GIVE A PIECE OF BLANK PAPER TO A KID, give them some paints, they will automatically create great work—great colour, forms, lines, space—without knowing much about art. That’s the kind of artist I want to be.

I STUDIED with Liu Kang at a very young age, 11 or 12, drawing and things. But it was Chen Wen Hsi who really inspired me. I looked at him, he would constantly stay in the studio, paint, not much socialising. I don’t think he had any bad habits. That inspired me.

INSPIRATION is more important than learning.

ART IS ACHIEVED through your own experiments, your own practice, your own hard work. It’s not something somebody can teach you. It cannot be taught. It can only be inspired.

THE MAIN THING IS you have to make a painting breathe. You have to give it life. That life makes a great painting. No matter what kind of painting it is, traditional or contemporary, all the great artists of the past bring life to their work. If it’s dead, kaput. So, I’m constantly fighting to achieve that.

I’LL FOCUS ON THE DETAILS, study a little patch, alter it. But then, you have to constantly step back and look at the bigger picture.

KNOWING when a work of art is finished is like when you accomplish a sexual encounter with a woman— when it’s done, you know it’s done.

A LOT OF EUROPEAN ARTISTS lead an exotic lifestyle, a more exciting life than most people. This kind of experience in life, I think, generates a great deal of energy that then goes into your writing, or your painting, or your music.

EXPERIENCE is the fuel for us, as artists.

EACH MAN IS DIFFERENT, each person is different, what you learn is what you are. It’s not “you are what you eat”—what you learn is what you are. So, all the things that I’ve learnt, experienced, encountered over the years, they have come to make me who I am. That’s what I’m translating into my work.

I LOVE THE FEMALE FORM. All the great artists will tell you the same thing. The lines, the textures, the curves are almost like a landscape. You’ve got hills, valleys, streams...

IT’S IMPORTANT to have good friends. Correct friends. If you have the wrong type of friends, you become the wrong kind of person.

AN ART CAREER IS A MARATHON. You’ve got to keep running, keep fighting. I had to make a living, so I did all kinds of jobs. Through this, you learn. Life is formed by your experiences.

I THINK HUMAN BEINGS are still uncivilised in many senses. Just like in the primitive days, we’re still fighting over a piece of meat—but today, a piece of meat means money and power.

YOU WANT TO BE AN ARTIST? I say, don’t get married. If you do get married, don’t have children. If Van Gogh had a wife and children, there would have been no Van Gogh.

YOU KNOW artists never have a happy life. Well, a few do, but maybe less than one per cent.

A COUNTRY WITHOUT GREAT ART, we cannot consider a great country. Simple. No matter what kind of weapons you have, it doesn’t count. Art is the thing. Think back to all the great countries in history: Egypt, China, Rome—why we consider them as great is because of their great culture.

SOME TIME AGO, they said, “Painting is dead.” That’s propaganda. You can all lay out all kinds of reasons to support any idea.

IF YOU HAVE A GOOD EYE, if you’ve been educated. If you’ve visited a lot of good artists’ exhibitions and museums, right away you know if something is great art or not great art. You know at first sight. It’s like we know if someone is good or bad, by judging through just appearance. They say don’t judge a book by its cover—that’s not true, the cover is important. You right away know good from bad.

THOSE WHO PAINT will know Jackson Pollock is wonderful, they’ll know Willem De Kooning is great. Those who don’t paint, but who have a good eye and good education will also know that these are great artists. All the truly great artists today, on the surface of this earth, they’re genuine. I’ve seen a lot of artists come and go. But the great artists stay.

SOMETIMES there’s a very thin line between commercial art and fine art—a very thin line.

PRETTY, DECORATIVE FLOWER PAINTINGS can be pleasing. But ugliness can be fine art. The German Expressionists, for example. So ugly, so naive, so childlike and yet, so very powerful.

OUR LIFE, we are only a fish splash. We are nothing, you know?

Photography: Jaya Khidir

I LIKE TAKING the road less travelled. I used to fly to Tokyo a lot but now I want to check out other places. Southeast Asia is an area I’d like to visit more. I’d just flown in from Manila. It’s an amazing city. Great people, very strong energy, a lot of things happening there.

THE SALVAGES is a long-term endeavour. I don’t see it as, okay, we got to get to the next big thing. The Salvages is a brand that will outlast me. I don’t want it to be the coolest, hottest thing right now and then it’s gone the next season, I want it to be evergreen.

THE ’80S was when I grew up and the culture of that time is what I know best.

WHEN I WAS INTRODUCING CRUMPLER in Singapore, I had to bang down doors and hit the bike stores. But no one wanted to stock it. Singapore hasn’t cultivated a messenger bag culture yet. So, I pushed it to the fashion stores; I did a hip-hop party at Zouk to promote Crumpler; I was seeding the bags to friends. Word caught on and next thing you know, it became really big. And when Crumpler became popular, I began on my next journey.

MY FIRST STORE, Ambush, was small and niche. We sold T-shirts and toys from KAWS; cool stuff that friends from New York were making. You can say that we imported [street] culture to Singapore in the 90s.

