The Questlove-led all-star mega-medley of hip-hop hits during the Grammy Awards — which featured everyone from Grandmaster Flash and Run-D.M.C. to GloRilla and Lil Uzi Vert — was dazzling indeed, but you knew it wasn’t all he had in store for the 50 th anniversary of the genre that he, as much as anyone, has honored and celebrated over the past several decades.
While a planned Grammy television special celebrating the anniversary is on hold due to the writers’ strike, he does have something else in the works to commemorate it: A book titled “Hip-Hop Is History,” coming on his AUWA Books and due in the first quarter of next year.
“No one is else is writing it,” Questlove tells Variety from an unusually quiet NBC Studios in New York, where he and the Roots would normally busy themselves rehearsing for their nightly gig with “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” but are currently on hiatus due to the strike.
Like his previous titles — most notable “Mo’ Meta Blues” and “Music Is History” — the book will benefit from his near-total recall of music history: things he heard, read about or witnessed first-hand. Co-written again with Ben Greenman, the book will be the second title from AUWA, Questlove’s book line through MCD (formerly called Farrar, Straus and Giroux), following the Sly Stone memoir “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” which is due in October.
His role as a historian got a serious boost when his concert documentary, “Summer of Soul,” won Oscar and Grammy Awards. Combined with the detail-loaded Grammy hip-hop tribute, he’s long since worn the crown as a living music documentarian.
“I’m in the legacy business,” he tells Variety, noting that he’s the son of (and former drummer for) doo-wop legend Lee Andrews. “There was no nostalgia culture before the 1970s, so, my dad was the first generation of the oldies-doo wop crowd. I know everything about curating these types of events, working with everyone from Bowser from Sha Na Ha to Dick Clark.”
Still, being in the legacy business is stressful for Questlove, a man who is consciously changing his life “from having 19 jobs a year” to “maybe” four.
“I’m doing all this because somewhere out there, in 2031 or 2041, there will be a new Ahmir Thompson, or Ahmira Thompson – maybe my kids when I start having them – and all of my hard work won’t be for naught. Perhaps, I will have reached somebody the same way that I was reached.”
This year’s Roots Picnic – the group’s 13-year-old festival in their hometown Philadelphia – saw the group backing a surprise reunion of the Fugees, who’d canceled a planned tour just months before, as the group’s Pras awaits his sentencing on conspiracy and other charges.
“I teared up watching that reunion,” Quest says. “All Fugees members are alive and visibly healthy, but I realized this is going to their last performance pending a presidential pardon on Prakazrel’s behalf.”
But for all his and the group’s wider ambitions — “The Roots are trying to Krazy Glue the entirety of Black Culture together,” he says — he’s not sure what that might look like in the future, or how much it might cost.
“We rely on our relationships with these artists, calling them up, telling them our vison and them doing us a solid,” he says of booking acts for the Roots Picnic. “But I don’t know what legacy acts are going to look like in 2033. If someone now getting a billion hits for their three songs on YouTube stays alive and healthy in 10 years, we’ll see. So many figureheads of hip-hop culture have dropped like flies in the last 10 years.”
Still, the skills of persuasion stood him in good stead when organizing and directing the 2023 Grammys’ 50th anniversary celebration — surprisingly, it was no small job enlisting hip-hop to celebrate itself on “Music’s Biggest Night.”
“Getting people to acknowledge beauty is a task,” he said. “Somedays we are the Blues Brothers on a mission from God, going to each person, hyping them up. But hip-hop is like soul food — making something tasty out of this trash that we have been getting. So, at first, I spoke to a handful of artists who were like ‘Man, ain’t nobody trying to hear that shit. I’m good, dog. I’m not doing all that just for eight bars. Pass.”
But he found inspiration in the words of fellow Philadelphian and Will Smith’s former partner DJ Jazzy Jeff Townes — “Celebrate this now, because no one is going to celebrate the 51st year” — and soldiered through eight weeks of prep and rehearsals.
“You’re dealing with band members who haven’t been around each other in decades, still with issues,” he recalls. “Dealing with groups who may have broken up, put together again with other members, but everyone wants the original members. There’s the stress of rappers asking me how many bars they have in comparison to how many bars the other guy has. The stress of me trying to ‘We Are the World’ this with no managers allowed and checking your ego at the door. There’s dealing with death — you know, [De La Soul’s] Posdnuos and I had a conversation about where Dove was that night when he said it was just him…,” he pauses at the memory of Pos’ bandmate David “Trugoy the Dove” Jolicoeur being too ill to perform, and dying just days later.
