The Roots are the world’s premier hip-hop group, that fact is hard to dispute. What some didn’t know until the band joined up as the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon was how truly wide their musical net was and how and funny they are. Well, if you actually knew anything about the guys you knew it. Just look at The Roots’ band leader Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson on Chappelle’s Show with Dave Chappelle and John Mayer:
|Electric Guitar, Drums or Electric Piano Pt. 2|
Questlove was the musical director on Chappelle’s Show, working under show co-creator Neil Brennan. Brennan was on the shortlist for the director job on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and was also the one who floated the idea of The Roots to the show’s producers as the house band. After some back and forth the idea became reality and now The Roots are an integral part of Fallon’s show.
From Slow Jam the News with NBC Nightly News‘ Brian Williams, to ?uestions where the audience gets a peak inside Questlove’s head to see what he’s pondering, to the band backing Fallon on his comedic tunes or backing guest artists, The Roots are now part of the show’s fabric. They’re such a part of the show that they’re irreplaceable at this point.
Rock ‘n Roll Ghost had the pleasure to speak to Questlove the day before Late Night with Jimmy Fallon‘s recent one-week hiatus (the show returns with new episodes tonight at 12:35 a.m. ET/11:35 p.m. CT). Questlove was eager to talk about anything and everything and we shared a few good laughs together. It was an honor speaking the great musician.
Rock ‘n Roll Ghost: What about touring with your schedule? Any touring for the upcoming Roots album or the John Legend and Booker T albums?
Questlove: We do get 14 weeks off, which is enough time for any regular band to tour. Most bands only take 3 months to tour their product. We took 40 weeks to tour instead of 14. The hard part is basically just booking it. We’re kind of caught in between putting our eggs in the Legend basket or putting our eggs in the what do we do for 14 days to maximize our touring. There’s a demand for us to tour the states now. It’s weird, as long as we’re not available to do the shows, that’s when we’re the most valuable. (laughs) It’s like, ‘If you guys come Thursday night I’ll pay you 5x the price.’ But if we didn’t have the show, then it’d be like, ‘We’ll pay you the same rate you got in 2003.’ That’s the silly thing about it. As long as we say no, they’ll pay us a billion dollars. But the second we’re not on TV anymore, we’re not as valuable. For all the weeks off we’re pretty much touring. Those hiatuses are probably how we really see the benefits of doing the show. That’s the ‘Ma, can I have dessert after dinner.’ This is sort of the eating the asparagus. And when those two weeks come, we book every gig possible. Sometimes even double-dipping two shows a day. Then it’s like ‘Whoo! This job is worth it.’ It’s a little trying.
The hiatus this week, we’re pretty much concentrating on Earth Day. We’ve got rehearsal with Sting on Monday, then we’re doing a special with Herbie Hancock on Tuesday, then we’re basically backing up Mavis Staples, Patrick Stump.
How does it feel to be the go-to-guys for backing up other artists? It’s really become one of the things you’re known for.
Questlove: It’s actually not even a Catch-22, it’s a Catch-222. It’s really nice to be acknowledged and to be appreciated and to get random calls like, ‘Hey Mick Jagger wants to see you guys…’ But it’s also weird that we’re kind of blocking the market because in order for people to truly get us or to appreciate us you have to see us in the context of other bands. I thought it was greatest thing in the world for Amy Winehouse to use the Dap Kings to get them more notoriety. Thus, Sharon Jones gets more gigs because a bona fide superstar utilized them to good effect. But it’s like I want the same thing for Soulive. I want other bands to be in existence. I don’t want to be in that secret room on the Mario board collecting all the gold coins for myself. ‘Cause then, when it’s time to take assessment of it, we’re still the circus freak in the corner. I like the accolades we get, but I would also like to see…I’d rather see us influence other bands getting record deals. That would make me a little bit happier. That way we can also be on our toes.
Also, it’s so much work for us, you can basically kiss any type of social life goodbye. If you notice I didn’t say anything about going to football practice or someone’s ballet recital or dinner with my girlfriend. That’s nowhere in the future. This is my future.
Do you feel there has to be a point where you have to stop agreeing to these things?
Questlove: Yeah, but it is like a drug. Because I sort of view the music industry as a “tsunami”, I’m just trying to build the strongest teflon, Area One, sort of air proof shelter that I can. I guess in my head I’m doing this whole, Robert DeNiro, Heat thing. This whole one last score before I call it quits. The one last score is just going for broke. Doing the Broadway stuff and doing the stuff that we do at Carnegie Hall with the orchestra and doing sketch comedy here and trying to do movie scoring and TV scoring. There’s just a world of opportunity that we really didn’t have available to us before we took the gig. I would really hate to say no to something and not necessarily see how it could benefit us.
You can’t trust it. It’s really weird because, I think at the time when we were contemplating the gig in July of 2008 our concern was is it going to slow our work down? Just to see the touring circuit regulars that were always with us at all the festivals, they’re coming back like, ‘Y’all got out at exactly the right time.’ It’s taken a toll. We didn’t know it, but this wound up being probably the best shelter that any artist could ever hope for.
How did you get approached for the gig (with Late Night with Jimmy Fallon) and what were the final reasons for taking it?
