The super-producer and Roots drummer on white audiences, and why hip-hop is the new minstrel show


For more than a decade, Philadelphia band the Roots has occupied a very weird space at the top of the hip-hop pantheon – claimed by black artists as one of their own, respected as a force of “conscious rap” righteousness and live instrumentation in a wilderness of false gangsta posturing, and yet playing to mostly white audiences. From that precarious perch, it has refused to compromise on its seven albums of jazzy, intellectual, and decidedly non-pop hip-hop, much to the group’s own commercial detriment. It is one of most influential rap acts to never have a radio hit.

One of the two founding members of the band, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, is a hot jazz-funk drummer, a sought-after DJ who has released two volumes of his solo compilation series Babies Makin’ Babies, and a super-producer working with well-known artists like D’Angelo, Common, Erykah Badu, N.E.R.D., and Dilated Peoples. He was the music director of the Brooklyn concert that became the recently released film Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. He got on the phone from the studio where he was mixing the Roots’ long-awaited next album, Game Theory, due out in September.

–Dean Kuipers

CityBeat: What was the musical goal of Dave Chappelle’s Block Party?
?uestlove: I guess the purpose was to show how we are on stage and how we are together as people. As you can tell by his television show, the musical guests that he picks reflect his personal tastes – as he said, that’s pretty much the ideal concert that he would throw if he could throw one.

Was he trying to be political at all in his choices?
I think it was natural. There’s a difference between being PC and actually political. But it’s a mix between the two. Dead Prez definitely showed a harder edge, whereas Jill Scott didn’t necessarily have to go that hard route. She could be her tender self, and it was cool.

At one point in the movie, you made a comment about playing to audiences that don’t look like you – in other words, white audiences. Does that matter to you?
Yes and no. I’m sorta resigned to the fact that our audience isn’t the black audience. I’ve been keeping track of how [Block Party] gets reviewed; one critic finally raised a stink and said, “Wait a minute, somethin’s goin’ on here. If you look at the [black] audience that’s in that movie, that wouldn’t happen in a million-skillion years!” I’m serious. [Laughs] Like, that was heavy, heavy, heavy filtering. But you just have to see the reality of this situation; your average black teenager is pretty much financially disenfranchised. To go out to a [concert], you should have $200 in your pocket. And nine times out of ten, most of your kids that can afford such a thing are not necessarily the kids that look like me.

That observation wasn’t a complaint, just an observation. Because there’s always that one kid at a Roots show that’ll come up all apologetic for the actions of the quote-unquote “real people” that support it.

Meaning apologetic for the black audience?
I guess. Sometimes there’s just utter shock. They’ll come to the Roots show, and they haven’t resigned themselves to the fact that white people are that big into hip-hop. That’s why DJ Paul Wall is ranking up right now, because, for that post-Get Rich or Die Tryin’ shit, they don’t have much experience in knowing what their audiences are about.

For the black audience, are their choices just dominated by what’s on radio?
If presented to them, they would flock to [the Roots’ music]. But, unfortunately, most black people ... they’re not particularly open to doing things like downloading music on the Internet, exploring, trying out new things.

I imagine that would be frustrating for you.
We’ve learned to desensitize ourselves. Oh, please! You have to! People say, “What advice do you have for the kids out here?” And when I say “the kids,” I mean like the people that barely, barely, barely got on the train before it took off – your Jean Graes, your Talib Kwelis – you must desensitize yourself emotionally in order to be able to survive. That’s the only thing that could keep me from going postal. You’re going to constantly get ignored. A fan base not 100 percent together following you. You have to freeze yourself emotionally, or else you’re just going to get hurt every time.

One of the main texts of hip-hop is surviving in the ’hood. Is that story played out?
You’re going to have to look at hip-hop through the eyes of what has come before it, and see if you can sort of see a cycle. You have to figure it out like an algebra problem. Saying that, I now have to say that hip-hop is the new minstrel movement. I don’t think most hip-hoppers even know that sometimes they’re part of the joke. I’ll give you a great example: I’m very happy for Three 6 Mafia at the Oscars, but I’m sorry, after watching that at least six times in a row, I get the feeling that people weren’t laughing with them. It’s more like a novelty thing. The minstrel movement has definitely taken over hip-hop. And as a result, the heart of the matter’s just not there anymore.

There was a statement to be made, but now it’s just entertaining?
Here’s the problem: It’s always been entertainment. We’ve always known that, and to tell you the truth, that’s borderline what paralyzes us. We’ve been here for 12 years, but every album’s like, “Oh, we’re on the verge – this gonna be the one!” But there are some people that genuinely believe – I tease Common about it all the time, but he really believes that love makes the world go ’round, and good music’s just the soothing thing that we need. Yeah, in theory, I do believe that as well. I don’t want to ever mislead people that I’m not about my art. But you know, I have my suspicions and my theories that certain people don’t know that it is all entertainment.

Is there a problem with having always to speak to the commonality of black experience?
And they don’t know that their people aren’t them? [Laughs hard] I would be okay with this current state of hip-hop; however, something got lost in the translation, and now I believe that hip-hop has been mistakenly replaced as the actual mirror reflection of black life.

But the Roots make more individualist statements.
A lot of that also has to do with the fact that Tariq, Black Thought, comes from a different generation of MCs, you know. Like Tariq is the son of Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap and LL. He was kind of birthed in 1988, lyrically, and this is the result. Game Theory will probably mark our first album in which … he really digs deep and gets his narrative off the ground.

For years, all we’ve been hearing is “This is real.” Has that created unrealistic expectations?
It creates an unrealistic expectation into which actual real people, no-frills people come, and it just seems boring. “Real” now translates into being cartoony. You first had N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton, and that particular album just scared the bejeezus out of the average everyday person back in 1988. But once they sort of conditioned themselves to hearing that, then it wasn’t enough. If you listen to the second N.W.A record, Niggaz4life, it just feels that much more comic.

How do people come to your music?
You have to search. I’m an artist, so I believe in that whole keep-one-eye-open-in-the-back-of-your-head thing. So I frequent Pitchfork and other websites that sort of talk about the left of center, or what’s alternative. But you’re going to have to enfranchise a group of people, a race of people. I shake my head in some kind of naïve manner once I realize that people have not accepted the fact that this is business, you know?