Questlove’s »Mixtape Potluck«
30 years of creating on the pulse of time
Words: Thorben Kaiser
From the bucket drummer at the street corner to a world-renowned connaisseur of music and culinary delights in 30 exciting years: Questlove’s life at the pulse of time. With the publication of his first cookbook, he combines his two greatest passions: music and food.
If there were a category in the Guinness Book of World Records called »the person with the most parallel running jobs«, Ahmir »Questlove« Thompson would certainly have one of the top ranks. But he would only notice it if his followers pointed it out to him. Because instead of being self-centered, he always finds new impulses that drive him into being even more creative.
Since the launch of the public Internet in the Mid-90s, he has been one of the most dazzling people on the World Wide Web. He was already woke before the term even made the rounds and has always been a part of the group of people shaping the zeitgeist. Through his ever alert reception of the new and the sharing of his gathered knowledge, he grew into an important multiplier and indeed influencer, even long before this term became common. But Questo cannot be bought, never will be a sell-out. He is the realest realkeeper, just lives very transparent for the public and his followers, formerly known as just fans, thank him for it. He shows what he experiences and what he lives. On various Instafeeds, in Podcasts, on Twitter, he seems to be a master of the multi-channel lifestyle. Smoothly keeping his composure between private, professional and product marketing, he is also making statements about deceased friends and musicians which show how close he was to them and their work. From low points such as a band bus accident in Germany or the death of friends to support for prisoners or political movements as well as product placements with packshots. For him, all of this is compatible because he stands behind everything he posts, produces and shows himself for. If you were to assume a strategy here, you’d be messing with the masses of fans, formerly known as heads and now known as supporters, who have really seen, heard, read and felt everything in the almost thirty years they might have known him.
They will point out an 80,000 record collection, 11-14 The Roots albums and 50,000 forum posts on okayplayer.com – before there was Twitter. They will also mention the frozen ass that young brother ?love got from Philly’s South Street at the end of the 80s/ beginning of the 90s, when he and his fellow student Tariq Trotter started to gain attention with street music under the name »Black To The Future« before they became »The Square Roots«. Questo wove the drum carpet for Tariq »Black Thought« Trotter’s Freestyles. And before anyone in the US notices it, the band, now called »The Roots« and extended by some more musicians, sits on a plane to the Jazz Festival in Mörs, Germany, with the first album, »Organix«. On vinyl, of course, because Questlove comes from a musician’s home with a music collection and as everybody knows: Nothing can beat vinyl. Back in the USA, there was no internet, so a lot of phone calls were needed. A label from England called, »Talkin’ Loud«, an EP followed. What now reads as if it was a hundred years ago actually took place in the last century, but not even 25 years have passed since then. At that time not even the boldest visionary had ever imagined that Hip Hop would really one day be taught at universities. Or that children and adults would dance Hip Hop alongside Jazz Dance. Questlove can also be credited with the fact that the educated elite recognizes hip hop culture today. He stands for the intelligent, reflected Hip Hop, far away from gangsta stereotypes. He did pioneering work and one day he will be accepted into the Hip Hop Hall of Fame. The Roots are considered to be the first real Hip Hop band. Everything was played live from the very beginning. When other Hip Hop acts played shows with two turntables and a mic, The Roots built up drums, bass, guitar, keys and whatnot. Haters hate, players play. They always paid their respect to the G.O.A.T.S..
Way back in 1993 their concerts already included tributes for which they played the beats of the old masters live, with the pressure that could only be created live. They were able to present this skill to a wider audience through the »History of Rap« performances of Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake. YouTube Gold! They also give the instruments a lot of space during their live sets, often each musician of the band can showcase impressive skills with a short solo.