After losing two rappers mere minutes before Grammy airtime, Questlove turned to LL Cool J “to give one of his inspirational football-coach speeches about hip-hop being worldwide” and threw a Hail Mary pass for his remaining missing artist. “I was either gonna text Jay-Z, who I could see in the front row, to do eight bars, or Lil Uzi Vert. At the last second, I texted Uzi, pressed send… and my phone went dead.”
At first, as the performance started with Questlove seated behind his drums in the farthest corner of the Crypto.com Arena stage, he believed he had “ruined hip hop’s 50th anniversary at the Grammys,” until he got off his stool to wild congratulations. “Uzi got my text, rapped a few bars, even did the dance from his video,” he smiles. “That made all the stress worthwhile.”
A precocious kid with an even more precocious knowledge of and memory for music, and who ironically was forbidden from playing music that wasn’t endorsed by his parents, Questlove recalls when he first met hip-hop.
“I was 8 years old when ‘Rapper’s Delight came out,” he says. “To be a living witness for every first in hip-hop and have an exact memory of it…” he begins, recalling how he and his sister, Donn, were staying at his grandmother’s house while his parents were on tour when Sugarhill Gang’s anthem hit the airwaves. He was washing dishes while listening to Philly’s WDAS-FM on his grandmother’s clock radio, and…
“There are only a few hip hop moments that start off like ‘War of the Worlds’ where you’re given a warning before that crucial first blast,” he says, “DJ Dr. Perry Johnson said he was playing something unusual but magical, before going into ‘Rapper’s Delight’ – all 15 minutes of it. I used to record songs off the radio and had Radio Shack cassettes always on stand-by. When he said that this was going to be magic, I was ready to tape.”
Using a very Questlove analogy — the double-takes made famous by the high school student “Sweathogs” on the 1970s TV show “Welcome Back, Kotter” — he and his sister were transfixed. The next day in school, “Rappers Delight” was young Ahmir’s first water-cooler moment: “Of the 16 kids in fourth grade, three of them heard that song. At recess, I recited the entire text of ‘Rapper’s Delight’ from what I had transcribed.”
It also led him to the realization that the music his parents had essentially forced on him — “Marvin Gaye was boring, James Brown’s screaming reminded me of my aunt’s voice” — was a lot more relevant than he had initially realized. Jazzy Jeff’s “A Touch of Jazz,” with its wealth of samples, “was all of my parents’ music in one song – Bobbi Humphrey, Donald Byrd, Bob James.”
Another eureka moment came several years later, after he had formed the Roots, in Public Enemy’s 1988 masterpiece “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.”
“It was mind-blowing, our ‘Never Mind the Bollocks,’” he says, comparing the album to the Sex Pistols’ debut 11 years earlier. “Suddenly, I had an anger soundtrack to release my emotions. At the time, I was on milkshake duty at Big Al’s, and my walk to work took the entire first side. Scooping ice cream, sneaking into the freezer where they kept the burgers just to steal a listen to ‘She Watch Channel Zero?!,’ I remember devouring the album during lunchtime, four times in a row. Transfixed, I went AWOL. I couldn’t go back to work. This was what I wanted to do.”
And he has, becoming not only a creator and an innovator but an ambassador for the music — and it’s no overstatement to say a missionary for it. Whether it’s his own catalog, his collaborations, his deep references on “Fallon,” his books or his celebrations of hip-hop’s 50th, the goal is “to beg Black people to understand that we have legacy,” he says. “The amount of ‘we-don’t-give-a-fucks’ that I hear — I get it. When you live on fight-or-flight, you’re living for the moment — not many people are considering where and what they’ll be in 2043. There is a nihilistic attitude around hip hop, and I feel like Lawrence Fishburne at the end of [Spike Lee’s 1988 film] “School Daze” yelling ‘Wake up!’
“No one asked me to, but I’m carrying that burden. And for all those who are present and accounted for, there is something to celebrate with hip hop’s 50th.There may be a lot of water under that bridge. Our disdain for looking in the rearview mirror is entrenched in pain and trauma. But as a child of legacy and nostalgia culture, I want to be the GPS for people to celebrate that thing called hip-hop.”