Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is as multitalented as they come: all-world drummer for the Grammy-winning hip-hop/neo-soul band the Roots, musical director of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, music journalist/historian and globetrotting DJ impresario. The 42-year-old self-described “peculiar-looking 6-foot-2 walking Afro” and Philly native is a rare combination of ultra-gifted, charismatic, thoughtful and understated. In advance of his DJ gig November 30 at Hakkasan’s Ling Ling Club, Vegas Seven hooked up with Questlove to dissect his once-in-a-generation musical genius.
How did your musical pedigree help create Questlove?
The first thing [my parents] did was prevent me from watching television. The second thing was they invested in this 5,000-plus record collection. So I spent many an hour inside our record library. My father was an oldies/doo-wop singer from the ’50s who was doing a nostalgia tour in the early ’80s. His drummer had broken an arm in the summer of 1983. So at the age of 13, at Radio City Music Hall, I made my debut with my father.
For your newer fans, introduce your band, the Roots.
The Roots are a band from Philadelphia. We’ve done 16 various albums. Currently we are the band for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. We have run into every sort of caliber of artist under the sun. So this week we’re playing with Paul Simon, next week we’re playing with Chromeo; one week it could be Duck Sauce, another week it could be Bruce Springsteen. The Roots have always traveled their own path, and that’s the reason why we have credibility among our peer group.
You’ve produced for Common, D’Angelo, Jay-Z, Al Green and John Legend. Did your production talent come from percussion or somewhere else?
Above anything, having a vast vault of different albums, different artists and being a record collector—that’s the foundation. The variety of music helps me become a better musician. And a secure knowledge of music. I’ve been having headphone listening sessions since I was 3 years old. So, eventually once I started going in the studio I pretty much knew what I wanted. It took five to six years for me to properly know how to experiment in the studio and get the particular sounds that I wanted, but once I had that education on our fourth album, Things Fall Apart, I haven’t turned back.
Do you see music differently than the rest of the world?
One would like to think their taste is a little different. I’ve been told I have synesthesia; basically, I see colors when I hear songs. When I’m creating stuff and making records I think this needs a red here, this needs a yellow here, this needs blue here. That’s just how I was built, since I was like 6.
How’s the DJ stint at Hakkasan going?
Hakkasan actually takes me out of my element, by surrounding me in my initial element. It’s what’s weird about being a member of the Roots and being a DJ: We make livings adapting to our environment. We had to open up for so many different types of acts; the audience for the Beastie Boys is night and day from Jill Scott’s audience. So I came to Hakkasan expecting to do my normal Vegas EDM-based loud, fast music—everything 130 beats per minute. I was initially told, “Do what you want to do.” I didn’t trust that; I‘ve been in that situation and I played what I like and the audience cleared out. [At Hakkasan,] I started going EDM and the audience is looking at me like, “Are you crazy?” I played Tribe Called Quest and the place just went crazy ape shit. This is one of those rare times where I’m actually allowed to play what I am passionate about and not try to cater to the crowd with a lot of commercial stuff.
What’s your perspective on hip-hop’s role in today’s nightclubs?
It really depends. My celebrity allows me some sort of Teflon untouchable status [laughs], so I am able to break a lot of rules. A lot of DJs who open for me say, “Man, I would never be able to play that!” I remember the first time I ever saw DJ AM spin. I went in his booth, and he immediately stopped his EDM set and started playing classic hip-hop. I thought, “Oh, man, you’re going to kill your audience.” He was like, “No, man, I got this.” Paris Hilton’s table was jumping up and down for KRS One’s “My Philosophy!” It’s crazy how it is now. Some places are segregated; they like what they like, and they know what they know. Places that are open-minded are few and far between, but I don’t think the [hip-hop] spirit has died at all.
You also differ from many other DJs in that you prefer longer DJ sets. Why is that?
The thing that satisfies me, in a three-hour set I can probably cram in 130 songs. I normally ask for 3½ hours so I can get up to an even 160. In that 160, I can pretty much touch every genre of music. So I might start with the Beastie Boys and end with the beat of the moment. In between, my whole thing is to tell a story. There’s a whole bunch of demographics to look out for: the fake-ID chicks, the kids under 24, midlife-crisis people trying to hang onto their club life before they dry up in their domestic graves, the ones trying to get life how it used to be clubbing in the ’90s, the bartenders there every night hearing the same song over again, and especially the promoter—I pretty much cover all those bases. The earliest song I play was made in 1938, and the latest song I played I just downloaded last week. I’m trying to find the perfect influence between Benny Goodman and Drake.
You’re notably nonchalant. What surprises you these days?
Any song between 95 and 100 beats per minute. Searching for the perfect song between 95-100 is like mining for gold. Which is why Drake’s “We’re Going Home” is a godsend. It’s just hard to find that sweet spot between 95-100. Most of the music produced today is 75 beats per minute—very slow—or 130 beats per minute, which is EDM-fast. It’s really hard to find this classic danceable mid-tempo dance music to spin. So anytime someone makes a great song between 95-100 it’s like, “Oooh, that’s a shocker!”