The Roots' drummer talks Beyoncé, Sia and why "Fancy" is "a game-changer" for hip-hop
Television is keeping Questlove busy. The Roots drummer and member of The Tonight Show house band is also the executive producer of SoundClash, a new music show premiering Wednesday night on VH1 and Palladia. Inspired by Jamaican sound clashing and the classic music programming of his youth, Questlove recruited top artists like Ed Sheeran, Fall Out Boy, Sia and T.I. to share the stage, strip down their biggest hits and cover their favorite performers to get “out of their comfort zones,” as he explains.
Questlove talked to TIME about his vision for the show and, perhaps most importantly, what he thinks is the official Song of the Summer.
Where’d you get the idea for this show?
During the time I was constructing [my memoir] the Mo’ Meta Blues book, my business manager got to the part of the book where I was explaining that my parents used to wake me up at 12:30. I was only allowed to watch music programs or PBS as a kid, but the thing was, a lot of those music shows came on after midnight. So as a result, I’d have to be in bed at 8 at night, but my parents would wake me up at 12:30 so I could watch Midnight Special and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and Soul Train and the second song on Saturday Night Live.
He was like, “I know that in your head, you have this stubborn M.O. that everything you do in life has to be associated with you being a producer and recording artist, but do you ever think your true calling is your passion, which is developing music shows? Because that’s all you talk about!” I carry 10 terabytes of hard drives with me wherever I go. I have every episode of Soul Train in my backpack because you just never know when you have to show somebody. I’m that guy that has every reference in the book.
He was like, “What would your dream show be?” I was thinking Midnight Special was my favorite, like the multiple stage setup. A lot of those acts were self-contained. Steve Miller used to perform by himself. The Main Ingredient used to perform by themselves. KC and the Sunshine Band used to perform by themselves. The Commodores once backed Frankie Valli, which is kind of incredible, at least in my 9-year-old eyes. So as a result, I said, “What if we have a show that took artists out of their comfort zone?” They’re in a big, giant airport hanger and there’s three stages. You surround the audience so even the person in the back row will eventually be front-row once their artist performs.
It’s sort of like Jamaican sound clashing. You do different rounds. Round one is the artist doing their song, round two could be a stripped down version of their song or a cover song. Maybe round three, you put Chris Martin with someone like Odd Future. And you take Earl Sweatshirt, what happens if he goes with Imagine Dragons? That was the mission. As we get further on into the episodes, I would like to go more extreme, have people come out of their comfort zones and do crazy collaborations.
Pop artists covering their peers in this way obviously has a long history — Live Lounge on BBC Radio 1, the “ironic” cover of a rap song that goes viral. Why do people love seeing these kinds of performances?
We live in a viral society. A lot of that is done for the irony. When you do something ironic, it gets a viral response. When Alanis Morissette did “My Humps”? It was sort of that response. It’s also passive aggressive and mean-spirited. The thing is, you’re doing it for humorous intent. If you had one chance in life to really put your best foot forward, you’re going to sing that song that you’re really known for. Some people do it just so they can lift the veil on themselves. That’s why we did The Tonight Show. So many people were looking at us like, “God, you guys are so damn serious all the time. Are you guys even human?” So I felt like doing The Tonight Show allows us to be human. Maybe people do ironic cover songs as a way to show that they’re human. I want people to do it because, “This is an influence.” Watching Jack White sing “Jolene” or watching Christina Aguilera sing “I Will Always Love You,” that, to me, is a serious form of showing where your roots come from.
Is there an art to picking a cover song?
There’s different options. What I don’t want to do is scare people away. Initially out the gate, we’ve scared a few people. You also have to understand, we live in a society where a lot of people rely more on their Mac computers than they do having an 8-piece rhythm section. We wanted to offer more options: if you want to do a cover a song, do a cover song. If you want to do a stripped down version — the fact that Ed Sheeran can probably be more effective with just his guitar than with a full rhythm section? That, to me, is what the show is all about.
You could put somebody in any kind of situation. What would happen if you were to put Pharrell with just a string section and no drums? What would happen? That’s kind of how the Roots had to live their lives in our 20 year career. The idea of having to adjust. We’re opening for Soundgarden tonight? We have to adjust the show. We’re opening for Jill Scott tonight? We might have to adjust the show. We’re opening for Chris Rock tonight? We might have to adjust the show. Having to collaborate with a lot of artists, doing it every night, to me, it’s easy as breathing. The hardest thing for us to do in the world now is just a regular, straight-no-chaser Roots song. Our life has been opening for acts that you would never in your wildest dreams think that we would open for. You kind of have to be smart to know that for a bunch of Germans watching Johnny Cash, you can’t do no rap cliche: “Throw your hands in the air!” You can’t do that! It’s always been about adjusting and being prepared for any situation, and I want to bring that to TV.
Do you handpick all the bands?
Well, the initial episodes we did were really based on our personal relationships. We have a great relationship with T.I. [and] Patrick of Fall Out Boy — that dude is a musical nerd brother from another mother. Ed Sheeran, I’m shocked that he even knows that we exist. That’s not even false modesty. It’s kind of weird living an under-the-radar career without an obvious five-million seller, and yet these people come up and say, “Man, I love your music so much, I grew up on it.” “Oh, you know who we are?” A lot of these artists are people we knew on The Tonight Show or in our everyday life.
Sia is an interesting choice — she doesn’t seem to like being on stage.
I did not know how we were going to get through that. I was shocked! That was my first feeling of, oh, I really am an executive producer! I came up with an idea, they actually listened to it and then did it. It’s kind of weird, her quest for anti-stardom and her method of doing it is actually bringing her more attention than not doing it. But more power to her for her Wizard of Oz. We said, “Okay, what if we have a background singer in front of her, and she’s in the back somewhere?” I’ll be honest, I thought we were going to lose her. But that was my first call of action. “We might have a problem with Sia!” But what do I know? I’m giving myself a lot of credit. Maybe that was her plan all along, but I definitely called that moment.
Sia, Sheeran and Grouplove all cover “Drunk in Love” together, as many artists have done before. What draws people to that song?
Beyoncé is one of these types of artists that is in such a sweet spot. She owns this decade. I wake up in the morning and look online, okay, on Gawker, blah blah is covering “Halo.” She’s just one of those artists that’s magnetic like that. Even if it’s done in a silly notion, it speaks to her power.
What’s your take on the proper spelling of surfboard?
[Laughs] There has to be a T at the end! In my head, surfboart is spelled like surfboard, but the T replaces the D at the end.
Have you weighed in on an official Song of the Summer?
I’m really caught in between, because this is what you gotta understand: I’m a DJ, and I’ve already established before on Twitter and elsewhere that you gotta know what the difference is between a good song and a bad song. Songs that I consider personally bad are also effective, and songs that I think are great don’t stick. For me, I think it’s a crime that Chromeo is not up there, because their level of pop songs — aw man, it’s everything I could ever want. It isn’t sticking. I want “Jealous” to win so bad, but it’s obvious “Fancy” is pretty much ruling the summer.
Are you pro- or anti-Iggy Azalea?
Here’s the thing: the song is effective and catchy as hell, and it works. Just the over-annunciation of “hold you down”? [Laughs] It makes me chuckle because all I can see is my assistant holding a brush in the mirror and singing it.
I’m caught in between. And I defend it. I see false Instagram posts like, “She said the N-word! She said the N-word!” I’ll call people out — “Yo, don’t troll.” I know you’re ready to give your 42-page dissertation on theGrio about why this is culture vulture-ism. You know, we as black people have to come to grips that hip-hop is a contagious culture. If you love something, you gotta set it free. I will say that “Fancy,” above any song that I’ve ever heard or dealt with, is a game-changer in that fact that we’re truly going to have to come to grips with the fact that hip-hop has spread its wings.
And to tell the truth, I was saying this last year, I don’t think it’s any mistake that four or five of my favorite singers are from Australia. Like between Hiatus Kaiyote, there’s a bunch I can name for you right now, but I don’t think it’s a mistake that a lot of of my favorite artists are coming from Down Under. A lot of them more soulful than what we’re dealing with now. When you think soul music and Aretha Franklin and the Baptist-born singer, that’s sort of an idea in the past. As black people, we’re really not in the church as we used to be, and that’s reflecting in the songs now.
I’m not going to lie to you, I’m torn between the opinions on the Internet, but I’mma let Iggy be Iggy. It’s not even politically correct dribble. The song is effective. I’m in the middle of the approximation of the annunciation, I’ll say. Part of me hopes she grows out of that and says it with her regular dialect — I think that would be cooler. But, yeah, “Fancy” is the song of the summer.