The Passion of Questlove – The New York Times



CreditCourtesy Questlove

By the time he started elementary school, Thompson had spent more time traveling with adults than in Philadelphia with children his age. When his first grade needed to bring music to school, he decided on “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers without realizing that it was not a timely choice. By his own admission, he was an unusual kid, not wild or temperamental, but easily possessed. To calm him down, his parents would put him in front of something he liked as a baby – a turntable or an episode of “Soul Train” – and he was sedated, almost in a trance, for hours. His father was always half-joking that the family was worried about whether he was okay. (“I don’t think ‘Autism’ was a common term back then, but later I found out that they had taken me to a doctor to see if something was really wrong,” he writes in his memoir, “Mo ‘ Meta Blues “.”) In combination with the violence in his neighborhood – the rise of crack cocaine, the state-sanctioned MOVE bombardment – and his parents’ abrupt upheaval to Christianity in the early 1980s, this made for a sheltered one Childhood.

Thankfully the music was enough of a distraction from the padlock on the front gate. As a teenager, Thompson adored Rolling Stone’s reviews department, going to the library every Saturday to request reels of microfilm with older issues and to paper his bedroom with clippings of the main reviews. (Even now, in order to understand his own records, he will mimic fake Rolling Stone reviews – headline, cover picture, full story – before they are released.) His parents welcomed his interest in music, but hoped he would find a more traditional, permanent job in it. They wanted, he writes, a “future ‘Jeopardy!’ Candidate instead of a future ‘Jeopardy!’ Note.”

However, when he got into the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, they transferred him from the Christian school he had attended. CAPA, as it is called, has been a treasure trove of ingenuity and real success. Thompson played drums in a music video for a couple of guys in his class – Boyz II Men. He played around with bassist Christian McBride. He took the singer Amel Larrieux to the prom. But the real price was meeting Tariq Trotter, the rebellious art kid who was caught smooching in the bathroom with girls and who was kind of intrigued by Thompson and his geeky hippie jeans covered in acrylic paint. Trotter would ask Thompson to accompany his freestyle in the cafeteria, Thompson beat rhythms on the lunch table and finally played in front of anyone who wanted to listen.

The Roots’ career was both commercially and critically successful, but was marked by a number of near-hits. When they first started, they hoped to follow in the footsteps of groups like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul and gain a permanent place in the alternative hip-hop arena. But by the time they started looking for record deals in 1993, the tide had changed: Dr. Dre had broken records with “The Chronic,” and all the labels seemed to want gangsta rap artists who could sell huge numbers of records. After a short stay in London to build a fan base, they signed with Geffen, released two albums and finally landed a successful single “You Got Me” from their 1999 album “Things Fall Apart” with Erykah Badu.

At that point, they were hosting jam sessions at Thompson’s Philadelphia home, gathering like-minded musicians for a creative community that contrasts with the somber coastal rap that fills the airwaves. They called this community “the Movement,” and their experiment worked almost too well: Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, Bilal, Eve, India.Arie, Jazmine Sullivan, and Common were all regulars. Thompson also began working with D’Angelo, which he describes as one of the crowning achievements of his life. “When I think of that time, the most amazing thing is how many of these artists have made it,” he writes in his memoir. “There were at least 18 record deals in the room, and at least nine of the people who became record artists were bigger than us.”

Thompson began producing People’s Records and became one of the architects of an extremely influential breed of soul music. He was the backbone of a collective of bohemian neo-soul and alternative hip-hop artists called Soulquarians, named for the common astrological sign shared by many of its members, which included Badu, Common, Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Q-Tip. But at some point the collective loosened up: people left the game or started making films or made music with the new super producer in town, Kanye West.


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