?uestlove is the most talkative drummer in rap music. And when you consider what a chatterbox Bobby Simmons from Stetsasonic can be, that’s quite a feat. But these days, ?uest has plenty of reason to talk. His rap band, The Roots, seems to be living out a 1980s teen movie—you know, the one where the nerd who has always been an outcast suddenly finds himself nailing the prom queen in the back of the QB’s Jaguar. While they’ve amassed one of the most loyal followings in music, only recently have The Roots become accepted by hip-hop’s big names. They recently signed with their buddy, President Carter at Def Jam. To celebrate, they’re throwing a two-day concert today and tomorrow (May 18, 19) at New York’s Radio City Music Hall with an all-star supporting cast of performers, including Nas, Mos Def, Common, Erykah Badu and a slew of shocking surprises. Suddenly, seems like The Roots are the most popular group in hip-hop. In anticipation of their new album, Game Theory, on the way (hear the first single HERE), XXLMAG.COM caught up with ?uestlove and tried to get him to spill the beans on the biggest show in New York City.
It must be a lot more difficult to put together an all-star event than the average Roots show. Why did you decide to go that route?
I wanted to do the show because it was fun. But I guess the one thing that we kinda misread in this whole situation was, I guess, we underestimated our value as far as what we mean to the New York marketplace. When we first took this gig on, we had a hunch that we could pull this off, but we immediately went to the insurance thing, which [meant] grabbing every guest star that we knew to come rock with us. I guess in case ticket sales were lukewarm, then we could say, “Hey, so and so is going to be with us as well!” Then we come to find out that we really didn’t even need that because this particular show sold out and we only threw the people a bone and just basically revealed two people per night. Now I’m dealing with “Yeah, ?uest, I wanna do this, that and the other, my new solo shit.” I’m like, “Whoa, slow down.” I had a nine-hour window for the Chappelle movie, but here I’m with twice as many people and I have a two hour and 59 minute window.
Have you been running into any problems?
These people are very old school. This is the first hip-hop show at Radio City Music Hall since, I believe, 2000. I believe the last person to headline there was LL. Since then, they’ve been very weary. These are very old school Broadway people, so they wanna know who’s on the show. That’s been very tricky too because some of the names of the guest artists are a bit tricky. They might take some of their monikers literally. So you gotta deal with the politics like that. Shit’s gonna hit the fan if I go one minute over 11 [o’clock]. They slap you with a $10,000 fine for every 15 minutes that you go over.
So the show must be pretty tightly put together.
The way I’m pacing the show is pretty much like a mixtape. Between both nights, including our songs, it’s like 70 songs. This will pretty much be one of the first shows in which people outside of the Roots’ core circle are going to get a taste of what a Roots show of this caliber is like. We’ve been doing shows like this for six or seven years now. Those who are always in my fanbase know that an Okayplayer show means that this guy comes out and does two songs, then this person does a duet with that person and then the Roots do a song.
So what should someone know before coming to the show?
The one thing I wish I could stress to New York City above all is that the Roots are the most professional organization when it comes to promptness. It’s imperative that they show up on time. I don’t want them to think “Erykah is gonna show up around eight, so I’ma show up around then.” You have to be there for the opening act. First of all, there is no opening act. Usually the best part of the show, at least for us, is the surprise you get at the beginning. If New York knew like I knew, they will be there 24 hours beforehand to catch this. They need to be on time. None of that fashionably late stuff.
So you’re really not going to spill the beans about any of the guests to me? Come on.
[Laughs] Well, ya’ll know Erykah’s coming. You know Mos is coming. You know Common is coming. You know Talib is coming.
And I think we all know that Jay is obviously going to come out at one of the shows.
Ehhh, we don’t know that just yet [laughs].
I think people would be more surprised if he didn’t come out than if he did.
It also depends on what night he chose. I will say that I divided the nights into two. Night number one is definitely the hip-hop scene night, and night number 2 is the eclectic night.
You have announced Nas.
