Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson can literally talk your ear off. Never one to shy away from a controversial topic, the outspoken leader, producer and drummer of the acclaimed hip-hop band The Roots exhibits as much passion when he breaks down studio engineering secrets for making live instrumentation sound like a sample as he does explaining why mainstream rhyme darling Drake deserves to be taken seriously by true rap aficionados. But it’s the Root’s bold and times uncompromising new release How I Got Over that evokes the most intensity from Quest. He calls the veteran Philadelphia outfit’s ninth album hip-hop’s most serious over-40 statement to date. The influential beat man discusses staring down rap’s midlife crises and more.—Keith Murphy
VIBE: There’s a lot of talk among critics and fans that How I Got Over is the first album to address turning 40 in a truly serious manner. Do you agree with that assessment?
Questlove: Well, we are not the first to do it. That’s Jay-Z’s whole mark…Ma, I did good..I’ve grown up. But Jay’s 40 is more of an aspirational 40; like a victory lap. Whereas the Roots’ 40 is definitely one long, hard look in the mirror. With most rap records it’s like, Alright, let me do my girl jawn; let me do my political jawn; let me do my party jawn. You know, the tried and true subject matter. But this album asks some serious questions. There’s a book that guided us through this record. It’s Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Which for those who follow the Roots, Malcolm’s second book, The Tipping Point, is what we named our last album after. But Outliers is a sort of an exercise in how to perfect your craft.
What was the most challenging aspect when it came to recording How I Got Over?
The fact that this is the first album since Tipping Point that I had little to do with the engineering. I knew if I would have went in there with that itch that De Niro had in Heat…that just-one-more-score, I-can’t-leave-it-alone itch. If I had listened to that itch then I would have overproduced the record. To me, it was more important that people understand that the Roots is still a band. I knew that our engineer would actually present what we gave to him, which is a band type of album.
Would you say its your first garage band album, given the record’s raw, one-take sound?
Yeah, I’ll say that probably since Organix, this marks the first time the entire band jelled together and played at the same time in the studio. There are diehard fans for a lot of phases of the Roots. For every fan of Things Fall Apart, there’s a Do You Want More? fan that’s like, “Now, this is what y’all should be sounding like.” Then there are people who live and breath with Prenology. But I’m very careful not to mislead fans of Organix and Do You Want More? as a return to that form, simply because there are no jazz elements on How I Got Over. There’s no upright bass or scatting.
Another thing that stands out on this album is the drum sounds. They are the hardest I’ve heard on a Roots album. It sounds like you were trying to kill the drums.
I told the engineer, “Please, make my shit sound banging.” At the end of the day, I would just come in at night and approve the mix as opposed to just standing over his shoulder. But I did give myself one song to really go ape shit on. And that was “Web 20-20.” Because that’s that one song that both Tariq [Black Thought] and I had to get out our hip-hop aggression. For Tipping Point it was “Web.” For Rising Down it was “75 Bars.” Now if I had engineered the entire album the whole record would have sounded like “Web 20/20.” I just really wish that people understood that damn near 95 percent of everything they’ve listened to by the Roots was created by us. It’s just that we had the engineering know-how. It’s like a chef that knows how to turn soy into chicken. That’s our craft in the studio.
Can you talk about the project the Roots have been recording with John Legend?