what they want to do anyway?” I guess it’s their indifferent attitude toward the Republican party, where Bush said, “You don’t have to vote for me for President. I’m still your President.” That line alone, in Michael Moore’s documentary, that’s a quote I heard from everybody under the age of thirty when I was campaigning for Obama. When I asked them, “Why are you not voting?” And they were like, “The political process is already fixed. Why should we spend time voting when they’re just going to choose who they want to choose?” That said, I understand why there’s indifference. But I don’t excuse it. So I’ve got to take a stand.

WW: Considering that so much of the music I hear in all genres is pretty much substance-free, I’d think people would be thrilled to find an album like yours, that has so much to dig into.

AT: Oh, you know, some people are lazy half the time. And I’ve been guilty of this sometimes in my little side job of doing record reviews for certain publications. They might ask me to do something under a pseudonym or something, and the first thing I do is I Google that artist, and then I base my opinion on what popular opinion says on the net. If you Google an artist and read someone else’s opinion, and then you base your opinion on it, and then you do the thirty second test… I know for a fact that this is the ADD generation, and no one in this time and place has the time to sit and listen uninterrupted for sixty minutes to anybody’s music. I think Robert Christgau is the last record reviewer on earth who listens to eight records a day twice before giving his opinion on it. Christgau used to work at…

WW: The Village Voice.

AT: Yeah, the Village Voice. Christgau is the last true-blue record critic on earth. He gave us an A-plus. That’s pretty much who I make my records for. He’s like the last of that whole Lester Bangs generation of record reviewers, and I still heed his words. He gets my vision, and I’m cool with that. But half these people, they read Pitchfork, and they base half their opinion and quotes on that.

WW: I got a chance to interview you once before, back in 1997 for the Smokin’ Grooves tour – and ironically enough, Erykah Badu was on that tour, too.

AT: Yeah, I forgot that we were together once. We always joked that we’d never been together.

WW: Well, here’s something you said to me in that previous interview, and I wanted to get your take on it today. You said, “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.’” In the end, how many artists from your generation took the left road, like you guys did?

AT: Oh, man (laughs). Well, let’s see. For some strange reason, Erykah really took the left road on this record…

WW: She did.

AT: And what’s really funny is, all along, I never knew she’d been to the right until I started looking at her audience. Her heart was always left, but her audience was always right, and I think she knew that, you know? It wasn’t until years later that I realized, Erykah’s adult contemporary. Her heart’s with us, but her monetary pockets are still with the right.

Through the last ten years, I’ve been teasing with her about that. She always wanted to know, “Why won’t you guys tour with me anymore?” And I’m like, “Erykah, when are you going to realize that your audience is not my audience?” And she’d be like, “That’s not true. That’s not true.” And I’m like, “Erykah, your audience looks like Marla Gibbs. Fifty-plus. Old black people. They also walk out on your encores, because they want to beat traffic. And my audience looks more like Frankie Muniz from Malcolm in the Middle. Young, white, collegiate 17-24 year olders. We do not have the same audience.” And I think a lot of that thought process went into her album.

I love watching the people’s faces, because this is definitely not an album that you’re on middle ground about. You either think this is absolutely the best record ever – and I admit, it didn’t even hit me until my eighth listen. I was forcing myself… Well, not forcing myself. I knew that I was going to get it, but it was going to take me a while to understand it. I just wasn’t prepared for it. The songs I worked on all sounded like “Telephone,” and of course, “Telephone” sounds nothing like the album that comes before it. So a lot of the songs I worked on are going to be on the next record. So I just wasn’t ready for the radical direction she took, and I knew her audience wasn’t ready for the radical direction that she took. But she’s been handling it like a pro, man.

The new material comes along great with her, and she’s still absolutely peerless when it comes to entertaining. It’s hard for me to separate the person I’m joking with backstage with the figure I’m watching onstage. I’m like, I want to meet that person onstage (laughs). Not the one who’s always saying I didn’t drum that part right whenever we’re in the studio. I want to meet the one onstage. But going back to your question about directions, there are very few who took the left. [Talib] Kweli did. If anything, I was part of the group that provided a shelter for the left. Kind of weird. The Mos Defs of the world. The Kwelis. The Commons. The Bilals.

WW: So you weren’t alone, but it’s not like a crowd that took the road less traveled…

AT: It’s kind of funny that you mentioned 1997, because that was a very pivotal year for us. I remember that year very well. We had a meeting after we did the Smokin’ Grooves tour. We had a meeting with the same record executive who we were arguing about at the beginning and the end of the record. [Rising Down’s “The Pow Wow” and “Pow Wow 2” feature 1994 recordings of Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought, Thompson and then-manager A.J. Shine discussing and/or blowing up over Geffen Records executive Wendy Goldstein’s alleged threat to drop the Roots from the label.] We told her, “The only way we’re going to make sense and rap up to another level is if we build a movement. You either have us here as your critical darlings – have us linger under the radar for however long. Or, if you truly want us to be winners, we know the math formula you have to use, but you’re going to have to trust us.”

And the difference between 1997 and 2007 is that they actually listened. The trust factor was, we told them, “We need to build a movement. You need to sign five or six artists who are just like us and have us interact and be together.” And as a result, her first movie, Wendy Goldstein’s first move, in December of 1997, was to go to Relativity Records and get Common out of his deal with Relativity. They bought his contract out and he started recording for Geffen. And then she went and got Mos Def, and she went and got Kweli. And another label got Slum Village, but she gave [group member] Jay Dee a label deal. And she signed Pharoahe Monch. And with that particular lineup, and with Erykah still associated with us at the time, and us and D’Angelo working heavily with us, and Bilal and Musiq [Soulchild] and Jill Scott coming into the fold, you pretty much had the means for a movement.

There’s never been any success story in the music business without some sort of association. P. Diddy had his relationships with the acts he was associated with, the Native Tongues had each other, with De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. Dr. Dre has his associates. You’ve never, ever heard of an isolated movement in music, ever. There’s always been an association. You can even see Gnarls Barkley as an extension of Outkast. With that stand, that’s when things sort of came together – once we built a movement. We had to build a movement first.

WW: Now there are reports that you’re having problems with your current record label, Def Jam – and it seemed like such an ideal situation at the beginning. What’s gone wrong? Or would you put it that way?

AT: Let me clear this up. Actually, one of the main reasons I put that intro on there – the intro from 1994, where we’re arguing about the record execs on the album – was basically to show that this is nothing new. I think the perception is like, “You guys had it great, and then Def Jam came along and killed your dreams.” No, it’s not that. That type of tension, that sort of atmosphere, has always been a part of our career. We’re not in the dark. We know we’re not the easiest pill to swallow. It’s like, how are you going to sell our brand of music to a generation that loves the Superman dance. It’s possible, but I would say it’s like the Rubik’s Cube that Will Smith’s character has to figure out in the back of the cab in The Pursuit of Happyness.

WW: Not everyone can solve that cube as quickly as he does.

AT: Exactly. It’s like a bomb’s going to detonate, and we’ve got 35 seconds to get this Rubik’s Cube thing right. It’s not just us. I don’t want people under the impression of, “Oh, it’s just you guys having problems with a label.” This week alone, sales have gone down 67 percent. Like, Madonna’s sales have dropped 71 percent. People just aren’t buying records in the age of information. The people who are still buying records are basically completists. I have a fan base where… We have nine records, and for some reason, maybe I have an OCD kind of fan base where they just need to see those nine records in a row on top of each other. Record collectors, completists buy it. But pretty much, no matter how hard I try, it doesn’t matter.

I actually held this record. This record wasn’t even leaked online until two days before the release date, which is a miracle. I physically held onto this record until I absolutely had to give it up to the label. Records get leaked once it goes to the factory. That’s when they get leaked, so my whole solution was to hold this past the deadline date, and God willing, they’d press up enough, and by that week, it’d go to the stores. But we’ve actually talked to the label brass and things are fine. We still have a career. We still get to make records, and that’s important to me. But I don’t want people to have the idea that Def Jam is the big, bad label, and let’s go to another. It’s going to be that way with any label. It’ll be that way if we go to Sony. It’ll be that way if we go to Jive. It’ll be that way if we go back to Geffen, or if we go to Interscope. There are no labels left, basically…

WW: A lot fewer than there used to be, anyhow.

AT: Yeah. This is a very sugar-pop marketplace. If you’re Disney, you’re golden. If you’re country, you’re golden. I don’t know what this says, but in the top fifty, 79 percent are either Disney associated, reality-based associated or country-associated. That speaks a lot. The rest of the 21 percent is Icon associated (laughs).

