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Questlove on Working With Elvis Costello, Miley’s Twerking, and His Lunchtime D.J. Sets

This fall, as usual, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is everywhere. He’s on your TV, he’s on your Twitter feed, he’s on the display table at your neighborhood bookstore — and, of course, he’s the one anchoring the relentless groove of the world’s funkiest band, the Roots, whose ballyhooed album Wise Up Ghost, a spiky soul-funk collaboration with Elvis Costello, is officially released today. Questlove’s omnipresence has even extended into the lunch hour: D.J.'ing the Lunch Break, a series of hour-long midday dance parties, co-sponsored by ABSOLUT and Flavorpill. Vulture spoke to Questlove about the summit with Costello, his D.J.'ing “game theory,” and the teapot tempests of the musical summer just past, including Miley’s twerking and Robin’s “rapeyness.”

One of the nice things about Wise Up Ghost is how organic it sounds — it doesn’t sound like one of those shotgun weddings, where you put two artists together in the studio and it’s just kind of awkward.
It was the opposite of a shotgun wedding. We never knew we were making a record. I always give the analogy, like when the girl asks the guy after a fourth date: “What are we doing? Are we dating?” After we did fourteen of these songs, we were like, “Are we making a record? Or are we just doing this for fun?” Initially, I thought that maybe I’d just leak a song on the Internet for free. Elvis just happened to play it for Don Was, and it went from there.

We made this album in our dressing room [at Late Night With Jimmy Fallon]. After the show was over, Elvis would come at, like, seven o’clock, and we’d just mess around until 2 a.m. and go home with these cool songs. And after a while, that wound up being sixteen, seventeen songs.

I remember reading somewhere T-Bone Burnett saying that Elvis could tear off a lyric in the studio, writing a whole song in just a few minutes. Did you see him work like that?
The way his musical faucet works is unlike any human being I’ve seen. A song like “The Puppet Has Cut His Strings,” about his father who passed away, we worked on the music to that and “Sugar Won’t Work” the last day that we recorded. And I was kinda concerned, because there was no lyrics, no vocals, and Elvis was going to take the record to Don Was the next day. I thought, He’s not going to finish these new songs in time. And I came back to work at eleven-thirty in the morning, and Steve Mandel, our engineer said: “Dude, you are not gonna fucking believe it. He knocked out the songs in, like, three hours. He just sat there listening to the songs and these lyrics came pouring out.”

But most of the time, he would have the lyrics first. “I’ve got lyrics, let’s do music.” I’ve never done that before. I come from the hip-hop world, where you make a track — and then you wait for nine months while someone gets over their writer’s block. But no, not in this case.

I loved the version of “Blurred Lines” that the Roots did with Robin Thicke. I have to ask you about “Blurred Lines”/“Got to Give It Up” controversy. Where do you come down on the question of whether Thicke and Pharrell stole Marvin Gaye’s song?
There are two elephants in the room. Elephant No. 1 is the “Elvising” of the situation. It’s been historically noted that white artists have borrowed from black artists and have done better financially as a result.

No. 2: I know that a lot of women are angry about this song. But it’s kind of weird that a lot of the women who have come to me saying, “Yo, this is the rapiest, most sexist song I’ve heard in my life!” — but they’re the first people who want me to spin it at clubs!

I know there are people who will look at me weirdly. I’m siding with Robin Thicke; I’m going against the estate of Marvin Gaye. And I’m definitely anti-misogynist — even after the Michele Bachman incident. I’m definitely a feminist at heart. But at the end of the day, you know, Huey Lewis and Ray Parker Jr. went through this with “Ghostbusters.” George Harrison went through this with “My Sweet Lord” and the “He’s So Fine” thing with the Chiffons. There’s a thin line, but for the sake of hip-hop culture: Look, technically it’s not plagiarized. It’s not the same chord progression. It’s a feeling. Because there’s a cowbell in it and a fender Rhodes as the main instrumentation — that still doesn’t make it plagiarized. We all know it’s derivative. That’s how Pharrell works. Everything that Pharrell produces is derivative of another song — but it’s an homage.

If it were a case of melodic plagiarism, I would definitely side with the estate. But in this case — yes, the song is douchey, in a kind of a fun way. I know the history of the “Elvising” of music. But I’m still siding with Pharrell and Robin on this one.

Another recent controversy: Tell me your reaction to Miley Cyrus’s performance at the VMAs.
[Laughs.] You know the best thing about this whole ordeal? I instantly knew that Twitter was going to be just dominated by this. As a publicity stunt — yeah, that was a win for Miley.

As for the minstrelsy in the performance: To me, it is literally impossible for any form of black music to not have the stain of minstrelsy on it. Minstrelsy is like the great stain on a nice white shoe. I don’t think Miley Cyrus is really aware of the deeper offense of it. To her, it’s like, “I’m having fun. I’m 20. I want to fuck up, mess around.” She’s been a role model all her life. But using black minstrel images to accomplish that is a little dangerous. I frowned on it when Gwen Stefani did it with Asian people.

