In a candid new interview on the #NoFilter with Danielle Snyder podcast, the Grammy award-winning artist talks about his childhood in West Philadelphia, his friendships with Prince and Anthony Bourdain, and the origins of the legendary Black Lily jam sessions.
Interview by Danielle Snyder, words by Tamara Abraham
“The joke is I have 19 jobs. I say that jokingly even though it's real.” Ahmir Thompson isn’t exaggerating. The artist, better known as Questlove, is the five-time Grammy award-winning drummer and co-frontman of The Roots. He is musical director for The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon, where The Roots is the house band. He co-produced the original Broadway cast recording of Hamilton, and has also produced for artists including D'Angelo, Eminem, Jay-Z and John Legend.
On top of that, Ahmir has written four books. He hosts the podcast Questlove Supreme, and with The Roots, is developing both an animated children's series and a live-action children’s series with Amazon. He’s on the committee for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He’s an ambassador for the Food Bank for New York City, on the City Harvest Food Council, a board member of Edible Schoolyard, the first artist-in-residence at the Made in NY Media Center, and the first Artist Ambassador for Pandora.
“Aw man, I won a Peabody too,” Ahmir quips, after #Nofilter host and longtime friend Danielle Snyder lists his achievements. “Really, it's just I'm doing the things that I would've done for free in life.”
He admits that maintaining all those commitments, though, is like living life on a tightrope. “You need an extremely well-oiled, effective team,” he says. “My team is, I guess we're up to 28 people now … There's not just like, one assistant. These are seven managers, and various assistants … From engineers to collaborators, to designers. … To just survive, I have to make sure that 28 people's pay roll is on time every week.”
The podcast recording is taking place at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, a place with some history for Danielle and Ahmir. “We're recording at 30 Rock because you do more than anyone,” Danielle says. “I'm actually impressed you were able to slice off an hour for me, but I want to start off by asking you if you remember what happened the last time I came to 30 Rock?”
“Oh come on really?” Ahmir replies. “Ahh you’re fine, it’s not a big deal. I know you’re like, ‘He kicked me out of 30 Rock!’ No, you’re unfiltered and — is this why you named it [#NoFilter]?”
Ahmir is on the money. Back in September 2016 as the then-newly minted musical director for The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon, he had invited Danielle, her sister Jodie, their mother and their grandmother to watch a recording of the show, but things went awry backstage. “You chose a very awkward moment to let the entire hallway know that you didn't think nothing that you were looking at was very funny,” Ahmir replies. “It just so happens that you happened to say that a bit was not funny, not only in front of the head writer, but in front of the head writer's boss and for the head producer of The Tonight Show. They're just looking at me like, ‘Whose guest is this?’ I'm looking like, ‘Oh fuck, I'm about to get fired.’ I was like, ‘Yo, ixnay on the criticizeay. You just got me in trouble in front of my bosses.’”
What Ahmir hadn’t recalled was that the guest that day was Donald Trump. “That was the day? … Well, that makes you a pioneer because that makes you America's pioneer,” he remarks. “Because life has never been the same since that episode. You were there for that September ... Jesus Christ, I should have followed you out the door now, I didn't know it was for the Trump episode, Jesus.”
Ahmir was raised in west Philadelphia and was already drumming on furniture and household objects at the age of two. “[My parents] bought me a bongo. I beat the shit out of the bongo and they were like, ‘Okay, get him a toy drum kit, see what happens then,’ so when I was five, I got a toy drum kit,” Ahmir remembers. “Eventually, one of my dad's drummers — I think he developed a bad drug habit — he went AWOL and left the drum set with my dad. For Christmas of '79, I got my first drum set. I was playing like I play now like an adult by the time I was nine or 10.”
His father, a doo-wop singer who had enjoyed some fame in the ‘50s benefited from the wave of 1950s nostalgia in the early ‘70s when Ahmir was a child. “My dad used his oldies notoriety to kind of nuance his way into a very well-polished nightclub act, which included my mom, him, eventually my sister, and he brought me into it because they didn't believe in babysitters back in the day.”
