Questlove: On the Passing of Richard Nichols, the First Voice in My Book

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 14: Music Producer Richard Nichols speaks with the media after rehearsal at The Studio on April 14, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The rehearsal was held in advance of a concert featuring Questlove and Keren Ann on April 17 as part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts. (Photo by Jeff Fusco/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Richard Nicols
Photo: Jeff Fusco/Getty Images

How can you make any sense of a life ending? Richard Nichols, who managed the Roots since the beginning, since before the beginning, passed away on July 17 after a long battle with leukemia (CMML). Rich was 55. Our culture calls for certain forms of expression in the wake of an event like this: We’re supposed to compose a declaration of devotion to the departed, offer testimony regarding his lasting importance, make a simple statement of the sadness that has settled over us all. There is no declaration or testimony big enough to fill the life of Rich. But there is a simple statement, and this is it: There is only one Richard Nichols. I know what ya’ll are thinking: “There is only one of each of us.” But it’s truer than true in this case.

Rich was our manager, but that’s only a vague way of describing what he did. I first met Rich when I was a teenager in Philadelphia, when the band that would become the Roots started crystallizing around me and Tariq Trotter. Rich came to the show with a friend of his. Rich’s reputation preceded him, sort of: He was the DJ for a cutting-edge experimental jazz show on WRTI, the Temple University radio station; when Tariq and I were coming back from parties or concerts late at night, we would flip on the radio and listen to Rich’s show.

The night Rich came to see us, he didn’t seem especially impressed. We were playing with a replacement bassist, and he didn’t get the kind of thrill he expected. He scowled at us, I’m pretty sure. But then he had us out to his studio in Bensalem and we recorded a pair of songs, “Anti-Circle” and “Pass the Popcorn.” That time, something about us clicked with something in him. He was driving Tariq home and Tariq told him straight out that he should manage us. That was all it took.

From the start, Rich had definite ideas about what he wanted for the Roots. When he was younger, he had been hired to pick up performers in New York and drive them back to Philly for concerts. Once, he went to get the trumpet player Lester Bowie, and he was surprised to see that Lester lived in a perfectly respectable place, with shiny floors and African sculptures. Lester had a wife, and Lester’s wife had a van. That was Rich’s ambition for the Roots: to keep us upright financially while we made the music we loved, to keep rats out of our houses and bats out of our belfry. It was connected to his creative mission, which was to use hip-hop to find the value in the modern-day black experience without any boasts about bank or gangsterized tall tales. He was always looking for a balance where portraits of everyday black Americans, stories about their struggles and triumphs both, were seen a kind of heroism.

But that was just the foundation. Rich also helped build the whole cathedral. Rich was perfectly imperfect: brilliant, contrarian, combative, loving, loyal, funny, serious, deeply moral, deeply profane, and a whole lot of other adjectives that now mean nothing without the person who made them mean everything. When I was working on my memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues, Rich got in on every story, to the point where we let him have his own say right there on the page, in dialogues and then in footnotes. He is the first voice in the book:

RICH: So what’s this gonna be, Ahmir?

ME: A memoir.

RICH: The fuck does that mean?

The book showed him doing what he did in life. He was in dialogue with me, and he was in footnotes. He bulldogged me. He put his jaws on things and wouldn’t let go. At one point, we had an extended battle royal about when the Roots recorded “The Seed 2.0” with Cody Chesnutt, I told the story as I remembered it — Cody was delayed getting in from L.A., and I was late for a date and had to basically drum as I was going out the door. “You have it wrong,” Rich said. “We weren’t even in New York. We were in California.” It turned out that I was right, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that he challenged me until I proved I was right. That was his method over and over again, whatever was at stake: Rich wasn’t easygoing, because he wanted victories, in ideas and in life, to be earned.

Rich hated clichés. His emails were full of barbed questions and sharp defenses, unprintable profanities and winding parentheticals, laments about “the rush to the lowest common denominator” and complaints about critical laziness. Every time you hit reply, it was like playing chess, if every chess game were rigged. I wonder how Rich would feel about all the things that are being said about him — which are all the things that are said, as a matter of course, about every wonderful person who is called off the earth too early. I think about how he dealt with conversations as he was nearing the end. If you asked Rich how he was feeling, he would tell you: “Fucking terrible.” Or he would scoff at the master plot: “Death isn’t the worst part of dying.” He might do the same with the things people are saying now. He might try to turn them on their heads. He’d certainly fire off a string of unprintable profanities. But deep down, he’d also warm to them, because ultimately what mattered to Rich was the truth, and the truth in this case is that Rich helped to create us in ways too numerous to list and continues to do so in ways too complex to explain.

The day before Rich died, I visited him in the hospital. A group of us, close to him, spoke near him, over him, but also to him. Even though Rich was moving out of what we traditionally think of as life, he was there with us. I wondered what was going through his mind, what his internal monologue was. He couldn’t stay out of the fray. He was the fray.

In Rich’s absence, we’ll go on. What can we do but go on? But we won’t let the world be without him. We’ll keep his mind and spirit alive in our own minds and spirits. Rich was loved, is loved, will always be loved. He will live on in me, in Black Thought, in the rest of the Roots, and in every artist and project he touched. Recently, Rich was asked if he felt less creative after two decades in hip-hop. “I feel even more creative, honestly,” he said. “Creativity hasn’t ever been the problem, because I’m still trying to work on the idea.” We will continue to carry forward his model and his creativity, to work on the idea, for better or worse. It may be better and it may be worse, but we’ll keep things moving. To say that there will never be anyone like him is an understatement. He is what he was: the only one.

Questlove Pays Tribute to the Roots’ Manager