By Luke FoxCall it a working vacation. The Roots may be taking some time off this summer from their day night job as house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, but that doesn't mean the music ends. The legendary Philly hip-hop band is busy touring in support of their ninth studio release (and 11th album overall), How I Got Over, and plotting new projects. We had the opportunity to chop it up with drummer/band spokesman Questlove, he of the notorious Afro and breadth of musical knowledge, before the Roots' Jazzfest performance at Nathan Philips Square in Toronto on June 29. Immediately after answering our final query, the workaholic stood up, walked straight out of the media trailer, directly onstage and started banging on his drum kit. Later that same night, Questlove DJ'd his own after-party at Toronto hipster spot the Drake. And the beat goes on…
It's kinda crazy that you're performing here at Nathan Philips Square, and this place is packed with people checking out the Jazzfest when only a couple days ago the only people here were police and protestors. I was watching it in Saskatoon on TV. And the news report, it was like they humanized the Starbucks. It was like Death of a Starbucks. [In news reporter voice:] "And now more ongoing coverage of Starbucks Strategico," or some crazy alliteration. I was like, Are they really giving a memorial to a burning Starbucks? They talked to the manager; he was almost in tears: "They rolled a garbage can through it…" I think they see Starbucks as big brother. I'd be curious to see an unbiased report because I was to believe that everyone here was jumping on top of cop cars, turning them over, and it was the end of Starbucks. It looked like Do the Right Thing from Spike Lee. I'd never seen anything like that in my life.
Where do you usually get your news? I watch a lot of British news, because I find that to be the most unbiased straight reporting, especially during the Bush era. I learned about the whole "start a war, start a fire" process. A lot of the small things that we weren't paying attention to over here [in America], they were making a big stink about. It's like they privatize social services or something while distracting people with the war. The only place you could get a report on [anything other than the war] would be a non-American news program.
You've called How I Got Over the most personal Roots album to date. Why wait to get personal on album no. 11? Because hip-hop is a bunch of masks. Jay-Z and Biggie would be the first to tell you that a lot their narrative is based as characters. Even Wu-Tang: sometimes Method Man is Method Man, sometimes he's Johnny Blaze. Raekwon and his endless tales of coke and living that life. Hip-hop has always been a be-anything-but-you situation. And the spotlight on us has been about our lyrical dexterity and our musicianship and the virtuoso-ness of the group, but never about what's in there [taps chest]. The seed was really planted with Phrenology; that was the first time you ever learned something personal about the group. And even then it was us outing Malik [B]: he has a heroin problem, that's why he's not in the group. And then The Tipping Point slowly turned that car around, but we didn't start driving in that direction until Game Theory and Rising Down. But those were more about the politics in Philadelphia, the politics of the world. But these songs [on How I Got Over] are totally about us. Even a song as light as "The Day" is a day in the life. I give Tariq [Black Thought] endless props for even mentioning that he does odd jobs around the house. That's really him. Tariq is Dr. Scrub a Toothbrush on the Floor and Scrub the Bathroom. That's a very honest line. We made an acceptable, mature album. Because it's like, we're 40 now ― what do we do? Even in "Now or Never" Tariq mentions, "Am I having a midlife crisis?" We embraced maturity. So maybe everyone can follow suit, and it can be natural and not just a bunch of old people celebrating yesterday.
As the Roots' role of house band for Jimmy Fallon, you get to meet a lot of celebrities. Do you ever get star-struck, or are you way past that? Don't let a hot female come on. Salma Hayek, she came on and we were like, 'Ahhhh…' [tongue out, drooling sound] Foaming at the mouth. Every day it's something new. The Stones come by, Robert De Niro comes by. A lot of these guys are good friends with Lorne Michaels, and Saturday Night Live is in the building. For me, when Tom Petty was the guest for Saturday Night Live, his drummer is my personal idol, Steve Ferrone. So it was a humbling experience to see my idol and for him to know I was alive: "Hey, Questlove. I like your drumming." "Hey, Steve Ferrone. You made me." That was fun. Some times it's anticlimactic. Megan Fox comes, and it's like, oh, okay.
What? She's not that hot in real life? No, she's hot. But I always find that the most interesting guests and the hottest guests are the ones you have least expectations for. I'm real cool now with Olivia Munn, but I wasn't much of a G4 channel watcher to know that, "Oh, my God, Olivia Munn's coming on the show!' But when she was on the show with Artie Lange, Howard Stern's sidekick, that was comedy magic. Those two were an instant comedy team, and they never met each other. And there are some people that come on the show that you really become cool with. Susan Sarandon told me, "Did you find an apartment yet? I read in the paper you were looking for an apartment." I was like, "No." "Well, you know you can crash at my house anytime you want. My kids love you." It definitely has its benefits.
You never took her up on the offer? No, I got a spot.
A lot of guests pop up on the new album. How do you decide who to collaborate with? Half the people that are on the record and around us just happen to be there. Joanna [Newsom] ― big fan of Joanna ― but never thought she'd be on there. She dates [Andy] Samberg, and Samberg and I work in the same building. She's occasionally there at Saturday Night Live, and Saturday Night Live asks me to DJ some of their after-parties. So I'll go to the shows, and Joanna and I will bust it up. Maybe after the seventh or eighth time seeing each other, I'll say, "You mind being on our record?" "Yeah." So that's how it happens.
You guys have always done a good job of featuring fellow Philadelphia artists on your albums. Is there anyone from Philly who should've blown up bigger than they have? Peedi [Crakk] is one of those people. To me, Peedi has the world's most unique voice. He's a modern-day Kool Keith to me. I love working with Peedi. I have extreme high expectations for STS, who's on "Right On" and "Hustla." He's formerly from Atlanta, but he moved to Philadelphia. And when I hear him rhyme, he takes me back to part Pharcyde, part Devin the Dude. His style's so crazy. I have high expectations that the world take note of him.
So what's this I hear about you forming a supergroup with Amy Winehouse? Is there truth to that story? We're Skype buddies, and she wants to do a project with Mos and me. Soon as she gets her visa thing together, that's gonna happen. Not many people know that there are three Roots albums coming out this year because they're on three different labels. Not one label is gonna champion another label's project. We started doing John Legend's next record entitled Wake Up, but we're so all over it that basically now it's a John Legend–Roots album, billed that way. And then we did an album with Booker T with us as the MG's. The cool thing about that record is we enlisted Gabriel Roth to be the engineer. Gabe Roth is the bass player and producer and engineer of the Dap-Kings. So that vintage Winehouse, quasi-'60s, Raphael Saadiq–last-album feel, that is the feel of this album. So this Booker T album is like Booker T and the Meters. It gives Roots fans a chance to see us in a breakbeat, instrumental light, and it sounds like it was made in the '60s, so it's real exciting for me.
Is Sharon Jones involved at all? She's on one cut. I don't know if it's that damn Heineken commercial or not, but [Booker] insisted that we cover [Biz Markie's] "Just a Friend." So Sharon Jones and Biz Markie and a host of others, we covered that song.
I think you're being called to onstage. But what about Al Green? You produced his last album. Any plans to work with him again? Last I talked to Al, he's like, "Christmas album! We'll make a Christmas album!" I was telling him, "We should get started by August." So I definitely know that once he's ready to get in the studio, he's more than welcome to come back to us. We're talking with Blue Note right now about doing his next album. I think I gotta go onstage.