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Roots' self-described 'dweeb' resists spotlight

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Drummer Questlove of The Roots is playing two gigs at the Winnipeg International Jazz Festival.

CARLO ALLEGRI / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge Image

Drummer Questlove of The Roots is playing two gigs at the Winnipeg International Jazz Festival.

In 1987, Ahmir Thompson was a 16-year-old Philadelphia high school music geek when he co-founded The Roots, a band that went on to become one of the most prolific and long-lived in hip hop.

Today, the musician known as Questlove figures his eight-piece group is "the last hip-hop band on Earth," to quote a passage from an early chapter of his new memoir, Mo' Meta Blues.

"That may not be fair, but the ideology is there," says 42-year-old drummer, producer, DJ and author, speaking over the phone on Wednesday, the day after the release of his 288-page recollection of his nearly three-decade-long career, written partly as a running conversation with the reader about music and the people who make it.

"We are the last of a dying breed, (who value) the idea of community. We live in the post-Michael Jordan, lonely island, viral-video moment," says Thompson, explaining the importance of musical collaboration over individual effort. "This is the narcissist age."

The Roots, who play the Winnipeg International Jazz Festival tonight at the Centennial Concert Hall, epitomize Thompson's collective ideal. Throughout their 26-year, 15-album existence, they've stood out as the pre-eminent proponent of live instrumentation in hip-hop, a genre built on a foundation of DJs and beatboxes.

And as the house band on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, The Roots are one of the most frequently watched live ensembles in North America.

That's why there's a delicious bit of irony in the fact Thompson stands out as the precisely the sort of individual overachiever he considers problematic. He's produced a range of high-profile artists' albums, including a forthcoming D'Angelo record that's been in the making for 13 years. When he's not playing drums with The Roots or leading the band on Jimmy Fallon, he's spinning at solo DJ sets such as tonight's sold-out, post-Concert Hall show at the Pyramid.

As The Village Voice's Jenna Sauer suggests in a recent lengthy profile, Thompson's profile has grown to the point of eclipsing that of his band. He's become a musician who preaches the value of teamwork but suddenly finds himself in the spotlight.

Thompson said he resisted the idea of writing a memoir because he didn't see himself as that individual, let alone a recording artist with even a vague semblance of an interesting back story. An avid consumer of music biographies, he figured he'd make a boring subject.

"Every (famous musician) has the same story. There's a beginning, where they discover something that saves their soul. There's an arrival point where maybe they get in trouble and music saves them. Then they become stars and then maybe there's a fall from grace. There's a tragedy that goes down. It's like a feather that lands back on the ground," he says, paraphrasing a section of Mo' Meta Blues.

"That isn't necessarily my story. I thought I would get ostracized because I don't have that type of narrative, but people have been amazingly supportive. People have been more supportive of this than any music I've ever made."

Self-deprecation comes easily to Thompson, whose drive to succeed is typical of a kid who was a social outcast in high school. He describes his teenage social standing as two rungs lower than that of a nerd and one lower than a geek -- at the very bottom of the strata.

"I've always felt I was a dweeb in the eyes of some people, especially in my childhood. I was definitely not the cool guy in high school. Was I even cool last year? All of a sudden, I'm getting all these pats on the back," he says.

More pats may be coming, and not just for the long-awaited D'Angelo album he's had to "pry from his cold dead hands."

September will see the release of Wise Up Ghost, a collaboration between The Roots and Elvis Costello. The two acts met on the Fallon show. The songs are spare in structure but rendered lush with strings arranged in the style of the late Clare Fischer, Thompson says.

Next spring should bring a new Roots album, possibly titled And Then You Shoot Your Cousin. Thompson says it's another meditation on the role of violence in pop culture, a theme that also runs through the band's most recent album, Undun.

That title was borrowed from the The Guess Who. Thompson could not, however, commit to playing Undun in Winnipeg, birthplace of the classic rock band.

"We have 15 albums out. That remains in the air right now. Each set varies for how we feel," he says.

Please note the use of the collective "we."

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 22, 2013 G3

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