?uestlove: Back To The Roots
“There’s a civil war going on right now. And I’m not talking about East Coast versus West Coast – that’s a soap opera. It’s more that the people who control this music are not the people who create this music. And that’s not good.” So says ?uestlove (pronounced Questlove, formerly Ahmir Kalib Thompson), drummer and primary spokesperson for the revolutionary Philadelphia hip-hop band The Roots.
His sound is steeped in tradition and an ethic that isn’t about image, but about music, trying to keep it real and true to his band’s old school beginnings. Even though The Roots pushed the hip-hop envelope by combining jazz with experimental and contemporary grooves, ?uestlove feels that they fought an uphill battle to gain acceptance with the mainstream audience. Mainstream hip-hop didn’t use live instruments. Instead the sound was based on sampling and turntable scratching.
“When we started with the live instruments, there was an artistic backlash in hip-hop,” he says. “So from 1993 to 1995, we had to prove to people that we were not some alternative artsy-fartsy group that didn’t know anything about hip-hop, when in fact we probably knew more about it than they did. People only saw the surface – it’s ironic that a group of musicians today is now the epitome of what raw hip-hop should sound like. We have progressed from the jazz perspective that people thought we were. With each album, the challenge is to make live instruments sound like real [sampled] hip-hop, through the recording process. That’s the joy in recording.”
Born in January of 1971, Ahmir Kalib Thompson was raised on R&B. His father, Lee Andrews, was a member of the popular doo-wop group Lee Andrews and the Hearts, and had a number of national singles in the late 1950s, including “Long Lonely Nights.” Thompson began beating out rhythms on the family furniture at the age of two, until his father gave him his first child-size drum set two years later and began to let Ahmir play percussion onstage when the Hearts would perform.
Christmas of 1979 brought a brand new Ludwig Vistalite kit next to the tree. “I’m largely self taught,” recalls ?uestlove, “and when I got that Vistalite kit, I just had to practice for three to five hours a day.” The music of the moment was disco and funk, which Thompson listened to relentlessly: James Brown, Parliament, Sly and the Family Stone, The Average White Band and countless others. Steve Ferrone was a particular favorite. “I would play along verbatim with the Average White Band’s live double album Person to Person two times a day, from when I was eight until I was about 18.” The drummers who played with the Hearts gave him lessons, and at the age of 12, he was grooving so hard that Andrews appointed him the band leader. In an era when drummers imitated the pyrotechnics of progressive rock and the excess of fusion, Thompson wanted to be a drum machine. He stripped the beat to its naked core, over and over again. Practice made perfect.
Based on his talent, Thompson was accepted to Philadelphia’s High School for Creative and Performing Arts in 1987. Among the students there at the time were bassist Christian McBride, members of Boyz II Men and keyboardist Joey DeFrancesco. Not having an earlier jazz mentor, Thompson learned a great deal from his schoolmates. “They really set me straight,” he says. Thompson began listening to Max Roach, Philly Jo Jones, Tony Williams and other influential drummers. Those echoes can be heard in ?uestlove’s live solos, which at times reflect the highly organized call and response style of Roach and the free-for-all stagger of Williams, tied together by episodes of funky drumming.
Eventually Thompson’s love for hip-hop and jazz became intertwined when he met a visual art student named Tariq Trotter. Trotter loved to freestyle, a vocal stream of consciousness based on the rhythmic and rhyming abilities of the MC. The two hit it off, and soon were creating spontaneous freestyle drums and vocals. With an encyclopedic knowledge of old school beats, emerging hip-hop styles and jazz chops, Thompson was in his element, and began to fuse those styles that were previously kept separate. Soon there was a talent show at the school, and the two decided to enter with the aid of McBride on acoustic bass. They were a sensation. By the time the early ’90s rolled around, they were calling themselves The Roots, and as a duo they played the streets of Philly for anyone who passed by.
Thompson not only played drums, he played buckets, cans and junk and still made it sound funky. There were no samples, no turntables, no DJ equipment, just flesh, wood and metal. They attracted the attention of bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, himself a Philadelphia icon and former doo-wop singer who had come to international prominence with the king of the avant-garde himself, Ornette Coleman. Perhaps yearning for fat acoustic sounds in a world that was rapidly becoming digital, he brought the fledgling Roots on tour with him to Germany, for which Thompson and Trotter assembled a group and recorded their first indie release, Organix. The strength of that album became a bargaining chip to negotiate a major record deal with Geffen, and they signed in late 1993.
For their live shows, Thompson used only a bass drum, one floor tom, 10” splash cymbals as hi-hats and a 24” ride – not a turntable in sight. “De la Soul, Gang Starr and A Tribe Called Quest were setting the tone for that movement, using samples that were not lifted from the usual sources,” he says. “They gave you an alternative, and showed that hip-hop and rap didn’t have to be about James Brown and George Clinton.”
But it was also a time when gangster/hardcore rap had begun to emerge. Thompson wanted to disassociate himself with that image. Trotter changed his name to Black Thought but Thompson found the choice harder. “At first, I didn’t want to have a name. So I became ’?.’ Nothing. No name at all. Anonymous. But people started calling me ’Question Mark.’ So on the next album, Do You Want More?!!!??! I became ’B.R.O. the R. ?’ (Beat Recycler of the Rhythm). But then people started calling me ’Brother Question Mark.’” In order to simplify his name, he chose to become ?uestlove because “in the old days, your name ended in rock, ski or love. ?uestrock was not happening and neither was ?uestski. So ?uestlove became my new old school name, ’cause I’m so old school!”
Do You Want More?!!!??! not only featured the live sounds of hip-hop, but jazz influences that the band was nurturing. Guest spots included Graham Haynes (son of legendary jazz drummer Roy Haynes) and a roster of other artists who typified the hip-hop culture in its purest sense. Much of Do You Want More?!!!??! was recorded at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound, home of producers Leon Huff and Kenny Gamble. Huff and Gamble had recorded all the Sound of Philadelphia and disco hits in the ’70s. “The owner of Sigma Sounds was the engineer on all those old hits,” says ?uestlove. “Those hits were known for their dead drum sound. In order to get the kind of sound I like, it’s all in the EQ and mixing. I like to record in a tight room, which has to be totally dead acoustically. The drums have to be totally dead, with no ring. It doesn’t sound good to the naked ear. A lot of people get fooled into thinking that they have to make their drums sound like they would in the final mix. In actuality, if people kept their drums dead in the studio, they could get any sound they like.”
The group’s live concerts were turning heads as they played marathon shows without samples. One of the highlights of their shows was the now legendary “Hip-hop 101” segment, where each member stretched out and actually took solos, which flew in the face of hip-hop traditions. At first people balked, wondering when the hip-hop was going to start again. “Credibility is very important in hip-hop,” ?uestlove says. “We had to prove to people that we were real. It was suggested that we play portions from classic hip-hop and rap songs, because the audience would identify with it more. It worked like gangbusters, because everyone recognized all the songs. It was our nod to tradition, but it was one small part of our live show. Remember that this was before rap became one big ass karaoke machine. We used the Hip-hop 101 concept as a psychological tool, so that people would know where we were coming from, but we also used it as a bridge to our solos. When we started doing that back in 1994, you could count the number of hip-hop bands on one finger. But after 1996, all these bands came on the scene that do mostly other people’s songs. It is not a nod to tradition, it seems fake, and I feel like we are responsible. I mean, I go to shows and hear ideas I want to copy, but I make it my own; it’s done subtly so that no one notices. Now anyone can do a two-hour show, because they can exploit your musical memory. I’m almost ashamed, so I’m trying to kill that part of the show. I’ve really condensed my portion.”
With their next album, Illadelph Halflife, the Roots started sampling themselves, “taking a cue from the Beastie Boys,” ?uestlove says. “We took our jam session tapes and started looping them, so we were probably only playing live on 80 percent of that album.” And even then, some of their fans were critical, because now they were using samples. To others, their direction had metamorphosed into a “thinking man’s” hip-hop that was musically harder than the band’s previous albums, but didn’t glorify the violence and misogynist tendencies of other hardcore rap artists. Instead it celebrated the community of hip-hop, its visual artists, dancers and vibe, and renounced the designer clothes, flashy jewelry and guns.
Keeping a rigorous touring schedule, The Roots continued to hone their live show, playing for hours the material they had developed. People refused to believe that ?uestlove’s drums were live, even though they were. Playing with the simplicity and grit that epitomized old school, ?uestlove achieved sonic dirtiness through the meticulous use of effects and EQ. “It’s all me!” he says. “People don’t understand that with an extra four hours [of technical EQ] patience, they can achieve the sound they want to hear.” In order to bypass that, “people cheat by playing over loops. People go to see bands, and they say, ’Wow, they sounded so wonderful.’ And I say, ’Yo man, you were listening to a turntable, it wasn’t even the drummer.’”
Sadly, Iladelph Halflife didn’t prove to be the breakthrough album that ?uestlove expected. The ominous words that ended the recording set the tone for the increasingly adversarial relationship the band had with its record label: “For now the Roots remain a little bit of an enigma, even to themselves. They have reached the level of their dreams, a major label record deal, and some international notoriety. But for all that, their concept has not yet blown up. And it is possible it won’t.”
In 1959, a Nigerian author named Chinua Achebe published a book called Things Fall Apart. It told the story of a Nigerian warrior who left his homeland, only to return some years later to find out that things had changed in his village and that his lifestyle and traditions were being wiped out through colonization by western nations. ?uestlove relates that to hip-hop, and chose to name the Roots’s new album (on a new label, MCA) after the book. “Things Fall Apart takes steps, sonically, that we have not taken before,” he says. “You could call this record our Abbey Road because not all of us were there when we recorded it, and I am satisfied with the sound of this record. We actually recorded about 166 songs in various stages since June of ’97. We would sometimes produce four to six songs a day!”
Using a myriad of drums (both brand name and no name) and Akai MPC 2000 and MPC 3000 drum machines, ?uestlove produced exotic sounds on Things Fall Apart. “There is a song called ’Double Trouble’ that took me about five hours to get the sound right,” he says. “That is the epitome of dirty drums to me. I must be going through a dirty drum period. I recorded the drums onto 2” tape, looped it at the board, then worked on the sound with the EQ. Drums today are too clean, and I don’t like that!
“Back in the day, we didn’t have two turntables, so we would create ’pause tapes’ in order to make drum loops. When you wanted to create a drum loop, you get a recorder, press record and pause at the same time. When the drum break came, you would let the paused tape go right on the 1, and then pause it on the 1 again. After you did this about 20 times, you would have about five minutes of drums. On a song called ’Step Into The Realm,’ we used that concept, only the break came at the end of the 45, so it fades out each time. That was our little nod to the pause tape.
“There is a particular kind of sound called drum ’n’ bass, which is generally known now as electronica. One guy who is a proprietor of that sound is called Dego, and he’s from London. He would take old R&B tunes, sample the drum part and double time it. I recorded the drums on ’You Got Me’ at the regular tempo, and then we slowed the 2” tape down to half speed. Then I played again, at the regular tempo, so when the tape ran at the original speed, that part sounds compressed, and tinnier. That was our nod to the cats in London that we met while we were there.”
The song “Dynamite” was recorded using a secret Sigma Sound technique that surprised even ?uestlove when he heard it. “That song was originally a sampled drum track that Jay Dee (from the production unit The Ummah) gave us,” says ?uestlove. “I wanted to get the same sound out of the drums. I spent about three days trying to get the sound. I went to the engineer of Sigma, and I asked him to help me. He produced this blanket, and I figure he’s going to stuff it in the kick drum. The next thing I know, he covers the entire kit with the blanket, and the snare mike is a good 6” away from the drum! He goes into the control room and tells me to play, and I’m thinking he’s crazy. To my naked ear, it sounded horrible, but he was messing with the compression, the EQ and everything. I went into the mixing room, hit the playback button, and I heard Jay Dee’s sampled sound. I asked to hear the drums I just recorded, and he said these were the drums. There was no difference between the sampled drum sound and what was coming out from that blanket. I played it for Jay Dee, and even he couldn’t tell the difference.”
?uestlove uses a huge amount of drum equipment in the studio to get the sounds he wants. “As of lately, I’ve been using a lot of flea market and pawn shop drums. Even though I only use three drums at a time [kick, snare, floor tom] I still use a lot of drums. One of the kits I’ve used for recording was a monster ass Tama set from 1985 on the ’Love of My Life.’ They actually sounded thin, like a jazz kit, even though they were so huge. On ’Double Trouble,’ I used a Fibes kit, and there is also an old 1964 Premier kit I use too. I don’t have any preference for drums. Each one sounds special, and I know that the magic is in the EQ.
“Another thing I do is use different snares for different songs. One snare I use has duct tape forming a triangle [on the head] from the edges of the drum. When you hit it in the top left section, it sounds like a clock ticking. I also recently recorded tracks on D’Angelo’s album, Voodoo. D’Angelo did a duet called ’Nobody’s Home’ with B.B. King on his Deuces Wild album, and I took a cue from Steve Jordan, who was playing drums. He used 20” ride cymbals as hi-hats! I ran back to the studio, and haven’t looked back. I just used 22” cymbals as hi-hats on a song, and it gets this huge, old trashy sound that you can’t get any other way. It’s ironic, because I was using 8” or 10” splashes as hi-hats, and now I’m at the opposite end. I have to use the crappiest cymbals I can get my hands on. I hate the sound of new cymbals.”
And when it comes to execution, ?uestlove wants the drums to be as sloppy as possible. “Sloppy means that it sounds like you’re dragging the beat, but you’re not. There’s a song called “Word Play” by A Tribe Called Quest that changed a lot of people’s way of thinking about drum programming. Jay Dee did that by not quantizing the notes; it’s done in human time. It sounds sloppy, and I liked that.”
Contributing to drumming vocabulary is just the beginning for ?uestlove. As the spokesperson for the band and an old school advocate, his opinions are being heard. “The marketplace is so twisted now. Our role is to take people back to a time when hip-hop was still hip-hop, it still had musical integrity. Whatever is big now is strictly based on image instead of being based on art. If I was an actor, that would be important to me, but I’m a musician. What’s most important to me is the music. The problem is that this music is getting to be watered down pop music, so that people in middle America can understand it, or it has to be ultra exaggerated, like gangster rap. You want to go to the ghetto to see what it’s like? Press play. You want to leave? Press stop. It’s all image. You have to be over-animated to get on MTV – they love your ass. That cycle that was told in the book Things Fall Apart also applies to hip-hop today. You see it for what it is – image. Like in all the videos where everyone is living up the life, the rented cars, the girls and all the dancing, realize not everyone approves of all that. And as for the people who have faith in their art, they are in last place.”
?uestlove’s Concert Kit
1. Yamaha or DW 24” Bass Drum
2. 14” x 5” Snare
3. 20” Floor Tom
A. 10” Hi-Hats
B. 24” Ride