There's a term called "flipping the script" we use in hip hop; it's like an 11th-hour surprise in football, a straight-from-the-gut call. This song itself is a cheerleading anthem: Be proud! Stand up for yourself! But then just out of nowhere this non-sequitur funk bomb comes in like "BLAMO!" It was all the license I needed to "flip the script" in my own music.
The Playlist Special: Top Artists Pick Their Personal Top 10
Drummer, producer, and leader of the Roots, ?uestlove is a human-scale iPod, a one-man multi-terabyte matrix of cross-cultural recorded rhythms. So it's no surprise he wanted to go deeper than a normal top 10 list: "I wanted to investigate the parts of songs that were not just 'my favorite parts,' but the parts that wound up being game-changers for me in my life," he said. "So I present: the 10 moments that turned Ahmir Thompson into ?uestlove"
Listen: The Top Songs That Shaped ?uestlove
1."Stand!" | Sly and The Family Stone, 1969
2."Kissing My Love" | Bill Withers, 1972
The true star here is drummer James Gadson and his eloquent, simple drum solo. When the break was over, I'd ask Mom to "put my part on again please!" Pretty soon I was combing through my father's 5000+ record collection for more moments like that to influence my drumming. Grandiose jazz showoff solos? Nope. Simple in the pocket breakbeats? Yep. All day. The seed was planted and I found my mission.
3."Jolene" | Dolly Parton, 1973
The assignment in performing arts elementary school was to bring in 45s with different time signatures on them. My best friend Mark brought in this. I couldn't believe the narrative. I mean, you're Dolly frickin' Parton! Every man in America lusts after you every waking moment! How is it that you're the underdog? It made me mad. Maybe I identified with this lady from Tennessee more than I cared to admit.
4."All About Love" | Earth, Wind and Fire, 1975
I first heard the spacey one-minute interlude that ends this song on our local station, WDAS-FM; they used it as a bed under community calendar updates. I'd listen to it on my pops' stereo for hours: at 33rpm, 45, 78, even backwards. Once my Aunt Delores busted in on me: "I can't take it no more, Ahmir, go to bed! You ain't right!" On their next album, the band actually turned the melody backwards, and called the song "Celebrate." It's the reason I put interludes on Roots albums.
5."Egyptian Song" | Rufus, Chaka Khan, 1977
The last 30 seconds! There were plenty of string arrangements in black music, but never in such a Stravinsky-esque way. Chaka really liked Joni Mitchell's The Hissing Of Summer Lawns; I guess this was her version of doing a jazz-classical thing with funk in it. The arranger on this is Clare Fischer, who became Prince's go-to guy for orchestrations. Clare is 86 years old now, doing great. Me and D'Angelo sent him a reel last week for the next D'Angelo album. We wanted to get him while he was still with us.
6."1999" | Prince
7."777-9311" | The Time
8."Nasty Girl" | Vanity 6, 1982
All of these are Prince songs, so let's get that out the way. It's a three-way tie. No artist froze you in your tracks like Prince during his genius '82-'87 period. I had no idea what a Linn drum machine was. I'm thinking that all of these futuristic sounds came from an actual drummer. So I spent all of Fall '82 in our vermin-infested basement in West Philly trying to master sounds that I can't seem to get my drums to make.
9."Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough " | Michael Jackson, 1979
If "Shake Your Body Down to the Ground" was Mike's sneakin' a sip from dad's flask when he wasn't lookin', this is his first college kegger, far away from home. The best part is the last 20 seconds, where the guitars magically transform into African kalimbas. Even as an eight-year-old, I knew MJ had superpowers.
10."Rebel Without A Pause" | Public Enemy, 1987
Young Black America really didn't have that Sex Pistols/Bad Brains moment in the Seventies and early Eighties. Public Enemy changed all that. They made being pissed at unsatisfactory conditions acceptable. And to my ears, all of that anger came exploding forth in the James Brown horn loop here. St. Clair Pinckney's high note squeal became a battle call. It represented our pain and seething red blood in our eye. It literally made my walk angrier and aggressive.
11."Word Play" | A Tribe Called Quest, 1996
This single-handedly changed my approach to drumming. Strike that. It changed my way of thinking. The beat sounds like Tribe's 14-year-old niece was given drum-machine duty. Actually, the secret ingredient was the late wunderkind-clusterfrick beatmaker James "J Dilla" Yancey. The day that album (Beats, Rhymes, and Life) came out, I pledged henceforth to be the sloppiest, nastiest pig-in-slop drummer I could be, coloring outside of the boundaries with my middle finger up in the air.
12."Little Brother" | Black Star, 2000
J Dilla holds the honor of creating two songs that changed my life. Not to dismiss Mos Def or Talib's work here (which is extremely excellent), but the bigger story is of Dilla: a man who was superhuman but preferred to stay in his Clark Kent outfit while his peers picked up the honors he should have gotten.