Pretty much everything you need to know about Questlove (or “?uestlove” if you want to be grammatically correct about it) can be found in the J.Cole track “Who Datt Pt. 2.” During Childish Gambino’s verse, he makes this declarative statement: “Black nerds run shit, go and ask Questlove.” It may sound like a diss, but it’s actually one of the truest things ever said about Ahmir-Khalib Thompson, the 6′ 4″ de facto ringleader for the Roots, the soon-to-be house band for The Tonight Show.
You want proof of Quest’s appealing nerdiness, just read any page in his upcoming memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues (out June 18th). Here, I’ll pick one at random. Page 72: Quest recounts being pulled over by a cop, who actually draws a gun on the young drummer and his friends. “I guess we fit the descriptions of someone who had committed a robbery or stolen a car,” Quest writes. “Though I don’t really know what kind of description that could have been: three black kids in a Hyundai blasting U2’s Joshua Tree on their way back from Bible study?”
Here’s another gem, this one on page 236, in which Quest ponders the icy relationship between himself and Roots founding member Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter: “Tariq and I had started riding in separate tour buses. Mine was Gryffindor and his was Slytherin.” Yes, that’s right, the coolest hip-hop and neo-soul drummer in the universe with the coolest afro in the universe just made a Harry Potter metaphor.
I called Questlove to talk about his life in music, which is like calling Neil deGrasse Tyson to talk about the universe. You’re only going to scratch the surface of all the wonders his nerd-tastic brain has to offer.
I have so much I want to ask you, but I guess we should start with Prince roller skating.
[Laughs.] That’s how I start any conversation.
You purportedly went roller skating with Prince.
Are you 100% sure it wasn’t a fever dream?
No. When my ex found out the roller-skating story was in the book, she was like, “Oh my god, you’re telling that story?” I was actually kinda glad she mentioned it. I was worried that nobody would believe me, but I’ve got at least one witness who could corroborate it.
Don’t forget Eddie Murphy.
Yeah, he was there. In fact, when Eddie Murphy came to the Fallon show, I mentioned it to him. When we have a major A list celebrity in our midst, it can sometimes get real tense backstage. It was especially tense with Eddie, because this was his first time in the 30 Rock building since that whole…since he last hosted Saturday Night Live back in ’84. I walked out to the hallway and Eddie’s standing out there and everyone is real quiet and nervous. There were like a billion people in the hallway. So I sheepishly walk up to him and was like “Hey, I’ve got a question. Do you remember—?” And he cuts me off. He’s like, “Roller skating with Prince?”
He knew what you were going to ask!
He did! And why wouldn’t he? You experience something like that, you want to be reminded that it was real. The staggering decibel of our combined laughter was like the craziest icebreaking moment.
You mention in the book that Prince had special skates which emitted a “multicolored spark trail.” Is this the same technology that went into the TRON light cycles?
I’ll be honest with you, Eric. I was afraid to look at them. I knew the instance he told me to put my phone away, this was going to be something that the outside world wasn’t ready to see.
Like a top secret prototype?
Could’ve been. You know how he has those glitter heels that light up? I’m sure he has some actual day-to-day shoes that light up the same way. I wouldn’t be surprised if all his footwear is something straight from NASA.
Could the U.S. government be doing underground tests in Nevada to develop new fashion innovations for Prince?
It wouldn’t surprise me. Those skates looked like something out of Xanadu. That’s the only way I could describe it. It glowed and sparkled. It was so magical, I had to pinch myself.
Unlike almost every other rock star memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues is refreshingly tame. There aren’t any stories of wanton self destruction or unsafe sex with strangers or doing ridiculous amounts of drugs.
But you still liked it?
I liked it a lot. Are you worried that people won’t?
A little bit. My initial resistance to writing this book was the whole lack of a Zeppelin mudshark story to tell. When the publisher came to me, I told them instantly, “I have no Zeppelin mudshark story.”
You’ve never put sharp seafood inside a fan?
Not once. Nothing even in the ballpark. I’ve had long term girlfriends. The Roots, we were working-class musicians. We’d do a gig and then we’d travel ten hours to the next one, and we’d do this for 200 nights in a row and then it’s the year 1997 and then it’s 2000 and then it’s like 2006. And we had zero stories. I thought it would be boring. That’s why we’ve never been household celebrities.
I’m sure you have stories. They just didn’t involve snorting ants off a sidewalk with Ozzy.
[Laughs.] Right, right. We’d rather binge on watching the Lost box set instead of having nine-women orgies on the bus.
Which is so much better. The nine-woman orgies stories have been done to death. But hardly anybody in the music business brags about binging on Lost DVDs.
I guess we’re unique that way.
It’s way more entertaining because it goes against every rock cliché.
It wasn’t until now, getting feedback from people who’ve read the book, that I’m starting to feel validation. I’m finally like “Okay, we do kind of matter.” On Twitter I wear my geek badge proudly. But I had a hard time doing that when I was writing the book, embracing that geek side of my personality.
The only part that disappointed me was when you walked out of Tracey Morgan’s party before it turned into a toe-licking contest.
That was a very weird moment. The second his shirt came off, I was like “Okay, I’m out of here. I’m out.”
