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Questlove on hip-hop, history and the first time he heard 'Rapper's Delight'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TERRY GROSS. My guest, Ahmir Questlove Thompson, is always involved in multiple projects, which is good for our show because it keeps providing opportunities to have Questlove back on. Today's occasion is the publication of his new book, "Hip-Hop Is History." It's written from his perspective as a band leader, obsessive fan and historian of the music. He's the co-founder of the hip-hop band The Roots, which is the house band for "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon." He's won six Grammys. Last year at the Grammys, in honor of hip-hop's 50th anniversary, he produced a 13-minute tribute segment. Sounds like a great gig, but there were a couple of cancellations at the very last minute, literally. He'll tell us how he got through that crisis.

Questlove won an Oscar for his film "Summer Of Soul," documenting the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, featuring footage of live performances, including by Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson. Questlove is also the author of several books, including "Music Is History" and "Soul Train: The Music, Dance, And Style Of A Generation."

Questlove, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It is always so much fun to have you on our show. So since this is - the new book is "Hip-Hop Is History," I thought we should start with the first rap record that you ever heard, which is the first rap record a lot of people, including me, ever heard. And the song is "Rapper's Delight"...

QUESTLOVE: "Rapper's Delight."

GROSS: ...By The Sugarhill Gang. And I know you hate to be Captain Obvious, but this seems to be the place that we should start because it starts you off on your career in hip-hop. So set the scene for us. Where did you first hear this?

QUESTLOVE: You know, I first heard "Rapper's Delight" at my grandmother's house doing the dishes with my sister. We thought it was the disco song "Good Times" by Chic. So, OK, we've heard that before. It's the No. 1 song in the country - no big deal. And then suddenly they start talking in rhythmic poetry, and, you know, we didn't know what to make of it. And there was a point maybe three minutes into it where it didn't seem like the song was ever going to end, and then I had a decision to make. Should I run upstairs in my bedroom to get my tape recorder so I can record the rest of it so I can perform it tomorrow at lunch in school?

GROSS: T(Laughter).

QUESTLOVE: Or should I just stay here frozen looking at the radio? - because, you know, the whole thing is about, like, what am I going to tell my friends, that I heard the song that changed my life, but you can't explain what it is. So basically, I decided to run upstairs, get my tape recorder. And I didn't know that the song was 15 minutes long. So, you know, at the three-minute mark, I'm recording this 15 minute song, and pretty much, I think I spent at least the next hour committing it to memory, writing it down, rehearsing it on the way to school. And when I got to lunch, three friends of mine heard it, and we were trying to explain to the rest of our friends what it was. And I performed it. And I immediately knew the - saw the immediate effect of what it is to be popular. And so, yeah, "Rapper's Delight" - I mean, paradigm shift is probably understating what that moment meant for a lot of us.

GROSS: But you didn't become a rapper. You were a drummer.

QUESTLOVE: Well, I didn't see - I think everyone starts off their passion as a spectator. And then suddenly they get drawn into it. You know, and the thing is is that with hip-hop culture - I don't know it yet, you know? Now, if there's a version of life that allows, like, my current adult version to kind of travel back in time to, you know, visit 8-year-old me without that 8-year-old getting freaked out like, hi. I'm you in the future, I don't know yet, but I'm already being trained and groomed for hip-hop because, No. 1, I'm living in a 3,000 album household. And a lot of those songs that I'm attracted to already will be part of my musical diet as I start to create music myself.

GROSS: And become a DJ.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah, well, and become a DJ and a producer and all those things.

GROSS: Yeah.

QUESTLOVE: They're helping me. Like, as a drummer, I'm attracted to the part of the song that just lets the drums go for four bars, eight bars - so automatically a Bill Withers song. And, you know, I'm attracted to those things. So I will say that I was spectator for, you know, the first 10 years. And then once Public Enemy's second album comes out, "It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back," that's when I'm realizing the, air-quote, "boring" part of my parents' record collection has suddenly come to life.

GROSS: All right, so let's get back to 8-year-old Questlove, when you heard hip-hop for the first time, and we'll listen to The Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," the first commercially successful hip-hop recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAPPER'S DELIGHT")

THE SUGARHILL GANG: (Rapping) I said a hip-hop, the hippie, the hippie, to the hip, hip-hop and you don't stop the rocking to the bang-bang boogie, say up jump the boogie, to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat. Now, what you hear is not a test. I'm rapping to the beat. And me, the groove and my friends are going to try to move your feet.

