DJ, producer and The Roots frontman goes deep on digital love
Hi Questlove. What are we interrupting?
Not much, just sitting backstage at The Tonight Show, waiting to go on stage in, I guess, three hours. It’s a rare day where we don’t have to do any sketches with the guests, so we lucked out.
Technology already plays a huge role in the writing and recording process - how do you feel about the future of music?
The way I see it, from a creative and a technical stand point, we’re always improving. But I will say that sometimes, too much of a good thing can be numbing. The musical palette that I’ve built for myself allows for a lot of mistakes and grit, and an unpolished rawness. Music is so easy to process and create and perfect now. With the click of a button, the world is your oyster. Have you heard of Melodyne?
Can’t say that I have.
If I wanted to take the clarinet out of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’, Melodyne provides me with the digital eraser to do it. A friend used it to take an entire Miles Davis solo from a Miles Davis record, and I didn’t miss it one bit. Back in the 1980s, the future was edits – “Okay, I’m gonna make a long version of this song!”. Now, it’s like, “I can erase history”. And this is just version one of this programme. What if this starts applying to everyday life? It’s amazing to me. But it’s also scary.
You’ve just found your Black Mirror pitch…
Yeah! Back in 1999, commercial hip hop was the threat. We didn’t know all of music would change so much in just 20 years. And in life, in general. I see it happening now. Kids laugh at me for watching television. They don’t watch TV, they watch YouTube! But really, it all comes down to whether or not we’re really ready to evolve. We’re seeing change happen in real time now, and that’s scary to us.
How much of that is just our inherent male fear of not being able to control those changes, though?
I think we sense, with each generation, a disdain or a need to burn the bridge to the past. I’m Generation X – I was born in ’71. My generation was the last one that listened to adults and heeded the wise words of sages. The traditions of our forefathers were forced on us. All my jazz music and nerdy stuff, all the things that I will admit enlighten me now, that sh*t was punishment to me when I was 13. My parents tried exorcising the Prince outta me with John Coltrane, you know?
How did that work?
For the whole of June 1983, I was forced to listen to nothing but John Coltrane. Now hip-hop, what it’s done is tell the youth “you matter”. Looking at kids who are only 22 and already multi-millionaires, I think now what we fear [as adults] is that we won’t matter. It’s too easy to erase and forget. I know there’s going to be a day when people say, “Michael Jack-who? Never heard of the guy.” That’s basically saying, “Your generation? Whatever.”
We tend to think of ‘classic’ albums as stripped back, analogue and raw. Surely a modern, technology-driven album can’t ever illicit the same response, right?
Not at all! Most classic records to me, are dangerous moments. Okay, when Michael Jackson presented Off The Wall and Thriller, to me, they were some very lucky three-point shots. Oh man, you gotta forgive the basketball reference, I’m not sure what the equivalent is in your ‘football’…
Don’t worry, we get ‘three-pointers’…
Okay. What I’m saying is, I swear to god I’ve wrestled with ninety-five percent of ‘classic records’. It took 10 years for Dr Dre’s The Chronic to wear on me. I thought it was a crime to hip hop. It sounded too clean, it was too pristine, it wasn’t underground. It sounded like radio music - everything that hip hop was against. And people were eating it up!
I sense a ‘but’ coming…
But now, as a DJ? Oh my god, Dre’s engineering is one of the best things to ever happen to a nightclub. I remember my dad, who was such a huge Sly And the Family Stone fan, really did not appreciate There’s A Riot Going On when it came out. Y’know, sometimes, classic life-changing, life-altering records, they’re met with indifference. Like right now, me and my friends almost got into a fist fight over Childish Gambino.
That sounds extreme - why?
They’re all, “Nah, it’s a Funkadelic record”, but I appreciate it. That’s the album that’s going to introduce young people to Funkadelic. They just old, man. They don’t want anybody playing with their toys.
Questlove is curating 4U: A Symphonic Celebration of Prince, 13 December at the Royal Albert Hall; royalalberthall.com