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?uestlove thinks about survival
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?uestlove compares Big Daddy Kane to Chinua Achebe's book Things Fall Apart

 

 

Late in a crisp New York November of last year, all eyes at club El Flamingo were a blaze, while hip hop musicians, The Roots blessed mics with the likes of The Mighty Mos Def, The Lost Boys and Common Sense. Lead MC Black Thought's self fulfilling prophecy from a few years back rang true as he belted out "I shall proceed, and continue to rock the mic" with old school Roots classics, as well as premiering songs off their fourth and forthcoming album, Things Fall Apart.
On that night The Roots added a new definition to the hip-hop term 'all the way live' when they broadcast their brand of jazzed out hip hop across the globe via the world wide web.
After the show, Mos Def, waved a busted chunk of machinery above his head with one hand, toasting the mic with his other. He directed the crowd to give respect to ?uestlove [the drummer], for not missing a beat once, while playing without a bass drum pedal! Fantastic as it may sound, I had no idea that there was anything wrong with his drums, until the show was over and fifteen songs were performed. It was a unique display of showmanship, which on that night was shared by countless others worldwide. It occurred to me that things falling apart, could actually be bringing them closer together. I wanted to get the inside track to see if my suspicions about the title of the album were correct. I remembered reading a book by Chinua Achebe, set in late 19th century Africa, outlining the destruction of the tribal family structure and traditions by European colonialism. When Christian English missionaries arrive among the Ibos of Nigeria, a collision occurs: the Nigerian warrior Okonkwo recognizes the cultural imperialism of the white men and tries to show his people how their society will fall apart if they change their cultural core.
The book is ill. The Roots are ill. The message of both is loud and clear here in 1999, and I needed to know more. So with a little stealth and ingenuity, I was able to schedule a sit down meeting with ?uestlove at MCA records' midtown offices.
Upon entering the room I was greeted by a tower of a man who if he was a cartoon, he'd be a cross between the old "Jackson 5" and the "Hair Bears". ?uestlove is Hanna-Barbera all the way.

This is an excerpt from our conversation:

IM: So tell me about "things fall apart"? Is this a reference to Chinua Achebe's book?
?L: Well to be literal... or to give you the actual situation of how we came up with that comparison. We were on a tour bus one day and we happened to see an interview with Big Daddy Kane. And he just sounded so outta place.... I mean he sounded like a martyr. He was saying something like I don't know what's going on today in Hip-Hop, it's so sad and you know, where's the market place... but I'ma make it. I was just like Damn! This is the same person who said I'll be damned if I ever let a Fisher Price MC hang
You know but I can't blame Kane though. I mean it's just the market place and it's just time and it's a natural evolution. I believe it was either Black Thought or my manager Rich who said that it sounded like Okonkwo's story. It took me a long time to realize the comparison. I'd read the book in high school. But once I copped it again and reread it, I realized that Kane's story its that guy's [Okonkwo] story. [?uestlove hooks his forefingers to each other then proceeded hooking fingers as he makes a list respectively] A man. A warrior. A lyrical warrior. Well respected in his craft. Undisputed. I don't know what the equivalent of yams are? [we both laugh at the selective interpretation]
You know he just had the fat of the land and the respect of his people.
I don't know what caused Kane's semi retirement but okay whatever, he goes away only to come back to see that his culture, his way of life, the things that he is used to, have just been changed.[We speak the word "changed" at the same time. Seeing that we were in agreement he continues].
I guess the equivalent is.... [he stops to filter his answer]. See I don't want to say the whole commercialization of hip-hop. But I want to say I guess the whole "Wall Streetization" [you heard it here first] of just hip-hop now and how it's been tainted. It's not even about the art anymore.... it's just about the money".
IM: Now when you say the money, are you talking about the subject matter of songs or the fact that the industry is fueled by this great big money machine.
?L: If artists weren't so disposable from their labels. [ picking out his afro] If we weren't so disposable I am pretty sure there would be some kind of diversity. But now you have artists getting dropped um.. after their second single. With no album coming out. Prime example K.M.D. got dropped off Electra way too early. "Black Bastard" was completed in '92 and was a brilliant album, but because of a dispute over the artwork on the cover.... The label wouldn't let them put it out. [slapping his hands together] Threw them away...phffft!
It's just like Goddamn! Threw them away... they got so much critical acclaim the first time around.
IM: Peach fuzz and what not....
?L: Yeah! And its like you know what would have happened if Joe Nicolo and Chris Schwartz developed and kept, ah... DMX back when they signed him in '91? My last days of interning at Ruffhouse records in Philly was at the beginning of "Blunted on Reality"(Fugees) and them signing DMX. Now Joe and Chris were just over enthused about The Fugees' career. 'I'm gonna make it work. I'm gonna make it work.' That was their motto, but DMX was just a little deal here, nothing important. There is no artist development. And when there is no development.... you're thinking about survival. I don't know how it is for rock groups or country artists or whatever.... But I think for most young Black folk, it's a matter of survival. That is the mentality. I understand the thinking and the mentality that goes into hip-hop and the need to always have a hit. [laying back in his chair and tapping the table in front of us lightly]
I mean you're talking to a group who did over two hundred songs per album over a two year period. We would go from anywhere between four and ten songs per week. But the need to survive on a label and insure.... That's a lot of pressure to put on somebody. Right now the single "You Got Me" [video download available] is insuring that we'll be on this label in 2001 when we record again. So that's how it is.