(Rapping) See; I am Wonder Mike, and I'd like to say hello, to the Black, to the white, the red, and the brown, the purple, and yellow. But first, I got to bang-bang the boogie to the boogie. Say up jump the boogie to the bang-bang boogie. Let's rock, you don't stop. Rock the rhythm that'll make your body rock. Well, so far you've heard my voice, but I brought two friends along. And next on the mic is my man Hank. Come on, Hank, sing that song. Check it out.

(Rapping) Well, I'm Imp the Dimp, the ladies' pimp. The women fight for my delight. But I'm the grandmaster with the three MCs that shock the house for the young ladies. And when you come inside...

GROSS: So that was the first commercially successful hip-hop record, "Rapper's Delight" by The Sugarhill Gang. And my guest is Questlove, whose new book is called "Hip-Hop Is History." You know, you were talking about the importance of sampling. When you say hip-hop is history, the title of your book, hip-hop is literally history in the sense that it's always referring back to the past by sampling things. So hip-hop, like, includes history. I'd like you to choose one of your favorite records for what it samples and how that adds to the recording. And I'm going to suggest that you choose something other than Public Enemy, only because...

QUESTLOVE: That's my go-to.

GROSS: ...You've talked about them. That's your go-to. We've heard you talk about them on the show before, so I want to...

QUESTLOVE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Hear something else.

QUESTLOVE: All right, I'll give you probably a better example because oftentimes people ask me, you know, what makes a record hip-hop? I saw The Rolling Stones recently, and I was trying to explain to people that, you know, when hip-hop generation hears "Honky Tonk Women," like, we go crazy over it because there's a drum break in there. You know what I mean? And so I was trying to explain to somebody younger that, yes, this is a classic Rolling Stones song, but to the hip-hop generation, this is a hip-hop song because of that drum break at the beginning. And, they were kind of head-scratching, but sometimes non-hip-hop songs can become hip-hop classics. So, for me, one of the groups that did the most creative level of sampling, to me, was De La Soul, and they were the first to really go outside the lines. Like, you know, in the first 10 years, or whatnot, you would choose danceable funk records as your musical backdrop. But what happens when you go outside of that and you start sampling things that aren't perceived as hip-hop or even Black music creations, but yet can still - it can be reframed as hip-hop.

So here's a great example. De La Soul's second album, "De La Soul Is Dead" - their opening song is a song called "Oodles Of O's," which is, like, one of my favorite tracks of theirs. And the musical backdrop of it is a very non-hip-hop song. It's a song called "Diamonds On My Windshield" by Tom Waits. Now, isolated on its own, if I were to play that in the club, everybody will look at me like I'm crazy. Like, are you playing this post-Jack Kerouac, you know, poetry thing? And yeah, it sounds weird. But now that hip-hop heads know that De La Soul used that sample, it's almost like you have a different relationship with it. So, for me, the best hip-hop songs are the songs that are created from musical sources that are absolutely the left of what hip-hop is known to be.

GROSS: OK, well, let's hear De La Soul.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "OODLES OF O'S")

DE LA SOUL: (Rapping) Oodles and oodles of O's, you know. You get them from my sister. You get them from my bro. All I is is man, and once an embryo. Am I solid gold? I don't cast a glow. Yes, I guess it's reflex. Some have no control. I'd rather let a laughter, and tally, off I go, canoeing up the river or out into the O. You just know me not, so not play the role.

(Rapping) Some are lovey-dovey, ah, you crazies know. Some shake your hand, but this is called the show. I was John Doe, now I'm Mr. Jolicoeur, pissed with the witness, and now I adore. O's got the world 'cause O's was on tour. Girls gave the O's, and guys, oh, for sure. Where they arose, well, nobody knows. What do they mean? Well, here's how it goes.

(Rapping) Oh, shoot's got the O's when you hold the dough. You know who you are but they didn't know, And now with respect they flex like a pro. You're first another n**** but now an Afro. Oodles and oodles of O's and oodles and oodles and oodles of O's, you know...

GROSS: That was De La Soul sampling Tom Waits, a track chosen by my guest Questlove, whose new book is called "Hip-Hop Is History." It's time for a short break, so we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SUGARHILL GANG SONG, "RAPPER'S DELIGHT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Questlove, co-founder of the hip-hop band the Roots, which is the house band for "The Tonight Show," starring Jimmy Fallon. He's won six Grammys. His new book is called "Hip-Hop Is History." Last year Questlove was asked to put together a segment for the Grammys, celebrating the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. He said yes before realizing all the drama this would involve. While inviting some people to perform, he'd also have to be the bad cop saying no to others. After negotiating for more time for the segment, he was given 13 minutes.

On the night of the Grammys, during the ceremony, one of his big name performers dropped out because security wouldn't let him return to his seat while a performance was in progress. And that made the rapper feel disrespected. That created a four-minute hole in Questlove's presentation. To make things even worse, when the rap album of the year was announced right before the hip-hop history segment, another performer walked out because he didn't win, and he was supposed to be the closing artist in Questlove's segment. Questlove was facing a last-minute fiasco. So what did he do?

QUESTLOVE: I tell you what I did. We had about six minutes left and I told him, like, find me an isolated closet. I'm going to go sit in there. And meanwhile, like, everyone's waiting for me for direction. They're like, Wait, what are you doing in there? And I was like, I'm sitting in silence and meditating.

GROSS: You were doing your breathing exercise.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah, 'cause you can't make any decisions if you're in a state of panic, and I needed to just get my Zen moment. And yes, there were six minutes till air, and everyone is waiting outside that door, like, what are you doing in there? I'm meditating.

GROSS: (Laughter).

QUESTLOVE: And they thought I was crazy. So I said, I need 4 minutes. They're like, but we need to solve the problem. I waited for 4 minutes, and then I thought about it. I said, OK. I know that Lil Uzi Vert, who has the song of the moment, is sitting in that audience. We can do his song. The thing is, who can I get to convince him to do it? Now, I have Jay-Z's number. And I have DJ Drama, who's one of Uzi's, like, mentors from Philadelphia. I have his number. I already know that Jay-Z is kind of the King of No, you know?

GROSS: Whereas you were the King of Yes.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah. And, you know, I understand that. He has a brand, and da da da da. The whole world's at, you know, tugging at the garment of the emperor. So I sent a text to DJ Drama and says, hey, I need you to tell his management that when we go into his song, just bum-rush the stage, grab the microphone, and do the chorus. And if not, just do the dance in the video, and it'll be a victory. And I press send, and then I realized at that moment, my battery was dead. The message never went through. So I'm now panicking, like the entire world is going to blame me for ruining hip-hop's 50th birthday party because I have no ending.

And at the very last minute, I yelled to LL Cool J - I said, look, when I point to you, I want you to give me one of those, like, "Friday Night Lights," like, we're down by a field goal, like, inspiration coach speeches to the players about what hip-hop means to the culture. I figured, like, you know, from Baltimore to Bally, from Brooklyn to the Bronx. This is hip-hop, baby. You know, like, one of those things. And he was kind of confused. I was just like, yo, I need you to give me one of your motivation speeches when I tell you about what hip-hop means, and wrap it up in 10 seconds. Meanwhile, you know, everything's going smooth, and right when we get to the last artist, I'm like, OK, LL, time for the speech. And go. And I don't see LL.

The problem is, the way that the stage is designed, I'm in a weird angle in which I can't see what's happening on stage. I'm on the side. So I don't hear anything. And I'm immediately taking it personal. I'm about to have a panic attack on stage. We get through it. You know, I'm about to literally hyperventilate, and I'm running to the dressing room, and my band walks in all celebratory. Like, that was so incredible. That was so - and I'm like, what are you guys talking about? We ruined hip-hop. What are you talking about? And they're like, Lil Uzi Vert ran on stage. And I was like, no, he didn't. My message never went through. It's like, he ran onstage and did it. And I didn't believe them. One of them pulls out their phone and instantly shows me Twitter.

And sure enough, Uzi Vert must've gotten the message. And they're like, what message? I charged my phone and showed them that I sent a begging text of him to jump onstage that never went through. And all I can say was, I believe that was the power of meditation. He got that message even though the text never went through. And I vowed never again to allow myself that situation, that level of stress. And what do I do? Eight months later, I agreed to a two-hour version of that same performance.

GROSS: (Laughter).

QUESTLOVE: So, you know, I never learn my lesson (laughter).

GROSS: OK, let's get to another phase of music, and that is rap records about guns and gangsters and drugs. And it's been a theme in hip-hop for decades now. And I wonder how you related to it when it started, as a music lover and just as a man, and how you relate to it now.

QUESTLOVE: That's a loaded question, because the thing is, I get quasi-uncomfortable in answering that question because I feel like...

GROSS: I don't mean it is an accusation against the music, but it is...

QUESTLOVE: Well, no, no...

GROSS: Yeah.

QUESTLOVE: But the thing is that we live in a period in which most people will immediately associate some of the most darkest things about the music culture, you know, to rap music as a monolith. You know, there was one time in the pandemic when I was like, wait a minute - where I was getting into country. And I was like, wait a minute, they're saying the same stuff that we say. But this is never - like, their feet is never held to the fire on just the level of misogyny and gun-toting and gunslinging.

So thus, I will say that for me, Chuck D once explained that hip-hop is young Black America's CNN, meaning if you really want to know what is happening with us right now, this is what's happening that you won't hear on the news. The same way that I tell parents now, like, if you want to know what your kids are going through, watch "Euphoria" on HBO and...

GROSS: And get terrified (laughter).

QUESTLOVE: Yeah. And they also be like, oh, that is the truth. Oh, my God, you're right. You're totally right. I will say that at least, you know, if you're really not inside the culture, then literally 15% of what you see is always what gets highlighted. And, yes, just like with movies, gangster films and, like, violent television shows, like, people will gravitate to that more than, say, watching Bob Ross paint (laughter), you know, on PBS. Of course, it's - if anything is shinier explosive or attention-getting, it's going to get that much more attention. But I don't know. It's hard to answer that question.

I grew up in a time period in which that seemed exciting. Like, you know, I'll take an example. When NWA's "Straight Outta Compton" album came out, I was jaw-dropped because, you know, to me, I had never heard that level of honesty before about what happens on the streets, like, put into song form. Like, I knew it because I had friends and I had cousins and all that stuff that were about that life. And you hear about it in everyday conversation, but not to the point where it's that.

To me where it started to get confusing was when a lot of my white friends I was going to school with were kind of co-signing it. And also, in their minds, it was like, oh, this is what authentic Black life is like. And, I mean, we're learning now that everything is not a monolith. You know what I mean? So you can't blanket the whole entire culture behind that. It's just that it makes the most noise because it's better a soundbite or a sound quote of what this rapper said, that said. But, you know, for every NWA you throw at me, I can also throw you the Jungle Brothers or Queen Latifah. But, you know, who's the person that's going to elevate that to equal status so that gets attention as well?

GROSS: My guest is Questlove. His new book is called "Hip-Hop Is History." We'll be back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A GANGSTA'S FAIRYTALE")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #1: Yo, baby. What's up with that?

ICE CUBE: (Rapping) Hickory, dickory, dock, it was 12 o'clock. Cinderella ain't home, must be giving up the - I don't doubt it. She is kind of freaky, of course. Had a fight with Snow White - she was doing her dwarfs. Saw a fight over colors, too, Red Riding Hood and Little Boy Blue. A bad influence? Yo, I don't know. But Ice Cube will tell the kids how the story should go.

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: Yeah, that's it. Yeah, that's it.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Questlove. He's the co-founder of the hip-hop band the Roots, which is, among other things, the house band for "The Tonight Show," starring Jimmy Fallon. He won an Oscar for his documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which included film performances by Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples. He's won six Grammys, and last year at the Grammys, he produced the segment celebrating the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. His new book is called "Hip-Hop Is History."

So I want to play a song that I know you like a lot. And this is Mac Miller, and his song "2009" from a 2018 album called "Swimming." And can you talk about the importance of this song in the history of hip-hop and in your music listening history?

QUESTLOVE: Well, first of all, you know, I chose this song because as a musician, I listen to inflection. I listen to delivery. I listen to a melodic approach. And of course, it's also like the words that you're saying are important as well. That's why, like, when people ask, like, what made Rakim so great? You know, all of hip-hop says, or at least older hip-hop says, that Rakim is God because Rakim's delivery was that of, like, John Coltrane's delivery and how John Coltrane changed jazz music. Rakim had the same pattern as John Coltrane, like, would do these rhythmic patterns never heard before.

Mac Miller - what I really love the most about him is I love honesty, and you can't get honest unless you're vulnerable. And it's very tempting in this culture, in this art form, to put your shield on and to really not let people inside of your soul to see what you're really going through, because, again, we're taught to just chase the hit and nothing else. And Mac Miller kind of used his platform to talk about his life and what he's going through.

And I think that's why he resonated with so much of his generation before he passed away, before his unfortunate passing. But yeah, man, Mac Miller is - even the work he left. I mean, I almost see Mac Miller almost in the same way as people see Jeff Buckley's work. You know, like an artist whose work, even though they're not here anymore, it still resonates with a particular audience. And that's what Mac Miller - that's how I feel his music. That's how it feels to me.

GROSS: I'm really glad you mentioned his inflection because it's really good. And so one of the lines in the song is, it ain't 2009 no more. I know what's behind that door. So talk about what happened - the significance of 2009.

QUESTLOVE: You know, I mean, he had a lot of struggles.

GROSS: Depression.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah, with depression.

GROSS: Addiction.

QUESTLOVE: And - yes, and addiction. He - and he was very kind of forthcoming with his life struggles. And as you see how I divide these chapters up in this book, each chapter is divided by - hip-hop is determined by the kind of drug of choice, the way that we choose to self medicate when we don't know how to deal with those dark emotions. And look, it's a everyday struggle for me.

GROSS: Depression?

QUESTLOVE: Yeah. Just every day, I got to wake up, and I think I said it before. Like, you know, I got to do my affirmations. I got to coach myself in the mirror every morning. Even before I spoke to you, like - every day for 15 minutes, I have to say my morning mantras, and to set my 24 hours. This is how I'm going to get through these 24 hours and psych myself into seizing the moment, to not self sabotaging myself and get through the day because I know the world is dependent on me to lead. And, you know, I'm going from reluctant leader to slow leader. You know, I'm kind of comfortable with it now. But I want to be to the point where I just own it without question. But, yeah, every day, I wake up scared of my shadow, and I have to get myself out of that.

GROSS: Do you feel like you have to get into the zone of being Questlove? You know what I mean - as opposed to being Ahmir.

QUESTLOVE: Well, I have to get in the zone to not lose Ahmir Thompson.

GROSS: Oh.

QUESTLOVE: Like, to be Questlove is to be Superman. To be Ahmir Thompson is to be Clark Kent.

GROSS: So let's get back to the next recording we're going to play - the Mac Miller.

QUESTLOVE: Yes.

GROSS: "2009" - so just tell us again, like, what 2009 means in the context of that song.

QUESTLOVE: He had broken up with the woman he was dating. It was the beginning of social media and that sort of thing. And he got in a car accident. That was a near-death moment for him in which he really had a reflective moment.

GROSS: He was a DUI.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah.

GROSS: Driving under the influence of...

QUESTLOVE: Exactly. Yeah. So to me, this would have been a confessional moment for him, a really confessional, vulnerable moment, which is rarely - not seen in hip-hop to this level.

GROSS: Yeah. And the song, the way I hear it, if I'm hearing it correctly, is about giving up drugs.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah. Like, a turnaround.

GROSS: And feeling more alive as a result. But, I mean, he died of an accidental overdose soon after the album was released.

QUESTLOVE: It's an everyday struggle. It's an everyday struggle. My version of falling off the wagon is nowhere close to, you know, this level of falling off the wagon, but, you know, again, if I don't do my morning routine, everything's out of whack. And there's some moments where you just want to hide under the sheets and not face the world, and, you know, and I totally understand that where you turn a new leaf and then there's some moments where you don't feel like putting the weight on your shoulders. And I understand that. And that's why I chose the song.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, let's hear it.

QUESTLOVE: All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "2009")

MAC MILLER: (Rapping) Well, I don't need to lie no more. Nowadays, all I do is shine, take a breath and ease my mind. And she don't cry no more. She tell me that I get her high, 'cause an angel's supposed to fly. And I ain't asking why no more. Oh, no, I take it if it's mine. I don't stay inside the lines. It ain't 2009 no more. Yeah, I know what's behind that door.

(Rapping) OK, you got to jump in to swim. Well, the light was dim in this life of sin, now every day I wake up and breathe. I don't have a dog, but that's all right with me. Take it nice and easy, took a flight to see me. Send you back home with a light that's beaming. The whole team about to figure it out. We ice cold. That's what winter about. And sometimes, sometimes I wish I took a simpler route, instead of having demons that's as big as my house. Have a ball with a dibble and bounce, 'cause the party ain't over till they're kicking me out, yeah. Isn't it funny? We can make a lot of money, buy a lot of things just to feel a lot of ugly. I was yea high and muddy, looking for what was looking for me.

GROSS: That was Mac Miller, the track "2009" from his album "Swimming." And, you know, you were talking about vulnerability and how a lot of, like, hip-hop records don't show vulnerability. I think a lot of hip-hop artists come from an environment where showing vulnerability means people are going to try to take advantage of those vulnerabilities.

QUESTLOVE: Exactly.

GROSS: And so you can't show them. It's unsafe to show them.

QUESTLOVE: Emotions are seen as weakness. Emotions are seen as humanity, which really wasn't allowed for African Americans for the first 400 years of our existence here. For a lot of us, this is the most I've ever heard - I would never tell anyone I was in therapy. Maybe before - I mean, if I'm dating someone, I'll tell her, like, yeah, you know, I've been in the therapy for, like, 23 years and da, da, da, da, da. But I wouldn't - if you were bringing that up in an interview or - I've been interviewing with you since - what? - the '90s and (laughter)...

GROSS: Yeah.

QUESTLOVE: I would never allow, you know - like, my purpose for this is, hey, let's sell my book.

GROSS: (Laughter).

QUESTLOVE: Let's talk about this album. Let's talk about this song. But now that I have - I lost the shield of not having fear, and really just explaining that that's what's going to save us, because the thing is, is that what people - the kind of pandemic crisis that we're facing that no one's really acknowledging is our early exit, especially in hip-hop culture. I mean, right now, as I speak to you, I'm just finding out that Brother Marquis of the 2 Live Crew just passed away today.

So that's like - my whole thing is like, wow, will we have senior citizens in hip-hop? Who's going to be 65 and still with us? Like, this is why, like, Ice-T still being here with us? Amazing. Flavor Flav, Chuck D, like, the fact that they're inching to 65, like, is a miracle. And, you know, who of us is going to get to their 90s as Quincy Jones is doing right now, you know? And oftentimes, not being allowed to express emotions - and again, it's generational. Since our days on the plantation, you weren't allowed to express anger, sadness, happiness, joy, like, any of those emotions. And now, like, most of humanity doesn't know how to deal with dark emotions.

GROSS: Well, let's take a break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Questlove. And his new book is called "Hip-Hop Is History." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MORGAN ADAMS QUARTET PLUS TWO AND MADLIB SONG, "STORMY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Questlove, co-founder of the hip-hop band The Roots, which is the house band for the "Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon." He's won six Grammys. His new book is called "Hip-Hop Is History."

You know, Tariq Trotter, Black Thought - you know, who is a member of The Roots and he's, like, the lead rapper in The Roots - he had a memoir that was published recently. And our co-host, Tonya Mosley, interviewed him about it, and it was really interesting. And part of the interview was about how his mother was murdered and how that changed his life, and how you and your family basically took him in. And you were already good friends. But, you know, it sounds like he lived with you for a while.

QUESTLOVE: He didn't live with us. But, you know, that was like - it's so weird that that was also, like, one of my first tragedies, you know? I was a protected child living in one of the most volatile times in my life. You know, to live in the crack era of the '80s was to have parents that were overbearing, overprotective. And I just felt so smothered.

And I didn't realize until, you know, my dad explained on his deathbed that you don't know the fear of what it is to live 24 hours not knowing if your son is going to, you know, survive another 24 hours, because I was always me. You know, most people learn to sort of transform and morph into their environment to protect themselves. But, you know, I'm this weirdo arty kid living in West Philadelphia at the time. And Tariq and I just really had a bond and a love for the music in a way that I - I grew up with adults and adults only because I lived on the road with my father. So I didn't have...

GROSS: Yeah, because he was a musician and toured.

QUESTLOVE: Yes.

GROSS: And you worked with him. You were, you know, like a member of the crew.

QUESTLOVE: Traveling on my father's road show, there were no other kids born in my age range, so I only knew who adults were. And I kind of went through life thinking, like, I had a unique gift. Like, I'm the only 13-year-old that plays drums like this. Like, no other kid is doing this. So when I went to performing arts school, that was an eye-opening moment that not only were there talented kids but I wasn't even the most talented. Like, I was on the bottom half.

But when Tariq announced to me his mother passing away - she was violently stabbed. And that was one of the first major tragedies I had to learn to deal with. Like, again, we knew about the crack epidemic and the many ways that it pulls you and sucks you in to the point where you might have to sell it to survive, where you might not be able to cope with life so you start using or you have to live with someone that has an addiction and their actions put you in a position where they're either victimizing you or someone else. And then you - suddenly you get sucked into their drama.

For the most part, I've been living with that fear of, like, from 1985 on - his mom gets murdered in 1990. And coming to grips with that level of reality was a hard thing to do. Like, I didn't know how to comfort someone. I never dealt with a tragedy of that level. But, you know, my mom just told me, like, you know, you guys are like brothers already. Like, you have to be there for him. And, you know, I appreciate the fact that he didn't push me or turn me away because, you know, I've seen situations where tragedy happens and that person just checks out and becomes a hermit and lets depression take over and...

GROSS: Even in the memoir, or at least in the interview he did with Tonya, he talked about how your family and you basically saved his life because he could have easily gone in the opposite direction.

QUESTLOVE: You know, he kind of said it in a joking manner once that he got into that life for, like, three days, meaning selling. And his uncle happened to see him on the corner as an amateur corner boy and literally took him and kind of put him in a "Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air" situation where they literally took him back to his South Philly home, packed a bag and shipped him to a part of Michigan where, like, a rich uncle lived to save his life - that sort of thing. And at the time, I thought, like, oh, well, that's over. I guess our musical dreams are in the past. Like, he just disappeared.

And thank God, you know, he came back to Philadelphia that summer. And I think that's when he and I really discussed, like, let's take this thing seriously. It's one thing to call ourselves a group in high school, but now that we're not in school anymore, like, what are we going to do? And my home was always an open door. That's how the crashing on my couch - that's literally how The Roots came to be. We saw a commercial on television, and we said, we could do that, too. And seconds later, we're on the corners busking, and that leads us to where we are right now.

But, yeah, my family was there for him because he's a brother. It's almost like a domestic partner. I think Tariq is the most central, consistent relationship I've had with any human in life. This is our 37th year as a partnership, but it's not like - you know, I moved out my house, and I might see my mom, like, occasionally once a month or that sort of thing. But I believe that since '87, since school and since our struggle to get a record deal to getting a record deal to where we are now, Tariq Trotter is the one human being that I've seen once a week for the last 37 years. So, you know, this is kind of a domestic marriage almost, if you put it that way.

GROSS: Yeah. Were you able to talk emotionally about what it meant that his mother was murdered, or did you just kind of talk about, you know, music and collaborating?

QUESTLOVE: You know, it's so weird. I was - when he announced that to me, when he told me the news, I thought, OK, now I got to get to this level where I'm emotionally there for him, and there's going to be a lot of crying and all that stuff. And it wasn't that. And I just made him a mixtape. And he - music was always our communication. Tariq and I really didn't start talking about emotions or how we felt or any of those things until the pandemic, which is why I maintain that, you know, in 2020, you had a choice to make. You were either going to evolve or devolve. Like, you were going to arrive in this new place where we are right now and accept the change, or you're going to stay stuck and try to chase the past. And it's not going to work out well for you.

And what's really weird is I had to do a, quote-unquote, "homework assignment" where, you know, my counselor is telling me that I have to have these conversations with my friends about, like, where I am in life right now and how I know I'm not really big on expressing myself and communicating. I kind of want you to read my mind - that sort of thing.

And what's weird is that I thought I was explaining a whole new language to Tariq. Like, OK, so I'm doing this thing. You know, I'm doing, like, therapy, and I'm listening to this guy, Dr. Joe Dispenza. And, you know, Tariq's like, oh, yeah, I know Dr. Joe. Yeah. I started reading him, like four years - and I'm like, wait. You read psychological therapy books. Yeah, man, I've been in therapy. Wait. You're in therapy. Yeah, man. And it's - like, the way we laughed that we were so scared to kind of - again, it's - the whole - it leads back to vulnerability.

GROSS: Exactly. Yeah.

QUESTLOVE: It leads back to that. So, yes, when his mom died, I didn't know how to express myself. And it was just like - I kind of figured, OK, let me just normally just be there for him as if this were an arbitrary day. And my job was always to feed him music, like, once a week. You know, I was trying to groom him into, like, his role right now as a musician, as an artist. And you should know what these songs are. So I just made him a bunch of mixtapes during that period, and that was kind of our love language. And I still do it now. When I make these mixes for people, that's my love language to people.

GROSS: My guest is Questlove. His new book is called "Hip-Hop Is History." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL MICHELS AFFAIR'S "UZI (PINKY RING)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Questlove, co-founder of the hip-hop band The Roots, which is the house band for "The Tonight Show," starring Jimmy Fallon. He's won six Grammys. His new book is called "Hip-Hop Is History."

I would love to talk more, but I'm being told we have to give up the studio. But I want to end with some more music. And I know you love to shine a light on people who you think are underappreciated but are really terrific. Would you like to choose a track to end with?

QUESTLOVE: I would love to. In celebration of Lauryn Hill making Apple Music's No. 1 album, probably one of the last songs that she performed on that's really notable that shows you that she still has a lot of magic to give - there's a song called "Nobody" that's on Nas' King's Disease II" album. It's with Nas and Ms. Lauryn Hill. And to me, I get goosebumps listening to it simply because she's still magical. And I know that term gets thrown around a lot, but yes. She's magical, and her voice is so needed right now in ways you can't imagine. Like, the way that she inspired people - like, her success enabled my success to happen. That's how magical the Lauryn Hill effect was. And so, yeah, "Nobody" by Nas and Ms. Lauryn Hill is one of my favorites, one of those unsung favorites from his "King's Disease" album.

GROSS: Questlove, it's so great to talk with you.

QUESTLOVE: Thank you.

GROSS: And I want to just thank you, too, for talking about vulnerability. I think it's really important.

QUESTLOVE: That's going to be the theme for every project I do henceforth. You know, I'm just wrapping up my Sly and the Family Stone documentary right now, and that's going to play a major part in the narrative.

GROSS: I look forward to seeing it when it's done.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Thank you again. And congratulations on your new book.

QUESTLOVE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOBODY")

LAURYN HILL: (Rapping) All my time has been focused on my freedom now. Why would I join 'em when I know that I can beat 'em now? They put their words on me, and they can eat 'em now. That's probably why they keep on telling me I'm needed now. They tried to box me out while takin' what they want from me. I spent too many years livin' too uncomfortably, making room for people who didn't like the labor but and wanted the spoils. Greedy, selfish behavior. Now let me give it to you balanced and with clarity. I don't need to turn myself into a parody. I don't do what you do for popularity. They clearly didn't understand when I said "I Get Out, " apparently. My awareness like Keanu in "The Matrix." I'm saving souls, and you're complaining about my lateness. Now it's illegal for someone to walk in greatness. They want the same. They want the same, but they don't take risks. Now the world will get to see its own reflection. And the anointed can pursue their own direction. And if you're wrong, and you're too proud to hear correction, walk into the hole you dug yourself - a projection. See me in my freedom takin' all my land back. They said a lot against me, thinking I'd just stand back.

GROSS: That's "Nobody" by Nas featuring Lauryn Hill, the track Questlove chose to end our interview. Questlove's new book is called "Hip-Hop Is History."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be actor and writer Rob McElhenny. He co-created and co-stars in "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia," the longest-running live action TV sitcom. In 2020, he bought a Welsh soccer team with Ryan Reynolds. The team's successes and struggles is the subject of the documentary series "Welcome To Wrexham." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #3: Two, three.

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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