I definitely didn’t want to announce Nas. I wanted him to be the surprise, but it’s too late, we already made the posters. The whole theory of why we “needed insurance,” I wanted to do the show because its fun, but the whole insurance thing. The one thing that we never factored in is we’ve been selling out shows since 1995. And I’ve been secretly wondering, okay, when a person graduates college, is it that they stop fuckin’ with hip-hop altogether? It never hit me that this particular person, who was 19 when he first saw you and is now a 35-year-old executive, perhaps he doesn’t want to stand for five hours in the venues that you normally play. Normally, The Roots play venues between 1,500 and 3,000 capacity. This is our first time headlining a spot that’s 6 to 7,000 seats. But that’s where that demographic went. They’re 30 now, so they just wanted to sit down rather than standing around the House of Blues for four or five hours. Now that we know that, we sort of have to cater ourselves to that next level. Our generation is growing up.
It sounds like the first night, especially, could be an important night for East Coast hip-hop, at a time when things are kind of in a lull.
The plan is basically to remind people like, “Wow, remember this?” The whole idea of hip-hop being so disposable, it’s crazy to me. It’s also on both sides. On the consumer’s end, they have to push themselves to find things more. It’s nothing for me to go on the computer and hear a certain song or whatever, but people have to know that there’s generally more options out there than what they are being offered. Hip-hop is a subculture that was built by the disenfranchised and the tastemakers. Now what’s happening is, this is the first time that the tastemakers aren’t really determining what is hip or what is cool now. It’s now the gatekeepers.
Who are the gatekeepers?
The gatekeepers, meaning the Clear Channels of the world, the Viacoms of the world. They determine what will get shown to the public. The power has been taken away from the tastemakers. Back in the day, you heard some new shit like, “Oh, yo man, I got this new 12’’ from this group called Wu-Tang Clan.” That’s how the buzz happened. Now the power has been taken away from the tastemakers, it’s now in the gatekeepers’ hands. I think that this night is crucial—not even to be territorial about it—it’s crucial that people realize they are dealing with a culture that’s on the brink of almost turning 40. There’s a whole slew of things to celebrate, not just what’s come out in the past three years.
So you’re saying some of the surprise guests will be some old faces that maybe we haven’t seen in a minute.
I didn’t say that [laughs].
So Stetsasonic will come out for a battle of the rap bands. Am I right?
[Laughs] Definitely not Stetsasonic, but I’ll write that one down for next year. But nah, I’ve got to be tight-lipped. If the tickets were cheap, I’d probably throw you a bone. See, we originally insisted that tickets be $30, and they were like, No, it has to be $80. It keeps the riff raff out. It’s hard to get your thug on when you spending $160 for you and your lady to go to the show. So that’s the idea behind the high ticket prices. I feel very guilty about that, so I’m bleeding sweat here just so people feel they got their money’s worth.
So when you’re working with people like Nas, or people like Jay, the video you did for “What They Do” must come up at some point. Has that ever caused an awkward moment? You were obviously lampooning a lot of what dudes like that were doing at that time.
That’s Jay’s favorite video.
So do you think he understood what you were trying to say with that?
Jay is Keyser Soze, that’s what you don’t understand. Jay, he’s one of us. That whole thing of Keyser Soze limping at the end as he walks in the street, that is Jay-Z. That limp is the street Jay-Z. When he walks straight, that’s when he turns into us.
Are you saying Jay-Z is a fraud?
I’m not saying he’s a fraud. His best trait is the mystery shit, not revealing too much. At the end of the day, he cracks more jokes than I do, and I’m a jokester. The whole era of ’96 to 2002 was one of the most baffling eras ever for any subculture. I don’t even think Miles Davis got that much hell for working with rock musicians. I mean he did, but whenever a subculture becomes realized and then becomes the standard for everyday society, there’s bound to be indifference about it. If anything, I think Jay was very adamant about us really being us. Like his only fear of us turning in the record was that it was safe, or that we saw this as our big moment to be like, “Alright, let’s do some Hot 97 shit or some 106 & Park shit so we can finally get paid.” We got Jay here, “Laffy Taffy Junior,” here it goes! His whole thing was like, “I want y’all to give me your honest record.” Don’t come here with no radio bullshit thinking you gonna be chillin’ in the Hamptons with me and L.A. this summer on a boat. Don’t do that, cause you gonna trip and fall.
You have to, in the back of your minds, think that they want you to get a hit record.
Yeah, they want us to succeed, but more than that, they don’t want us to look like we’re trying, ’cause our fanbase can read that shit instantly. But I don’t know, this is the age of irony. Jay-Z’s signing us, Tariq [Black Thought] is working with Puff [laughs].
He’s ghostwriting on Puff’s new album?
Yeah, he did like three joints. We’ve been working on it for a second. Puff needs to hurry up and put it out already!