Ahead of The Tipping Point, Sally A. Edwards and Questlove conducted a spy-like interview in secret at an upscale London restaurant.
The original story was first published in BLAG Vol. 2 Nø 2 print edition in 2005
Interview and Art Direction by Sally A. Edwards
Photography by Sarah J. Edwards
Location: West End and Hammersmith, London
OH NO. NO. THIS DOESN’T SOUND SEXY AT ALL
"Wait...Can I hear what I sound like?" asks Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson of The Roots.
I pop my other earphone into his ear.
"Oh no. No. This doesn't sound sexy at all. I sound like I'm landing an aeroplane… Crrrrrr, 17! You read me? It's three degrees."
"Are you ready?" I ask.
"Yeah," says Ahmir, "I'm ready."
"Alright. 'The Tipping Point'. Can you tell us about the theory and why you chose this for the title of your latest album?"
"We… It… Hu… You know? I'm playing!" Ahmir grins, pretending we have a bad connection.
Actually, I should probably take a moment to set the scene. We're sitting in a rather lovely restaurant in London's West End. So lovely in fact we're hiding the recording equipment. The Minidisc recorder is tucked between us on the seat, I have an earpiece in my right ear. Ahmir sits to my right with an earpiece in his left ear. He has the tiny mic between his fingers held in front of his mouth. It's more of a spy set up than the usual tape recorder on the table we're more familiar with.
Oh yes, the earpieces – which I'm sure you're wondering about are so we can hear what's being said, because the lovely restaurant is by reservation only. Hence it's always packed, and always very loud. Sarah, I have to add, did the usual trick of blagging us a table. Get it?
THE HUMAN FORM OF THE TRUTH SERUM
"Anyway, where were we, Ahmir?"
"Let me just say first, you and your sister are… you are the human form of the truth serum. Only in this magazine will I truly give the real answers and not my contrived journalistic answers."
"Well, that's a wonderful thing. So, what is the theory behind the title of your album?”
"It's the PC version of 'Get Rich, Or Die Trying'."
"It's taken from a novel isn't it? Can you tell us a little about it?"
"OK. The novel was written by Malcolm Gladwell and it discussed his theories on how a small idea can lead onto a bigger phenomenon. And being as though…"
"… there's no certain way it tips?"
"It neither skewers left or right, but it grows, it expands. It expands like a sphere. I think with us, the true observation of what makes us work..." Ahmir pauses. "I've made two observations. One: The Roots are the only black band with a major label recording deal from the United States. We're the only black band. The only group of black musicians in pop music that has a major label recording deal. And, we do not have one dance hit and we're a rap group… 12 years and no dance hit, but we're still here and you know, I was just having one of those ‘whys?'. "You know, 'Why is this working?'. I mean it could be half full or half empty and I didn't want to say, ‘Well, why haven't we blown up?'. I'm just like, 'Why are we still here?', 'Why do we still matter?'… because we’re against everything. We're fundamentally against what hip hop says that you're supposed to do. And that's when my manager hit me to Malcolm Gladwell's book in which he said, 'You guys sort of spread like a germ without major hype, without a label cramming it down your throat, without the radio stations playing you umpteen times. So, that's the theory behind 'The Tipping Point'. But really I named it so you could ask me why did I name it 'The Tipping Point'? See this is how a good artist is. If he can come up with an angle…"
Ahmir pauses once more and brings another ?uestlove fact to our attention:
"Most journalists will ask seven questions. If you ever leave it up to a journalist to conduct your story, you're in trouble. So what you have to do is create questions. Yeah, I'm telling you the truth again… Hey, my publicist tapped me on my shoulder, I've got to wrap it up in 15 minutes," he laughs.
Ahmir is referring to some of the previous experiences we've had at BLAG.
"Hahaha! It's funny. No, I'm just making an observation that all your cover subjects' publicists don't know that you’re the greatest magazine ever.”
ENGLISH LIT TUTOR
Incidentally, it seems he likes to be referred to as Thompson in features - note to Ahmir: I tried to go with Thompson, but couldn't, there was something about it that made me feel like your English Lit tutor. Apologies.
"Anyway, it's been a while since we last met, four albums and a variety of production work. Who have you worked with and what's been the best experience?"
"Excuse me! This is album number seven," he splutters.
