For our Fall Guide to Good TV, we spoke with Roots co-founder and drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson about his group’s seemingly unlikely gig as Jimmy Fallon’s house band, why it pushed back their new album release (How I Got Over is now coming in 2010, according to Twitter), and how it’s set him up with a few unlikely musical heroes. Here’s the full conversation.
Paste: How did a hip-hop band known for touring become the house band for Jimmy Fallon?
Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson: I was the musical supervisor for the Chapelle Show, which is basically two people—Dave Chapelle and Neil Brennan, aka the white guy. Neil was set to come over to Fallon to be the producer of the show, but at last minute he got movie offers. He did that film with Jeremy Piven, so he decided to go to Hollywood. However, I guess as a side comment he said to Fallon, “Know what would be great—why don’t you get The Roots to be your house band?” He meant it as a joke because he knew we’d never give up the life of traveling. Then we just happened to see Jimmy at a show we did at UCLA. He said, “Hey, I know it’s a weird idea.” He knew we wouldn’t even consider it because who would give up their 18th straight year of traveling to slow down and be 40-year-old beings for a second? We laughed, “Ha, that’s real funny,” then three days later we were like, “Wait a minute, hang on.” We called him back, but it was a crazy Mexican stand off. We said, “OK, we’ll consider it,” but he thought we were bluffing, then of course we thought he was bluffing. It took about three weeks for everyone to put their guns down and take each other seriously because time was ticking. He needed to get a band, and we had three weeks to convince each other we were serious and finally put our guns down and be serious about it.
Paste: What are some of your favorite moments to date?
Thompson: Cat Stevens came—it was surreal. Being on the show, I have to get out of the mentality that we’re still this relatively unknown entity, and no one knows who we are etc. It’s very strange when the musical supervisor says, “Mr. Islam would like to see you one second, Ahmir.” I was like, “What? He knows I’m alive? What the…?” It was really beautiful to see him—he was one of our first guests that was allowed to do two songs. What’s really cool is that he did the song that basically explained the whole “not being allowed to enter the United States because they thought he was a terrorist” episode. Really fascinating guy. Again, I’m very, very, very, shocked he knew we were even alive. We talked about an obscure album cut from 1977 called “Was Dog A Doughnut?” It was really just him creating a filler cut, experimenting with some electronic instruments that were in the studio—he fucked around, man, and created a B-boy classic. What was just him messing around for four minutes in the studio wound up being a staple in the hip-hop world, which he was very shocked to discover. The rest of the album is acoustic.
Paste: The rest of the album doesn’t mean anything to Illadelphia, but this four-minute fuck-up he did about a doughnut…
Thompson: The last cut on side two—it was absolutely, positively perfect.
Paste: What’s hysterical is you being the musicologist that I know, having seen and been privy to your record warehouse, he was probably impressed that you even knew the name of the album.
Thompson: Same thing happened with Tom Jones when we backed him up on the show. There was a really obscure cut called “Lookin Out My Window,” which is a B-boy staple. We were supposed to work together after I produced the Al Green project, but never got around to it. I said, “I gotta take you back to 1973, man.” He said, “What, ‘Looking Out My Window’?” He was like, “Why you guys love that song?” I said it was a B-boy staple. He’s just baffled that from all the things he contributed it was some obscure B-side that made an impact.
Paste: What’s really interesting from this side of the TV is seeing The Roots have opportunities to do things so outside of your normal pocket. Is it surreal sometimes?
Thompson: It usually starts as, “Ahmir, this is gonna be really weird, but would you consider…” And then they try to ease us into who is coming to the show. Example: They hit us yesterday with a very slow, “This is what we got when we get back from the break, R. Kelly’s coming for two nights.” “OK, strange.” “We got Q-Tip.” “OK, that’s cool”... Then they hit us up with the monster of all monsters. They said, “We don’t know if you wanna do this, but would you mind backing up Christopher Cross and Michael McDonald together singing ‘Run Like the Wind’?”? [Laughs] I almost fucking jumped out the window.
Paste: I’m sure you knew exactly where that one was in your LP warehouse.
Thompson: I love Michael McDonald and Christopher Cross more than anything. Two weeks ago we also got called to do that margarita song with Jimmy Buffet. What’s really crazy is, the only person he brought with him was his percussion player. I’m sitting by the drum set, and all of the sudden this old black guy comes up, he’s like, “Hey, how you doing? My name’s Ralph.” I’m like “Ralph McDonald?” He was like, “Yeah!” He wrote “Mr. Magic” for Grover Washington. Ralph McDonald is one of the gods of percussion in the ’70s. He even had a song on Saturday Night Fever. I was like “Where have you been for the last 30 years?” He was like, “With this guy.” “You mean you left the world of music to be with Jimmy Buffet?” He was like, “Man, do you know how well this gig pays?”
Paste: Not only that—think about the way you tour and the way Jimmy Buffett tours. They’re two different parallels.
Thompson: Yeah, that guy owns a lot of the places he plays in.
Paste: Musically, it must have been such a trip.
Thompson: Musically it was fun, because at the end of the day, I’m the biggest yacht rock cat you will ever know. I’ll be making fun of “Run Like the Wind,” all these yacht rock classics, but, you know, you tell me I get to play with these guys—oh my God!
Paste: Did you realize that going into the gig? That it was going to have this amazing upside for you, to be able to really live your record collection?
Thompson: Absolutely not. I don’t think they knew the level of standing that we had as a group. Initially it was just like, “Hey, it’s very simple.” We talked to Lorne Michaels for about an hour and a half before we took the gig. He said, “I just want you to know what you’re getting into. We’re not asking you to be television stars. Come in, do a warm up song, do an eight-second buffer out of commercial, 10-second buffer into commercial, you’ll probably back up the occasional star four or five times a year. It’s a well-paying gig. It’s very easy money—all you have to do is give up a collective five minutes of music a week.” We were like, “Yo, this is the shit, we actually get to get paid.”
Paste: And you don’t have to go sweat your ass off every night and then get on the bus and go to the next place.
Thompson: Exactly, but it was a lie from the pit of hell. A week into it I was like, “We were lied to,” but I wasn’t mad. Once we met the writers and met the staff, once they sort of realized that, you know, they can utilize us more than just as the house band, that’s when the gig from hell broke loose. This gig is five times harder than touring. It’s now to the point where we get that week off to tour, it’s the easiest thing. I needed this job just to realize how great I had it when I was touring.
Paste: In a perfect world, can you ever find a balance?
Thompson: I’ll put it this way: I went to bed at six in the morning today, and I overslept. The staff is very angry at me right now, because I just missed the 100th episode family group photo. I got off the elevator, everyone’s arms are all folded, all disappointed, you know, “Jimmy was disappointed you weren’t here.” Right. I’m like dude, “I went to bed at 6:05.” Then they all understand, the second that 7 o’clock comes, nothing stops. I’m working on stuff with Sara Bareilles, I’m working with Jesse Dylan, I’m working for Soultrane. I put The Roots album back another month again to sort of make room for the show, and I still do DJ gigs. My life from 7 PM to about 6 AM is still heavily, heavily, heavily occupied.