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Questlove reflects on changes in culture and music with his book 'Hip-Hop Is History'


Questlove has had a remarkable career so far. He started as the drummer in Philadelphia's boundary-breaking hip-hop band The Roots.


BLACK THOUGHT: (Rapping) Word up, the formation of words to fit - that's what I usually disturb you with. A lot of rappers never heard of this, or know half the time it is. You doubt the Illa-Fifth, what could you accomplish?


In 2009, The Roots became the house band for "The Tonight Show" with Jimmy Fallon. All of a sudden, Questlove became a TV star, and he directed an award-winning documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival.


CHRIS ROCK: And the winner is "Summer Of Soul."

SCHMITZ: That's Chris Rock announcing Questlove's Oscar win.

MARTIN: Now he's written a book. It's out today. It's called "Hip-Hop Is History," and when Rodney Carmichael of NPR Music spoke with Questlove about the artist's love for the art form, he found out that that love is more complicated than you might think.

RODNEY CARMICHAEL, BYLINE: If you're fortunate enough to become an elder statesman in hip-hop, it probably means you've done something big, like amassed an incredible discography, wielded influence over a generation or just survived. As a master of all three, Questlove has earned his crown. But he'll be the first to tell you, heavy is the head that wears it.

QUESTLOVE: I realized maybe 10 years ago, when my 40s were creeping up on me, that one day, like, I'm going to be the adult in the room, and there's really nothing glamorous about taking that path. Like, there's nothing sexy about it. I've been the guy that's always on the sideline like, all right, so who's going to be the person that's going to make the change? And the universe always points to me, like, you're going to have to be that person.

CARMICHAEL: For Questlove, being the adult in the room means calling out the culture when he feels like things are going off the rails. It's made it easy to write him off as a hip-hop curmudgeon.

QUESTLOVE: I live in this zone where I'm somewhere in between, yo, dude, your music changed my life and, you ain't [expletive] - every day. So it's a constant balance, and you don't know what the reaction is going to be.

CARMICHAEL: But being behind the beat, even all the way off-beat - it's a position he's played his entire career. His new book is a chronicle of rap's recorded history, told through his own subjective lens. Questlove is blunt about his personal preferences - like the fact that it sometimes took him years to appreciate the groundbreaking sounds of, say, Dr. Dre's classic album "The Chronic."


DR DRE: Hell yeah.

RUBEN CRUZ AND JEWELL: (Singing) Swing down, sweet chariot. Stop and let me ride.

CARMICHAEL: Or the drumless production of Kanye's "Yeezus."


KANYE WEST: I throw these Maybach keys. I wear my heart on the sleeve. I know that we the new slaves. I see the blood on the leaves.

CARMICHAEL: And he never quite got down with the gangster tropes that shot rap to the top of the charts. As hip-hop clocked more dollars, Questlove remained intent on taking an alternate route.


BLACK THOUGHT: (Rapping) Yo, I dedicate this to the one-dimensional, no imagination, excuse for perpetration. My man came over and said, "Yo, we thought we heard you." Joke's on you - you heard a bitin'-a** crew, but I'll...

RAPHAEL SAADIQ: (Singing) Never do what they do, what they do, what they do.

CARMICHAEL: So it felt like par for the course when Questlove took to Instagram, in the wake of the recent epic rap battle between Drake and Kendrick Lamar.

KENDRICK LAMAR: (Rapping) You run to Atlanta when you need a few dollars. No, you not a colleague. You a [expletive] colonizer.


DRAKE: (Rapping) Ay, Kendrick just opened his mouth. Ssomeone go hand him a Grammy right now. Where's your uncle at? 'Cause I wanna talk to the man of the house.

CARMICHAEL: What Questlove posted, just one month before his book published, read like an obituary for hip-hop.

QUESTLOVE: I said (reading) nobody won the war. This wasn't about skill. This was a wrestling-match-level mudslinging and takedown by any means necessary - women and children and actual facts be damned. Same audience wanting blood will soon put up RIP posts like they weren't part of the problem. Hip-hop is truly dead.

CARMICHAEL: While many were already crowning it the best rap beef of all time, it felt like a bad case of deja vu to Questlove.

QUESTLOVE: I've never seen a battle in which it ends well. First of all, we're living in a polarizing time. We're living in a time where, like, the uncertainty of something jumping off is just, like, in the air - you know what I'm saying? So I've seen this movie before, and I'm triggered.

CARMICHAEL: He's talking here about the deaths of Tupac and Biggie, a period in rap that he mourns heavily in the book and took personally in real time.

QUESTLOVE: I was there in 1997. That was a what-now? moment for hip-hop.

CARMICHAEL: Questlove's Instagram post - it was clearly about more than Drake and Kendrick Lamar, and it's indicative of his overall read on rap. He spends a lot of time in the book reconciling his status as a cultural insider who's constantly been on the outs.

QUESTLOVE: Do I truly feel like hip-hop is dead? No, I don't. However, I do believe that the landscape and the rules have changed. Oftentimes, when I just don't feel comfort, usually, that means it's going in the right direction, so perhaps my disdain for where we are right now - yeah, I still do not want to see bloodshed, so I kind of stick by my position. But I will also say that hip-hop is still finding itself and still defining a generation and all those things, and, you know, with today's music, you just got to adjust to it.

CARMICHAEL: Now, it's been more than 10 years since the last Roots album, but Questlove promises new music from the band this year. We might even find him making some fine adjustments after all this time 'cause for Questlove, hip-hop is history, yes, but it's also the soundtrack to his story, and he's critical about the outcome because he cares about his place in it.

QUESTLOVE: My mission in this life or at least what I think my purpose is on Earth - and I know it sounds, like, lofty, and some could say it's a naive outlook, but I generally would like to leave the world better than when I came in it. I believe in this thing where it's like, if I can really affect 500 people, maybe 5,000 people, even 50,000 people, I mean, compared to what the world is, then, you know - at least I planted a seed.

CARMICHAEL: That's Questlove, the band leader of The Roots, still planting seeds after all these years.


CARMICHAEL: Rodney Carmichael, NPR Music.


MAIMOUNA YOUSSEF: (Singing) It don't feel right. It don't feel right. I don't feel it, don't feel it, can't feel it no more. It don't feel right. It don't feel right. I don't feel it, don't feel it, can't feel it no more. Seems to me... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Rodney Carmichael
[Copyright 2024 NPR]