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At all times, legendary hip-hop drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson is a man pulled in many directions. The 37-year-old musician, producer, blogger and hip-hop tastemaker fairly defines multitasking: Aside from anchoring his long-term band The Roots since the late '80s, he's an executive producer and producer for other musicians (Common, Slum Village and, most recently, Al Green). He's also the main producer for The Roots, a photographer, a DJ, and head honcho behind okayplayer.com, a hip-hop/neo-soul Web site that is ground zero for discovering talented underground artists from around the world.
Somewhere in the midst of all this, ?uestlove, the man with the biggest Afro in all of hip-hop, manages to remain one of the most revered drummers in the history of pop music.
Not surprisingly for the hardest working band in hip-hop, The Roots are on tour again, and if you want to get an idea of how dizzying the band's lifestyle is, ask ?uest (pronounced Quest) what city he's in during an interview.
"Uhhhh...(long pause) Ooh, this is bad," he laughs. "Damn...wait...I think we're in Boston. Every day I wake up, I don't know where I am. It's like freaking Groundhog's Day."
Anyone who's followed the group over the years knows that ?uest has ample excuse for confusion. Clocking more than 250 days on the road each year, the band's blistering tour schedule is surpassed only by the frenetic energy it gives off each night onstage. While everyone else in this seven-member unit struts through an hour-and-a-half set each night and then gets to relax, ?uest typically heads to a club and DJs a party in each city. For ?uest, the increased workload is worth it for what he sees as the narcotic quality of rocking a club.
"I usually DJ from 12:30 to 3 a.m., depending on the curfew," he says. "And that gives me just enough time to get back to the hotel, shower, get my pajamas, get on the bus and start it all over again the next night. DJing is my post-show activity cocaine. Everyone has their methods, but for me, DJing is how I wind down from a hard day."
As a unit, The Roots have always prided themselves on being the world's premier hip-hop band and have always focused on using as many live instruments onstage as possible — from a drum kit to guitars to a sousaphone. But it's not just live that they shine. Over the years, en route to mastering the underground backpacker ethos and the indie hip-hop/free-jazz sound, The Roots' albums have garnered plenty of acclaim, especially undeniable classics such as 1995's Do You Want More?!!!??! and 1999's Things Fall Apart.
But currently, they seem fed up with all of it. More recently, their music has taken an increasingly dark tone, and ?uest admits that latest disc Rising Down is one of the bleakest albums they've ever released.
"It's a personal record," ?uest says with a sigh. "For rock music, this shit is normal. People go through things. But it's almost, like, hip-hoppers aren't allowed to show that three-dimensional type of emotion in their music. That's where we're at right now."
Band infighting, record-label strife and the death of longtime producer and friend J. Dilla have all weighed heavy on the hearts of band members for the past three years. The group's highly lyrical frontman, Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter, once known for some of the best battle raps and wittiest punch lines in the business, has steered his microphone prowess more toward therapy sessions of late. Venting anger and frustration is the band's new norm.
Some critics see it as raw honesty, but unfortunately, many reviewers have slammed the more introspective, pissed-off Roots. "Some people will get it; some won't," ?uest says coldly. "Between the gazillion interviews I do, the blogging and Okayplayer, people know where to reach me if they have a problem with it."
In that response alone, there's more than a hint of frustration, and ?uest is basically flexing at anyone who wants to bad-mouth his band. He's fine with folks who don't like the political messages intertwined in the lyrics, but don't knock the group's still-intact ability to rock out harder than any other hip-hop act on the planet.
Rising Down takes its name from Rising Up and Rising Down, a seven-volume study on the history of violence by William T. Vollmann.
The disc was released on April 29 to coincide with the 16th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots.
"We felt it was necessary to bring these issues up and put it in people's faces," ?uest says. "Look at the beating that happened in Philly last week with those cops who just beat the shit out of three kids. It was like Rodney King times 40. So what's changed? I understand the frozenness and the indifference, but you can't get scared."
In that sense, The Roots still strive to be and are able to be a voice for the underclass, which, and this can be difficult to remember in this age of ringtone rap, is part of the reason hip-hop got started 30 years ago.
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