Ahmir Thompson

[MUSICIAN/PRODUCER]

“I ACCEPTED THE ROLE OF CHEWBACCA WITHOUT KNOWING WHO THE HELL CHEWBACCA WAS.”
Things that make for good hiphop:
Crack cocaine
Money
Ronald Reagan
al-Qaeda

Things that make for bad hiphop:
Bill Clinton
Peace
Chiseled male bodies

If hiphop were like high school (and on too many days it is just like high school), it would be a wild public high school with ice detectors: If you’re not wearing any, you can’t get in. Like most high schools, the most popular kids would be the toughest kids and the richest kids, the ones who go to class bling-blinging or don’t go at all. But every high school has its nerd element; the kids looking to actually learn something; the kids so unashamed to be smart, they sneak into the library on weekends. The Roots are not nerds. Ever since De La Soul Is Dead, hiphop’s so-called alternative groups (which means they’re not exalting the world and values of the ghetto) have been making it clear that just ’cuz they’re smart doesn’t mean you can kick their ass. But the Roots have carried on the legacy of De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest by making hiphop that’s artful, unconcerned with alpha-male machismo, and unafraid to show its intellectual side. They are so important to the overall well-being of hiphop, if they did not exist, we would have to invent them.

The Roots began in 1987, as a quartet called the Square Roots. For three years the art school students played on street corners in Philadelphia to build their skills. In six years they’ve released six albums, two of which are classics—their major label debut, Do You Want More?!!!??!, and their latest, Phrenology. Their leader, in front of and behind the camera, has always been Ahmir Thompson, a.k.a. Questlove or Questo, the widely loved, big-Afro’d musical dynamo who owns every episode of Soul Train and thousands of videos of the legends of soul in performance (these are the people he calls the Yodas). He’s worked on some of the greatest albums in modern music, including D’Angelo’s landmark Voodoo and Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun.

Our interview took place on a Tuesday, between 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., in his room at the Paramount Hotel in Manhattan. He wore a yellow Muhammad Ali T-shirt and a red, black, and green wristband. His tall, thin sister sat nearby. As we spoke, his various phones rang repeatedly: his tour manager asking when he’d be done and ready for the next appointment, the hotel asking what time he’d be checking out. At least four times he told the hotel he’d be down in five minutes, while rolling his eyes, then went on with the interview.

—Touré

“IT’S BLASPHEMY
TO SAY THIS, BUT CRACK
IS RESPONSIBLE FOR HIPHOP.”

THE BELIEVER: So you have a theory that black people make better music when Republicans are in office. Explain the theory and how it’s playing out now, in the midst of this regime—I mean, administration.

AHMIR THOMPSON: My theory is that nine times out of ten, if there’s a depression, more a social depression than anything, it brings out the best art in black people. The best example is, Reagan and Bush gave us the best years of hiphop. I think had Carter and then Mondale won, or if Jesse [Jackson] were President from ’84 to ’88, hiphop wouldn’t have been the same. Hiphop wouldn’t have existed. I think you would have more black Tom Waitses. Marsalis would be goin double platinum. There would be more black Joni Mitchells. [Gets impish grin.] The Roots would sell ten million.

BLVR: You think that if the Democrats, instead of Reagan and Bush, were running America in the eighties, then hiphop would not have been invented.

AT: Probably, but it would depend on who was replacing them. I don’t know if Gary Hart really had a special place in black people’s hearts.

BLVR: But hiphop was already being built as early as 1972, and some even say ’69.

AT: As a result of Nixon. But you have to understand, it’s not just him being there, but what was allowed to go on. I really doubt that if Jesse Jackson had become president in 1984, he would’ve let the crack epidemic flood in, Niagara Falls–esque, in the ghettos. It’s such blasphemy to say this, but crack is responsible for the hiphop movement. It’s a direct result. The politically correct way of saying it is that Reagan’s neglect of the inner city is responsible for hiphop. Hiphop is created thanks to the conditions that crack set: easy money but a lot of work, the violence involved, the stories it produced—crack helped birth hiphop. Now, I’m part conspiracy theorist, because you can’t develop something that dangerous and [have] it not be planned. I don’t think crack happened by accident.

BLVR: Don’t be p.c. Spit it out. You’re saying the government pushed crack on us, those of us in the inner cities in New York, L.A., Detroit, D.C., and so on.

AT: Yes, and as a result created the lifestyle in which the wordsmiths and the turntablists and the great African tradition—created hiphop.

BLVR: But when you say crack is partly responsible for hiphop, what exactly are you talking about? More money in the community in the pockets of young dealers? A higher level of determination in certain people because of the climate on the street? Great stories to tell?

