Drumming for the legendary alternative hip-hop outfit, The Roots, since their foundation in 1993, Philadelphia native, Questlove, has been an integral member of the contemporary music scene for two decades now. Quest has always had his ear tuned to the innerworkings of the industry and, with this year's release of his memoir Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove, as well as his recent professorship at NYU, the world has slowly begun to see Questlove as one of today's preeminent scholars of music, particularly in the arenas of soul, funk, and hip-hop.
We recently caught up with Questlove to get his take on the state of music in the social age, as he discussed everything from Kickstarter to how digital media has affected our relationship with music.
Interview by Gus Turner (@gusturner1)
With vinyl, listening to music is more of a sit-down, collective experience. Obviously, you can have it going on during a party or something, but it's at least sit-down in the sense that it's limited to a contained space.
It used to be. And it should be. It's mostly not nowadays. [Laughs.]
Right! So what do you think is lost when generations, like our current one, grow up listening to music portably, with iPods and iPhones and such?
Well, the danger of having your entire collection in your pocket is that it's also ADD. I can even take that back to hip-hop producers and how you can tell the level of hip-hop producers who absorb music and hip-hop producers who fish for music. Cause there's two ways to treat it. Nine times out of ten, when you're digging for music, digging in the crates, especially when you go on a massive buying mission, I know cats that like—and I used to be one of these cats—put the record on 45 and then you just start fishing, fishing, fishing.
You're just looking for that sample.
I always thought that music was spiritual, but [Dilla] really taught me how to absorb it.
And you always miss it! And one day, when we were working on Common's Like Water for Chocolate record, I was at Dilla's pad, we were in Detroit, I was on his MPC-3000 and he happened to have the program pad up for what would've been "Hold Tight" for Slum Village. The third version, the version that finally wound up on the Fantastic, Vol. 2 album. And it was one of these long chords. And I was like, "Yo, what's this from?" He goes, "Yeah, that's Nat Adderly. On the Zodiac record." I'm like, "Really? Which one? Taurus? Virgo?" Anyway, the song was like 16 minutes and 10 seconds. So I put it on, and I sped it up a little bit more and put it on 45, and then I lost patience after the fourth minute. Couldn't find [the sample]. To Dilla I was like, "You sure it's that?" Finally, he came over, and he goes to the very last minute of the song, and he's like, "Right here." And I'm like, "Yo, how did you...?"
Dilla's unorthodox way of sampling was, y'know, most of the hip-hop classics that samples are from, normally those magic moments happen within the first two minutes of the record. The drum break gotta be at the top, or that magic break gotta be at the intro of the song. Rarely, rarely, do you find that magic sample in the heat of the song.
It's like J. Cole sampling from the beginning of Fela Kuti's “Gentlemen” for “Let Nas Down.”
Yeah! And after seven or eight or nine of those Dilla samples, especially after this particular period, he was taking Steve Koon samples and a lot of these Bill Evans solo keyboard records and I'm like, "How do you...?" This isn't something that you can scan through. And he's like, "Yeah, just listen to it." And I'm like, "Huh?" And he's like, "I just listen to it. If you sit and you absorb, and you're really paying attention to it, the answer will be as clear as day. But you can't have ADD." He taught me that.
And he just sits through the whole thing.
The loop for "Breathe & Stop"—we went shopping; he bought three records from Emmett Chapman, three of the same records. And Chapman was like Stanley Jordan, he plays on the frets of his guitar, fast as shit. Even the "Breathe & Stop" sample was slowed down massively. He's doing all this quick work. And even [Dilla] was like, "Man, I can't find nothing. Maybe you can find something." And he gives me the record, so I took it home. I listened to it and it just made me dizzy; it was too overwhelming. I couldn't make anything out of it. Then Dilla hit me up two weeks later and was like, "Yo, man. I got it. I got it." And then he plays what eventually becomes "Breathe & Stop" and I'm like, "How did you find this?" He just said, "I was determined." His rule was that there's absolutely nothing worth rejecting as far as sampling is concerned. I always thought that music was spiritual, but he really taught me how to absorb it. He always used the word "absorb." He would close his eyes and absorb it. He never skimmed, never scanned. He absorbed it. It starts there. He had this patience to sift through a lot of shit just to get that magic moment. And he knew when he got that magic moment. He just had to find it.
