“I like to think of myself more like a student,” says Questlove, who nevertheless takes on the role of teacher in his excellent new book, Creative Quest, which combines concrete creative strategies with anecdotes from his own musical life and those of his heroes and collaborators. The Roots’ co-leader joined host Brian Hiatt on a recent Rolling Stone Music Now podcast and shared some of his most useful tips, highlighted here. To hear the entire discussion, press play below or download and subscribe on iTunes or Spotify.
Don’t be afraid to talk to yourself. As revealed in a Spike Lee documentary, Michael Jackson wrote himself a note during the making of Off the Wall: “I should be a new, incredible actor/singer/dancer that will shock the world,” it read, in part. “I will do no interviews. I will be magic.” Questlove found the note “silly” when he first learned of it, but has since come around. “It’s like if you watch Eminem in the first ten minutes of 8 Mile, when he stared into the mirror at himself,” he says.”He’s trying to psych himself up. But maybe your hands manifesting the words sort of creates a deeper surface in your subconscious where you know you have to make these things come true… I know a particular artist who records their own motivational talks on their iPhone and then they loop it on repeat when they fall asleep in their bedroom.”
Emulate your heroes – no matter what it takes. Questlove is keenly aware of the sounds and styles of every drummer imaginable – even those of musicians who aren’t primarily known as drummers. “Stevie Wonder is my favorite crash cymbal specialist,” he says. “He has a very distinctive tone in this crash.” And to capture his style, Questlove will go pretty far: “I get blindfolders, because it’s different when you don’t know where the drums are. And I wore a turtleneck because there was a poster that I have a Stevie in the 70s drumming with a brown turtleneck on. It’s a weird process. I have to feel like Stevie Wonder.”
Pay attention to the world around you. As Questlove writes in his book, The Bee Gees got the rhythm for their hit “Jive Talkin'” “because the causeway over Biscayne Bay had an interesting rhythm under their car tires when they drove across it for work every morning. Barry Gibb started hearing it in his head: tun-ticka-tun-tucka-tun.” Questlove hears something similar in New York City: “On the 59th Street bridge, there’s a bunch of steel textures that has a rhythm on there. Or some people get it from the dryer when they’re washing their clothes. Rhythm comes from a lot of places that you would least expect it.”
Expand your tastes with the times. It may be hard for some to understand now, but there was a time, long ago, when Questlove was suspicious of the likes of Jay-Z, due to “a civil war going on between the backpack underground versus the mainstream.” “I always gave an example of like Run DMC singing about ‘My Adidas,'” says Questlove, “which made you think, ‘Oh, I too can do that.’ Whereas Jay Z’s approach was basically like, ‘no, you’ll never be me.'” But in the end, he was won over, and the Roots, of course, ended up backing Jay on MTV Unplugged in 2001. “It was kind of irresistible,” says Questlove, “because the songs were good and his personality and his presentation were flawless so you couldn’t even deny it even though you were theoretically against it.”
Don’t overthink things – except when you probably should. “A lot of the artists that are to the left of center have a tendency to overthink things,” Questlove says. “Michael Jackson, probably the greatest trait of his artistry is he’s the only artist on his level that was never afraid to climb the mountain. He’s literally the only artist to never make a departure album” – a template-breaking project, in other words, along the lines of Prince’s Around the World in A Day or the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. For some artists, Questlove adds, those albums are attempts at self-sabotage: “sometimes you want to ruin it before you get ruined.”