questlove says tv has changed his afro for the better

As the Roots front man (and Jimmy Fallon's band leader) takes to the stage at the Brixton Academy, we talk hair, hip hop and freaky fans.

by Andy Morris
10 July 2015, 10:46am

Many people could claim to be the most connected man in music, but Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson - backbone of the Roots, author of musical memoir Mo Beta Blues, band leader for Jimmy Fallon, confidant of D'Angelo, Instagram don and party-starting DJ - has a better claim than most.

After some preliminaries (discussing the band's 2011 concept LP Undun, he asks "Do you know how hard it is being in hip hop and not talking about yourself?"), he tells i-D about bonding with Jay Z, Black Thought's taste in Gucci and how precisely to get into a rapper's dressing room.

You once described your hair-care regime as "absolute neglect". Is that still the case?
Television can change a guy. Now I'm calling for my minions! On the road I just wake up and my hair is what it is. Whereas on TV, I just lay back and get conditioned, shampooed, oiled and get a scalp massage. There's this product called Miss Jessie's Buttercreme, it smells like cake frosting. I don't even have to wear cologne! It's really problematic in the summer because that's when I'm best friends with bees. If they start making an unscented version I can start rocking that.

How did appearing in a John Varvatos campaign change your own style?
That's one of the greatest unexpected surprises of the last few years. When my manager approached me, I was like "Stop playing!" But talking to him, John's such a music fan. He said, "Why would you be surprised? I like quality music and you guys are definitely at the top of the list". I was prepared to go through life just drifting underneath the radar. To walk through cities across the states and see my big giant afro on posters: it was fun.

Who would you say is the best-dressed man in hip-hop?
Obviously that answer would go to Kanye. But I definitely remember a time period when I knew, for a fact, that between Kanye, Mos Def, Common and Talib Kweli, a lot of people were asking Tariq [Black Thought] "Where did you get that?" Tariq was always one step ahead. I remember he brought his first Gucci suit in '97. I was like "Yo, who pays $4000 for a suit?" And now at Fallon we kinda make fun of it. He has more suits than Jimmy at this moment I think! I'm the polar opposite: I still shop at Old Navy. It was a joke because when we went to the Grammys, my manager was laughing that Tariq paid $11,000 for a suit meanwhile I had mustard stains all over my tuxedo because I'd got invited to Jay-Z's dinner.

What do you and Jay Z bond over?
He's just one of the realest. Because of the persona and the mystery that surrounds him, it's really hard for people to think that he's just a regular dude. Weirdly enough he is still a really big fan of hip hop. We still talk and joke about and have heated debates about new product. I guess I'm the sort of unsigned A&R representative of labels: I'm always like "Yo, you ain't up on this - are you going to sign them?" He's laughing already saying "I've known about this guys for nine months..."

You launched your own food truck a while back...
I always dreamt of doing my own food truck. When I would play on the West Coast, I would do DJ gigs and at 2am there was a truck outside selling cayenne peppered watermelon chunks. I'm laughing at it but I see 70 people in line - and then, when I get a taste. I'm back in line to get seconds.

What's the strangest gift you've got from a fan?
One fan really weirded me out. This girl had somehow gotten by security and into my dressing room. A lot of people trick me by going "Hey Ahmir!" Now if you call me "Ahmir", I think we know each other. That's why rappers have monickers: if someone went up to Method Man and said "Yo Clifford!", he'd think you knew him when he was a kid. If you call Q-Tip "Jonathan", same thing. She says "Hey Ahmir how you doing?" I was immediately on the spot. The number one question I get every day is "You don't remember me do you?" I loathe that question because it just makes me an asshole. Feelings get hurt - but I meet 400 people every day! So she's sitting in my room and I'm faking it, trying to get information. She was very cryptic and then said, "I just wanted to say I'm a really big fan. I wanted to share something with you." It was a little doll of me but it looked like one of those Voodoo dolls. There were no facial features but there were some rocks attached to it. It just felt very spooky.

What advice would you give your younger self?
It's kinda weird because I wasn't given the Wikipedia version of my life. If you were to tell me at 17: "Here's the good news: yes you are going to have success in your music venture but you won't start to feel safe until over 20 years from now," then I'll do the math and say "but I'll be in my forties. Who will still be in this game at 40?" It's weird because as much as I've cried and had near nervous breakdowns over album mixes and kept thinking "How come they won't give us a chance?" I wouldn't change a damn thing. I would also probably tell myself, "Buy four of every record," because right now I'm going to Japan and finding records I slept on when I was eight years old shopping with my father I could easily have had for $7.99. Now I'm paying $700. I'd tell my younger self, "Collect every 45, every album and buy four copies each."

The Roots play Brixton Academy tonight. Questlove's book, Mo Better Blues, is out now on Grand Central Publishing with the follow-up due in January.


Text Andy Morris
Image Grand Central Publishing

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Jimmy Fallon
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