The Root Interview: ?uestlove

In this exclusive interview, the Roots' drummer talks about the Grammys, having a steady gig after years on the road and how he got Jay-Z to love Fela as much as he does.

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

The Roots used to be the ultimate road warriors, spending upwards of nine months out of every year touring. Since taking over as the house band on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon almost two years ago, the peripatetic group has settled down — which has given its hyperactive drummer, Ahmir Thompson, aka ?uestlove, time to involve himself in many more projects.

His most recent endeavor is curatorial. Knitting Factory Records is reissuing the Fela catalog in special-edition sets chosen by leading musicians. The first set has been chosen by ?uestlove.

During a break from Late Night, he talked to The Root about all things Fela, love, the Grammys and even Toto (the band, not the dog).

TR: How did you get involved with the Fela reissue series?

?uestlove: I think it was gonna happen eventually. I’ve been associated with Fela! [the Broadway musical] almost from the start. I brought Shawn [Jay-Z] Carter to it. And I was involved in the last reissue series of Fela’s albums in 2000 when Universal reissued his whole catalog. When Knitting Factory wanted to bring back Fela’s records, they wanted to do it differently.

TR: What distinguishes the six albums that you chose?

?uestlove: There were two things, really. For one, I wanted to do a lot of the slower material, the tracks that were sampled in hip-hop, and I really wanted to do some of his ’80s work. Most people hear Fela and they think of his Afrika ’70 band, but I like his ’80s band Egypt ’80 just as much.

Beast of No Nation is one of my all-time favorite records. It has the best bass lines, syncopation, call and response. … He was one of the very few artists to exit stage left while at a very high level, I mean without immediate death. If anything, I wonder why he didn’t record more in the ’80s.

TR: Have you always been a fan of Fela’s music?

?uestlove: I first heard it from Santigold. She was one of those rare people who investigated her parents’ records and embraced them as her own rather than some sort of historical exploration. I think Tariq [the Roots’ Black Thought] and I were in her car and she had Fela’s “Everything Scatter” on, and I thought about it being the song from the X-Clan track. Tariq really gravitated toward it and began making Fela mixtapes, and we would play them on the tour bus almost every day.

TR: So what’s it like working on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon?