Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, 52, is the cofounder and drummer of the Roots, the house band for The Tonight Show since 2014. But that's just one of his many jobs. He’s also a highly successful DJ, record producer, podcaster, author, and filmmaker—not to mention a walking encyclopedia of musical history. In 2022, the first movie he directed, Summer of Soul, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. "I'm a guy just living out his dreams, that's all," he says, speaking to us from his home in New York City. He is currently working on a documentary about funk pioneer Sly Stone and hosting an interview series on YouTube called "Quest for Craft." His eighth book, Hip-Hop is History, will be released in 2024.
The most Philadelphia thing about me is my entitled double-parking tendencies nationwide. To be from Philadelphia is to park where you want with absolutely no repercussions. You do that in Los Angeles and you’re instantly getting a ticket. I learned that quickly.
The blood in my veins and my DNA is made up of Soul Train. Even now I have all eleven hundred episodes of Soul Train, and I keep it on a twenty-four-hour loop on all televisions in my house.
My dad was a fifties doo-wop legend. His name was Lee Andrews. Lee Andrews & the Hearts was the name of his band.
My parents did not believe in babysitting. At no point did I feel like I was being tricked into the family business; it was just my everyday life. But I also realized, in that Michael Jackson way, I definitely missed out on a childhood.
I was a stage manager by the age of ten.
When you’re Black and living in America, you’re living in fight or flight.
Fun for me was binge-shopping for records with Dad every two weeks, We'd head to the King James record store and we’d buy about $200 worth of LPs and about US$100 worth of 45’s. We would give said 33’s and 45’s to my dad’s band to learn songs. My dad’s band would take the hits and I would get the leftovers.
My last non-showbiz job, when I graduated high school, was selling accidental death and dismemberment insurance. I’m very grateful those guys fired me on my birthday in 1992 when I wanted to take the day off. Five months later, we started busking and the Roots as you know it were born. Then we had a record deal a year later.
When you’re Black and living in America, you’re living in fight or flight. When you’re living in fight or flight, you’re living in fear. Safety and survival come first.
The best thing about my parents is they gave me the equipment to dream. The B side to that is that I don’t think I allowed myself to dream much. I heard a lot of “Get a backup plan.” Now I just realised, at this age, “Oh, I have dreams.”
The easiest part of making Summer of Soul was that I had those gifts in me all along. I was a natural-born storyteller, as I love both history and music. The hardest thing was discovering how easy it was. At first, I was like, “Why me?” I ran away from the prospect of even doing the movie, and it found me. It found and attacked me.
I’m a humongous fan of Rocky and Bullwinkle. People do not give kids enough credit for how smart they are. Rocky and Bullwinkle are not condescending at all.
Before the age of forty-six, I listened to only music. Now 80 percent of everything I listen to are tuning forks.
I also listen to a lot of binaural beats. It’s just the sound of a tone. It’s weird to say, “Yeah, 432 megahertz is my favourite song ever. That’s my favourite tone.” That’s what I wake up and sleep to.
I almost feel as though I could be the Drake of binaural beats.
Food is a social adhesive. If there’s a chef in the budget, you’ll really ensure that people are going to show up. Because starving artists like food.
Making French toast with croissants is my thing.
In the beginning, I enjoyed hip-hop because it challenged me. Suddenly I’m hearing my parents’ record collection inside of a Public Enemy album, inside of a Tribe Called Quest album. Once I heard that, then I’m like, “Oh, this is amazing.”
I have a life coach. A month after I won my Oscar, she was like, “All right, you’ve got to get in the big leagues now. Now you’re going to have to have a chief of staff.”
It’s one of the wisest things that I’ve ever done. I used to just stand in the eye of the storm and make decisions. I never allowed myself to have just time.
There are four things that I do every morning without fail or else my day is out of whack.
When I first wake up, I spend ten minutes in absolute gratitude. Sometimes it’s just saying thank you for the color red. Thank you for these socks on my feet. You have to be in a constant state of gratitude to the universe. The second thing is deep breath work. The third thing I do is stretch.
The fourth thing is affirmations. In the beginning, I felt stupid as hell, but I’m in a muscle-memory place with it now. You go to the mirror and start talking to yourself. You’ve got to go from a state of “Am I?” to “I am.” Usually I just say very short, simple mantras: I am worthy, I am loved, I am talented, I am smart.
On Saturday mornings, I write a complete 50-step dream goal—the 50 things that I want to achieve. And I have to say that my manifesting record is almost like 80 per cent.