Questlove: At the time, when they were considering a director for the show, one of their shortlist guys was Neil Brennan, the co-creator of Chappelle’s Show and also my boss when I was musical director of Chappelle’s Show. He basically said, as a joke, knowing my schedule, knowing I’d never do it. ‘It’d be really cool if you had The Roots as a house band.’ So we happened to be at a UCLA show in July of 2008 and Jimmy was there and he casually mentioned it. He’s like, ‘You know Brennan said you should be the house band. Wouldn’t that be crazy?’ He basically hung with us that entire day. We were like, ‘He’s cool as shit!’ We had the same questions that our fan base had for us. Then I thought how can I revolutionize it? I don’t mean like revolutionize like reinvent the wheel. The more I did my investigation the more I figured…I said, ‘Wait a minute, one he’s a musical comedian, so that means that we’d definitely be utilized more than the average Doc Severinsen. On top of that, he was one step ahead of his competition by really embracing the online world. This practically is one step away from being a full-fledged online thing. Like our online world is different from our late night world. The fact that he hired…like the staff that works here is practically the Dream Team of the online world. To pull Gavin Purcell from the G4 channel and to pull Barry Zwitest from the Onion.com. He basically went to the cream of the crop of all of the comedy blogs and the comedy websites and took all their best people. He basically took the LeBron James’s of the online comedy worlds and put them all into one room. And we’re still trying to figure each other out. It shows you that he was serious.
For us, one of the main straws was…I had taken 2008 sort of off. For me taking off is like taking two months off. I had taken the time off to campaign for Barack Obama. The payoff was…the inside joke was that I was going to be the first hip-hop DJ to play inside the White House at the inauguration. That dream was about to manifest itself and then we had to go to Jakarta. I was like, can’t Frank (percussionist Knuckles) just sub in for me? It’s not everyday you get to watch the guy you’ve been slaving for all year get into the White House and get invited to the White House and you get to make history at the White House. They (the band) understood, but they (the promoters) were like ‘if Questlove doesn’t come you can take 60% away.’ I had to honor the contract.
But more than that, a lot of situations of that caliber were coming up. A lot of band members have kids and they’re just not getting why you have to go away for two months. We were toying with the idea of, well what would be our version of the Las Vegas gig? What would be the hip-hop version of Celine Dion? When this came up, we said no a lot. We said no in July all the way to August. We said no without really entertaining the thought. I asked my management, ‘Why don’t we see how serious they are. Say if they matched our salary now and we got to stay in New York.’ And we only had to work an hour a day…to work an hour a day and make the same money you would make doing 200 shows across the globe, maybe it’s worth an investigation. I think the real reason why we just said no is I think we were afraid the bloggers would come at us. And for awhile they were. None of them got it. The best one was, someone said it was the equivalent of Miles Davis playing for change in the subway.
In short, I think we were just a little bit paranoid about what the perception of the group would be if we just did this whole ironic turn to becoming a late night house band. Would the irony of the whole Bamboozled implication come to life? We weighed it out for maybe three weeks and then I went back to Jimmy and was like, ‘Are you still considering that?’ And then he was like, ‘Well are you still considering that?’ We just went back and forth for a week. Let’s just have a meeting and see what happens. It took about six weeks but our manager came back and said these people are serious and are willing to do what it takes to accommodate us. We negotiated until the cows came home and then in October we made it official. It was a little weird at first because we didn’t understand the white collar world of discipline and meetings and that type of stuff. (But now) we’re here until 2016.
The first month was a little hard because we didn’t understand the whole idea of making up songs on the spot and they were a little paranoid because they knew we were a good hip-hop group, ‘but do you guys know Gershwin? Do you know Broadway references? Can you play jazz? If I say Skynyrd do you know what to do?’ That’s how the whole Freestylin’ With The Roots came about. The writers came up with an idea to test our musical knowledge. There was definitely a probationary period thing going on. The initial contract was, we’ll renegotiate your contract every seven weeks. Sort of giving them insurance in case we weren’t the band for the gig and then they could call up the guys from Saturday Night Live upstairs to fill in. After Freestylin’ With The Roots all bets were off. They realized that not only did we pass the test we would also be crucial to the show’s development.
How you guys work on the show is great. From Slow Jam the News to ?uestions to 6-Bee. I love how they incorporate you and the band into the show.
Questlove: It’s fun. My favorite part is obviously the walk-ons. That’s the only place in which you can do snarky inside jokes that guests may or may not understand.
There was the one that people were all abuzz about…one that was particularly notorious.
Questlove: If Heidi Montag does come on the show again then all bets are off. We did “Loser” from Beck and the fact that Spencer and Heidi didn’t know what hit them, they still don’t know, that was perfect. ‘Cause when Michael J. Fox was on this week my whole Twitter community was like, ‘You realize you’re going to go to hell if you do Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones” or anything like that.’ I was like, I’m not mean. I’m trying to lay back from the snark. That would have been very easy and very mean to do. We wound up re-enacting the Marvin Berry and the Starligters scene to “Johnny Be Good’. Even that was hard, because Chuck Berry…you figure that the Beatles are the most expensive group to ever clear for walk-on purposes, but actually that honor goes to Chuck Berry.
Chuck needs to get paid.
Questlove: He wants $2 million for a 20 second “Johnny Be Good” sell. I was clever with it. My father released a song on Chess Records called “The Clock” which is the same blues progression as “Johnny Be Good”, so we technically did my father’s song with the guitar solo on it!!! (both of us erupt with laughter) You wouldn’t believe all the NBC executives, ‘He’s not doing ‘Johnny Be Good’ is he!?! He’s not doing ‘Johnny Be Good’ is he!?!’ But I assured them and played my father’s song for them. That calmed them down.