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At all times, legendary hip-hop drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson is a man pulled in many directions. The 37-year-old musician, producer, blogger, and hip-hop tastemaker usually has enough projects going on that he could win a multitasking award (if one existed). Aside from being a mainstay in his long-term band the Roots since the group formed in the late '80s, he's an executive producer for other musicians (Common, Slum Village, and, most recently, Al Green). He's also the main producer for the Roots, a photographer, a DJ, and head honcho behind okayplayer.com, a hip-hop/neo soul website that is ground zero for discovering talented underground artists from around the world.
Somewhere in the midst of all this, ?uestlove, the man with the biggest Afro in all of hip-hop, manages to remain one of the most revered drummers in the history of pop music.
Not surprisingly, the Roots are on tour again, and if you want to get an idea of how dizzying the band's lifestyle is, ask ?uest (pronounced Quest) what city he's in during an interview. His response says it all:
"Uhhhh... (long pause) Ooh, this is bad," he laughs, sincerely trying to remember what part of the world he's in at the moment. "Damn... wait... I think we're in Boston. Everyday I wake up, I don't know where I am. It's like freaking Groundhog's Day."
Anyone who's followed the group over the years knows that ?uest has ample reason to be confused. Clocking more than 250 days on the road each year, the band's blistering tour schedule is surpassed only by the frenetic energy it gives off each night when it touches the stage. While everyone else in this seven-member unit struts through an hour and a half set each night and then gets to relax, ?uest typically DJs a party in each city he goes to — increasing the workload for him, he concedes, but also helping to put his mind at ease.
"I usually DJ from 12:30 to 3 a.m. depending on the curfew," he says. "And that gives me just enough time to get back to the hotel, shower, get my pajamas, get on the bus, and start it all over again the next night. DJing is my post-show activity cocaine. Everyone has their methods, but for me, DJing is how I wind down from a hard day."
As a unit, the Roots have prided themselves since their inception on being the world's premier hip-hop band and have always focused on using as many live instruments on stage as possible — from snare drums to a sousaphone — something that sets them apart from other rap artists, who typically have little more than a DJ and a hype man on stage at any given time.
Over the years, the Roots' music has garnered plenty of acclaim for classic albums such as Do You Want More?!!!??! and Things Fall Apart. Along the way, they've mastered the underground backpacker sound and the indie hip-hop/free-jazz sound. Currently, they seem fed up with all of it.
In recent years, their music has taken an increasingly darker tone, and ?uest admits that their latest disc, Rising Down, is one of the bleakest albums they've ever released.
"It's a personal record," ?uest says with a sigh. "For rock music, this shit is normal. People go through things. But it's almost, like, hip-hoppers aren't allowed to show that three-dimensional type of emotion in their music. That's where we're at right now."
Personal issues among members of the group, record-label strife, and the death of their longtime producer and friend, J Dilla, have all been heavy on the hearts of band members for the past three years. The group's highly lyrical frontman, Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter, once known for penning some of the best battle raps and witty punch lines in the business, has turned his microphone prowess into a therapy session in which anger, venting, and frustration are the band's new norm. That's not a knock against the guys and their raw honesty, but unfortunately, since the Roots started becoming more introspective, reviewers have increasingly slammed them.
"Some people will get it; some won't," ?uest says coldly. "Between the gazillion interviews I do, the blogging, and okayplayer, people know where to reach me if they have a problem with it." In that response alone, there's more than a hint of frustration, and ?uest is basically flexing at anyone who wants to bad-mouth his band. He's fine with folks who don't like the political messages intertwined in the lyrics, but don't knock the group's ability to rock out harder than any other hip-hop act on the planet.
As for Rising Down, the name of the album itself comes from Rising Up Rising Down, a seven-volume study on the history of violence by William T. Volmann. The disc was released on April 29 to coincide with the 16th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots.
"We felt it was necessary to bring these issues up and put it in people's faces," ?uest says. "Look at the beating that happened in Philly last week with those cops who just beat the shit out of three kids. It was like Rodney King times 40. So what's changed? I understand the frozenness and the indifference, but you can't get scared."
In that sense, the Roots are still able to be a voice for the underclass, which is part of the reason hip-hop got started 30 years ago. Rising Down probably won't win the band any new fans, but it is honest lyrically and as politically aggressive as the politicians they criticize. Given the state of the world, ?uest says, they couldn't imagine making a record filled with joy. In fact, only a few weeks before the album was scheduled to drop, they cut their previously radio-friendly single, "Birthday Girl," featuring Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy, from the album because it didn't mesh.
"Even though we're talking about some heavy shit on the album, we knew that the music would have to be banging," ?uest says. "The emotions lyrically are intense. At the same time, the music is as abrasive as ever, and it had to be that way. We know people want that chiropractic, break-ya-back, head-nod shit, so when people come and see us, they'll get plenty of that as well."