Today, there's just too much information and it becomes overwhelming. Like, Jerry's Record's Store in Pittsburgh. Jerry's Record Store is this giant warehouse where the letter "A" is the size of this hallway. It's a waste to go there if you don't go there for a week. If you go there for a week and you’re thorough, you might get to the letter "R." In soul. To me, that's sort’ve just a model for what this generation is with the remote control and iPods and technology. [Brushes hands together.] Everything's quick fast, in a hurry.
So how do you think, with music distribution being what it is today, and stuff like Spotify, how has that affected this progression? What’s your opinion of Spotify as a recording artist right now?
I called this Jay Z thing. I'm not surprised or offended or hurt by the Jay Z deal because I knew this was going to be the future.
Y'know, I saw what Thom [Yorke] and Nigel [Godich] had to say about it, and I need to investigate. My bread and butter has never been from royalties. Record money is an afterthought. I pay my taxes with the record money. My living is with my show money and my 11 other businesses. Actually, DJing is now my bread and butter, ironically. I know [Thom and Nigel] and I know they're not greedy, corporate people. It's learning curve. I think that the world that we're discovering now in 2013, I think it's similar to how the record business was in 1913. It didn't get perfected until the '60s. I called this Jay Z thing. I'm not surprised or offended or hurt by the Jay Z deal because I knew this was going to be the future.
So more sponsors then?
Yeah, sponsors! I can see Tide or Kelloggs—it'll be a little weird, but it'll be like, "Pizza Hut presents: The-Dream!" or whatever.
[Laughs.] Who is the Roots' sponsor going to be?
Ah, I'll pick like, Play-Doh. [Laughs.] Something silly. For a second, it woulda been Mountain Dew. Mountain Dew had this idea but really didn't have a marquee artist to bang that out. Cause A-list artists were A-list artists, and they were fine. Now A-list artists are sort've on our side of the fence, trying to get elbow room to grab the rebound. But Mountain Dew was actually close to that. They wanted to kind of have a business model where they just say, "Hey, Mariah Carey, here's $5 million. You give us 25 songs; fans can stream it from our site." I still think that's going to be the future. And Jay actually said it best himself. He was the first to do it so it's not going to be perfect. Everyone who does it first in hip-hop never gets it right. It's always the person that's going to come second. So I'm sure Beyonce or Kanye or somebody will come in with an even more perfect model. But I'm not affected either way.
So, for smaller artists, a really popular platform has been Kickstarter. Do you foresee a future maybe where Kickstarter is existing as this communal system that brings up artists and then sponsors take those artists? Or where do you think a self-publishing platform like Kickstarter fits in?
Well, I've supported the entitled on Kickstarter and I've supported the struggler.
Do you believe the "entitled" are the people who believe that they deserve to get their art made?
Well, I know that people are kind of throwing stones at Spike Lee for his Kickstarter thing but if I recall correctly, Spike Lee was actually selling white tube socks to fund She's Gotta Have It. So Spike was sort've the Kickstarter protagonist back before it was called Kickstarter. When he ran out of money for Malcolm X, he Kickstarted to Magic Johnson, Prince, Janet Jackson, Tracy Chapman, Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan. He asked all those individuals for a million dollars each. They gave it to him, no questions asked. He said, "Look, it's important that America sees this." I mostly Kickstarted films that I think are interesting, or at least documentaries that I would like to go see.
Any recent examples?
There is one that I just contributed to called Transparenthood. They're these two filmmakers from Detroit. There was this brutal murder of a transgender female in Detroit that was a big story there and the preview that they had up was gripping, so I contributed to that. A lot of stuff that I like are music documentaries. For example, Syl Johnson's documentary. I got involved with Nelson George's Finding the Funk documentary that him and Arthur Baker did—all Kickstarter stuff. But y'know, I'm definitely going to give Spike significant money because I like Spike Lee films. I'm a cinephile, so I want to see films I like get manifested as long as I have the resources to do so.
But the one aspect of the music community that's missing, that I don't know if it's my old way of thinking or not: it has to start small. And I'm not saying that what's good for me is good for them, but no one is really putting much energy into community-building.
What about things like A$AP Mob? Or Kanye building community in Chicago by bringing on guys like King Louie or Chief Keef to his album?