SURRENDER is my second store and I did it with James [Lavelle] from Mo’ Wax. A good friend with whom I still keep in touch, James and I brought in Japanese brands like Neighborhood, visvim, Undercover. Back then those labels were not available outside of Japan. Maybe Hideout in London but generally, those brands were usually sold in Japan. We were the first store to bring in the Ura-Harajuku culture.

“BE AUTHENTIC to yourself, your tribe will find you.” That’s the best advice Nicolette [Earn’s partner] gave me.

PEOPLE DRAW ENERGY from possessions. You buy a piece of art or clothing and you draw inspiration from it. It feels good that you’ll want to share the experience with other people.

I WAS INTO records, toys, furniture, art, everything, you know. Now, I’m at a point where I prize the experience as well. Covid-19 kinda flipped the switch on my thinking.

YOU NEED to let go of things to be happier.

IT’S IMPORTANT to feel like an outsider. If you stick with your comfort zone, you’ll stagnate. You’ve got to keep moving, you’ve got to be continually inspired by what’s happening around you.

EVERYTHING is a learning process.

I GET A LOT OF JOY from designing a space. All my stores, I designed them. Creating new spaces is basically like creating your own little world.

IN THE ’80S, I was into post-punk and early Hip Hop. From 2004, I would progress to something else, like rock or whatever. Back then, Zouk played a lot of house music and I just didn’t get it. I was into Hip Hop. Fast-forward a decade or two and I’m understanding house music and disco. Turns out after all these years, I simply just enjoy good music.

I’VE MET MY HEROES my heroes and so far they have turned out to be really decent human beings.

LOLA, our West Highland White Terrier is eight and you’d be surprised by her personality. She just brings joy to us every day. Before Lola, I didn’t have much experience in taking care of a dog and I learnt so much from Lola.

DOGS ARE PURE; they love you unconditionally. We should learn how to love and receive love. That’s very important that Lola has taught us how to love.

I’M AFRAID of not doing enough. Unfinished projects, y’know?

I DO GET A LOT OF CREDIT—maybe more than I deserve—from people in the countries that I travelled to. They’d say, oh, your store inspired me to set up my own thing. I’m glad those people resonated with me and what I did.

I’D RATHER BE known as a guy who has done great things, instead of owning them.

WHY DO I NOT SMILE IN PHOTOS? Probably comes naturally to me. Or maybe I look better without smiling.

IF YOU’D ASKED ME pre-COVID if I would open another retail space, I’d be like, nah, I don’t wanna go backwards. But now, I think it’s time and soon.

THESE DAYS, I don’t want to explain about myself too much. People will understand.

Photography: Jaya Khidir
Photography Assistant: Natalie Sienna

I USED TO BE quite on when I started shooting. But now, I’m getting more and more relaxed. Photography is not a rat race.

I’VE BEEN SHOOTING for 13 years. I just do my thing. If I get likes on my IG, great. If not, that’s ok, too.

ORGANICALLY, my work made me who I am today. There was no agenda or game plan. I just kept shooting until things happened to me.

MY DAY JOB is in advertising but I don’t grind at work. I just make sure I have enough.

THERE ARE TIMES when I feel like I’m not doing much in the rat race but you know what? It is great for my mental health.

AM I SHOOTING to leave a legacy? I hope that whatever I’ve done amounts to something bigger.

THERE ARE MANY GOOD PHOTOGRAPHERS out there and 13 years later, I still get exhibited. That’s something that still surprises me.

MAYBE I’M IGNORANT but I don’t know anything about camera specs. I’m more visual than technical. There are times, however, that I force myself to understand the camera settings. I had to shoot people on the escalators but I can’t capture a good clear image on auto mode. I had to learn how to shoot manually.

REGARDLESS of what industry you are in, there will always be haters.

ONE TIME, I was talking to Kevin [WY Lee] and I told him how envious I was that other photographers get to shoot awesome pictures overseas. He asked what was wrong with shooting in Singapore; if you cannot shoot in your own playground, what makes you so sure that you can shoot in another person’s playground? That stuck with me. For the first six years, I just shot in Singapore.

ABOUT 90 PER CENT OF THE TIME, I’d shoot without asking the subjects for their permission. Because what I want, is the spontaneity of the moment. If I did ask them, something in the moment would be lost.

I’VE MADE SHORT FILMS but I’m more of a still person. You need a crew for filmmaking and the amount of time and involvement needed is too much for me to handle.

“PHOTOGRAPHY IS SELF-MASTURBATION.” That statement is true because in any craft, there’s some sort of conceit involved. I posted that on my IG story and it caused a lot of people to unfollow me. I still stand by the statement though.

BACK BEFORE INSTAGRAM had the archive feature, I used to Marie Kondo my IG feed. Every year, I’d delete them all. There was no reason to keep the images. It was just a matter of housekeeping.

A FEW PEOPLE have asked me to remove photos of them on my IG. In 2010, when I was shooting at the Tanjong Pagar railway station, I shared a shot of a couple kissing. One of them messaged me and asked me to remove it, so I did.

