Who had a more interesting year than Ahmir (Questlove) Thompson? The drummer for the hip-hop group the Roots reflects on an intriguing album ( Undun), an unrealized super-group with his late friend Amy Winehouse, the long-awaited return of the neo-soulster D’Angelo, a flap involving U.S. presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann, and his band’s bold new directions in thinking-man’s rap music.
Questlove, on the narrative theme and structure of Undun, a song-cycle that comments on the often short, tragic lives of African Americans, some who die from bullets and some from bad diets. The album begins with the sound of a cardiac flat-line, chronologically working its way back in reverse: “There’s age 23, and there’s 48. Violence is the hooded stranger of death that’s around the corner that you have to avoid. And then there’s your heart. High cholesterol is that same monster waiting for you at age 48. We wanted to tell a story, not personalizing it where the listener would have pity. We didn’t want the protagonist to be a villain or a hero. We thought it would be more interesting to do the album as the voice inside of his head. Also, it was a challenge to tell a story backward in reverse linear fashion, and to tell it in a short manner. Most of our albums are sprawling 78-minute magnum opuses of sound and rhyme. We wanted to cut it by half, but to have the same impact.”
On the difficulty of building the perfect precise pop song: “I have respect for anybody that can effectively make their point in three minutes flat. You might call it formula, but one man’s formula is another man’s unsolved Rubik’s Cube. If you tell me to take an orchestra and do an Impressionist turn-of-the-century Debussy or Stravinsky, and to incorporate some jazz and to do a hip-hop rhyme in 7/8 meter and to do it in 14 minutes, I can do that in my sleep. But if you tell me to colour within the lines and produce a simple, effective three-minute pop song, you would discover me nine hours later on the floor with my hair out of my head and blood on the floor.”
On Amy Winehouse and a jazz/hip-hop super-group that never happened: “Amy’s jazz vocabulary was tremendous. We became Skype buddies – always trading music. She put me onto Lionel Hampton stuff; I put her onto [hip-hop producer]J Dilla. Then one day she was like ‘Let’s start a group.’ She wanted to do an artistic jazz record, with the two of us and Mos Def and Raphael Saadiq. We wanted to make it happen, but her visa situation was messed up. We could have gone to Jamaica or to Europe, but all of us had day jobs. This was deep into her success, and I was honoured that she considered me even worthy to collaborate. Not because she was Amy Winehouse, but because she was such a damn jazz snob – and jazz snobs are so hard to please.”
On the much anticipated, long in-utero new album from the neo-soul genius D’Angelo: “We’re keeping our fingers crossed. I’ve said before that the album is 97-per-cent done, and I still maintain that quote. I worked on it earlier, and when I came back aboard last June it was all there. We made up four or five fresh joints when I came back, and I also played over top songs that already existed. I told him: ‘Yo, dude, I hear it.’ He needs to put in the commitment to tying up the loose ends, mostly lyrically. One of the dangers of being an isolated artist – and he is seriously an isolated artist; there’s just me, Q-Tip and Jesse Johnson of the Time – is that he’s his own judge, jury and creator. I know he’s sacred. He’s also very unaware of how much he’s missed. Every time I tell him that, he just doesn’t believe me. I just want to grab those master tapes and run away with them.”
On pointedly playing (as the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon) a nasty tune as the walk-on music for Republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann when she appeared on the talk show in November, and the effect the hullabaloo might have had on the release of Undun that same month: “The album stands on its own. People have said we wanted some controversy because the album was coming out. That’s the rapper thing to do – the sex tape or whatever before the record. But I’ve never been that type of sensationalistic hip-hopper.”
On the Roots, a veteran band on a fresh new hip-hop path: “The last record, How I Got Over, was a midlife-crisis record. It was an album full of vulnerability, self-doubt, existentialism and forks in the road. I was concerned about the 40-year-old’s place in hip hop; we didn’t want to be seen as old or grumpy or cynical. With Undun, I’m glad the band was in agreement about making a narrative record. Often you see artists that had expired or had worn out their welcome. But this is a new road travelled. If people are slow to work their way back to us, that’s fine. We’ll be waiting here, when they get here.”
This interview has been condensed and edited.