But you’re walking away from something that’s probably going to be the most hilarious, disturbing, sexual-without-really-being-overtly-sexual toe-orgy that you’ll ever be in the same room for again in your lifetime. You’re walking out on history.
Yeah, you’re probably right. But I knew instantly that if I don’t Skype with my girlfriend at that moment, my life was going to be over. Everything was going to be changed forever. So I just ran out of the room.
Reading Mo’ Meta Blues really brought out the old man music nostalgia in me.
How old are you?
Early 40s, same as you. Some of the things you write about just don’t exist anymore. Like taping a song off the radio with a cassette recorder. Try explaining what that is to somebody in his 20s.
Well, it’s weird because I never stopped doing that. But these days, my version of taping something off the radio is Shazam. I have no shame in Shazaming any song that I hear in a nightclub. I have no shame whatsoever. DJs are always trying to be sly about it, hiding their IPhones on the lowest light possible so you can’t see them. When I catch them in the act, they’ll be all embarrassed. But I’m always like “Dude, just Shazam it already! I’m not that guy.”
You’re not a musical hoarder?
I’m really not. I’ve been shopping with record producers who get mad at dealers because they sold a rare Galt MAcDermot record to another guy and they thought they deserved it more. I’ve never been stingy about sharing music.
I’m sure you have an amazing record collection.
I’ve put a lot of work into it.
It’s reputation is like the Ark of the Covenant among music nerds. I’m only semi-sure it really exists.
Oh, it exists alright. I’m shocked that I didn’t include any photos of the actual library in the book. After I finished it and shipped it off, I was kicking myself. I’m very proud of my 70,000-plus record collection.
70,000? You have 70,000 records?
Something like that. I’m rounding down.
Holy shit, I had no idea it was that many.
And now that The Tonight Show is coming to us, it’s time to start considering where my permanent residence is going to be in New York. I have to find a safe place to rebuild my library. That’s probably the first order of business. To make sure there is a safe place to store all this.
You keep using the word “safe.” Are your records in jeopardy? Are you expecting pirates?
Well, when Q-Tip lost his records in a fire, it reminded me of what could happen, how quickly it could all disappear. I felt the need to save myself. And my records, the way they’re stored right now, you have to have some sort of Indiana Jones skill level to navigate my house. Just to get from one end to another, you have to jump over stuff without cracking a record.
It sounds like an obstacle course.
It totally is. So instead of buying a house, I went and built a beautiful library with a cherry wood floor and a sliding ladder. But it’s weird because…. having 70,000 records, you know that I’m not going to look into those 70,000 and absorb them in a lifetime. But I still value them, and they’re still mighty good to look at. So I’m looking for a permanent home in New York, where I can store them and know they’ll be safe.
You and the Roots did a record with Elvis Costello, which is weird. How did that happen? What stars had to align to make you an Elvis Costello fan?
Steve Mandel, who was the assistant engineer on D’Angelo’s Voodoo album, he got me into Elvis. He gave me the Blood & Chocolate record. He was our resident Elvis expert. Then we started working on a Squeeze tribute album, and he came on as producer. It became like a passion project. One by one, people started coming and contributing to it.
People like who?
Erykah Badu. A few others I can’t mention yet. And all of a sudden, our little side Squeeze project has now become this all-star Squeeze project.
Is it ever going to be released?
At some point, probably. At this point we’ve just made a lot of mixes for friends and whatnot. And then eventually Elvis got involved, and we said to each other, “What if we do the Elvis tribute album next?” The cool thing about this album is that it’s the first album that we didn’t know was an album even as we were making it.
You didn’t think you’d finish enough songs?
It was just a steady stream of, you know, you want to come work on this song. And when the song was done, we’d put it away and think that was that. But then we got the itch to do another song, and that song gave us the energy and excitement to do another song. And then one day it’s like, oh wow, we have a full album on our hands.
Which is coming out in mid-September.
Yeah, something like that.
There’s so much mystery surrounding it. Elvis described the album as “the shortest distance between here and there.”
[Laughs.] That’s Elvis the lyricist speaking for us.
What the hell does it mean?
I have no idea. It’s hard to talk about this album. I mean, I finally admitted to myself that it’s a real album in February. We started it in August, and it took me till February to realize, yeah okay, this is really going to happen. I didn’t want it to be something predictable, like “Elvis does his rap record” or “the Roots do their arty pop record.” I wanted it to be more organic. I think we found a nice middle ground.
I can’t let you go without asking about D’Angelo.
Of course. [Laughs.]
I’m contractually obligated. I don’t get paid if I don’t ask the question.
About the new album?
It’s been thirteen years since Voodoo. His follow-up is beginning to feel like the Chinese Democracy of neo-soul.
I promised I wouldn’t say anything about it on the record, but….
Be my Deep Throat, Quest! Share your secrets!
All I can say is that significant strides have been made in the last two weeks. Without a doubt, we will have an album in 2013. Without a doubt.
And our brains will be melted?
You will appreciate this record. That’s all I’m going to say. I know from experience that the sure fire way to kill an album is to overhype it and build it up. But I’ve lived with this album for thirteen years, and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever been involved with. I love it. It still surprises me. Hopefully you guys can absorb it in less time.
Mo Meta Blues is out June 18 on Grand Central.