NO ONE WILL EVER SEE this photo but one time, in an alleyway in Little India, I saw a naked man when the door opened. He was sitting there, fully exposed and smoking. It took me aback. My camera was already in my hands so I secretly took a shot.

I USE AI to create fake images that I couldn’t capture in real life. Like the images of Bugis Street in the old days. I don’t have a time machine so this is the next best thing.

NOTHING BEATS BEING THERE: AI can only replicate, it can never duplicate. AI is going to be part of our lives. So, we just have to work with it. It’ll never replace the real moments but it’ll help in other ways.

OFF THE TOP of my head, I’m afraid that I may not have tomorrow to take another photo.

EVERY DAY, I’ll make the best of it. It doesn’t necessarily have to even be about photography. I can just enjoy my time by drinking a beer; that is good enough for me.

IT’S ALL GUT FEEL. It’s hard to explain what I’m going for when I shoot.

DON’T DEBATE with people because you can’t reason with them no matter how good your argument is. I just won’t bother.

THE NEW GENERATION of photographers is doing an amazing job. I don’t get why the old guard is so angry with them.

WHATEVER YOU DO IN LIFE, it’s important to let go. Once you do that, you will feel more at peace.

WHEN I STARTED PHOTOGRAPHY, I felt the pressure but that feeling didn’t last that long. I used to chase after the image. I’d hunt for that moment and when I don’t get it, I get fed up. Eventually, I learnt to just let the image come to me.

WHEN YOU SEE ME on the street, just say hi. I may look fierce but I won’t bite.

NOTHING WRONG with mimicking someone’s style. You have to start somewhere so you’ll often shoot like the photographer you admire. After a while, you’ll find your voice.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE are people trying to get that overnight fame. It’s obvious, you can tell. I don’t bash them, I’ll just let them be because how long can they last? It’s tiring.

Photography: Jaya Khidir

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.

Originally published on Esquire US

Interviewed by Cal Fussman, August 21, 2014, originally published in the November 2014 issue of Esquire.

I've been very fortunate. I'm doing what I love and I'm getting away with it, you know?

Fame comes and goes. Longevity is the thing to aim for.

If music sounds dated, it means it wasn't very good in the first place.

Music teaches my painting and painting teaches my music.

I was sketching in a slit trench, hiding out, waiting for the Germans. All of a sudden, I heard a whistle. I knew immediately that it was coming right at us. The noises that it made were unbelievable. It overcame me. So I ran as fast as I could from that trench. I was twenty-five feet away when the shell hit exactly where I'd been sketching. What did it teach me? it thought me to be against war.

Sing like it's an opening night.

Never open with a closer—that comes from Count Basie.

Emerson wrote about how ignorant it is for people to be religious and say My God is better than yours. That was 1841. We still haven't learned.

Respect eliminates hate.

I did a show once with Louis Armstrong—a television show. and It was one hell of a show. All of a sudden, as Louis was playing, a fly landed on his nose. So he blew it off. He kept singing, and the fly came back on his nose. So he blew it off again. It was being taped, and everyone in the audience was holding their stomach, laughing. They didn't want to let their laughter out and ruin his performance. When Louis finished, everybody broke up. And then the director came out and said: "Let's do one more take without the fly." But that was the take they should've put on TV.

When the uncreative tell the creative what to do, it stops being art.

When I was starting out, I used to stay onstage too long. Instead of criticising me, Fred Astaire told me, "What I've learned is when you get a set together that's absolutely perfect, go in and pull out fifteen minutes of it." That was his way of telling me that less is more.

I can't live in San Francisco—I'd never have an ounce of privacy. When I go to San Francisco, I know how the president feels.

Jazz is so fabulous, because you do the same song you did the night before differently than you did the night before.

My mother was a dressmaker. We were very poor. But she said: "Always have a clean suit, a white shirt, and a black pair of pants and you'll be always dressed."

You can go anywhere in black and white.

Ella Fitzgerald used to say "We're all here." Three words. That really says it all. That's the way to treat people. "We're all here."

Luck is something that happens at the right time.

Any great performer I've ever met has been frightened to go on.

If the artist doesn't give a shit, why should the audience?

I got that from a cabdriver years ago. He said: "You singers, you're all losers compared to the singers I grew up with." I said: "How come?" He said: "Years ago, Al Jolson and Ethel Merman and people like them came out onstage and they hit the back of the house! They didn't have a microphone." He said: "You guys are faking it." So I said to myself: Let me try it. When I'm in an acoustical hall, let me sing a song at the end a cappella. At first, I didn't know what was gonna happen, but then I saw the reaction. This is good! So I left it in.

My father used to sing on a mountain in Italy, and the whole valley would hear him. I have a photo of me singing "O Sole Mio" in the same exact spot. My son Danny was talking to some people and he came up with this idea: What do you think of Tony and Lady Gaga singing "O Sole Mio" in Italian? They went crazy. Having your kids involved in your career like that is very satisfying.

Everything old becomes new again.

I'm not trying to be bigger than anybody. My game is just to be one of the best.

I'm eighty-eight—I have an awful lot to learn. My dream is to get better and better as I get older.

Lately, I can't believe it. I'm getting four or five standing ovations a night.

Originally published on Esquire US

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