Ahmir Khalib-Thompson, a.k.a. ?uestlove, drummer and bandleader of the hip-hop combo called the Roots, has been among the few rap personalities to actively criticize certain of his peers for talking trash, endorsing anti-intellectualism and promoting a criminal lifestyle guaranteed to result in the bodies of more young men littering inner-city streets. But he understands why more performers have not raised their voices along with his.
"Some people just don't want to go through certain troubles that come along with giving quotes or discussing things like that, because hip-hop is the only confrontational music left," he says. "You remember back when Kurt Cobain was doing interviews about how he thought Pearl Jam sucked? Well, if they had been into hip-hop, Eddie Vedder would have busted a cap in his ass."
Wisdom like this is typical of ?uestlove, who in a few short years has seen the Roots (also featuring bassist Leonard "Hub" Hubbard, rappers Malik B and Black Thought, keyboard player Kamal and racket-master Rahzel the Godfather of Noyze) go from an underground phenomenon in his native Philadelphia to an act at the very pinnacle of the hip-hop medium. And make no mistake about it: The Roots see their music not simply as an avenue to untold riches, but as a vibrant field that affords them the opportunity to communicate and educate even as they crank out the jams. By betting on the brains of the audience in this manner, ?uestlove recognizes that the Roots are taking a financial risk; despite the quality of the outfit's three discs (1993's independently released Organix, 1994's Do You Want More?!!!??! and last year's impressive Illadelph Halflife), he grumbles that "we only seem to do 300,000 albums every time we come out." But that doesn't mean he's ready to sell his soul for a platter made of platinum.
"The way the market is set up now, you're left with a watered-down, desensitizing process," he points out. "A lot of people say the music that comes out of it is commercial and a lot of people say it's a sellout. But what I'm finding out is that a lot of hip-hop artists are at the crossroads. They can either take the left road, which is the road that allows them to be creative and to really express themselves, or they can take the right road, which says, 'Okay, you've got bills to pay and you have to survive and you can't stay in the same neighborhood where you're at or else motherfuckers are going to rob you. And the only way to get out is to get a radio hit.'
"All we ever hear about is this East Coast-West Coast thing," he goes on. "But in New York, there's another war -- a big-ass civil war between artists who want to keep the art form as creative as they can and other artists who are saying, 'Fuck that shit. I've been trying to keep it real for three years and I'm still living in my mama's crib. Fuck that -- I need a hit now.' It's an attitude that's so much about money and about materialism that you've got motherfuckers dying for it. And that's something I can't keep quiet about."
?uestlove has so much to say, in fact, that he's lately branched out into print. For the past several months, he has penned a column for Rap Pages, one of the country's key hip-hop publications. However, he hasn't used this forum as an opportunity to launch fusillades at the rhymers who he feels come up short in the positivity department. "I wanted to avoid being seen as the hip-hop Andy Rooney," he notes. "So I've tried to write about our experiences and what we've gone through. A recent one was about what it's like in Japan right now. And one of my favorites was about why I think Prince belongs in the hip-hop hall of fame. I showed how his career mirrored what a lot of hip-hop artists go through -- how his albums were stickered for lyrical content, and how he uses metaphors for sex and so on. I came up with, like, 15 comparisons."
Assembling such a list was a snap for ?uestlove, a passionate student of music who was raised in a soulful environment. His father, Lee Andrews, is a professional musician best known for his work with the Hearts, a Philadelphia-based doo-wop group that enjoyed some minor chart successes during the late '50s. By the time ?uestlove was five years old, he was already a regular feature of the Hearts' live shows. He took up the drums seriously a couple of years later, and became so good so fast that his father put him in charge of the band as a whole when he was only 12. Because ?uestlove has been on the road steadily since then, living out of a suitcase is second nature to him. "I was raised to be in show business," he declares. Nevertheless, he understands what a grind a string of one-night stands can be. Malik B, a key part of the Roots' recordings, quit traveling with the group several years ago, and ?uestlove fully grasps why he made that decision.
"Touring sometimes can only be compared to Third World concentration camps," he allows, "and Malik wasn't loving it anymore. He felt like it was sucking his soul in, and it was becoming a job. So he said, 'I can't take it anymore.' But we didn't say, 'You're fired.' He's still on the payroll, and he's still in the group when we're doing records. We're not cruel people, you know."