"No! Since we first met in '97…”
"Oh, OK. Wow. You know who my favourite person to work with is? Jay-Z. I worked with him for the challenge of it, but at the end of the day, he was the least high-horsed. So Jay was the coolest and not because he was a pushover like, 'Listen to me,’ and… 'Hey OK. This is how I want it and this is how it's going to be. It wasn't like that, there was some things that I did that he was like 'Whatever.' At the end of the day he is the least high maintenance and that means a lot. You'll get better results from me if you are not high maintenance. And I love Joss [Stone]. We did a show together in Paris and I didn't realise that she was such a well-loved star. Like, three million [sales] is a lot. I never worked on an album that sold three million units, it's my biggest success story – I'm proud."
"And from one great achievement to another… Tell us about okayplayer.com and how it has grown," I ask.
"I wanted a cult to worship my every move. Then, I wanted to meet some hot twins in London so I started that cult."
Sorry to cut in, but we'd just like to bring our interviewee's original quote about truth serum to your attention again… perhaps it wore off for a moment?
"…theroots.com was taken," continues Ahmir, "so I had a week to name the site and the wanker who took the domain name wanted a gargantuan amount of money."
Ahmir pauses and smiles at himself for getting some British terminology into the interview before continuing.
"People actually did that. You know they'd buy a whole bunch of domain names and want to sell it back to you. By the time we got theroots.com back we had already printed up 'Things Fall Apart', so I was like, 'Fuck it. I'm not going to be a prisoner. I'll start okayplayer.com,” he continues. “Okayplayer' is a term we always use in Philly to express sarcasm. Like, let's take your lovely sister here. If she was walking down the block with crimped up hair, like the 80s wig from the Warrant 'Cherry Pie' video or something, I would sarcastically outburst, 'Hmmm… okay player. You know, like if she had a polyester suit on, or if she was matching four different types of blue on her sweater, and I’m being sarcastic like, 'Hmmm… Er, okay player.' "You know?"
"I do," and at this point some food arrives.
"I'm going to do something I've never done before," announces Ahmir. "I'm eating with my right hand."
"We can pause if you want to."
"No, I'll chew in your ear."
"Wait. I like the secret squirrel headphones. What’s up to squirrel. Come in squirrel. What’s your 20?" he laughs.
"Do you think the internet will change the music industry, in particular for those without label deals?"
"It's changed it already. One of my favourite groups right now is Little Brother. A group whose beatmaker, 9th Wonder, makes all of his beats online. He does not have a drum machine, never touched a drum machine, he doesn't know how to operate a drum machine. He makes his beats on fruityloops.com. Even on the Jay-Z record he had to sneak into the break room where there was an internet line and make his beat in there and then patch a cord to the studio, and that's how he made the 'Threat' beat. The brand new Foreign Exchange record was also a direct result of okayplayer. It's a record that demonstrates the power of the internet. Their beatmaker, Nicholay, is from Denmark, he made a record with Fontaine from Little Brother who is from North Carolina. He'd make a beat, email it to North Carolina. Fontaine would do his vocal and email the beat back to Nicholay and so on and so forth. Besides the obvious about selling, the whole network of the internet is working."
HIP HOP & RAP
"While we’re on music, I wanted to broach an important subject: can you define hip hop and rap, because a lot of people separate it don't they?"
"Hip hop absolutely does not exist anymore," states Ahmir to, I'm sure, much amazement.
"So what do you call yourself?"
"A smart businessman. A man who can sell dreams. Smoke and mirrors. Yes kiddies, hip hop is the love of my life. No, obviously I do love the culture of hip hop, but sometimes…" Ahmir stalls to collect his thoughts. "I went to one of the coolest high schools in Philly. When I was a junior and a sophomore, you'd see the seniors who graduated high school would still be there every day after school at three o'clock. They couldn't let it go. That's why I’m glad Jay-Z retired. I think the thing people need to learn about Jay-Z is he actually provided a platform from which he could get off of the rap level. Like some people just rap and rap and rap. Like some people just rap and rap and rap and that’s it. Like they have no plan B."
"What are your thoughts on contemporary hip hop, well, rap? What are you listening to?"
