Interview: ?uestlove remembers J Dilla, talks Hip-Hop Under Obama and What It Means To Have Jay-Z’s Ear
Earlier today Clutch, Q-Love and I got the chance to sit down with the drummer from The Roots Crew (and Jimmy Fallon House Band), Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson. It was a lucky coincidence that we spoke to Questlove today- February 10th- because it also happens to be the anniversary of the death of the late great producer J Dilla. We know Quest worked with Dilla a substantial amount, and when asked about him, Quest’s voice immediately brightened up, and it became clear that he and Dilla were good friends, and Quest idolized Jay Dee in a big way. Quest also explains why Reagan and Republicanism were good for hip-hop, and how although Barack Obama may be great, he is certainly not Superman. The audio of our conversation will air on 95.5 WBRU’s 360 this Sunday, but the text is under the cut!
“I never saw Obama as a figure that was like a wizard, that could just pull out his wand, and sort of like the cat in the hat, clean the house up in exactly one fell swoop. I knew from the gate that this was the equivalent of one person being asked to clean an entire frat house with 48 hours left before mom and dad get there. And with no sponges, only a toothbrush.”
Q-Love: This is Q-Love and Dizzy and were talking to Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson of The Roots on 95.5 WBRU’s 360.
Quest: Oh two Q-Love’s? How are you?
Q-Love: Haha that’s right. I’m good, I’m good.
Dizzy: How are you?
Quest: Ah. I’m great, I’m great.
Q-Love: Let’s go back in time for a second. In an interview you did a few years ago you talked about how hip-hop is beautiful in ugly times. You said that Reagan’s neglect of the inner city is responsible for hip-hop. Now presently, Obama is President. What does this mean for hip-hop, if anything?
Quest: It’s kind of funny you said because the status remains to be seen. The thing was, a lot of hip hoppers were jumping the gun, sort of doing this “Ah Superman’s here to save us.” But I never saw Obama as a figure that was like a wizard, that could just pull out his wand, and sort of like the cat in the hat, clean the house up in exactly one fell swoop. I knew from the gate that this was the equivalent of one person being asked to clean an entire frat house with 48 hours left before mom and dad get there. And with no sponges, only a toothbrush. So I wasn’t exactly ready to make this ‘celebratory album.’ Because I do think that things are going to have to get worse before they get better. So, if anything, I’m more or less shocked that the Bush era elicited so much silence. You could have never told me, especially in light of the fact that I did like six cuts with them in 1999, I just knew that the second that Bush got into office that Zack De La Rocha would probably be the most controversial figure in music. And yet, we didn’t hear all but maybe one or two songs, and a reunion maybe, Rage Against The Machine. A lot of it has to do with the fact that there was some sort of fear of booking the system, especially when Nathalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks was seen as a scapegoat figure that sank the once mighty Titanic of the Dixie Chicks’ brand, once she criticized President Bush, and then I noticed that no one else wanted to speak their opinion for fear that they too would lose their careers and their millions of dollars selling records and their endorsements. If anything I was shocked at the silence of the Bush administration. I just think that we’re so frozen right now that I think we’re borderline indifferent, which makes it really confusing for people when The Roots make albums like Game Theory and Rising Down. Cause now they’re like ‘well why are you so angry,’ and I’m like we’re not angry, these are crazy political times we live in. Like, if this were the 70’s we’d just be Curtis Mayfield. So it’s a weird time period, but, you know, I still have hope and faith. And I guess the most I can expect from President Obama is to plant the seeds of what could possibly grow in the future.
Dizzy: And Quest, you just talked about how people asked you if The Roots were angry on Rising Down. And I feel like now if anyone puts out a politically poignant track or album, people perceive it that artist being on a soap-box.
Dizzy: So is there room still to make politically and socially conscious and critical hip-hop today?
Quest: Well, I think that taking a stand is never popular.
Quest: In any form, be it art or in politics. I actually think that we do need more Chuck D’s and Zack de la Rocha to hammer the point across. I don’t see how in this climate, especially in the age of the ‘personality.’ I mean it was one thing in the late eighties of hip-hop, when people were more politically incendiary and about something, whereas now it’s more of a cartoon gangster image that we’re seeing; a caricature. I don’t know, I don’t think it could get any worse, short of straight up minstrelsy, and I would be none-to-shocked if that happened in 2016. I can’t see it getting any worse, but of course, you know, whenever I say that it indeed does get worse.
Q-Love: This is feel-good conversation.
Dizzy: Quest, shifting gears a bit, you’ve probably been asked a lot of questions about this today, but we know today is the anniversary of J Dilla’s death. We’ve read the Little Brother Beat Story you wrote on your site OkayPlayer a couple years back, and you’ve often spoken of his greatness, his talent, his personality. Can you talk briefly about his influence on hip-hop, and why many average Americans might not know his name?
Quest: You know, there are a group of people who are inspirational to ‘common people.’ And I use the term ‘common people’ like, I know it sounds really condescending when I say it, but I wouldn’t hesitate to say that J Dilla is the leader of the leader’s leader. That’s almost one step beyond being a musician’s musician. There is the common music lover, and then there is the hero that the music lover likes. And then there’s that figure that the hero likes. And then there’s the person that that figure likes. It’s just three stages in. I mean, the only way I can put it is: Jay-Z respects the work that I do, and for some reason I always have his ear when I have an idea. But you know, my hero is J Dilla. He was just…he…he was…just not from this earth. And when I say that, I mean it in the most non-pretentious way possible. He wasn’t like Doc Brown in Back to the Future, not this eccentric figure that was real mythical, you know… in the laboratory, and had some crazy method about him. He was regular guy, but he had this almost Rain Man, genius quality when it came to music. You know, it’s funny you say this, I saw him about four days before he passed away. I went over to his house and I snuck over to the turntable to see what record he was using for what I didn’t know then was his last beat. I happened to notice that he had a copy of Funkadelic’s America Eats Its Young on the turntable. And the needle was actually, even though it wasn’t rotating, the needle was actually on the title track. And in my head I was like, ‘Hmm?’ that’s the most boring song on the record. If anything, I thought he’d have it on a funkier cut, like Loose Booty. So, cut to two years later, I see J Rocc over in Europe, and he says: “I have the last track that Dilla worked on, and it was based on America Eats Its Young.” And I was telling him, I’m like: “Yo, that’s the most boring song on that album. I don’t know if I want to hear it, I mean I can’t see him making a miracle out of it.” And I heard it and…my God. I was really just flustered because I don’t know how he had the patience to sit through seven minutes of the most monotonous chords ever, but he made a miracle out of it. That’s the only way I can describe it. It’s like having a hundred thousand-piece puzzle and watching a three year old put it together in about two minutes flat.
Quest: That’s what it’s like to make beats.
Q-Love: That’s beautiful.
Quest: Thank you.
Q-Love: Well it’s been a pleasure picking your brain for a bit today.
Dizzy: That was Questlove. Thank you Quest.
Quest: Thank you.