The larger problem is that most people are unaware of what minstrelsy is. They don’t know the history. I think a lot of black people are upset because they saw her using black people as accessories. I’m all for Miley finding herself. But she should be aware of the power of the images she’s using.

Talk to me about the Lunch Break parties. What’s it like D.J.'ing for the lunch crowd?
They asked me if I’d be interested in doing these pop-up fund-raising events. Now, asking me to play for an hour, and only an hour — that’s like my version of Dogme 95. My D.J. sets are, on average, between three and four hours. The average D.J. does 90 minutes to two hours. It’s actually in my contract — I’m probably the only D.J. that has it written into his contract in history — that I will charge you a penalty if you don’t let me play at least three hours. It takes me so long to tell a story. The earliest song I’ll play is Cab Calloway’s “Reefer Man” or “Sing Sing Sing” by Benny Goodman. So, to go from that to, like, Katy Perry’s “Roar” in an hour is damn near impossible. But I wanted to challenge myself. Probably more than other D.J.'s, I have themes for my program. One time I did all eighties pop. One time I did all Stevie Wonder. I did all hip-hop. I did all Michael Jackson one set.

How do you build a set in that compressed time frame?
There’s a little bit of game theory in there. Once I know the demographics, the people who are coming to the party, I can start. There’s usually a three- to six-hour preparation process for any D.J. set I do. And half that time is just getting the information on the crowd. Promoters get really confused. I’m like, “Okay, who’s coming?” For the Flavorpill sets, it’s really easy. These people are professionals on their lunch breaks, at their jobs. Nine times out of ten, they’ve probably been there for at least four years. I figure out they graduated around 2005, 2006. So they were in college around 2004, they were in high school in 2000, 2002. I’m trying to get the psychological angle on their memory banks. I’ll know that a certain song from ’97 will mean something to them. “Oh shit, I remember that from high school!” What’s cool is that these aren’t the people who will come to Brooklyn Bowl. They have to be up in the morning for work; maybe they have kids. They’re not partiers. I use Brooklyn Bowl as the litmus test for every D.J. gig I do. That’s why I do Brooklyn Bowl: to see what works and what doesn’t work. So this is almost a condensed version of that. You give people a club experience for one hour. It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

Is it hard to D.J. to a lunchtime crowd? I mean, is the dance floor dead?
Not at all. See, I ask for complete, 100 percent darkness — the club has to be dark. And I just go, out the gate. Normally, with my formula, the hardest songs to do are the non-“spike” songs. The songs that are most important to me are the letdown songs. I used to be the guy who would play twenty bangers in a row. But then, after you get to the sixteenth one, the screams stop. People are like, “Oh.” Like, it numbs them out. My main formula is like, three songs that will kill them and then two songs that I personally like, but I know they don’t know — so it’s like a letdown. My goal is to let them down as much as possible so that the next record can kill them. It’s a Game Theory thing with me: three songs they love, two songs they don’t know but are interesting enough for them to not leave the club.

As long as we’re on the subject of songs they don’t know: Can you share your latest crate-digging find? What’s the latest record that you didn’t know existed, you got hold of somehow, and it’s blowing your mind?
You might have to fact-check this, because I don’t have my computer or my iPhone on me, so I’m not sure exactly who the artist is. But I’ve been just realizing that the music that Timbaland did for Jay Z’s “Picasso Baby” is a sample. It’s a very proggy, you know, seventies prog-rock sound. It’s been driving people crazy whenever I play it, because they think it’s the original instrumental, and then, when another part comes on, they realize it was a sample. [Editor's note: The sample is from “Sirens,” by the composer and producer Adrian Younge.] Like, none of us knew it was a sample! The whole entire song. Even the drums, the bassline, everything. Tim basically just looped it and added, like, 808 on top of it. I had no clue that it wasn’t a custom-made Timbaland beat. So I’ve been burning the shit out of that one.

Speaking of prog-rock sounds: You ever read about Sherman Hemsley, from The Jeffersons, about his prog-rock obsession?
Dude, yeah! And I thought I was the only black guy into Gentle Giant! He was a massive, massive Gentle Giant fan. When I befriended Lenny Kravitz around ‘98, ‘99, he told me that Sherman was kind of his, you know, smoking buddy. And Sherm put Lenny onto all kinds of music.

Knowing that Hemsley had such a taste for the weed — it gives you a whole different perspective on things when you watch Jeffersons reruns.
Exactly! I have The Jeffersons box set on DVD. He managed to get three prog-rock songs cleared on The Jeffersons. There’s the time when Lionel is sitting there, listening to it on the radio, and George comes in and starts dancing. Sherman was a serious prog-rock advocate.

You know this reminds me of another guy I have to mention: Thundercat. Do you know his stuff? If anyone has taken the mantle from George Duke, J Dilla, and Gentle Giant — this is Thundercat. He’s the most monstrous, craziest bass player I know. As a side gig, he plays with Suicidal Tendencies and Erykah Badu. Go figure. I thought that Kareem Riggins was the ultimate Clark Kent/Superman. Like, he plays with Diana Krall during the day and then does his J Dilla shit at night making beats for people. But Thundercat, man — his album is the best kept secret of the year.

Photo: Getty