From an early age, Ahmir had a role to play. “When I was five, I was the family GPS,” he recalls. “From [the ages of] seven to nine, they put me on wardrobe, so [my father] taught me how to iron, how to steam, how to clean leather, suede, get stuff to the cleaners … Then from nine to 11, I was de facto stage manager so I would have to come to the nightclub in the afternoon, cut light gels, place them on stage, do the lights, ring the monitors, do the sound, and then when I was 12, my father had a show at Radio City Music Hall and his drummer had broken his arm in a motorcycle accident and he looked at me and was like, ‘You know the show, you're the drummer.’”
Though Ahmir attended a private school, the family’s neighbourhood was rough. “I grew up in a situation in which the combined total of the kids that I knew between my grandmother's way and my childhood home, I'll say like out of the combined 35 of them, maybe five to seven of us are still left surviving or not in jail,” he says.
In order to keep him safe, his parents were strict. “’The Oprah Rule’ was to have your ass home before the Oprah theme starts at 4pm, or else you were on punishment,” he recalls.
Regardless, Ahmir understood the sacrifice his parents were making in order to send him to private school, especially as the trend for ‘50s music waned and money became scarce. “Maybe electricity was on, maybe it wasn't. Maybe our gas was on, maybe it wasn't. … I felt bad,” he says.
Ahmir admits he didn’t appreciate his father’s disciplinarian style until much later. “When he died, he said, ‘I really want to apologize. … I was scared because any day, I could get a call that you either got shot, or killed coming home from school, or you got in trouble somewhere hanging out with them boys down the street.’ His number one obsession was just making sure that I got out. I get it now.”
The Roots was formed in 1987 by Ahmir and his high school classmate Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought. They began with jam sessions and busking on the streets of Philadelphia but struggled to gain momentum. “America just wasn't feeling the idea of live bands. And we had to go to some place where people would appreciate us,” Ahmir says. So, inspired by Jimi Hendrix, they decided to hone their craft in Europe. “We pulled a creative exile. We moved to London in '93 and cut our teeth there.”
That first round of jam sessions, I'll say 14 record deals were born out of that.
They returned to the US in ’95 with one album under their belts, a cult following and an invitation to play a homecoming show by their local Philadelphia radio station. “Man, that shit was such a fail,” Ahmir says. “I think that bringing such a ‘dated’ idea back to the States was just ... they were cold, and they just looked at us like we landed from the planet Mars.”
The group was defeated, but their manager, the late Richard Nichols, had a bigger picture in mind. “He says, ‘You know, you guys are an island without any residents,’” Ahmir remembers. “Prince grew his own crops. Prince invented Morris Day and the Time, Sheila E, all these acts. So anyone that's ever had success, chances are you can contextualize them with seven other people that are just like them. The Roots didn't have that. So we told the label [DGC/Geffen], ‘We have to grow our own crops.’”
They listed their requirements for the label, including transport and instruments, as well as a chef. “They were like, ‘Wait, what's the chef for?’ We're like, ‘Because you'll never, ever throw any type of jam session without free food.’ And we wanted the best chef in Philadelphia,” Ahmir says.
“We hired this guy named Terry from this restaurant Zanzibar Blue. He cooked every Friday night in my house, and of course word gets out. Every singer and songwriter and musician is at my door. … An unknown Jill Scott. An unknown Musiq Soulchild. An unknown Bilal. An unknown Marsha Ambrosius and Floetry. Mos and Kwali and Common would come by. … Eve. Oh my god, that's how Eve got on ‘You Got Me.’”
The Black Lily jam sessions ran from 1996 until 2003, eventually moving from Ahmir’s living room to the Wetlands club in New York. “That first round of jam sessions, I'll say that 14 record deals were born out of that,” Ahmir says. “Acts bigger than us were born out of that.”
The way artists are developed today is radically different. “I'm glad we took a very slow, molasses approach to it,” Ahmir says. “I know for a fact we are absolutely the last recording act allowed to develop in the old system, in which a label was like, ‘Okay, we have you for your first record, but by the time you get to your fifth record we're gonna build you up big.’ Now it's sorta like if your single fails you're dropped.”
Nichols died in 2014 after a battle with leukemia, but left Ahmir with a career strategy that he follows to this day. “He was like, ‘All right, I got your 20-year plan. You're gonna write about food,’ and I was like, ‘Wait, food? What the hell? I don't know about food.’ He's like, ‘Ahmir look at yourself, you know about food. You're gonna da-da-da-da, you're gonna do the next album about this, then you're gonna do your fourth book about this.’ He spent his last seven months mapping me and Tariq's life plan for the next 20 years, which I'm literally following right now.”
Ahmir is unsure whether The Roots would have survived if it had been founded in the age of social media, though he enjoys the culture and appreciates how it has given artists the freedom to be publishers in their own right. “If Eminem decides I'm gonna have an emcee battle, or if Jay-Z and Beyonce decide to premier something live, they now can do it on their own terms, without having to negotiate with a CBS, or an NBC,” he says.
You need silence and boredom. It's a lonely thing, but it's also necessary.
On the flip side, he argues that boredom is critical for creativity, and our collective social media addiction doesn’t offer much opportunity for our minds to wander. “If you're over-stimulated you don't allow ideas in or out, because your brain's on a high,” he explains. “When your phone is on 8% and it's red, you have to charge it. And to charge it you need silence, and meditation. So yeah, in the last five years I've learned this lesson that you need silence and boredom. It's a lonely thing, but it's also necessary.”
For all their success today, there is still one gig The Roots will decline. “The Roots have a dubious honor of being the Superbowl jinx,” Ahmir says. “With the exception of last year — thank you Eagles for winning the Superbowl, finally — we have been asked 14 times to play the Superbowl afterparty, every team was a loser. So the Eagles asked us this year, ‘Will you do our Superbowl afterparty?’ And we sort of explained, ‘You don't want us to do it. Look, for the last 14 Superbowls the losing team always picks The Roots to do their afterparty.’ It's the greatest money and the most pitiful gig ever.”
In recent years Ahmir has been investing more of his time in food and food-related nonprofits. This was thanks in part to his friendship with the late Anthony Bourdain, who died earlier this year. “He was my food muse,” Ahmir says. “He was very instrumental in me seeking out Jiro [a legendary sushi restaurant in Tokyo] to experience this food. I went for my birthday. And then writing [his book ‘Something to Food About’] was based on that experience.”
The pair connected because Ahmir’s approach to discovering new music is much like Bourdain’s approach to food. “He was always telling me these fancy-schmancy three Michelin restaurants are fine, and I'm guilty for helping develop the culture. But it's about the church basement food that you'll never know about. It's about the back alleyway speakeasy that has the best rice in the world. It's about the needle in the haystack. So that's why I really connected with him.”
Bourdain believed in integrity in music, Ahmir remembers, and had a particular distaste for what he described as ‘yacht rock’. “Our music banter was so legendary that I figured the best way to pay tribute to him was to compile a 700-song playlist of the music he hated the most in life,” Ahmir says.
Perhaps his most surreal celebrity experience though, was with Prince. “The thing I miss about his absence the most is just I'm never gonna get that 1am phone call to get out of bed and meet me at some club to jam.” He remembers one such call, when he was instructed to meet Prince at the roller skating rink in Glendale, California.
“The pronouns are always, ‘He would like to talk to you.’ It's never proper nouns. ‘He wants to speak to you.’” Ahmir and his then girlfriend found themselves part of a group of just eight, including Eddie Murphy and Larry Graham. “[Prince] walked in, and he had this Pulp Fiction briefcase, and he opened up the briefcase and it was just like ... You saw a glow,” Ahmir says. “And he puts these translucent skates on [and] the friction of the wheels leave this kind of spark on the ground. Like it lights and leaves sparks. I don't know what the… It wasn't real.”
Such memories are valuable, but Ahmir is not a slave to nostalgia. “Hold onto it but make time for yourself so that you can be great as well,” he says. “It's cool to hang onto memories and to worship tradition that you're known to. But you also have to make space for evolution and whatever else is around the bend. That's what makes a real maverick, a real innovator.”