AT: First of all, there’s upstart money. Eazy-E wouldn’t have developed Ruthless Records if it weren’t for the crack game. So Dr. Dre would’ve just been a Prince clone. One of the greatest works of art, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back [by Public Enemy], would’ve never got made. Half the narratives of hiphop would’ve been erased, the street cred, the danger, so hiphop would’ve been more of a jazz thing with virtuoso rhyming, and it could’ve easily faded away.

BLVR: Crack makes the world of the street that much more tenuous and fast and dangerous and filled with money.

AT: Crack offered a lot of money to the inner-city youth who didn’t go to college. Which enabled them to become businessmen. It also turned us into marksmen. It also turned us comatose. Let’s not forget that people actually used the shit!

BLVR: But the ones who actually used it, are they really the ones who’re impacting hiphop? Isn’t it really the dealers and the friends of the dealers?

AT: I know about maybe five people in the entertainment industry who did their peak work as a result of crack usage.

BLVR: Are you serious?

AT: Melle Mel will admit it. Melle Mel made “White Lines” high.

BLVR: He used coke while making the record?

AT: No, no, I’m talking about crack.

BLVR: He did crack while doing “White Lines”? Do you mean, during that period in his life, or that night in the studio?

AT: He said, “The most ironic thing about doin ‘White Lines’ is, I was doin this anti-drug message, but was snortin the shit as I was doin it. That was the most ironic thing about doin ‘White Lines.’” He said he was makin the quintessential antidrug song while drowning in his own shit.

BLVR: Wow.

AT: I’ve seen two people in my life actually do crack. One was just a passerby on the street in San Francisco. The other was in the studio. Like, it’s time for a break. Some of us say, “oh, I gotta eat.” This guy says, “I gotta get my mojo on.”

BLVR: Before you do the song, he’s beaming up.

AT: He said, quote, “I gotta get my mojo on,” and excused himself from the room. I happened to go in the hallway, and it was the foulest stench I ever smelled. I was like, “What the fuck is that smell?” People were like, “Oh, he’s smokin rocks.” It’s somethin you see on TV, but never in your real life.

BLVR: Was he able to be a productive member of the session after that?

AT: I’ll put it this way: His whole career is based on that.

BLVR: Wait. Here’s a yes-or-no question. Was it Flavor-Flav?

AT: No.

BLVR: Was it ex-Root Malik B?

AT: No. Wow, I forgot about Malik. Shit, my best song came from crack! [“Water,” on Phrenology, the new album.] [He laughs.] Anyway, the guy was highly productive, and I would dare to say that it still fuels this person to be a creative entity. To this very day.

BLVR: Does black art need social strife in a way that white art does not?

AT: Well, black music is often used as a survival tool. It’s not an expression of art for many people. It’s not, Yo man, I can sing. It’s, I need help, I need to survive, I need to make money; if I can’t do this, my life is over. So black art needs extremes. We can’t be halfway crooks. The social conditions have to be so drastic that it brings the creativity out of us.

BLVR: So, following your theory, the reason why much of black music got a little stale during the nineties, all obsessed with bling-bling, is because of Clinton.

AT: I mean, the Clinton days were a collective sigh of relief, but what were we celebrating? Remember when Chris Rock said we’re celebrating O.J.’s victory, but where’s my O.J. prize? What did we win? That’s how I feel with Clinton becoming president. We were like, Whew. One of our own finally made it. We really thought he was black. My vision of Clinton is him in Kentucky Fried Chicken, soppin his bread, eatin his greens. I was like, we are finally in the White House.

BLVR: Toni Morrison wrote that he was the first black president. In The New Yorker. Toni Morrison.

AT: And we all believed that.

BLVR: I remember talking to politically connected D.C. black folk and them breaking down all the ways you could see he was truly part black. And their biggest piece of evidence was, you never saw his birth father. The second-biggest piece of evidence was Chelsea’s hair. They all said it was too curly for her to be all white.

AT: When Clinton came in, there was a false sense of relief that black people probably hadn’t felt since Kennedy. When Kennedy was president, there was some iota of hope. Black people felt, with this guy we have some sort of chance at dignity.

BLVR: At what point in history does the theory begin? Nixon presided over the most incredible soul music of the late sixties and early seventies. Carter led to disco.

AT: Well, I would start back in the Great Depression.

BLVR: That’s interesting, because the Depression and the Harlem Renaissance happened around the same time.

AT: No matter how far back in time people wanna go it works. Start with King Oliver or Ma Rainey or Louis Armstrong. The worse the social conditions, the better the black music. I’m not sayin strictly, a Republican has to be in office. Social depression, financial depression, and an overall hopelessness brings the best of art. Gospel starts in slavery. The blues start around the Depression. Jazz starts in the post-Depression period. At the beginning of the civil rights movement you had doo-wop, rock ’n’ roll, and soul. The glue that held that together was a spiritual bond. That’s what’s missing from today. That’s what made hiphop great in the eighties. Now, with Bush in office and the war and al-Qaeda and everything goin on we should be seeing the best music. But…

“ARE WE GONNA HATE THE HOUSE
NIGGER BECAUSE HE GETS
AIR CONDITIONING?
HE’S STILL A SLAVE.”

