Roots Revival


DJ ?UESTLOVE with DJs MIKE TULL, P-PLUS, SON OF SOUL, MIKE K and ROLAND DESCHAMPS at Roxy Blu (12 Brant), Friday (March 15). $15. 416-760-3332.

Rating: NNNNN

ahmir “?uestlove” thompsontakes a deep breath before he starts running down the handful of records he’s working on these days”I have so much going on I don’t know where to start,” he sighs with a laugh.

I’ve tracked him down at New York’s Electric Lady Studios. As we’re talking, Thompson stops the conversation to check on a mix, confirm details with an assistant and bump knuckles with Talib Kweli, who’s stopped by to record vocals.

For all his success as a drummer with Philadelphia hiphop crew the Roots, it’s as a producer and idea generator that he’s made his biggest impact.

DJ Premier might be the man with the most consistent beats, and the Neptunes the ones twisting up the pop world with twitchy, dub-inspired rhythms, but no one, at least on the East Coast, seems more at the centre of new-school hiphop innovation and experimentation than ?uestlove.

He’s the anchor of the SoulQuarians production team that includes D’Angelo, JayDee and James Poyser, and has appeared on records by Erykah Badu and Bilal. Thompson was the engine behind D’Angelo’s massive Voodoo album and has recently stamped his name on sets by Angelique Kidjo, Vikter Duplaix and Chicago MC Common, whose latest project Thompson gleefully describes as “a real headfuck.”

“It’s like being in San Francisco with no brakes and then suddenly your boy’s, like, “Yo, take the wheel.’ You’ve got lives in your hands,” Thompson enthuses before his Toronto DJ gig at Roxy Blu Friday. “It’s scary, but I’m ready for a challenge.

“The new Common record is a great example of that. My goal is just to execute it correctly. After years of doing this, I have the resources and the means to bring people together. Common’s record has tracks with Stereolab as well as Prince. That’s the kind of shit I love pulling off.”

Fans will have a chance to hear his own ideas when he delivers his instalment in the BBE label’s excellent Beat Generation series, albeit under another name to keep his label happy. Right now, though, ?uestlove’s full attention is on mixing the new Roots album, Phrenology.

It’s the group’s first since 1999’s Grammy-winning Things Fall Apart set, and while the 12 years the Roots have been together are unheard of in hiphop, the band is anything but complacent.

“Even though our audience is comfortable with how we express ourselves, we’re not,” Thompson cracks. “This is going to be a radical change from what you’re used to hearing. People have in their minds that we’re this jazzy, laid-back group, so we’re cranking up the volume.

“This is probably the most experimental record we’ve done. We’ve got Nelly Furtado on it as well as Amiri Baraka and James Blood Ulmer. Blood was the closest thing to Sonny Sharrock we could find,” ?uest explains, playing a loop of a lurching beat disintegrating into jagged free jazz guitar.

“It’ll just be interesting to see how people react to it. We’ve never had the kind of fans who know us from just one hit, so hopefully they’ll be open. There isn’t really anything else out there that sounds like us, and there definitely isn’t anything that sounds like this.”

Even if their fans are shocked by Phrenology, it won’t be anything like the jolt they received when the group turned up with a hiphop player considered by many to be the polar opposite of the Roots’ progressive, earthy vibe: Jay-Z.

Being the backing band on Jay-Z’s Unplugged record generated endless discussion in the Roots chat room at, but also gave the group mainstream exposure they couldn’t have achieved on their own.

“What I thrive on is being underestimated,” ?uestlove counters. “Of course, you’ve got the naysayers on my Web site acting like I killed their brother, but any rational person who looks at the situation will clearly see that Jay-Z came to our side of the fence.

“We bridged that gap, and it’s taken 10 years, but people have realized that we’re the prime candidates for those kinds of situations.”

The only downside was that the Roots unintentionally ended up embroiled in the New York battle between Nas and Jay-Z, with Nas calling the Roots Uncle Toms and rumours circulating that the Roots were writing a response track.

“We deaded that shit in a second,” Thompson retorts. “As you know, the hiphop war of the words thing doesn’t ring too well in history.

“Next thing you know it gets emotional, and pugilism turns into gunfights. I can’t even get into that shit.”

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