What did you see in each other to make you want to work together in school? How did you know, like, we need to do something?
Questlove: Umm, I think we were in lunch period. And I forget the kid. I don’t know if I was the makeshift default lunch-table-banger-guy or whatever. But whatever the case was, Tarik had an uncanny ability to sort of freestyle and play the dozens at the same time. So… I happened to be walkin by when he was battling this other art student. But the thing that everyone sort of noticed was that he was talking about real time stuff. Like what you were wearing….
In the room at that moment.
QL: Right. Which you can tell when someone is kickin’ a rhyme they wrote last night versus talking about real-time type of things. That was the first time I ever heard someone just be that bold and start to do what we now know as “freestyling.”
So then I believe the January after that Christmas of that year, I had gotten a Casio SK-1 keyboard machine, which had a sampler in it. Pretty much the Stevie Wonder episode of The Cosby Show. That pretty much is the beginning of hip hop tool acquirement for most producers that I talk to. Oh, we saw the Stevie Wonder episode… we had to have that sampler.
It was that show that did it?
QL: Pretty much. Cause we had never seen anything like that in our lives. Like, that’s how music gets made? So once we got that type of situation going down, I brought my sampler to school. The only thing was that the lunchroom was on the 6th floor and my drums were on the first floor. So he would start ordering custom breakbeats—“Like, yo, run downstairs and make ‘Top Billin’ real quick.” And like a dummy I’d have to run to the basement, do something, and then run back up. That’s pretty much how we started, by default.
With the blending that goes on with the Roots, sometimes I think Black Thought’s greatness gets a bit less attention than it could have. The phrase “most under-rated” gets thrown around a lot. Would you agree?
QL: Definitely. Unfortunately what becomes the focus point of hip hop success is how outlandish you are as far as being a caricature, or one-dimensional. A lot of people that are considered top of their game right now in hip hop, it’s pretty much basically because they represent a life that you aspire to. Most of the people that are winning right now are winning because hip-hop is more aspirational.
But when he does it, it’s a sport. It’s an art form. Which, you know, really does bring it home, naming our fourth album Things Fall Apart. Primarily based on the narrative of the book from which it came [Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel]… The story of a very skilled warrior [who was] constantly up in arms and battling, only to come back to his homeland that taught him these skills, and to find out that, you know, the missionaries have taken over and changed the religion. Life is just different as you know it. Where do you fit in? I don’t think it’s lost that that parallels of our life right now.
BT: A lot of what emceeing has become—like what it has grown to be about—is a lot of artists focusing on the fame aspect. Focusing on living out loud and being in the spotlight. And doing a bunch of interviews, taking thousands of pictures. Just kinda saturating the market with your presence. Not necessarily with your musical presence, but just like with your image. It’s all about I , I , I. And I’m just a super, super private person. You know? What I like least about my job is that fact that people might recognize me. Or that I have to take picture and do interviews and shit like that. So it’s not like I’ve shot myself in the foot, but it’s kinda like a gift and a curse… It’s like a double-edged sword.
You said “I’m an icon when I let my light shine” on “The Fire” from the new album.
BT: Yeah, no doubt.
That line really stuck with me, cause it’s almost like you’re telling yourself “Let it shine, don’t hold back.”
BT: Yeah. There’s a poet, name’s Marian Williamson. She wrote this poem about “Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate… But it’s that we are great beyond measure.” And I feel like that could be applied to life in a lot of different situations. I incorporated it into my wedding vows when I got married—that poem. I really feel like it speaks to me. It’s not about stardom for me. I don’t enjoy being a star. I’m not on a quest for popularity, which is what a lot of artists kinda thrive on. For me it’s more about the skill and just being content and knowing that I’m still credible. I’m still like, you know, one of the greats. I don’t need to have a jacket that says, “Yo, I’m one of the greats.” People whose opinion matters to me, they know. And they kind of express it. You know I’m sayin? And I appreciate it even more just on the low. That’s why ?uestlove is the spearhead for the Roots—not me, who’s the voice. I’m weird in that way. That’s just how I am.
So how do you measure success? EPMD said “The proof is in the paper / Check the Billboard.” But you all are not known for first-week knocking it out of the box. How do you measure?