See, but my thing is: Is Kanye building a community, or is he nuancing his cool? There's a trick that Dave Matthews does: two opening acts, one, relatively known opening act. Back in '98, a non-Supernatural Santana used to open up for Dave Matthews. And then the opening act would've been either the Antibalas or Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings or the Roots. And every show, he comes out to an empty-ass theater, only 6,000 people there in a stadium that can hold 35,000. [He says,] "Hey, guys how you doing? Dave Matthews." At first, I was like, "Oh, that's really cool!" Then I realized, "Oh, that makes you look cool!" It says to you that, "Hey, I know something you guys don't know." And then you guys are like, "Dave Matthews is pushing this brand new group called the Roots.” My survival of 2002 was based on opening for Dave Matthews; being that cool. Kanye's more or less doing the Jay Z model too. Which is the "get 'em while they're young, take 'em." If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
I'm talking about a real grassroots thing. It's one thing to be like, "Oh, who's new? This girl named Santigold? Alright, let's get down with it." Then, alright, who's next? Who's next? "Okay, Rita Ora!" Y'know? That's one way of doing it. The end results to me still read diminishing returns.
In what sense?
Okay, Santi's second album comes out and really doesn't have the same fire that her first album does.
But everyone has sophomore slumps.
But y'know, then M.I.A.'s third album [Maya] which—so weird!—cause in the age of Yeezus, I went back to her third record—
M.I.A. is somehow the most underrated innovator of the past decade.
I want Pitchfork to actually make—
A retrospective review.
Yeah! Cause the first thing I did when I listened to Yeezus: I went to Saul Williams' album, and then I went to M.I.A.'s record and then I'm like, "Wait a minute!"
And then I read the reviews and it was panned, and it was "too loud."
Well, it's funny because that's what I thought was going to happen with Kanye with the similarities between their album buildup. The whole New York Times thing.
That’s Kanye’s genius. The one thing I envy about Kanye is his ability to bully the press.
Yeah, I really thought they were going to hit him a bit harder on some stuff.
No, man! The unfortunate thing about the social age is that now journalists are celebrities as well, in their own right. So no one wants to be Lester Bangs. No one wants to be seen as the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer who had indifference with a particular product. And it's easier to browbeat and bully something that can't stand on its own two legs. I mean, regardless of what you think of the Yeezus record, it's going to stand on its own two legs. Kanye is news.
I will never give my opinion on a record without having lived with it for a month. And I'm glad I waited, cause the first two days, I really dismissed Kanye's record. Then suddenly, I was like, "Okay!" Just one-by-one.
My whole thing is that with building a real community, it's the Motown method. It's the factory method. It's taking like-minded acts and honing them and working with them and honing them. That's what happened. '97: I had no clue. Jill Scott was a retail sales worker. Musiq Soulchild delivered pizzas. And Bilal was in the ninth grade. India.Arie was a friend of my merchandise seller, who then also got his own record. Eve was, yeah, okay, I knew her in the context of being a stripper. [Laughs.] She’s let that story be known. But that's how—these were regular people with everyday lives that came everyday. There was a little Common there, and Mos was unknown—Universal Magnetic was out—but the point was that we were there every week in '97. Every week! Every Sunday in New York at Wetlands. Every Tuesday at the Five Spot in Philly. Every week. 1997, 1998, 1999. Three years in a row, having five-hour jam sessions from 8 p.m. to one or two in the morning for those three years. It's that practice and that seasoning. The rehearsal is being on stage, thinking off the top of your head, thinking up new music. Y'know, looking at Scott Storch being like, [whispering] "Remember that! Remember that loop!" And then us honing it the next day in the studio. Suddenly, it didn't become that surprising that Common is now platinum. Or "Oh, shit, we sold 900,000 units?" Erykah sold 2 million, y'know what I mean? That to me, is the definition of real community. Putting in work and digging up dirt. So, as an established person, I could take Hiatus Kaiyote and get with him. And then when the well is dry be like, "Okay, see ya!" [Laughs.] But that isn't real community-building.
Do you think that sense of community has been degraded by how quickly artists can blow up today—being that we are in the social age with things like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook?
That's the problem. We would have to slow it down. With everything! When Magna Carta and Yeezus came out, everyone was at my neck like, "Alright, Quest whatchu think?" I was like, "Yo, the shit just came out." I will never give my opinion on a record without having lived with it for a month. And I'm glad I waited, cause the first two days, I really dismissed Kanye's record. Then suddenly, I was like, "Okay!" Just one-by-one.
Yeah, it took me until my third listen, and then "I'm In It" suddenly just opened up to me. It was like hearing a whole new song.
Yeah, and that whole world just starts opening to me. And I'm glad I didn't come out the gate like, "Yo!" All that I said: that's why I teach at NYU. I don't force people to see that Off The Wall is a masterpiece; I want to teach them how to listen to music, and I think that's the most important thing.