Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson has a lot of jobs, almost all of which are related to music. Selling albums is only one of them.
Questlove is the drummer and soul-provider for The Roots. He is very good at his job, so much so that he is by far the most visible member of the world-famous hip-hop band. The Roots are not just a hip-hop band, though—they’re the hip-hop band. They own their particular niche the way Weird Al Yankovic owns parody. They’ve gone Gold and won Grammys and their latest album, December’s Undun, has earned some of the best notices of a decades-spanning career. Undun has performed reasonably well commercially, too. But record sales are only a part of the Questlove mission.
“Hip-hop is such a survival-based art form," the drummer says. "If you are strictly in this industry making music, and that’s it, you are on a very thin line. You have to supplement. We’re just in a lucky position, now that there’s other means through which we can make a living and survive." While most of the industry laments the death of the big deal and declining record sales, Questlove sees the other side of the shift--with the CD no longer the center of a band’s universe and sole revenue stream, there’s room to explore other creative outlets.
Diversification is how Questlove not only survives, but stays relevant--an intangible no artist can purchase no matter how much money is in his record label’s coffers. In addition to putting out albums with alacrity (they’re already at work on number 15), The Roots are the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, where they get to occasionally appear in sketches and jam out with the musical guests (and sometimes even get themselves in the news). Beyond that, Questlove is known as a tastemaker and an in-demand DJ, with a weekly residency at Brooklyn Bowl in New York, and an upcoming stint opening on troubled R&B genius D’Angelo’s comeback tour. Oh, and he also owns a fried chicken start-up.
Such extracurriculars are a necessity, though, in the Spotify era—in which your album won’t sell if your name’s not Adele. That doesn’t mean The Roots put any less stock in the artistic importance of the almighty Album, though. “Albums used to be just an advertisement for the three singles. Then, of course, the Beatles came along and decided the whole entire album could be as powerful as a movie,” Questlove says. “I’ve always tried to create albums as a whole. I’ve never been singles-oriented."
There’s proof too: each Roots album unspools within a rich, cinematic scope. Witness the spoken word intros and closers on their earlier efforts, or the extra three minute jazz-fusion breakdown attached to the LP version of "Break You Off" (which sounds like what it feels like to have a really nice day.) It’s the sound of musicians who approach albums as craft, rather than commerce.
In the epigraph for The Roots’ short film, Undun, a visual song-suite from the same-titled album, the main character is described as someone who "orders his world in a way that makes the most sense to him at any given moment." This is also an accurate descriptor of how the band approaches recording. “It’s really hard for us to ignore the environment that we’re in," Questlove says. "We have these constant battles within ourselves.” Listen close and you can practically hear the scars forming.
The band’s mindset during each phase of their career is reflected in high definition on that period’s accompanying album. A mournful tone colors 2006's Game Theory, which was recorded soon after the passing of J Dilla, an influential, crate-digging producer who was both friend and mentor to Questlove.
When Rising Down came out in 2008, the sense of recession-based anger in the country was at a palpable high—especially in The Roots’ home base of Philadelphia, which had become the murder capital of America. The resulting sound is as dark and angry as anything related to the concurrent, ugly election cycle of that year.
By the time How I Got Over was recorded in 2009, the band members were beginning to turn 40, which in hip-hop years put them at roughly the same age as another Philadelphia favorite, Sylvester Stallone. Between the age milestone and the beginning of The Roots’ gig as house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, it was an uncertain time, which translated to a hopeful-sounding crossroads album.
When the band went back to the studio most recently, however, it was with an entirely different outlook in mind.
"With this album, we decided that we wanted to just tell stories," says Questlove. "Because hip-hop is so based on lifestyle, mostly it’s about your lifestyle, your ego. Rarely does anyone actually not talk about themselves.”
For the first time, The Roots set out to make a concept album—something that is rare enough in pop music, let alone hip-hop, where you probably have to go all the way back to 2004 and fly all the way to London for the last succesful example, The Streets’ A Grand Don’t Come For Free.
There’s a reason concept albums aren’t often attempted in hip-hop, though. It turns out they’re very difficult to make, and require a Dogme95-like adherence to rules. Talk is dirt cheap in most hip-hop songs, but on Undun, every single line had to be focused.
“There were a lot of times where we were like, 'This just doesn’t make any sense—you can’t talk about yourself when you’re in character,'" Questlove says about working with the band’s frontman and lyricist Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter. "There was a new maturity in Tariq, though. We somehow, reluctantly got a third rewrite out of him for [2002's Phrenology single] "The Seed 2.0". But a lot of the verses on this new album were 6th, 8th, 9th drafts."
The difference in recording a concept album afforded the band the opportunity to try something new: a short film in lieu of the typical music videos. With Undun, The Roots were finally able to "Aerosmith that shit," as Questlove calls it, making a narrative video that the band didn’t actually have to appear in. “We always, in my opinion, failed miserably in the area of videos, because of budget constraints or really not having our hearts into it," the drummer says. "Our videos--I’ve never loved any of them."
Questlove’s first act in ensuring a lovable film this time around was to remove himself from the equation entirely. The meticulous and hands-on musician, who ordinarily toils on every detail related to each Roots album did not trust his own instincts after years of traumatizing experiences with videos. Instead, he and the other members of the band put the onus on director Clifton Bell to deliver the goods. They were ecstatic with the finished product.
The short film Undun is made up of five ADD-friendly vignettes that evoke the album’s themes of struggle, criminality, and regret. Beautifully shot in black and white, with an antihero whose face we never fully see, it is the first Roots video that could forgivably be mistaken for a Jim Jarmusch film.
One more change in the making and marketing of the new album is that, due to their television commitments, the band probably won’t be promoting Undun to other parts of the world through European tour dates. At one point, that would have been unthinkable, in terms of potential album sales lost. But, again, album sales are only a part of the picture, and often not the biggest part, so the difference is relatively negligible.
A drastically diminished revenue stream may not exactly sound like a net positive, but ultimately it depends on your perspective. “Believe it or not, I kind of like it better this way, because now that I’m not just depending on selling albums, it kind of allows you to do creative stuff. If selling records was all that I had, then we’d be trying to compete with what’s hitting right now to survive," Questlove says. "A concept record doesn’t really fit into what the marketplace is doing, so it wouldn’t behoove us to make this material. But now that we have other means of survival, it frees us up to make bolder, fearless music."
This creative freedom is something fans of Questlove and The Roots can’t take for granted, whether they actually buy albums or not.