Ahmir-Khalib “?uest-love” Thompson, drummer and bandleader of the Philly rap act the Roots, is a large man with an even larger Afro. He’s also the group’s resident obsessive. Example: His liner notes for the Roots’ fourth album, Things Fall Apart, have footnotes. The twenty-eight-year-old has been just as meticulous about his music. The Roots are a hip-hop rarity: The seven members play their own instruments — often tightly enough to be mistaken for samples — and boast a killer live act. Now, with the success of “You Got Me,” a love song about suspicious minds featuring a stirring vocal turn by Erykah Badu, the group also has its first hit. Thompson — who got his start drumming with his father’s doo-wop group, Lee Andrews and the Hearts, at age twelve — sprawled on the magazine-covered bed of his Atlanta hotel room and settled in for a chat.
Did you ever think you’d have a hit love song?
Yo, man, I hope this isn’t a career-defining song, ’cause if they think I’m gonna play that drum and-bass part when I’m forty, they can forget it! I’m gonna program it and press the Start button.
How important is the respect of your peers?
It’s important, but nowadays, getting commerce is getting the respect. Back in the day, a person could say, “I’d rather be broke and have a lot of respect.” Now you get love if it’s the opposite. Those on the bottom, I think we’re called play a haters.
Any drumming idols?
Steve Ferrone — the only black guy in the Average White Band. He was incredible. From the ages of eight to eighteen, my father made me practice every day, three to five hours a day, and Ferrone was definitely someone I’d practice to.
Your dad was a real taskmaster.
He wasn’t Joe Jackson [the Jackson 5 patriarch]. But you’d have forty-five minutes to get your ass home from school and be on the drums. I didn’t wanna spend five hours a day in the basement. Motherfucker definitely wanted to watch some Diff’rent Strokes. But I’m grateful for it. We were watching the Grammys, I think it was ’83, and Wynton Marsalis won all these classical and jazz awards. And — even now I dread this moment — he says, “I’d like to thank my father for making me practice … eight hours a day.” My dad was like, “Yo, go downstairs now.”
What kind of gigs did you play with your dad’s group?
It was all about those giant oldies doo-wop-athons. Get somebody like Dick Clark or Bowser to host it. It would be, like, Chubby Checker, Jackie Wilson. Chuck Berry kicked me out of his dressing room. I asked for his autograph. He was like, “No!” It was the total opposite of that Mean Joe Greene commercial.
Did your dad even think of hip-hop as music?
No. According to him, music died in 1977. So the only way to tell your purist father that you’re gonna throw away a lifetime of drum lessons and private school to go into rap music — you do it very carefully. It took me four years to break it to him.
I heard you have a huge collection of Soul Train episodes on video. The all-time best Soul Train would be… . . .
Hands down, Al Green, 1974. Even Don Cornelius said in his introduction, “We expect to see this man walking on water at any minute. He’s the messiah of soul.” Anyone who steps into my crib, I force ’em to watch it.
So you got to play with the Artist?
The utter most frightening experience. D’Angelo calls me, says, “Pack some night gear. I got a surprise.” So he flew me to New York, then told me, “Yo, we about to play with Prince.” I was like, “What?!”
Did the Artist request your presence?
He requested D’s presence, and D wasn’t about to go on the playing field alone. I’m like the Robin to his Batman. It was an after-joint at Tramps. We got up onstage and started jamming, and Prince finally sits on a chair with his back to the audience, with these big-ass Bono fly glasses and this straight face. I was thinking, “Damn, he’s not gonna play, and then technically I won’t have played with him. I want him to just hit one note.” Then he started playing, man, and me and D was nervous.
Did you tell the Artist to stop trying to rap?
I didn’t have the heart.