It is no secret that Philadelphia-born drummer Ahmir Thompson—Questlove, to one and all—is like a shark, in that he must keep moving to survive. With the packed-tight schedule he has planned for the immediate future alone, The Roots drummer and co-founder—with fellow Philadelphian Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter—could thrive, robustly, for the next decade, let alone 2019.
“That’s how my brain works,” says Questlove, talking about the method to his madness. It’s a mindset, along with his wealth of creativity and business savvy, that has led to collaborations with major networks and niche brands alike. But natural talent is nothing without a fierce work ethic, and his was honed in the City of Brotherly Love. “I remember lugging three heavy record bags in the cold from West Philly to Silk City just to play for 45 minutes. I loved it.”
Theoretically, Questo—he goes by that name too—is still carrying that heavy load. It’s just not as bulky, and his hands need not freeze in the process. Five nights a week, Questlove, Trotter and their “Legendary Roots Crew” turn out one song after another as the house band on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Questlove is the perfect supporting actor to Fallon, ducking into skits with Michelle Obama, cooking with Bobby Flay or playing the drums for Phil Collins’ live performance of “In the Air Tonight.” Away from 30 Rock’s studio, he’s busy with his music history showcase, Questlove Supreme, on Pandora and a deal with Williams Sonoma for a snack avoring called Questlove Sneakies Popcorn Seasoning. He’s also a The New York Times-best-selling author with four published books, including the James Beard Award-nominated somethingtofoodabout: Exploring Creativity With Innovative Chefs.
When he’s not making records, he’s spinning them on Saturday and Sunday afternoons for families in New York. “Parents watch the same things their kids are watching,” says Questlove. He is doubling down on this idea by working on a television show for NBC about that very relationship. “Like I never thought there would come a day where I’d have a conversation with Jay-Z about Peppa Pig,” he says with a laugh. “Now that he’s a dad, Jay knows who Peppa is.”
It’s a dynamic that Questlove knows well. His dad, Lee Andrews, was a hit-making soul singer, and that same familiaial feel is what drove the drummer to make music. “Hip-hop was an afternoon jam, a block party for kids and their parents and neighbors I saw on Osage Avenue growing up. That’s what made me want to make music, to DJ, to play.”
Thinking about the roots of The Roots, there are upcoming projects that Questlove has created with his oldest friend, MC Trotter, including an AMC show starting in September, Hip Hop: The Music that Shook America, based on the 2015 book The Rap Yearbook. There’s also an animated Amazon series about The Roots in the works. “ There’s a twist, though, with that cartoon, in that we’re elementary-school females—think the Muppet Babies,” says Questo. There’s even an Amazon live-action series about how he and Trotter met and interacted in the city they love.
The Philly hip-hop team of players and managers is also readying a major move for its annual festival, Roots Picnic. Started in 2008 with Live Nation, and forever located on Delaware Avenue’s Festival Pier, Roots Picnic—with the band as host and backing ensemble—has welcomed headliners such as Snoop Dogg, Public Enemy, The Weeknd and Usher. “In many cases, we can get these top-tier names because of the personal relationships we may have developed with them from The Tonight Show. I don’t have to call the cousin of the friend of Stevie Wonder’s assistant. I can call Stevie. I still go through the usual channels of agents and managers, but that (proximity) is cool on a personal level alone, let alone a professional one.”
This year’s festival takes place June 1 at its new home at The Mann Center in Fairmount Park. “A picnic is meant to be on the grass, right?” quizzes Questlove. The new location will allow Roots Picnic to double in size—over 10,000 attend Festival Pier annually—with even more stages than before. H.E.R., 21 Savage and Lil Baby are headlining, and The Roots will mark the 20th anniversary of Things Fall Apart by performing their seminal album in its entirety. Live podcasts and other special events are also planned. “I’ve always strived to make the Picnic about more than music,” he says. “The last step in the process would be taking The Roots out of the equation and having it be the Philadelphia Picnic that stands on its own without the training wheels.”
When The Roots first proposed the idea of a picnic, they always dreamed of hosting it on grass. “Not an asphalt picnic, which it had become. It was great. Don’t get me wrong. But going to Fairmount Park though, it’s similar to the reasons why DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince (Will Smith) chose Fairmount Park and the Belmont Plateau to shoot the ‘Summertime’ video.”
That’s when you understand where Questlove is truly coming from—talking about the Osage Avenue block parties of his youth, thinking about rap’s gentle days on the Belmont Plateau, even dreaming of Roots Picnic as something akin to Super Sunday, the annual WDAS-sponsored family event on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. “I guess I’d like the Picnic to be like the old Super Sunday. That was a great day in October.”
Questlove is all about reminiscing. He’s thinking about his past, the one he misses living in New York City and juggling life as a musician, producer, author, entrepreneur and culinary influencer.
“You know what I miss about Philly? SEPTA,” he says with a laugh. “When I get really homesick and I have a long weekend with nothing planned, I just come to Philly to ride the El, back and forth, get on the trolleys—the 36 and 13 lines—and hit the Broad Street Subway. That’s Philly to me.”
Photography by Michael Baca/ Pandora Media, LLC.