The roots of the Roots can be traced to 1987, when ?uestlove, a student at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, first met Black Thought (Tariq Trotter). The following year, the pair began performing together under a revolving series of names, including Radioactivity, Black to the Future and the Square Roots. That last moniker was shortened around the same time ?uestlove and Black Thought expanded their duo into a genuine band -- a move that immediately differentiated the Roots from most other hip-hop conglomerations of the period. Instead of relying solely on samples and drum machines, the players built their sound upon the extremely real timekeeping of ?uestlove, the solid grooves laid down by Hub (whose background includes gigs with Graham Central Station and the Delfonics) and the keyboard stylings offered up by Kamal. Before long, the Roots were being called the best live band in hip-hop -- which was precisely what ?uestlove had in mind.
"That was our whole plan of attack," he says. "Because we weren't dominating radio and we weren't dominating video and we definitely weren't dominating any other area that I could think of, we realized that the only thing that we could control and grab people's attention with was our concerts. So we set out to put on, bar none, par excellence, the most satisfying show of the hip-hop era.
"When we were sitting down to construct it, we listened to a bunch of old-school tapes from, like, 1980. Like from Harlem World Crew, the Cold Crush Brothers, the Fantastic, Romantic Five, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and the Force M.D.s. When these tapes were made, most of these groups weren't bona fide stars. They weren't even celebrities; some of them hadn't made their first 12-inches yet. But they had these fans screaming like they were the Jacksons or Parliament because they entertained. They did much more than rhyming for the sake of riddlin'. They gave a well-rounded performance. And that's what we decided to do."
In the process, the Roots developed what would become a key segment of their presentation. Dubbed "Hip-Hop 101," it's a diary of the music in medley form, with Black Thought effectively mimicking everyone from Schoolly D to L.L. Cool J. Last year, a mini-controversy arose when the Fugees became known for including a similar hip-hop tribute in their sets without commending the Roots for coming up with the idea. But today, ?uestlove says he's more interested in the concept than the credit. "You've got emcees coming up saying that they were big fans of Big Daddy Kane and Rakim, and that was what they based their whole thing on," he says. "But if you want to know why Big Daddy Kane was so great, you need to listen to Melle Mel -- and then you need to listen to who Melle Mel was listening to. And if you keep going back and back and back, you can get the whole history of music that way."
The Roots began making history of their own with Organix. ?uestlove describes this difficult-to-find disc, which the band hopes to sell at its personal appearances through the rest of the year, as "raw -- really raw. But in its own way, it's a musical statement. When I listen to it now, I laugh, because I remember the circumstances in which we were doing it. Like, I remember that the snare drum stand was broken so someone had to hold the stand for me, and how we were all cramped up sharing french fries and fighting over Snapples and who was going to sleep on the couch. But it was radical at the time."
The CD proved promising enough to grab the attention of Geffen Records, which released Do You Want More?!!!??! in 1994. Musically, the album's flirtations with jazz and soul recall the work of A Tribe Called Quest, but thanks to the tight musical accompaniment and the distinctive voices of Black Thought and Malik B, the offering more than stands on its own. Typical is the exuberant title cut, a statement of purpose and hometown pride whose moniker was not chosen at random. "That was definitely meant to have a double meaning, especially in the context of the whole album," ?uestlove affirms. "It's a reference to the length of the record, which is way over an hour; we always do these sprawling, epic things. But it also meant, 'Do you want more than you're getting? Do you want something different?' And I think a lot of people do."
Illadelph Halflife is clearly intended to extend the Roots' legacy: The first number on it is listed as track 34 because, between them, its predecessors contain 33 songs. But while some of the tunes, including "Respond/React," exude the same boasting vibe that characterizes much of More?!!!??!, other compositions are more concerned with issues. The most prominent of these, the smoothly insinuating single "What They Do," takes on those rappers more dedicated to commerce than quality with lines such as, "The principles of true hip-hop have been forsaken / It's all contractual and about money-makin' / Pretend-to-be cats don't seem to know their limitations / Exact replication of forced representation ... I dedicate this to the one-dimensional / No imagination, excuse for perpetration."
