Professor Ahmir Khalib Thompson – a.k.a. Questlove from the Roots – returns to the studio at New York University after a brief break. His course, Topics in Recorded Music: Classic Albums, runs close to three hours each week. As he walks back into the room, Michael Jackson hooks blare from the studio speakers. He switches them with "Starlight," the original recording of MJ's "Thriller" before "it got all Halloween," as he puts it.
His signature Afro is tucked into a knit cap; he's wearing a Fishbone hoodie and working off two MacBook Pros simultaneously. Thompson is flanked by co-professor Harry Weinger, industry veteran and current VP of A&R of Universal Music Enterprises, UMG's catalog reissue division. Weinger is fiddling with the soundboard while their T.A. queues up the next track. "I don't usually play songs in full," Thompson says, letting "Starlight" ride out a little longer than he's accustomed.
This week the students in Thompson's class are learning about Jackson's Off the Wall, the pivotal project for the late superstar, who turned 21 at the time and left the comfort of his family band for a solo career. It's apropos, as the median age of the student in the class is about 21 – though translating an era that's further than a faint memory could seem like a daunting task, even for someone as passionate about his craft as Thompson. He approaches the course from a storytelling angle – he doesn't pontificate about the genius of Quincy Jones and other legends who are arguably his peers. He addresses the students directly (later even making plans to see them on a weekend), aware that this might be his only shot at bringing an analog love of music to a digital generation.
Now, four weeks into the course, Thompson appears to have hit his stride. If he trails off into a music fugue, Weinger reels him back in. When Weinger journeys too far into the business aspect, Thompson drops in some musical darlings. It's a perfect balance, and the class appreciates it. Prior to the first day, Thompson purchased an iPod Nano for every student and filled it with an extensive history of music. If he included a hip-hop track, he'd also load the sample it leaned on. That little gift of music ran him in excess of $5,000. The students get to keep their iPods when they finish the seven-week course.
The crux of "Michael Jackson Day" includes hearing original demos (a USB drive was sent to Thompson while on the set for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon as a 40th birthday gift). It's near the end of the lesson that things come together. Thompson plays the studio sessions in which Jackson sang "She's Out of My Life." Jackson had recently been dumped by actress Tatum O'Neal for his lack of intimacy – and as he's singing the song in the studio, he starts to cry. It might be the most vulnerable sound to ever come from him, and he apologizes on tape for "messing that up."
Thompson explains that Jackson used that vulnerability to his advantage during live shows, playing a clip as proof. "It's very rare that you can just bullseye a moment where you get to be that vulnerable and that wide-open, and just human," he says to the class, "which isn't necessarily the first thought that comes to mind when most people think of Michael Jackson." He then offers up what most professors can't provide – artist perspective.
"Part of the troubling mission of postmodern black entertainers is the need to be seen as human beings," he explains, running through a list of typical black male performance stereotypes. The class is fixated. This role is a perfect fit – one that will probably carry into future courses.
"I was curious to see if the caricature that Michael Jackson morphed into is still in your head when you hear this record, or do these moments where he allows his human side to come – do you guys feel a little different now that you've heard it in this way?" Thompson asks. The class nods with a resounding "Yes!"
"Mission accomplished," Weinger says.