The interview of my life.
Ahmir Thompson on the phone from Seoul, South Korea
By ISABELLE DAVIS
Drummer, producer, DJ and music buff extraordinaire (he owns every episode of Soul Train and has a vinyl collection that rivals most), Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson has been the musical director and leader of the legendary Roots crew for over 20 years now. Here, we discuss Antibalas stalking, the musical Fela! and the Roots' new gig as Jimmy Fallon's house band.
HI. VERY, VERY NICE TO MEET YOU, AHMIR.
Oh, hey. What's up? How you doing?
HOW'S ASIA GOING?
Oh, it's wonderful. It's great, you know.
FIRST OF ALL, CONGRATULATIONS ON LATE NIGHT WITH JIMMY FALLON. I THINK IT'S GREAT. HOW DID THIS COME ABOUT? WERE YOU GUYS JUST A NATURAL CHOICE?
Basically. I was the music supervisor for Chappelle's Show. So basically, Dave's partner, Neal Brennan, recommended me to both Jimmy and his producer. I think for a second Neal Brennan was going to be the producer of the Fallon show, but he declined because he has a movie development deal. But he still recommended that they hire me, to see if I was interested. You know, it was right up our alley. We've been doing this for 17 years and basically, you know, there's but so much you can see and travel in the world. From 1992 on, every year. And you know, we kinda wanted to slow down our schedule but not necessarily take a monetary dip. We tour to survive, so we can't just stay home or else, you know, we'd be in the poor house. This provides us the steady work and we get to stay home. And probably the best thing about it is, maybe for the first time in, like, eight years, I can finally devote a lot of hours to being in the studio. Which pretty much, after that 2000 run of Voodoo and Mama's Gun, and Common's two albums, you know, I pretty much stayed out of the studio unless it had anything to do with the Roots.
SINCE YOUR WEEKENDS WILL TECHNICALLY BE FREE, WHAT ARE SOME POTENTIAL PROJECTS?
We're going to keep the weekends open to do one-off gigs. I mean, we're retired from touring, but we'll still do as many weekend gigs as possible. Can't get totally
ARE YOU GUYS WORKING ON ANY POTENTIAL NEW ALBUMS, SOLO PROJECTS?
We started our 11th, I'll say three weeks ago, before we came over here.
ARE YOU JUST GOING TO TAKE YOUR TIME WITH IT?
I think in a perfect world we're trying to have it ready for July.
I READ A WHILE BACK YOU WANTED TO DO YOUR GRACELAND ALBUM POTENTIALLY IN CUBA. IS THAT SOMETHING THAT WILL STILL HAPPEN?
Well, that album would have actually been Game Theory. And the place that we chose to do it ...we were prepared to move to New Orleans in May of 2005. But then Katrina happened and that sort of went out the window because we literally lost contact with the brass band that we adopted earlier that year. But actually, come to think of it, that's kinda how Tuba Gooding Jr. wound up in the group, our new tuba player. Even though we had lost a brass band, I still wanted to do a brass experiment.
AND BRASS HEAVEN WAS TOURING WITH YOU GUYS FOR A WHILE.
Yeah, they basically became our ... you know. I had no idea Philadelphia even had a New Orleans-esque brass band. So we did an augmented version of the original. I mean the original Brass Heaven's like, 13, 14 members. Out of those four cats, we kept Tuba.
ARE YOU GUYS GOING TO DO ANOTHER ROOTS PICNIC THIS SUMMER? I WENT TO THE FIRST ONE.
Yes, we are. And this time I promise it's gonna be an actual picnic. We're new at this festival-throwing thing, so we forgot to figure in fatigue of the audience and how to protect them from the sun.
IT WAS GREAT, BUT I'M NOT GOING TO LIE, ONE OF MY FRIENDS FAINTED. BUT SHE WAS NOT HYDRATING.
Yeah, we were throwing water out. We actually, we've confirmed two days of lineup.
CAN YOU SPILL ANY OF THE GOSSIP?
Absolutely not. But this lineup will kick ass. That's all I can say. This lineup will absolutely kick ass. I actually suggested we pull back a little bit because the lineup's so damn good that I don't know how we can top it next year. And plus it's spread out to two days. I'm not even worried about this year, I'm worried about the future. All I can say is we have a potential four great rock acts, two world acts, four hip-hop acts. I mean, these are tentative, they still have yet to confirm. It's gonna be a great mixture of the two.
I CHATTED WITH THE REVEREND AL GREEN A COUPLE MONTHS AGO AND I ASKED HIM IF HE WAS POTENTIALLY EVER GONNA DO ANOTHER ALBUM WITH YOU AND JAMES POYSER. AND HE ANSWERED WITH A VERY, VERY ENTHUSIASTIC "YES." IS THAT SOMETHING THAT COULD BE A POSSIBILITY FOR YOU DOWN THE LINE?
