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?
?uestlove: [Giggles.] Everything is completely different now. We used to do something like 200 shows a year; now we do maybe … 30.
There's this girl — I'm not going to say I'm seeing her — yet — but … you know. Well, it's hard to explain to someone you want in your life that your only free time is from 1 in the morning to 7 in the morning every day.
TR: So you're the "hardest-working man in … "
?uestlove: No, really, this is the time of my life. We get to play behind all of the musical guests, and sometimes when they come back in town, we play with them in the studio, just jam for a while, make songs.
Also, the show proves we have a human side. We [the Roots] got this reputation as a dark, political band. Being on the show reveals another layer that people don't always see. It makes us more three dimensional in the public eye.
And it's fun. So much of what goes on here is like Sloppy Joe Tuesday in high school.
TR: Does it leave time for social media? A lot of my musician friends look up to you as one of the people who make the best use of Twitter.
?uestlove: [Laughs.] It was kinda like my role as a DJ — put people on to the new music.
TR: Then put us on to some new sounds. What are you listening to these days?
?uestlove: I'm listening to a lot of older music now. It's from people we have on the show. We had Steve Lukather on, and he told me about all the sessions that Toto played on. I love to shock people with all the music that Toto was part of: Earth, Wind & Fire sessions, for instance, and George Benson's "Turn Your Love Around."
TR: What are you doing for the Grammys?
?uestlove: Well, we have six nominations, but what I'm really looking forward to is the Grammy Jam. It's like celebrity karaoke. Everybody is there, and it's fun. Last year Seal got onstage and wanted to do "The Wind Cries Mary." No one remembered how to play it, so I pulled it up online and we listened to it while everyone else set up and figured it out. It's not always so bad to be online all the time.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.