Hip-hop’s premier tastemaker discusses the delicate art of curation.
Wed Apr 11 2012
Photograph: Courtesy of Def Jam
As any of his nearly 2 million Twitter followers could tell you, there may be no wiser, more open-minded tastemaker in pop than Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. So it makes perfect sense that BAM invited the Roots’ affable, Afroed drummer to curate the latest installment of its Shuffle Culture series (going down at the Howard Gilman Opera House on April 19 and 20) at which Deerhoof, Sasha Grey, Reggie Watts and others will join Questo in a sweeping, meticulously paced revue. TONY recently visited Thompson at 30 Rock, where he took a break from prepping for a Jimmy Fallon broadcast to discuss his vision for the BAM show, the art of the mixtape, life after Michele Bachmann and more.
How did these Shuffle Culture shows come about?
When I first heard it, I gotta be honest, I thought, Shuffle Culture—so I’ve got to do, like, minstrel entertainment? What am I, going back to Amos ’n’ Andy? But no, my manager said it was based on how people listen to iPods. I was like, “Okay, I’m listening.…” Initially we were just going to find 30 notable figures and duet it: Like, Ornette Coleman or David Murray with me or Reggie Watts, toe-to-toe. But that would’ve been a night of soloing. It’s probably better to do what we’re doing and have one figure enter the picture with an established nucleus point.
Do you, either as an artist or as a listener, resist the idea of shuffle-oriented listening?
I'm trying to wean myself. Because in hip-hop, you have to understand that the idea of digging in the crates, going record shopping to find that next beat, the way that cats normally listen is just putting the record on 45 and skipping to what they think the good parts are. They read the grooves, they put the needle there, and if they don’t get instant gratification, they flip it over. It wasn’t until I started working with J Dilla, who—I was amazed at the amount of patience he had. He could actually sit through a 24-minute Cannonball Adderley song. I was just like, “What are you waitin’ for?,” and he was like, “I’m waitin’ for that part—I know it’s here. I gotta mine for gold."
Let’s talk about curation. I’ve seen your Twitter lists of the best Prince and James Brown performances, and I read another interview where you were talking about how you’re always trying to educate people at your DJ gigs. When did all of this start for you? Were you an avid mixtape maker?
Before the age of the iPod, I was pretty much the go-to guy for mixtapes. The Roots’ first bass player, Hub, used to always have these tapes called “Mellow,” like Mellow 1, Mellow 2, Mellow 3, and that was basically the soundtrack of our tour bus from ’94 to ’98. When I started taking over the reins for what was played on the bus, I wasn’t just looking to sample; I was looking for a good background supplement to our daily social existence. So the Mellow tapes, they were almost therapeutic; it’s kind of hard getting into a pugilistic situation when Roy Ayers is playing. I’d stay up for hours the night before [a tour]. Like, I should be packing for Europe, but I’m trying to make a ten-volume Mellow mix of shit I found: going to CVS, buying five-packs of those Maxell XL-IIs, the real clear ones. And up until airport call, which is 6pm, I’m still trying to squeeze that last song in.
And then part two of it was being on the same flight with Afrika Bambaataa. He taught me that the DJ used to be the tastemaker. He said, “Man, you don’t know the joy of hip-hop until you can play a record by the Turtles in the Bronx River Projects and watch cats go crazy dancing. You know good and well if I say, "I’m gonna put this record on by these five white people here," you could get killed for that! But they didn’t even know what they were dancing to and it had a rhythm…" His greatest story was, there's a really long drum break on the reprise of “Sgt. Pepper's.” He said, “I used to go back and forward on that break alone for ten minutes. That’s all they wanted to hear—the Beatles! In the projects of the Bronx!" He said, “Man, that is the spirit of hip-hop, when you can trick people into dancing and accepting music that they never heard before."
I just took that and ran with it. I knew that the more that my celebrity rose the more risk I could take [as a DJ]. Now, if I were a regular New York DJ, it wouldn’t behoove me to play “Movin’ Right Along” by the Muppets, but I know that my audience has just enough patience to let maybe ten records slide that any other DJ couldn’t get away with, like an Alice Coltrane song or a Weather Report song. I usually test the limits of my dance audience with the Muppets, and I’ve fooled them many a time. I did that at the [Kevin] Jonas wedding, and it actually worked.
I wanted to ask you about a few of the artists you chose for Shuffle Culture. What appeals to you about Deerhoof?
They’re one of the three bands I’ve ever been afraid of. They have a chemistry that even my manager is like, “Pshhh, they dust [the Roots] off the stage.” At first I was like, “How dare you say that?!?” But what I’ve learned in watching them—we’ve been on the European tour circuit with them since 2005 or 2006—is they just have this chemistry like they’ve been playing together since they were young. I’m amazed by that amount of ferocious power and persistence; they play like an army and there’s only four of them.
What about Sasha Grey?
She’s really one of my closest friends. Yes, I know she has notoriety, but really, the people that I asked to participate are the people that I have regular interaction with every day. If I were on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, her music knowledge and film knowledge—I mean, my girlfriend probably has the best vintage film knowledge there is—but Sasha and her partner, Ian, are my go-to people for any of that type of stuff. So when I asked her, she was more than willing to do it.
In terms of your work here on Fallon, are you still feeling aftershocks from the Michele Bachmann controversy?
I’ll say that they let that one slide. Sometimes if it’s a guest of that caliber, I might get the [Faux casually] “Yeah, so what are you gonna play for so-and-so?” There was nervousness with Ndamukong Suh, the football player who stomped someone on the floor, but only because his publicist was like, “Look, he’s here to promote this video game—you’re absolutely not supposed to bring up the stomping incident.” So a half hour before, they were like, “Look, man, we’ve got to know: What song are you going to do?” I said, “Don’t worry, I’m not doing a stomp song!”