Yeah, you know, once you go Randy Watson, you can't go back.
AND SPEAKING OF WHICH, KUDOS ON THE GRAMMY NODS FOR THAT ALBUM.
Thank you. I promised him that he'd get one Grammy nomination, not four.
I THINK YOU WERE ROBBED FOR PRODUCER OF THE YEAR.
You know what? Actually believe it or not, I'm more happy that we got engineering. [Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical]
DO YOU MIND COMMENTING AT ALL ON THE RECENT BUZZ THAT [D'ANGELO'S] JAMES RIVER IS COMING OUT IN THE NEXT MONTHS?
He's not calling it James River and in a pleasant surprise, I'm one of the last elements to be added. Which basically means he's at least more than halfway done, which in D'Angelo speak is a miracle.
I'VE HEARD VARIOUS THINGS, LIKE, IT HAS A MORE ROCK ELEMENT, IT'S THIS, IT'S THAT. CAN YOU COMMENT AT ALL?
I can only go on, the material I've worked ... the last I touched this record was in 2004 and that was when he was going all the way rock. However, I am to believe at least in our conversations that he did 100 percent just actually a clean slate. I knew that Erykah's New Amerykah was real inspirational to him, so perhaps he's taken a more esoteric turn. But I'm actually not going to hear none of the material until I get to Los Angeles the day after tomorrow.
DO YOU MIND MY ASKING, SO YOU GUYS ARE COOL NOW?
Yeah, so under the bridge, we made up at Erykah's show earlier in March. It's history.
SO LET'S TALK ABOUT THIS SOUND CLASH. HAVE YOU GUYS EVER PLAYED WITH ANTIBALAS BEFORE?
I'm probably the world's biggest Antibalas stalker. I've always been a fan of theirs, but I didn't start my stalking mission probably until they became the house band for the Fela! musical. I still dream of that shit. That's probably the best entertainment ... I mean people ask me, "What's your favorite concert that you've been?" I'd probably have to say the seven or eight times I've seen that. Even now, like all the people that I meet, go and the people that I've bought tickets for, they're still speaking of it. To me, it's just perfect ... they're just so airtight. They do it with such ease and such quietness. The hardest thing in the world is to play quiet and be airtight. And the fact that they are just so studied without shaking is amazing to me.
WHAT WERE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE ALBUMS OF 2008?
Um, 2008, um. I definitely, definitely, definitely dug Erykah's ... I mean even though I was part of that record, I still consider my role so minor that I can listen to it as a fan. I hate to be those artists that they, you know, mention their product first.
IF IT'S GOOD, IT'S GOOD.
Yeah, I've really enjoyed just, you know, her work. Raphael Saadiq, The Way I See It, was one of my favorite albums of the year. Probably the most surprising record, Q-Tip's The Renaissance. I would actually also say that this is probably the first time in a long time that a lot of singing albums made a registration in my list. I've really enjoyed and I'm very surprised and happy with Jazmine Sullivan's album, and who else? I also like Esperanza Spaulding's album. Santogold, her album was great. I'm also under the impression that TV on the Radio can do no wrong. We did a project with them this year that hopefully will come out in the first quarter. Our first collaborative effort is a gospel song. It's a duet between Tariq, Kyp and um, ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh ... ahhhhhhhhhhhh. Forgive me, I'm sorry. It's past midnight.
IS TARIQ EVER GONNA RELEASE THE SOLO WORK THAT'S BEEN FLOATING AROUND? IS HE MAYBE GONNA TAKE SOME TIME SINCE YOU GUYS WILL BE IN A MORE PERMANENT LOCATION TO DO THAT? WHAT'S THE REST OF THE BAND GOING TO DO?
I assume that all our studio activity will triple now that we are in one steady place. Not to mention, we actually convinced those guys to build us a studio in the dressing room.
ARE YOU GUYS GONNA BE IN ANY OF THE BITS? ARE YOU GONNA TRADE ZINGERS LIKE CONAN AND BAMBA DO?
Oh, yeah. I told Fallon instantly, like, anytime you come up with any "Year 2000"-esque skits, I'm singing that shit. I actually have my first meeting with them on the Monday after we do this Sound Clash.
THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH FOR TAKING THE TIME TO SPEAK WITH ME. AND AT THE RISK OF SOUNDING UNPROFESSIONAL AND TOTALLY STARSTRUCK, I'VE BEEN LISTENING TO YOU GUYS SINCE I WAS 10 OR 11, AND YOUR MUSIC HAS IMPACTED MY LIFE ... NOT JUST WITH THE ROOTS, BUT EVERYTHING. VOODOO MADE ME WANT TO BE A MUSIC JOURNALIST.
Alright! Thank you!
THE ROOTS VS. ANTIBALAS
279 TREMONT ST., BOSTON
music: ?uestlove [Weekly Dig]