WW: A lot’s been made about “Birthday Girl” not ending up on the album here in the States. Whose idea was the collaboration with Patrick Stump in the first place? Was it you guys? Or did someone at the label suggest that to you?

AT: Usually, the way black people do stuff is, they’ve got to look at the top of the charts and see who’s hot and how can I grab their demographic. Like, in a normal world, I’d say, “Let’s grab U2. Let’s grab Coldplay.” Well, you saw the Coldplay wars go down between Jay and Kanye. That’s more or less the thinking in terms of the numbers – like, how can I expand my audience? I’m sure some of it has to do with some social nuances, but really, it’s about the numbers they can bring. It’s not like Kanye and Jay are going to argue about the lead singer of the Gossip or the Fiery Furnaces. If you want to associate yourself with obscure rock people, come see me, because I know those people. Deerhoof and people like that.

Usually, with black acts, it’s more or less about expanding your numbers. But with us, I met Patrick in a hotel lobby, and I had a J Dilla t-shirt on, and we were talking for twenty minutes about J Dilla, and I just thought he was some fan. And then Kirk [Douglas, also known as Captain Kirk], my guitar player, came up, and he started talking. And the way Kirk was talking, Kirk knew who this guy was. So when Patrick turns his back, I’m like [whispers], “Who is this guy?” “He’s Patrick Stump from Fall Out Boy.” And I was like, “Oh,” because I never knew him. And after that, we invited him to our ‘Twas the Night Before the Grammys jam. Every year, we do this event called ‘Twas the Night Before the Grammys, and he came, and I was like, “Okay.” Even then, I wasn’t that familiar with Fall Out material. But he was waving his ghetto card big. He was singing “She’s a Bad Mama Jama” and Prince’s “Kiss” and all this stuff. So we became friends, and that’s when I realized, this guy is kind of the ?uestlove of his group. We’re comparing iPods with each other, and “Have you seen this bootleg?” I don’t know if you remember that meeting in Boogie Nights between Dirk Diggler and – what’s his name? The guy who plays in Walk Hard?

WW: John C. Reilly.

AT: Yeah, John C. Reilly. When they first meet, when they’re trying to outdo each other: That was me and Patrick all the way. Like, “I’ve got this documentary of the Police that no one’s ever seen before.” And I pull my copy out and say, “You mean this one?” And he’s like, “How’d you get that?” That’s how we became cool. We’d done the Grammy thing, our jam session thing, for two, three, four years, so I guess we had some time off. So I said, “Yo, let’s mess around in the studio.” And we actually worked on three or four joints. And then “Birthday Girl” actually wasn’t even collaborated on. We’d had that song since probably [2004’s] The Tipping Point. And at the end of the session, I said, “Yo, you want to sing on this joint real quick?” He did it in, like, ten minutes. And that was basically it.

WW: But, of course, the people at the label are going to have that demographic reaction that you talked about earlier. It’s been portrayed as them trying to force the song on you, and that’s why you left it off the album – and clearly that’s not the case.

AT: No, because we know the name of the game. The thing is, they’ll let you be who you are. But if you want to be effective, you know what you’ve got to do. So it’s like, “Okay, are we going to make an art record this year? Are we going to sell some records? What are we going to do, gentlemen?” And it’s the marketplace. In order for us to even recoup the money we spent on this record, we at least have got to sell 300,000. And no one wants to be seen in the “L” category of not bringing profits to the label, because that’s the name of the game. This is the kind of stuff that people don’t see or realize that it goes on behind the scenes.

WW: Selling 300,000 now is like selling three million five years ago…

AT: It’s going to be a struggle, and if we get to it, I’ll be very surprised. But I think the respect factor that comes with the group sort of ensures that we have another record coming, and we won’t be easily as disposable as another act might be.

WW: You’ve earned that respect.

AT: Yes, we’ve earned it. And it’s a balance thing. I’m like, I’m glad Mariah’s there, because she’ll make up for my record (laughs).

WW: I also wanted to talk to you about the new Al Green record, which I think is really good.

AT: Thank you very much.

WW: It seems like a lot of times when these comeback projects are conceived, the producers try to update the sound of the artist in ways that seem kind of forced, and you didn’t do that. Could you talk with me about that, and also about the Hi Rhythm Section sound that’s on all the great Al Green records, and if you’ve figured out the secret to that, which people have been trying to discover for years?