But those who pay respect are not automatically respected. They were also hated by »fans«. Especially because they became more radio-ready when they released »What They Do«, their first radio hit, the video of which was mailny known here through the TV show Yo! MTV Raps. After their jazzy second album »Do You Want More« the album »Illadelph Halflife« was a comparatively big success. At first it was the purists who rejected it, but now it was the Hip Hop heads who felt betrayed. Luckily, thanks to the internet and Questlove’s first prank in the web, the launch of his website okayplayer.com, the tide turned, even inspite of the Grammy award for the super hit »You Got Me«, produced by Scott Storch, Questlove and his producer clique The Grand Wizzards, originally sung bei Jill Scott and Eve, but released in a version with Erykah Badu because she was more popular and the label had a policy the band couldn’t oppose back then. Their accompanying album »Things Fall Apart« brought the breakthrough into the mainstream and Phrenology’s »The Seed 2.0«, based on Cody Chesnutt’s bedroom recording, cemented it into everybody’s All-Time Favs playlists. Questlove still kept his realness. Also in 1999, the daily, charmingly smart hip hop news started on the online home for The Roots, Common, Reflection Eternal and others from that haze: Okayplayer.com. Thus Questlove found his way back into his old fans‘ hearts. This group of musician friends who saw themselves represented on the website was given a name: »Soulquarians«. A group photo, including Questlove, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Bilal, Erykah Badu, J Dilla and D’Angelo, created a need that could never be satisfied. Although he produced »Voodoo« together with D’Angelo as well as albums with Common or Jay-Z’s MTV Unplugged, the politics of the labels, the complexity of the artists‘ contracts with many different majors stood in the way of the one big All-Star project. But the failure of the idea of a group project did not harm the individual success. Real friends got each other’s backs. Questlove was involved wherever his services were needed and his schedule allowed it. Not just at about 200 The Roots concerts per year, spread around the globe. He also served as musical director for the Broadway Fela Kuti tribute piece »Fela« and the Dave Chapelle Show. His work for and besides The Roots pushed the market value of his name, so that okayplayer.com had Questlove-Merch as well as T-shirts from The Roots. DJ Questlove flyers were on display in cities where The Roots played in the evening. The night belonged to Questo in the clubs. Always equipped with the latest technical gadgets. Thirteen iPods in your hand luggage? No big deal. An ounce of rap, a dash of soul, some demos, a hint of Prince, this and that.
The fans couldn’t get enough of him and he never seemed to get tired of music. This had to have negative consequences. His health was and still is a rarely commented but obviously important topic for Brother Question. He struggled with his weight, gained and lost weight drastically from time to time, only to gain and lose weight again and again. Now he made it. He looks healthy, lives healthier. Less stress, less travelling, better food – that didn’t mean giving up making music every day or keeping to a strict diet. But after years on tour buses and airplanes, hardly at home with his 80,000 records, something had to happen. A request from New York came just in time in 2008. The actor Jimmy Fallon, mentioned previously, got the offer to host the Late Night Show on NBC and was looking for a suitable band to be part of every show. In New York at the Rockefeller Center. Five shows a week, for an indefinite period. He wanted The Roots. He got The Roots. For 10 years now they have been residing in 30 Rock. They changed the format, Jimmy Fallon was allowed to take over the Tonight Show, the most important late night show in the USA. At that time they had already produced almost 1000 shows, from 2009 to 2014. Another 1000 followed until today. At the beginning Ahmir commuted daily with the train from Philly to Manhattan, but after a few years he moved to the Big Apple. That’s where the band now meets every day at noon, preparing the music for the show. Quickly the concept proved to be successful. Through cleverly selected pieces, often played only briefly, The Roots were at the center of everyone’s attention. Music guests became part of the band, singers were backed up by the band’s live interpretation of their music, creating their own versions for the show. Especially googleable on YouTube: »History of Rap«. Very well worth seeing, but highly scandalous, was the greeting of the Republican Michele Bachmann with the music of »Lying Ass Bitch«. She didn’t know the song, but the music loving audience congratulated the band on their move via Twitter. Unfortunately not everybody liked the gag, Questloves mother is said to have bawled him out on the phone.
In the digital age that was long time ago and Questlove still enjoys great popularity as he remains busy. In 2018, he was invited to the Academy of Motion Picture and Sciences and is thus entitled to vote for the Oscars. Since 2013, he is also a book author. His autobiography »Mo‘ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove« has been published as the first of now five books.
The next Roots album shouldn’t be long in coming, the title has been fixed for a long time: »Endgame«. Until then, he will pass the time with recording new podcasts and his own food products. »Questlove’s Popcorn Seasoning« or »Questlove’s Cheesecake« are available in delicatessen shops. He spent a year working on the latter. Questlove is now a food connoisseur. Those familiar with his Instagram feed @questlovefoods know where the vintner gets the must or the Questo his calories. More pleasant: The term »culinary«. It begins where »just getting full« ends. Gourmet Questolicious got to know the best cuisines of the world on his travels around the globe, which have helped him come up with ideas for his over 50 guests, whom he invites to dinner in his fifth book, »Mixtape Potluck«. Among these guests are his Homie Q-Tip and cemetery cinema date Natalie Portman. They all get the finest cuisine and Questlove chooses a song that suits them. The mixtape factor. Back to culture, paying respect, closing the circle, connecting things. This is how he wins over music nerds as well as foodies and builds a bridge where it always belonged. Drum roll: From the dining table to the turntable. If you are suitably equipped, you can now, with a little imagination, let these people come to you, pump up the curated music and ensure an audio-gustatory indulgence of the Questo class. Don’t be surprised if Santa Claus grabs one for himself.
Discover Questlove’s »Mixtape Potluck« at HHV – available October 15th:
Visual content: Portrait of Questlove by Michael Baca