Sunday, April 24, Terry Gross sat down in one of two Victorian chairs atop the stage at the Harrison Auditorium in the Penn Museum and read a dizzying introduction for Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. The Philadelphia native then walked onstage to a standing ovation from the packed auditorium. The following conversation delved into the secrets of Questlove’s musical career, his books, his family history and much more. Even after two hours of insightful conversation, the interview felt all too short.
The talk was being taped for “Fresh Air,” a Peabody Award winning public radio talk show that has been running since 1975. Gross has hosted the show since its national syndication, and is known for her disarming demeanor and probing, intimate questions. New listeners will find that Gross is able to reveal insights about her interviewees that may not come out in any standard interview.
This was certainly the case with Questlove. He is perhaps best known as the lovable leader of The Roots, a legendary hip hop group who now play as the house band for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” The Roots are now working on their 19th album, which Questlove says is a departure from their recent “art albums” and a return to their “meat-and-potatoes hip hop” beginnings.
The Roots’ enormous discography is an impressive feat, but it is only a fraction of Questlove’s creative output. He is a highly sought after disk jockey, producer, festival organizer, and an acclaimed author of two books. His most recent book, “Something to Food About,” is a chronicle of interviews that Questlove hosted with a number of his favorite chefs.
Gross began the interview by praising Questlove’s questioning style (a high honor from such an expert) and asking if his work on the book gave any insight into his own creative processes. Qestlove was hesitant to compare his own style of work to theirs, but noted that he did find some parallels in the art of cooking and the art of music.
Gross then transitioned to Questlove’s music, reciting a short history of The Roots and asking about their beginnings on “The Tonight Show.” Questlove recounting his initial hesitancy, said that he and the band never thought they would actually be the house band, but they basically told Jimmy Fallon “maybe” to keep it in their back pocket. Then, one night at a show in California, Questlove and his manager saw the rest of the band and Jimmy Fallon stacked in a human pyramid, and knew that late night was the direction they were headed.
Questlove also recalled the anxiety surrounding the new theme song. Months before the show, he was constantly being badgered about whether he would make a new theme song. He knew he was going to make one, but it hadn’t come to him. As with any of his other endeavors, he had extremely high standards for the song: a nod to classic “Tonight Show” music, a modern update, and a sound that would stand the test of time. After Questlove lost months of sleep, Fallon randomly heard a tape of the first song The Roots ever played in the “Tonight Show” studio (as a sound check) and said, “That’s the one!” The now-iconic theme plays every weeknight, opening the show with an adrenaline-pumping, “Hey hey hey hey!”.
Afterwards, Gross moved onto a more difficult topic. We have all felt the effects of the recent deaths in the music world, but Questlove has been hit particularly hard. In addition to being close friends with Prince and A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg, Questlove’s father died just a month prior to the interview. Gross asked how the string of deaths has affected him, to which he replied that he was glad he was still able to cry for Prince after such a numbing few months. He also recounted a number of Prince anecdotes, including a late-night call from an assistant of Prince’s who repeatedly asked him to invite Jimmy Fallon to a game of ping pong, and repeatedly ignored Questlove’s assertion that Fallon’s wife had given birth a few hours before.
When Gross opened the interview for questions from the audience, most of those who went to the microphone spent the majority of their time effusively sharing their love for the friendly bandleader, some even forgetting to ask an actual question. He then walked through the audience for a book signing, where he nonchalantly drew a caricature of himself on the inside cover of each attendee’s book while engaging in short conversations with them. If you’d like some insight into Questlove’s genius, keep an eye on the “Fresh Air” podcast to hear the full interview or find Questlove’s “Something to Food About” on Amazon.