?uestlove's knack for articulating hopeful insight about hip-hop's futture reflects his status as an omnipresent voice in the genre. In addition to (and during) time spent drumming, writing, producing and DJing, ?uestlove is on tour 200 days out of the year, including a current stint as opener for Erykah Badu.
Kristy Wendt: You're touring with Erykah Badu, whom you've cited as drawing in "a very conservative, mature black audience." How has the reaction been to you guys so far? Have you tailored your show at all to the audience?
?uestlove: It's kind of weird. The zany nature of her new album is different than what people — myself included — maybe thought about when someone mentions the demographic of Erykah Badu: the over-40, black, adult-contemporary crowd. Her new album is radical, a radically political stew of music, but each show is still a challenge for me, set-wise.... Before each show, I take a physical look at the audience and, from that, determine the set. I'm going off of that impression when facing the challenge of turning a three-hour show into a 45-minute set, and each time it's different. A different audience means a different set than before. But we apply a general knowledge of the audience, too. I'm getting ready to play D.C., and I already know I want to shoot for an authentic go-go moment for that particular show, which means I'll be playing hard and fast straight through the entire set. We'll see how that goes.
You grew up in the backstages of your father's [Lee Andrews & The Hearts] doo-wop shows, something you've cited as musically influential. Can you tell me what that was like for you? What lesson did you learn that most influenced you from this time?
No question, I learned how to play a show from my parents, working that [?uestlove imitates a shrieking fan, "Oh my God! Oh my God!"]. I learned from my dad that there is a science to making a good show, that lights are important, what's playing in between is important, what's going on in the down period is important. I mean, I've been doing this since I was five years old, and it's a Shakespearean plot. You have the rising up action, the rising action, the plateaus and the down period — you head downstairs again. And I learned from my dad that the most important times are two sets of fifteen minutes: the one that starts the show and the one that finishes it.
I was having trouble understanding the idea of your new heavily synthetic sound on Rising Down "transcending" or "moving beyond" neo-soul. What do you think has changed? Why has neo-soul stopped evolving?
I don't think neo-soul is dead. Rising Down is inspired by hip-hop's resistance to maintaining political status. Historically, hip-hop is pop, it's gangster, it's political, and that was the condition that allowed us to be labeled as an alternative group, that allowed us to play around with neo-soul on our records. Then, the release of Rising Down would have been the norm, like any Public Enemy record. But the left establishment has been blown to smithereens.
We're touring 200 days out of the year, and there are moments inspired from just being tired of doing something over and over. Our stage show determines the direction of our next record: the punk-rock inspiration behind Phrenology, the 179 bpm drumming. When that tour was over, I was like, "No más." "The Seed" was the first time I broke a sweat during a show, but we learned to change the instrumentals [accordingly]. This album is instrumentally different in that there wasn't heavy use of a Fender for any song but "Rising Up" on Rising Down.
Why on that song?
We wanted a song that we could offer like a ray of light on such a dark album. People need that.
How have you managed to do what most artists dream about — to play to an audience without compromising your vision?
There's one rule: Establish an evolution of sound early on. Prince is one black artist who's a shining example. Some people like the Roots because, to them, that's classic hip-hop. People like the Roots because we're a full band, and we bring virtuosity. Jam bands flocked toward Phrenology. Game Theory drew emo fans of hip-hop — people responded to that melancholy, sad sound. People cleaned their house to Things Fall Apart — it was like musical aromatherapy. With Rising Down, we're going for meat-and-potatoes hip-hop.
What prompted the musical progression on Rising Down? What made you guys reach for keyboards now? How did that evolve?
Progression is determined by the last three months of the tour. As in, if I'm on a hot-ass stage in Italy, do I really wanna be playing fast-paced shit for an entire set? We're a heavily instrumental band, and we're planning our sets so that all of us can take fifteen-minute breaks under some AC — our man on tuba, the percussionists, our guitarist. Our set is based on giving our long soloists a break.
What was the biggest challenge recording Rising Down?
This is the quickest record we've ever recorded. Normally we spend at least a year working on an album, but we started in August  and finished in January . And there's an assurance that we've had in the past. I'm not sure if that's the right word, but it's the feeling you have when you've had time to let things marinate. We worked on borrowed time between tours, so the actual creation of the music was way more intense. We had to be twelve times more scrutinizing. I've changed the way I do music — it's more like an assembly line, so that the absolute power of decisions regarding a track doesn't rest on any one person's shoulders. We're working with about twenty trusted people, not "yes men," whose opinions we really listen to. There was a time in my life when someone under my payroll not feeling the music didn't mean anything to me, but I'm mature enough now to know that my eyes and ears aren't enough.
What did all of the people you worked or collaborated with teach you?
That's a beautiful question. I think I didn't understand fully the stature of the Roots until we worked with this set of collaborators. We ended up attracting the interest of talented artists. We had Saigon calling us back while on the set at Entourage, and Common, who was working on the set of Wanted with Angelina Jolie. We knew who we wanted and were warned by management about the unlikelihood of some of these collaborations, so much that we almost passed on asking some people. But it turned out to be like a musical Noah's Ark — people dropped what they were doing and made time to get on.
So much has been made of declining album sales and creative dearth in hip-hop today. With so much media attention on what's wrong with the genre, can you talk about what you think is going right?
One of my qualms about that Oprah witch-hunt that happened around September 2007 and the post-Imus reaction, i.e. "hip-hop can say it, but I can't," is that the glass that is half full in hip-hop has at least as much power as the glass that's half empty. This is a case of people cutting off their nose to spite their face. Imagine the possibility of Oprah spending those two days [of her show spent focusing on violence in hip-hop] on the political awareness Kanye and Common bring with their lyrics. Michael Jordan isn't the only basketball player on the court, but you might think so if he's the only one people are talking about. Lupe Fiasco, MURS — there's a group from Minneapolis called Atmosphere that's like a little train that could, track after track. These are artists offering deep narratives and good music. Imagine the possibility of bringing them the attention they deserve.
8 p.m. Thursday, May 29. The Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Boulevard. $38 to $59. 314-534-1111.
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