Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the drummer and leader of The Tonight Show’s house band The Roots, says he’s obsessed with the creative process. His new book, somethingtofoodabout, is a collection of his interviews with chefs about how art and creativity apply to their preparation and presentation of food.
Speaking with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross in front of an audience in Philadelphia, Questlove likens some of the meals he’s eaten to ephemeral works of art. “Maybe I did have the equivalent of a Mona Lisa when I went to Jiro’s restaurant in Japan,” he says. “But now there is no evidence of that. You only have my story to tell you.”
Instead of re-creating the “magic” of a perfect meal, Questlove’s book is an attempt to capture the process that brought the meal into existence. “I always say that I’m more obsessed with the journey of getting there than the destination,” he says.
Questlove’s own journey began in Philadelphia, where his father, the late Lee Andrews, headed up the doo-wop group Lee Andrews and the Hearts. In addition to his father, Questlove points to Prince as another big influence.
Questlove says that when he first met the rock icon, he was both intimidated by him and surprised that Prince was familiar with his work. “I don’t think I even said words the first time I met him,” he says. “I was just talking backwards … ‘How does he know I’m alive? How does he know I exist?‘”
On his relationship with Prince
It was a complex relationship. The second time we spoke, I kinda asked him, “I got to let you know, you’re mad normal.” And he laughed, and he said, “What, you think I wouldn’t be?”
And then one night, just out of the blue, he ambushed us. I was working on Common’s Electric Circus album and the phone rang … and I picked up and he says, “Hello, can I speak to Prince?” I said, “Who?” And he’s like, “You know your name means prince, right?” [The Arabic meaning of the name “Ahmir” is prince.] And I said, “Who’s this?” and he said, “Prince.” And he came by and it was already 3 in the morning, and we played him some songs we were working on.
On Prince’s feelings regarding cursing
We’re at Paisley Park [Prince’s studio and home in Minnesota], and I don’t know, maybe I let the s-word slip … and [Prince] was like, “Yeah, that’ll be a dollar.” He grabbed a water bottle and he said, “Actually, you’re rich. That’s $20.”
I said, “Huh?” and he said, “No cursing.” And I said, “Cursing! Wait, you’re the one that taught me how to curse.”
But the thing was, when I said that, I was really saying it to get out of paying 20 bucks, but I saw the look on his face. And when I walked away that night and went back to the hotel, I wondered if he really felt bad about that; if he thinks in his head, “Man, I’ve ruined a generation.” But he really felt that.
And I felt that with a lot of his secret philanthropy, and a lot of the Robin Hood stuff he was doing, I mean real deep political — saving schools, people to this day not knowing where this $3 million check came from, that was all him. I felt like maybe in the last 20 years of his life, he felt the need to overcompensate or pay forward what he feels that maybe he damaged some of us who grew up listening to his music.
On how his parents’ love of doo-wop music influenced him
My parents wisely tricked me into thinking doo-wop music was current music. In first grade — first day of school, our assignment was to bring in your favorite 45. So the next day, kids were bringing in “Shadow Dancing” by Andy Gibb, or Yvonne Elliman or “Disco Duck” by Rick Dees, and I brought in Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?” and my teacher started laughing. [She said] “Do you listen to this?” And I said yes, and she didn’t believe me. And she was like, “This was music when I was kid.” And then suddenly I realized, “Oh, my parents tricked me. These are old records.”
On landing on the theme song for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon
It was there all along, the very first song that The Roots ever worked on when we came to 30 Rock, which was really just a song we were doing to test the speakers. We came in the room for the first time, and we had to sound-check on the sound stage, and that’s the song we made up. And we never thought about it again and somehow, that accidentally wound up in Jimmy’s file and he said, “That’s the song.”
On The Roots’ gig at The Tonight Show
It’s the best job ever, and at the time I didn’t know it, because when Jimmy first approached us to do it, I think initially in our heads, we had worked and clawed our way to whatever your vision of the top is. We had clawed our way to a certain place financially where seven people … and a crew … could really make a good living. So who would ever step away after struggling for 19 years to get to this place of Zen to go to an uncertain future?
We entertained the conversation and everything, but in our heads, we were like, “There’s no way we’re going to do The Tonight Show.” And suddenly, the moment that nailed it, we were at UCLA and Jimmy was at the show and I had to do a quick backstage interview. And I came outside my trailer and I walked outside … [and saw] Jimmy and The Roots in an Eight Is Enough human pyramid. … And I just looked at my manager and I’m just like, “We’re stuck with this guy, aren’t we?”
To hear more from Terry Gross’ conversation with Questlove, including a story about Prince using a golden ping-pong paddle in a match against Jimmy Fallon, click the “listen” link at the top of the page.
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