The video made to accompany this throw-down became an MTV staple in large part because it so effectively needled many of the other hip-hop clips regularly broadcast by the network. But Sean "Puffy" Combs didn't find the mini-movie amusing. As the head of Bad Boy Records, Combs felt that the video directly targeted both him and his most successful artist, the late Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G. As a result, ?uestlove was soon nose to nose with a man who, despite his frequent claims to the contrary, continues to be seen by some as a possible suspect in the murder of Tupac Shakur.
"I heard from a few of his friends that he didn't like the video too much," ?uestlove says. "And then I actually saw Puff about four days before Biggie died, and what upset him the most is that, unbeknownst to me, the director had snuck in a parody of a Biggie video. It was a bedroom scene with three girls in the background with champagne glasses, which was a verbatim quote from a Biggie video that I hadn't seen. And if I had seen it, I would have made the director take it out, because what I wanted to do was comment on the whole lifestyle, not just one person." As ?uestlove tells it, Combs accepted this explanation, "but he also made one point very clear -- which was, 'I never dissed you, and what I do is what I do. And what I'm doing is trying to feed my family.'
"I respect that -- and I definitely wasn't trying to disrespect Biggie," ?uestlove insists. "But I'm trying to provide for my family, too. I'm just trying to keep as much artistic merit as I can while I do it. And I think that song and that video say something that needs to be said about the marketplace. It's the whole Motown theory. Berry Gordy wanted to market his music to white kids because they had money and could afford to buy the product, whereas a lot of black kids didn't. And a lot of people think that scenario is playing itself out again, with Puff making these songs based on white kids buying them. Why else would he use 'Every Breath You Take' by the Police in his new song ['I'll Be Missing You']?"
As this comment implies, ?uestlove isn't shy about taking on large targets. He's in the midst of researching a Rap Pages column based on comments attributed to clothing designer Tommy Hilfiger that cast black youth in a stereotypical light (Hilfiger has publicly denied making such remarks), and insists that he has information that Rolling Stone magazine routinely lowers the ratings of hip-hop reviews by half a star because the powers that be at the publication "refuse to believe that hip-hop has any merit whatsoever." (Nathan Brackett, recordings editor for Rolling Stone for the past year, denies this accusation: "I got my start writing about rap," he says, "and we've been running more lead reviews of rap albums than ever before. There certainly isn't any vendetta against rap at Rolling Stone.") Moreover, ?uestlove reveals that the Roots' upcoming disc, whose working title is Things Fall Apart, will be a no-holds-barred look at society's ills on the cusp of the millennium.
According to ?uestlove: "We don't want to make a record that says, 'Hip-hop is fucked up and radio is fucked up,' because a 17-year-old kid won't be able to relate to that. That just sounds like a bunch of complaining -- and mindless complaining at that. So we're going to take a global view of what's going on. Basically, I think that America will be paying heavy repercussions for mistakes in the past that are still part of the big picture. You know, Reaganomics led to George Bush's policies which have led to Clinton's welfare reform bill, which will put people one paycheck away from being homeless."
To say the least, such subject matter has little in common with the raps now booming out of the nation's Jeeps, but ?uestlove has no intention of changing his tune to fit the fashion. Long ago, he promised to be true to himself no matter what, and he's not about to back down now.
"This guy in an English magazine, Vox, reviewed Illadelph Halflife, and he called it the best piece of work he'd heard in a long time," ?uestlove recalls. "I counted the word 'masterpiece' in there twice. And he went on and on about how smart it was. But then, in the last paragraph, he wrote something like, 'This record is too smart for its own good. The Roots are like bran flakes in a world of Frosted Flakes-lovers. Bran flakes are good for you, but kids like Frosted Flakes.' He ended up giving us a seven out of ten.
"You can't dwell on that stuff, though. And, you know, I think in the long run I'd rather our music be good for you."
The Roots perform along with George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars, Cypress Hill, Erykah Badu, Outkast and Foxy Brown as part of Smokin' Grooves '97 at 5:30 p.m. Friday, July 18, at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, The Woodlands. Tickets are $17.50. For info, call 629-3700.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.