Over the past three decades, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson has established himself as a renaissance man and chronic creative who’s breadth of artistry holds few bounds.
Staking his claim as the drummer for The Roots, the Philadelphian with the ubiquitous afro has continually branched off from the beaten path, pursuing a multitude of endeavors outside of that orbit. From film to literature, the culinary arts, and various sectors in between, Questlove has long voiced his enthusiasm and infatuation with the inner-workings and finer details that stimulate creativity and mastery of ones craft.
His zest for the arts made him the perfect candidate to partner with spirits brand The Balvenie for its Quest for Craft series. This project finds the renowned percussionist speaking with accomplished creatives and performers across an array of mediums. The Balvenie, known for its selection of single malt whiskies, launched Quest for Craft in 2021 and centered around its guests’ approach to craftsmanship in their respective fields. The first season of the series paired the 51-year-old with GRAMMY award-winning music producer Jimmy Jam, SNL comedian Michael Che, punk-rock legend Patti Smith, and New York Times best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell.
The experience was an enriching one for Questlove, who expressed his excitement to return as the host and curator of Quest for Craft‘s second run. “The Balvenie is anchored in heart, and that’s exactly what drives this project, our guests and myself, personally. There’s no substitute for that kind of passion needed to drive the continual pursuit of the extraordinary,” the Academy Award-winning filmmaker said in a statement. “Coming back for season two of Quest for Craft, we dig in deeper and hone in on the elements that have inherent value and major impact on the creative process. From conversations with four of the greatest minds of our generation, who I’ve known and admired for years, I’ve been able to gain a completely new perspective on who they are as creators and apply their learnings to refine my own creative approach.”
On Monday (Oct. 17), The Balvenie premiered season two of Quest for Craft on YouTube. Consisting of four episodes, this season was filmed at the legendary Electric Lady Studios in New York City and features appearances from critically acclaimed music producer and songwriter Mark Ronson, American Ballet Theater Principal Dancer Misty Copeland, lauded author and public-speaker Fran Lebowitz, and Saturday Night Live comedian Keenan Thompson.
In addition to his work with The Balvenie, Questlove recently announced his involvement in the forthcoming J Dilla documentary Dilla Time, inspired by author Dan Charnas’ New York Times bestseller, Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, The Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm. The project, which will be executive produced by Questlove and released under Two One Five Entertainment, is currently in development.
While his work as a filmmaker has kept him occupied in recent times (winning the 2022 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature with Summer of Soul), he reveals that he’s yet to fully scratch the itch that creating music brings. And with himself, Black Thought, and the rest of The Roots gang reportedly gearing up to add another collection to their catalog, fans of the Philly-based ensemble may be looking forward to new sounds from the band sooner than they might expect.
VIBE spoke with Questlove about Quest for Craft, J Dilla’s unique approach to craftsmanship, the 20th anniversary of Phrenology and an update on when fans can expect a new album from The Roots.
VIBE: The forthcoming Dilla Time documentary was recently announced, which you’re a producer of…how did the opportunity to help lead the charge on this documentary come about?
Questlove: Believe it or not, Dan Charnas, who actually wrote the Dilla Time book, he was actually working initially on the [J] Dilla documentary first and then he was gonna do the book second. And I guess somewhere along that journey, it reversed and he decided to work on the book first and sort of test the waters to see what the reaction was going to be. And of course, the reaction was beyond what he expected and so now comes the Dilla doc, which I think is important, especially coming from Dan Charnas. Because the one thing that’s been so hard for me, especially in my 25 years of working with Dilla was there wasn’t an eloquent way that I can explain to people what makes him different than everybody else you know.
Because he makes it and he creates in ways that are so effortless. It’s almost like when you watch Steph Curry and it’s just like, ‘All right, we know the ball’s going in already,’ like no need to hammer the point home. That’s what Dilla is like. But Jesus Christ, everything’s a life-changing moment for you when you watch him create. So hopefully what was expressed in the book, we can convey into film because I feel like Dilla is one of those people that is so worshiped by an elite few that everyone else is just taking their word. [Like] ‘Okay, I heard this guy was a genius.’ So yeah, Dilla’s a genius, hopefully this film will show that.
You recently partnered with The Balvenie Single Malt Scotch Whisky for the return of their award-winning digital series, Quest for Craft. Can you give us insight into what Quest for Craft is all about?
Essentially, my brand is creativity. So often times, I’ve been approached by parents in airports and people coming up to me saying, ‘What advice can I give my kid?’ Or a kid or people will come and be like, ‘What advice could you give me for my pursuit in something.’ And I noticed that often, there’s really not an instructional guide on how to be creative. Like a lot of times, people don’t know or understand that they are naturally creative. I think people are of the impression that creativity is just something that only a few on this Earth have and everyone else is just a regular civilian. So I wanted to use my platform as a means to show what creativity is. Now, it’s not to say that these instructional clips aren’t already on YouTube already, but I think it hits a little different when you have someone that’s actually been in the battlefield giving you the instructions.
So essentially Quest for Craft is an interview series in which I show different ways to be creative and in this very specific season, we’re given four examples. We’re given the example of what does perfection mean? Like, in other words, to create something until it’s been perfected. And in this case, Misty Copeland talks about what does perfection mean? Because a course in ballet is not necessarily a craft that can thrive off of mistakes. Music, on the other hand, is an art form in which wrong notes, bad notes, off beat notes are just as good as what was intended. And in the case of food, it has to taste perfect. Like there’s no space for, ‘Oops,’ when you create food. So I think in Misty Copeland’s case, it’s about perfection and Keenan and Thompson’s particular scenario, it’s about how to be a collaborator or in a ensemble. You know, this is 25th year on SNL, so in Kenan Thompson’s case.
