Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson has a lot of things to do. This weekend, for instance, The Roots drummer did a Friday night 4 hour DJ set at Coachella - that's in the California desert, people. Then he flew back across the country to Philadelphia for a rehearsal for Philly-Paris Lockdown, his Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts collaboraton with Parisian singer Keren Ann. Then, because idle hands are the devil's workshop, he got behind the kit for a Roots show in Vermont on Saturday night, before comng back home for Philly-Paris Lockdown at the Kimmel Center tonight.
Along with all those things to do, ?uestlove also has many things to say. When I talked to him about the Keren Ann collabo one afternoon in between Late Night with Jimmy Fallon rehearsals - that interview is here - it was a few days after he and the Roots has done a cover of "Friday," the robotic viral hit by ascendant teen pop star Rebecca Black. Stephen Colbert handled lead vocals, and Fallon, former American Idol winner Taylor Hicks, Roots rapper Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter and the Knick City Dancers all played pivotal roles.
It was quite an elaborate production. So I asked ?uesto which was more diffiicult, and time consuming: Updating early 20th century composers like Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel for Philly-Paris Lockdown, or taking on a widely mocked teen pop sensation for late night TV yuks?
He laughed, then explained at length how playing "Friday" reminded him of a lesson about self-discipline his father, Lee Andrews of Lee Andrews and the Hearts, repeatedly tried to teach him when he was a pre-teeenage drummer in his Dad's doo-wop band.
"Want to know something funny?," he said. "I'm not lying to you, and I say this with an absolute straight face: The Rebecca Black song is harder to execute compared to the French period piece."
"Most musicians, to do what we’re going to do [at the Kimmel], I could do in my sleep. I've prepared for it. I’ve set my mind to gather information. I can remember long mass texts of music for an intricately arranged song. I can sponge it up in a second.
But this is why the audience I fear most is the psychograph between 12 and 16. Simply because I've used all my energy in studying all this intricate stuff, so if you were to tell me to do something very simple, it's going to be the hardest thing in the world.
Like I always asked my father, 'Dad, we have a lot of intricate arranged medleys in the show. So why do you always audition new musicians on the slow songs?'
He says, 'The slow songs are the easiest songs to tell the truth about musicians.' I never got it when I was 11 or 12. He was always on me like, 'Keep it simple.' He was basically preparing me for a life lesson, saying, 'I want you to keep it simple. Yes, I know you want to be fancy and do all this stuff you learned in jazz class. But I don’t need you to be a Michael Jordan. I need you to be a team player. I need you to be a metronome. Your job is to make these people around you sound good. Your job is not to make your self sound good.'
So basically, with the Rebecca Black song, as much we’re dismissive about it.... and yes, from a production standpoint, yes, it's nasal, she's singing the wrong way, there are a lot of things that are wrong with the song. But also, I admit I cannot stop singing the song. Once you hear it, you instantly know it. That's so hard. I don’t know how to write songs that instantly stick with you, like a tattoo, forever.
The most ironic thing, was that what what we once dismissed as a joke, suddenly became one of the hardest tasks we ever had to do on the show. We wanted to make it good on the show, so we were putting a lot of hard work and effort into something that we’re basically making fun of.
The lesson it taught me, was it's like, if you look at the history of music, I would love to write a "Where Did Our Love Go?" Or a "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing."
The things we dismiss as candy pop, I swear, those are the hardest songs to write. You can give me [Stravinsky's] "Rite Of Spring," and I can get that in about five takes. But if you give me, "Tainted Love," I don't know how it do it.
It's hard to sound natural. You have to be disciplined. It requires a lot of discipline. Which is one of the hardest things to do as a musician. Because musicians are egotistical, and they want to bring all the attention to themselves."