IM: Good Luck. [knocking on wood, ?uestlove does likewise]. The 5 different Album covers.....why?
?L: Well in all honesty, that was the label that did it.

I mean we wanted to do a few album covers for the last album where we would take a 360 degree camera [a camera that would take a panoramic view of an area] and have it be a series that you can line up in order and make one image. But when we went to the label they were like.... What? They said to us, "didn't you already shoot a video"? And it was sort of their matter of fact way that was really frustrating
Eventually with this album their art department guy came up with the idea to do 5 album covers. We couldn't believe it. Finally there was someone on their side of the fence that understood our side.
IM: I've always thought that one thing that separates hip-hop artists from other musicians, was their willingness to take the stage together and do a show. Who are some of the people you work with and how do these connections develop?
?L: It goes back to what I said about survival. Common said to me that he planned to have longevity in the business so if he needed to have a band, even if they wouldn't be as good as us, then that is what he was going to do. We have been planning with a few groups on a.... I don't want to say the rebirth of the Native Tounges necessarily, but we are planning to work closely with artists like : Q-Tip, Erykah Badu, Raphael Saadiq, De La Soul, Black Star, Common, Outkast and Lauren Hill.
IM: ?uest.... I heard through the grapevine that you have a great love for records and that also you're a DJ?
?L: Yes I am. See I'm a drummer, so rhythmic things come natural to me. I can put beats together. I can swim, I can tap dance. I can drive. [he says that's a Philly joke].

IM: Who has better vinyl.....New York or Philly?
?L: Oh Philly.... No question. I mean Portland is the best. You can get records for fifty cents there in some places. They're very knowledgeable about music here in New York....

So the price for rare records goes up. In Portland you can get away with some records that the owner's probably never heard of before. So you can pay fifty cents there for something that would cost you seven dollars here

IM: Where will The Roots be appearing this spring and what are the goals for the band this next century?
?L: We're going to be touring the U.S. from February to April for the smaller venues, then we go to Europe for a few months for the smaller venues there. Then we'll come back in the summer for the revival of the "Lollapalooza" festival and some Rage Against the Machine dates. Then end up with the "Smokin' Grooves" tour again. But I really would like to go to South America and Africa.

There was a knock at the door and a lovely MCA executive entered telling us that our time was up and ?uestlove was due for another engagement. After saying good bye I departed and headed for the elevator doors. They slid apart and I stepped through. It was there that I came up with the name for this article. I felt that "Come Together," was appropriate because it is an answer to a letter written before I was born. A letter that speaks of how sometimes the world you realize, will one day fall apart. So this is my answer to that world, where nothing is certain but the inevitability of change, brothers can come together. CREDITS

Interview:

Chef

Photo : IMNYC

Video and promotional items
courtesy of MCA Records

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