He’s in an ensemble, like he’s part of a whole. And it teaches you how to stay in your lane or know your specific lane while in an ensemble situation. In the case of Mark Ronson, I believe that it’s about adapting to a different environment. In other words, the Mark Ronson that did the 60s Motown soundscape for Amy Winehouse isn’t the same Mark Ronson that did Lady Gaga’s Oscar-winning song. And that’s not the same Mark Ronson that did “Uptown Funk” or work with Ghostface Killah, you know.
It’s about being a chameleon and sort of adapting to different environments. And last but not least Fran Lebowitz. She talks about how your environment can affect your creativity. And she’s so associated with New York City, I often wondered if you put Fran Lebowitz in Wisconsin, or if you put Fran Lebowitz in Atlanta or Miami or Wyoming or Los Angeles, would she be the same Fran Lebowitz? So it’s often about environment. And it doesn’t have to be a city either.
Like, I’m one of those people that I like my studios that I create and like to be old school and rugged and not too comfortable. And I know people that have to record in Hawaii where it’s like beautiful and has a room and a view and the ocean. Environment means everything, so that’s the four areas that are we talk about. Perfection, adapting to environments, ensemble and location.
What would you say are the traits or the components that are the defining attributes of craftsmanship?
I think number one, you have to be genuinely curious about something. And I think curiosity leads to experimentation and experimentation will yield either a desirable result or the F-word. I have a different relationship when you say failure, I’ve now programmed myself to say, ‘You know, failure is essentially where you learn the lesson. And I think oftentimes, especially in this society, we are so embarrassed to not get it right. Especially in front of and when other people are watching, that we’re often afraid to enter the realm of creativity.
Because in order to be creative, you’ve got to be vulnerable. You know, it’s like getting a bicycle. If you’re six years old and I’m like, ‘All right, Preezy, ride this bicycle,’ you might be a little apprehensive because it’s like, ‘Wait, what if I fall and bust my ass?’ Like that sort of thing. And as creatives, we’re very slow to sort of work and practice in front of others while others are watching us. But I think creativity starts with silence so you can get inspiration. And then being curious and experimenting and learning from that experimentation.
You’ve got the 20th anniversary of The Roots’ fifth studio album Phrenology approaching. Can you speak about the group’s mindstate during that period of time?
Yeah, that was probably [when] we were coming off of our first major success. I’ll say that after the initial seven years, from like 1992 to 1999, us trying to figure out the formula to what’s [it] going to take for us to get over to mainstream success, we finally got it with our fourth album Things Fall Apart. That opened so many doors for us that after the three years of touring behind Things Fall Apart, we kind of just wanted to do something different.
The album was very radical. We basically said, ‘All right, let’s make a Roots album in which we do music that we’re not supposed to do, which is why there’s everything from thrash to rock to more salacious R&B, free jazz. Like everything that we were associated for was just straight meat and potatoes Hip-Hop, we wanted to throw out the window and just try something different. And you know, to me, that was some of the most exciting times in my life, man. I miss that period. You just reminded me [of] that. I forgot that Phrenology turns 20 next month.
Going back to the Dilla Time doc, can you describe the process of making it?
We haven’t started yet. Dilla was such a loved figure, I feel like the best way to show you who he was is to show you his creative process. So, I’m not certain what direction Dan wants to go in, but I do know that he’s talking to all of Dilla’s key collaborators. People that he grew up with and they could definitely paint a picture of who he was as a person. I mean, I’ve known him as always creating. Him and Pharrell [are] the only people I know that would treat their craft like it was a job. Dilla would get up at 7:00 in the morning, make something to eat and then from like 9 am. till about maybe three in the afternoon, he’d work on two songs. And then after that, he would take a lunch break and then he’d come back around like 4pm. Maybe from four to seven, work a little more and then 7pm, lights out.
He gets the nights to himself, from 7[PM] to maybe 1[AM] in the morning or midnight. He would just mess around, whatever, but he was the first creator I knew that actually used daytime hours. Where it’s like D’Angelo’s the opposite. Like D’Angelo, we might start the session at 7pm and leave the studio at 11:00[AM] in the morning, you know. And then sleep from like 11[AM] till 5PM and then do the same thing over, so for me, Dilla was just such a game changer. Like the way he listened to records. Most of us would buy records and just skim through it. Like not even listening to the song for 30 seconds or more before we go to the next song because we don’t hear anything interesting. And Dilla’s whole rule was, ‘I can turn any song into something special,’ and that’s what I learned from him. So hopefully all that will come out in the film.
Are there any new musical projects that you’re currently working on or we can look forward to?
You know in an alternate lifetime or an alternate lifeline, I will say that the way I thought it was going to go was that, Summer of Soul, the movie comes out July of 2021. And then after four months, that goes away and then work on a new Roots album. But the success of Summer of Soul took me to places I’ve never knew before, so, it’s a good problem to have. But I will say that we’re halfway done with this record. I promise that by February or March [of 2023], we will have wrapped this album up, finally. So that’s my plan. That’s the only music project. I’m working on.