Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson can now add Oscars music director to his already lengthy list of accomplishments. Questlove is a drummer, producer, DJ, film director, and Grammy-winning frontman for The Roots, which also serves as the house band on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Questlove seems like such an obvious choice for the Oscars music director role, and he has confidently taken on the responsibility of creating the music that fans will hear during Hollywood’s biggest night. Complex spoke to Questlove ahead of the 93rd Annual Academy Awards ceremony taking place in Los Angeles on Sunday, April 25. He told us how he’s feeling and what inspired the music he composed and selected for this year’s Oscars.
“I thought I would probably tense up or be nervous about it, but I’m actually excited for it. Normally, I throw Oscar watching parties, and we do a big giant pot, betting, wagering, and all that stuff, and this is a good excuse not to do that this year,” Thompson told Complex. “Just as a film geek and a music geek, and now, first-time director, I’m excited to be a part of this, not to mention it’s going to be so radically different than what it was before. All due to the amazing, exemplary work of Jesse Collins, who produced the BET Awards, he produced the Halftime special this year, he also did the Grammys. So with Jesse as producer and Steven Soderbergh as producer, I personally feel as though the sky’s the limit, and we’re just having fun with creativity.”
The Academy held a virtual press conference with the 2021 Oscars producers Jesse Collins, Stacey Sher, and Steven Soderbergh on Saturday, April 17. They spoke in depth about the changes that are happening for this year’s show. “We are just trying to create an experience that has the aesthetics of a film, as opposed to a TV show. The room is so beautifully laid out. The whole thing is going to sound different in terms of how Questlove is approaching the scoring of the show,” Soderbergh said. “So we just want the whole thing right out of the gate to announce itself as being different. And if you like movies, you will feel like you are watching a movie.”
For Thompson, the new model meant that he had the opportunity to create music that pays homage to iconic composers who don’t get the shine they so rightfully deserve. He also found a way to blend his love of hip-hop and film by highlighting film music composers who have provided source material that has been used in hip-hop sampling. “In terms of the music, I’m a true blue—that’s so cliche, I feel like I’m talking like my dad now—I’m a true blue hip-hop head. For me, I instantly saw two things when I was offered the gig. One thing I was allowed to do, one thing I wasn’t allowed to do. The one thing that I wasn’t allowed to do is interrupt anyone’s Oscar speech. When I got offered the gig, that’s exactly where my mind went. I was like, ‘Wait a minute. I got to come up with a really awesome, horrible speech interrupter.’ So, I immediately started crafting something, and they were like, ‘No, no, slow down. We’re not interrupting anyone’s speech. That’s part of the old model. We’re not going to interrupt.’ I was looking so forward to having my own ‘Wrap it up, B,’ sort of moment,” he said, referencing the “Wrap It Up!” skit from the Chappelle’s Show. “The other thing that this will allow me to do is to pay tribute to a host of film composers who are not part of billion-dollar franchises. Usually, the average, everyday people, they just know John Williams’ name, or they might know [Ennio Morricone]. Most people know those names. So for me, as a hip-hop head, I’ll say that at least 50 percent of our source material when it comes to sampling comes from these obscure library records. Library records are what you’ll license these songs to be your incidental music on the Brady Bunch or some sitcom where you hear music in the background. It’s often just like, the unknown, legendary LA musicians, or orchestra members, who have made these records that, until hip-hop and sampling capabilities came along, sort of brought it back to life.
“A lot of the music cues will also be an homage to some of the great compositions that wound up as hip-hop samples. It just gives me a chance to shine a light on those names that you don’t know. People know Bill Conti, but they don’t know Lalo Schifrin or Les Baxter, or Nino Nardini, a bunch of obscure Italian or German or French, European music composers,” the Grammy winner continued. “As a film geek and as a score geek, my inspiration was just those kind of uncelebrated film scores that really just never got their flowers or their just due for years of work that have been used over and over and over again. That, to me, is my portion of the pie.”
This year’s Oscars come after a year of people surviving a global pandemic, forcing Hollywood to be on standby for months. Still, artists and filmmakers continued creating and releasing movies that helped people get through one of the darkest times in recent memory—and the awards show will reflect that. “The first thing that was established as far as what the tone of the show is going to be is that it’s definitely uplifting and celebratory. We had a conversation, a long conversation about where we should pivot and break new ground, what parts should be traditional. So, without spoiler alerting things, we’re definitely taking a new twist on everything you’re used to,” Thompson said. “The Oscars are a very posh, stuffy, serious affair. Even some parts are dark when you get towards the middle. I will say that probably the most radical thing of all is to throw that out the window and make this more celebratory and uplifting because that’s what people need and look forward to. That’s going to reflect in everything, including the music.”
The Oscars usually celebrates nominees in the Best Original Song category by choosing a few of the artists to perform parts of their nominated song during the ceremony, whether on their own or as part of a medley. This year, all five nominees will have the opportunity to showcase their pieces in full in pre-recorded performances that will air during the pre-show, Oscars: Into the Spotlight. H.E.R. and Dernst Emile II will sing “Fight For You” from Judas and the Black Messiah, Daniel Pemberton will sing “Hear My Voice” from The Trial of the Chicago 7, Savan Kotecha, Fat Max Gsus and Rickard Goransson will perform “Husavik” from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, Laura Pausini will sing “Io Si (Seen)” from The Life Ahead (La Vita Davanti a Se), and Leslie Odom Jr. will sing “Speak Now” from One Night In Miami.
Questlove supports this decision since it allows the artists to showcase their songs as they wish. “I’ve been a part of three previous Oscar music presentations, and it is such a nightmare. Even when crafting music for a film, those who have the in-the-back-of-their-mind awareness of how this could potentially be an Oscar moment, you automatically know that you have a three-minute and 20-second limit, which really makes it hard,” he said. “One particular year, we crafted a song that was like five minutes and 30 seconds. So then I’m the bad guy that has to figure out whose part won’t be included so that we can make sure that it squeezes in. I applaud this pivot because people do watch the pre-show. If anything, I think more people watch the pre-show than they do the actual ceremony because they want to see the red carpet, they want to see who wore what. It allows the artist to really present the song the way that they want to present it, without fear of having to cut off a verse or take someone’s entire piece of work away.”
The musician didn’t want to give much away about what’s in store during this year’s ceremony, but he says he paid special attention to the show’s In Memoriam segment. “So the part that I’m really hiding is that specific part. What I will say is that was probably the biggest challenge because we’ve lost more people in record numbers in the industry this year than any year on record,” Questlove told Complex. “That’s the first thing we worked on, immediately. How do we do this so that it’s respectful? How do we do that so it’s tasteful? And how do we do it so it’s inclusive because you didn’t want to leave anyone out of it? So I think we heeded the call, and people will really feel this.”
He added: “We had to think of a creative way to stay within the guidelines of what a segment is because most segments of a show are four to nine minutes, and it’s a lot of names. So, in my opinion, there’s no topping this one. This one is special. That’s what I can say.”
Questlove will make his debut as Oscars musical director during the 93rd Annual Academy Awards, which airs Sunday, April 25 at 8 p.m. EST on ABC.