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.