AT: Absolutely they have. And the secret is, less is more. A lot of it was me smacking the back of the hands of all the musicians, saying, “No! No! No! No! No!” A lot of cats like to overplay, overdo it. And I had to choose the right cats who really knew how to underplay and not overwhelm the track. But yeah, this just came from a music snob standpoint. I’m the Jack Black character in High Fidelity.

WW: You’re the guy who rips on the customer who comes in to buy “I Just Called to Say ‘I Love You’”?

AT: Absolutely. Let me not start snarking Stevie Wonder, but yeah, I’m that guy. Imagine that guy talking a whole bunch of shit, and all of a sudden, he’s allowed to put his money where his mouth is. Because that’s how it started. I started talking a whole bunch of shit to [executives] Bruce [Lundvall] and Eli [Wolf] at Blue Note [the label that released Lay It Down]. I was like, “Why are people always messing up with Al Green? Let me take a shot at that. I’ll give you a real Al Green record.” And they go, “Really? You can do it? You can do it? Really?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I can do it.” And sure enough, I did.

No disrespect to the master [Willie Mitchell, who worked with Green on most of his classic albums], but I was angry because I read this four star review in Rolling Stone about his comeback record. And I was like, “Oh my God! They’re back together in the same studio? It’s going to sound the same,” and yada-yada-yada. And then I listened to it and I was like, “Ah, man, this sounds like the House of Blues house band played this.”

WW: That’s why I asked about finding that formula – because even Willie Mitchell couldn’t find that formula a few years ago, and he invented it.

AT: Yeah, man. This is the thing. It’s much more about being a songwriter. It’s much more about being a musician. This is the one element that people always miss out on. You have to know how to be an engineer. You have to know your microphones, you have to know your drums, you have to know which amps work, you have to know the room, you have to know that cement floors are great for some things and rugs are great for other things, you have to know the type of outboard gear you use, what type of compressor units you use. You have to know all these things.

It’s much more than just trusting the engineer to get it. You have to know how technology has moved. I know that the SSL flying J series for reel to reel doesn’t give you that warm ‘70s compression that a Neve board from 1975 will give you. And on top of that, I know where the studio that still has that Neve outboard gear is. So you have to be an engineer nowadays. Back in the day, you didn’t have to be an engineer, because back then, all those things I’m searching for now on the technical end were the norm in studios. But since they’ve upgraded to high digital gear, a lot of the perfections have been perfected – which I don’t necessarily see as a good thing.

That’s great if you were Prince or Michael Jackson recording 1999 and Thriller, respectively, and you wanted to use technology to the nth degree and get the clearest sound ever. If I’m doing that kind of synthetic music, working with drum machines and synthesizers, then yeah, an SSL flying J board is perfect. But it speaks volumes that my favorite parts of Lay It Down, like “You’ve Got the Love I Need” and especially “Just for Me” – my favorite part of that whole process is all the hiss and all the buzz I hear on those songs. All the imperfections. Stuff that other engineers have gotten fired for in the past.

We did a song in 1997 on Illadelph Halflife that our A&R guy complained about. He was like, “Yo, why is all that hiss in there?” And one of the engineers accidentally left two blank tracks on as loud as possible in the mix, and he got fired. He lost his job over that. And it’s so funny, because now I insist that happens. Back then, I told the studio owner, “Don’t fire him over that. I’m with that. It’s cool.” But the studio owner is like, “Nah, because now I’ve got to pay for this shit, and it’s coming out of my money, and he fucked up.” I tried to save his job, and I couldn’t. But thank you to him for teaching me a new trick. I do that all the time now, because I love that sound, I love that hiss, I love that imperfection.

WW: Now do you think you’re going to have every surviving soul star from the ‘70s knocking on your door and saying, “Can you do this for me, too?”

AT: Hell, yes. This is my equivalent of putting my apple pie on the windowsill and enticing the whole neighborhood to come over. Absolutely. Tom Jones is next.

WW: Seriously? Tom Jones is next?

AT: Yeah, we’ve got a meeting with Tom Jones in July. And we have a meeting with Al Jarreau. But that’s all I want. I want everybody who I would ever sample in the ‘70s to come to me. Come to me, and I’ll give you the treatment.

WW: That’s the best news I’ve heard all day.

AT: I’m amped. I haven’t been this excited in a long time about doing it.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts