If you watch late night TV — “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” in particular — you probably know the show’s house band, The Roots. And perhaps you’d recognize its drummer and frontman, Questlove, aka Ahmir Khalib Thompson.
Thompson is also a DJ, a producer, an author, a foodie, and a podcaster on Pandora with “Questlove Supreme.” He came into the studio Thursday to talk with Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: Most of the people who are going to hear this, my guess would be, and probably most of the people who know you now, know you from TV and “The Tonight Show.” Even though you’ve had a, you know, a hip-hop band for 20 years.
Questlove: Hey, you never know, I mean, George Foreman helps your sandwich —
Ryssdal: Right, he had a whole thing before the Foreman Grill!
Questlove: Heavyweight champion. I never knew that! I knew early I was going to be all things to all people. At least people are getting spot on now. You know, previously I was “You’re the guy that drums with Jay Z, right?” Or even to this day, it’s like, “You’re Jimmy Kimmel’s drummer, right?” Or even worse, Jimmy Fallon gets, “You’re Jimmy Kimmel.”
Ryssdal: Well, yeah, of course he does.
Questlove: But you know, I’m fine with it. I think at first it throws you off a little bit. You know, some people have a history like, I just didn’t pop up out of nowhere. But I’m fine with that.
Ryssdal: Do you ever look around and say, “I’m a kid from Philadelphia. I mean, what am I doing here?”
Questlove: More or less, it’s, “How did I get here?” Often when I go back to Philadelphia, I do something called chasing ghosts. I still have my first car and I keep it at my mom’s —
Ryssdal: I’m sorry, you still have your first car?
Questlove: And I still utilize it. Yeah. And I go to my mom’s house and I get it and usually I drive around — when I go to Philly, I’ll drive from like midnight to 3 in the morning, literally just chase ghosts. And the thing I always do is when I go past the place where The Roots used to busk on Fifth and South Street, I’m always like, yo, like back in 1992, I thought 1999 was going to be the future, you know. Let alone would I still be a thing in 2018. I mean, I’m not one of those “knock on wood” people, that I don’t want to jinx it. But —
Ryssdal: As he knocks on wood.
Questlove: As I knock on wood, you know hypothetically. But I just, I’m amazed that no one’s kicked me out of the pool yet.
Ryssdal: Yeah, we had Dessa on the program about two weeks ago. And we had a whole thing about how she got Lin Manuel Miranda calling her and you know, she’s doing really well. And I said, you know, are you “made” now? And she said, “Oh, honey, you’re never ‘made.’”
Questlove: Yeah. Even, you know, this is our technically our 27th professional year as a group. And I still work as if this could all end tomorrow. That’s why people ask like, “You do so many things, you have 19 jobs, like, when do you get to relax?”
Ryssdal: And you just don’t.
Questlove: In my mind, it’s always, this could end tomorrow. So don’t ever sleep.
Questlove in a studio in the Marketplace bureau in New York.
Ryssdal: Does it ever surprise you that you have become that guy now whom people turn to for advice and mentorship?
Questlove: I’m very uncomfortable with that. Even my Twitter handle says, like, “I’m better as a student, not a teacher.” Like, this whole “Questlove is sage scholar” and bunch of rappers called me, like, O.G. Rrrrrrrrrrr. No. I kind of shrug at that.
Ryssdal: Would you be here without “The Tonight Show”? I mean, you have said that you looked at that “Tonight Show” gig as a way to sort of fade into the sunset.
Questlove: I’m resilient. So I would like to think that I’d always be into something, but I would be a fool if I didn’t tell you that “The Tonight Show” opened up even way more doors that I expected. I truly thought this was going to be the most gentle mercy killing ever.
Questlove: No, I did!
Ryssdal: Oh, I’m just laughing because it’s funny.
Questlove: Not once did I think like, “Oh, this could benefit you or this could actually lead to open doors.” I just thought, you know, because I was reading the op-eds and even though I love being underestimated — someone had wrote in a blog once, like, “Oh, this is a sad day for music because watching The Roots accept this “Tonight Show” gig will be like watching Miles Davis busking in a New York subway for change.” And I was actually like, “Good. This is exactly what I want.” I want to be underestimated because I wanted to — not saying that it was uncool — but I wanted to make, I wanted to kill all perceptions of this being a square gig.
Ryssdal: Do you buy the sort of the conventional wisdom that you’ve changed late night music?
Questlove: I mean, there’s small nuances, but I think just the times have changed. I think we just got very lucky with the timing. The internet and social media had just started to become a thing. The idea of viral videos was becoming a thing, and we took advantage of it. Like, we were the young kid on the block, and it was clear, like, Letterman wasn’t going to start being on Snapchat and that sort of thing. So we just took advantage of an empty playing field. You know, a lot of late night shows were just post-jazz music. There were other avenues to explore, and we took full advantage of it.
Ryssdal: It’s interesting, though, because there is a lineage, right? There is Doc Severinsen from the old “Tonight Show,” then there’s Paul Shaffer, probably the next notable guy, and then there’s you and The Roots.
Questlove: That’s weird, and you know, again, like, I didn’t have posters of Severinsen and Shaffer on my wall like, “One day that will be me.” It’s just making the most of it. Again, like, in 2008 when he proposed it to us —
Ryssdal: And we should say, you didn’t take the call for a long time.
Questlove: Yeah. I was like, “Aw, man, we just got to go to a place where we’re making good money on the road. Like, why would we turn back on 17 years of climbing a mountain to start all over again?” And you know, the one thing is that where we were failing miserably was in our domestic personal lives. Kids were getting older, crying more at the airport. So it was sort of like we weren’t actively asking for it, but I was like, “Man, if there is a way that we could Celine Dion our way into a position,” right? I use all this stuff as verbs, right?
Ryssdal: Yeah, I like that.
Questlove: Celine Dion our way into a position where we could still make a good living without having to have lobby call at 4 a.m. and be on the bus for nine hours. And then this fell into our lap, and it was like, be careful what you ask for.
Ryssdal: This is going to get all Marketplace and you know, dorky management on you here —
Questlove: I live for that stuff.
Ryssdal: Well, good. And in fact, that’s the root of the question, right? Because you have said at more than a couple of points planning something is the joy of actually doing that something. And the question that comes out of it is: What’s it like to work for you? How do you run the band? How do you run you guys on the show?
Questlove: You know, there’s lessons to be learned about it because again, we’re at a phase in our lives where we’re not 22, 23.
Ryssdal: Yeah, you’re what, like, 45 now?
Questlove: I wish. I’m 47. So the things that I would like to do, like, you know, relentless rehearsals for seven hours in a row and that sort of thing than we used to do, you know you got to kind of be considerate of the fact that it might be soccer night or, you know, that sort of thing. Not to mention a lot of our side projects. So just working for me, it’s weird, because The Roots is just one of 19 things I’m responsible for. We’re in a very sweet spot right now where we’re actually having more fun with each other, as people, socially, that we’ve ever had. I realized that we were going to fall apart if, as people, we weren’t having fun with each other. You know what I mean? So I think now we’re in as a unit. This is the best it’s ever been.
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