"Well, this is the shit I like, but you're talking to a person that has 49,000 records. My thoughts on contemporary hip hop are that the underground cats are too damn serious, and apparently they have the same aspirations. I mean it's the age of irony, you got the whole 'underground cats that want to live the big life', then you have the ‘big cats who just want to be underground', but if you ask me if I like it… yes, I like Young Gunz, but I'm biased. They're from Philadelphia. I mean, 'Can't Stop, Won't Stop' has got some classic early hip hop,” he states. “It's so funny, underground cats are supposed to be so derivative of old school hip hop, but the only true people that are really hitting the mark on the old school hip hop are like, Cash Money Click, Young Gunz and more of the commercial artists, you know? Like the sound of Lil John is the sound of 1986, this is ironic, but there is a slew of people who are pushing the envelope. I just happen to be associated with a lot of them. I like Little Brother, I like Foreign Exchange, I like J-Live, Skills, you and your sister…"
THE SCRABBLE CHALLENGE
Moving swiftly on…
"You travel a lot, have you got any advice for those about to go on a long haul flight or road trip regarding entertainment?"
"Let's see… I keep my iPod on full – 10,000 deep. Games can keep you occupied. Dawn [one of Ahmir's managers] and I, we play Scrabble and Boggle. That's how I pass the time, play a lot of games. Anytime Adrock wants to get his ass whooped… I'm tired of him name-dropping Scrabble and Boggle. Like he gets triple letter seven words with x, z and y all the time."
Now that is something I may well make a mission of. Could be interesting, although I absolutely refuse to take sides. (For Adrock's response, see our Beastie Boys feature.)
Alright, you may well have gathered by now that we've known Ahmir for some time. Once upon a time, when saying goodbye after a show, Ahmir described the way Sarah hugged him. I can't remember too well, she may have not shown him enough love or something. The 'hug' was succeeded by a lecture-slash-demo. Anyway, we decided we should ask the self-confessed expert.
Here, then, is Ahmir's guide to hugging:
"A real hug," he says, "is chest to chest, no barriers. Genital to genital, full body hug and it's a squeeze, massaging. When it's the 'I'm straight hug' – as made popular by my keyboard player Kamal - you must give the person a pound first, so that your hands are between your bodies and next you swipe the left hand around the shoulder. There is no body contact and the hug is intended.
"The 'I'm not quite comfortable with you yet' hug is when you stand side to side like when you're posing for a photograph."
"Oh, like what you did to me on Saturday night," Sarah chips in.
"I only did that because I was on a weird angle. Of course, you guys don't believe me. Women give side to side hugs with men they're not too familiar with. This is the hug you give other men's wives when you're hugging in front of the husband. That's how I hugged Prince's wife. I didn't know how to hug her. I think that it was for 0.5 seconds," Ahmir explains, "But the worst hug of all is the 'dishonest' hug. It comes in the guise of a real hug which is body to body, but it's accompanied by massive pats and rubbing. Like if your shirt print rubs off or if your hand is burning after rubbing their shirt to death."
"And while we're on the subject, what should people try to avoid for a successful date?" I ask.
"I give these rules to women that I start dating…" explains Ahmir.
"You give rules?"
"Hell yeah. You've got to. Number one. I'm phasing out vegetarians, because I think the lack of protein in a woman's diet is causing them to eat too much tofu which means they've got to spice it up with a lot of garlic and a lot of bad tasting foods. I'm about to catch the wrap from one of you two, one of you is a vegetarian."
At that precise moment my seafood dish arrives. I smile at Ahmir.
"In turn, that becomes very problematic for me first thing in the morning," he continues. "You know because of vegetarian stuff and garlic in the morning, and all I can think is, ‘Wow, I'm going to be stuck with this odour for as long as I live.' So, a lot of it just starts with the whole garlic inhaling. Really bad breath is the only thing I'm concerned about in a woman. I mean I want her to act cultured and take care of herself, but I can't… I've been stuck with girlfriends who have the worst tasting breath. It's like to kiss them in the morning is such a dreadful, dreadful, dreadful outcome. I set the clock at five in the morning so I can sneak out of bed and avoid them."
"So do you have any tips to prevent the bad breath?" asks Sarah.
"I order lots of parsley at dinner. If I feel like I'm going to kiss her goodnight and I want to call her the next day, I'll order a little small bowl of parsley so that she can eat some. That is my test for someone I'm going to call back the next day. I've given up some of the world's finest women over bad breath – not mine, theirs. I always buy them the special toothbrushes, the real big ones. They think that's cute. I also keep chocolate by my bed. Always keep a bag of Hershey’s Kiss, some Hershey’s Tastations. I like toffee candy by my bed."