“I really can’t imagine anything in life that gives me greater pleasure than creating or playing music.”

Being a guest on NBC’s coveted The Tonight Show is an opportunity in and of itself that only a lucky few have experienced. Becoming the show’s bandleader, however, is an achievement on a whole other level. And yet, Questlove can still do you one better: he didn’t come to The Tonight Show—The Tonight Show came to him. For the first time in more than 40 years, the show has moved back to New York City, where Questlove and The Roots shared the stage with new Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon for five seasons on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

“I’ve been on a very strange tortoise-and-the-hare journey,” says Questlove. “I’ll just stay the course and keep my eyes on the road. That’s all I do.” He adds, “I just feel like basically that’s an honor, but I don’t celebrate or revel in any honor. I love the acknowledgment. I appreciate it, but my key rule is when you start celebrating—basking in your own glory—that’s right about the time when someone just runs you over and you don’t even expect it.” Questlove recalls a particular moment, watching his dreams realized, “I have one moment that was completely an out-of-body experience [that] was like, ‘Damn, how did I get here?’ It’s 3 a.m., and I’m in California, and Prince is on bass, Stevie Wonder’s on keyboards, Sheila E.’s on percussion, Frank McComb’s on keyboards, Rachelle Ferrell’s singing, and our audience is Joni Mitchell … and I’m like, ‘How did I get here?’”

Undoubtedly, Questlove “got here” through hard work and persistence—and an undying love for music. Despite all of his incredible accomplishments over a career spanning more than 25 years, Questlove claims he’s still driven by—and satiated by—the feeling he gets from playing music. “Music is the greatest feeling in the world,” he says. “I really can’t imagine anything in life that gives me greater pleasure than creating or playing music. Exposing music, spinning music, writing music, producing music—I’m embedded in all things music … I have a very fortunate journey in life, in which, pretty much anything that I am involved with musically is something that’s at the height of my dreams, and something that I feel is almost goosebump-worthy. I don’t think I’ve ever phoned in anything from home, or just felt the need to just play by numbers, or just lazily execute something. I always feel as though anything that you’re involved in has to be 101-percent passion.”

That passion can be traced back to his childhood, when Questlove’s parents encouraged his interest in music from a very young age. “The first time I held drum sticks—that I can remember—was Christmas night of 1974,” he says. “My parents had pretty much gotten me every instrument under the sun—there were violins, there were guitars, there was a bass, there was a piano, and there was a drum set. And I gravitated towards the drum set. I had great parents that encouraged me all the time to just play everything.” He adds, “My parents wanted me to find my creativity, so they would often let me beat pots and pans, and chairs and table, and lamp posts—like, lamp posts were my cymbals, back of the chairs were my tom-toms, pots and pans were my snare and my hi-hat … but nothing, nothing will ever replace the feeling of coming downstairs Christmas morning at the age of 7 and seeing my first real drum kit.”

That first real kit, a blue Ludwig Vistalite that his father’s drummer had left behind, sparked Questlove’s interest in the Ludwig drum company. Thirty-five years later, Questlove had the privilege of designing a signature drum set with Ludwig—Questlove’s Breakbeats kit—a kit that he says was inspired by the New York music scene. “In a nutshell, I told Ludwig that I wanted to make my mark because now that I am a New Yorker, I am noticing that oftentimes musicians—New York musicians—complain to me about lack of space in their small quarters to play their instrument and the inability to be mobile with it, especially in a town that really isn’t made for packing a standard-size drum kit inside of a subway or a cab or whatnot,” he says. “There’s one particular person here at my job. She’s our makeup lady, Cindy Lou. She’s not even a closet drummer—she’s a full-fledged drummer and she’s just like, ‘It’s frustrating to not have a kit. I want to jam with some of my friends, but I don’t have a drum kit to take back and forth in New York City.’ So there and then I decided.

“Most kids gravitate towards the massive-size, Stewart Copeland, Neil Peart-size kit. You know, the overblown 20-piece drum set. I was one of those kids. I can empathize with that—like three rack toms and two floor toms,” says Questlove. “But at the end of the day I was just like, ‘Wow, I can have the same impact on a smaller kit,’ so I wanted to hit two birds with one stone … I wanted to design a vintage kit, but I wanted to make it subway-friendly and New-York-musician-friendly—a kit that you would be able to break down and carry the entire kit with both hands without it being such a burden on you. So [the Breakbeats] kit represents that. It’s classy looking. It’s miniature. This could be a first kit for parents to buy their children, those who are just getting into music. And it’s portable enough for other gigs. I’ve already recorded with it … it’s not too small for rock stuff. It’s not too [slow] for jazz stuff … it can play just as good as a standard-size kit.”

Nearly four decades removed from that distant Christmas morning—including 25 years playing with The Roots, three Grammy Awards and two late-night talk shows—Questlove still attests he is driven by the feeling he gets when he’s behind the kit. “What you have to understand is that when you play music, anyone within earshot is going to respond to it—favorably or unfavorably,” he says. “So the moment that you realize you have that power, that’s a very scary thing. And every musician has that realization, you know, just like when every comedian gets that first laugh, or you get that first applause … it’s something that I can’t describe. When I first started drumming as a kid, people started dancing in my grade-school class. And I realized, ‘Oh man, I have power on my hands.’ So it was kind of a frightening feeling to know that you can control someone’s emotions that way. But I enjoyed it.”

And that’s just it. According to Questlove, that enjoyment—the love and the passion for music—has to be there. “Thank God my parents didn’t come from that ‘fall back on something else’ background. I know a lot of musicians—frustrated musicians—who had parents that said, ‘Well, just in case [music] doesn’t work out, try this other thing instead, just to fall back on.’ And that’s what they fell back on,” says Questlove. “You have to treat music like it’s your destiny. I always tell people—younger people—I tell them, ‘The thing that you love most in life, [you have to be willing to] wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning for, and work all day on that until 3:58 a.m. 24 hours later … to me, that’s true passion. That’s true commitment.”

And sometimes, says Questlove, it may seem as though the artist doesn’t choose the art form—but rather, the inverse may be true. “If someone asked me in the future, ‘Why did [you] choose music?’ [I gotta] say, music chose me. And I heard its calling,” he says. “Music chose me, it grabbed me by the lapels and it pulled me closer, and it totally immersed and baptized and drowned me into its world … and I haven’t turned back since. Music is the greatest sensation that one can ever feel—creating it, composing it, producing it, listening to it … all things music. It’s spiritual.”

Written by Brian Ruppenkamp / Photography by Ryan Hunter

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