BLVR: How do you feel about hiphop today?

AT: Does it speak volumes that I listen to the White Stripes more than I listen to anything in hiphop? The only album I’m listening to from start to finish right now is Elephant. I’m at this Rubicon in my life where I’m trying to figure out, am I rebelling to rebel or am I honestly choosing this? Am I searching for something new or am I dried out with hiphop? I don’t know. But I’ll listen to anything, and I’ll listen to it a lot, whether I like it or not. I have this ritual of buying Straight Out the Jungle [the Jungle Brothers’ classic debut] a billion times, acting like it’s the first time again.

BLVR: What?

AT: I buy records only to lose them, on purpose maybe, in hopes that I’ll wake up and go, “Oh, lemme go record shopping again.”

BLVR: So you’ll have that first-time-getting-it feeling again and again.

AT: There’s no classic hiphop record that I’ve not bought ten times just for that feeling. When I opened up [Public Enemy’s] Apocalypse ’91 and I heard “Lost at Birth,” the first song, and that siren going off, that was the last great adrenaline moment in my youth. I opened it up and didn’t know what to expect. I just put on my headphones—they happened to be on ten—and when that sound came through I was like, oh, shit! One day I walked past Tower and I said, “I know I have the shit at home, the shit’s on my iPod, my iPod’s at the hotel, but I gotta hear it now.”

BLVR: So [incredulously] you went into Tower and bought it?

AT: My logic was, to me buyin a record’s like voting for president. I helped you get up one on the Soundscan, so maybe Chuck will get a two million plaque by 2014 when I buy my 500th copy. That’s pretty much how I operate.

BLVR: Why do you listen to things you don’t like?

AT: I don’t believe in good music and bad music anymore. I’m through with that phase of my life. Sometimes I just wanna feel good, so I put on a good record. But mostly I’m more of a businessman than a music fan, so I’m listening to music in terms of, is this effective or not effective? In other words, I can get Ashanti’s new album and say, OK this is effective, I see how this is infectious, I see why this works. I mean, are we gonna hate the house nigger because he gets air conditioning? He’s still a slave. Yeah, I get mosquito bites, but he didn’t ask to come here, either. The thing is, we, the Roots, have mastered the groove element. We’ve mastered virtuoso lyricism. We’ve mastered the art element. But we haven’t mastered the pop craftsmanship of writing songs. You like Prince because he wrote great songs. And what that leads to is, I walk past a couple. Guy stops in his tracks, girl keeps on walking. Guy looks back. He says, “Questlove?” I turn around. He says, “Ohmigod!” The girl keeps on walking. He’s like, “Baby wait! It’s Questlove from the Roots.” She’s like, “Who?”

BLVR: So, you’re respected, but you want to be loved instead.

AT: Damn. You really hit it. I was trying to figure out what one sentence could sum up all these feelings, and that’s it.

THE FRO

BLVR: So let’s talk about your hair. Your hair is iconic, and I have basically the same style, so what’s your hair-care regimen?

AT: Really, nothing. It’s absolute neglect. I think I stroked this hair maybe ten times when I woke up, washed it, maybe. If something important is coming up, I’ll braid it the night before so I can take it out and make it look full. This hair is a result of laziness and not really wantin to sit in a barber’s chair for two hours. It’s so not a statement. Now it’s a marketing angle. There’ve been moments when I was ready to get rid of it, but now I’m stuck.

BLVR: I use the Kiehl’s leave-in conditioner. I won’t leave the house without it. I love that shit so much, I’d do a commercial. I can’t believe you don’t have some product you rely on.

AT: I don’t. I’m supposed to put it in braids every night and then take it out in the morning, but I don’t. I’ve not cut this hair since my prom night, June 2, 1989.

BLVR: You haven’t had a haircut in fourteen years? You lie.

AT: 1989 was the last time I had hair of shortish, Malcolm Jamal-Warner proportions.

BLVR: Shouldn’t your hair be much longer?

AT: Exactly. If I did what I’m supposed to do—oil it every night, braid it up every night, take it out—it would be the size of a lion. It’s actually bigger than this. It does take effort to make it look unkept.

BLVR: Believe me, I know.

AT: What I do is, I spend five seconds in the shower so it can shrink and then just let it go. I’ll shape it however I want it to be designed and then go on with my day.

“HAD [D’ANGELO] KNOWN WHAT THE
REPERCUSSIONS OF ‘UNTITLED’
WOULD’VE BEEN, I DON’T THINK
HE WOULD’VE DONE IT.”

BLVR: So, who are the Yodas?

AT: Back in ’97, D’Angelo and I were sorta living through Star Wars episodes. But the thing is, I’m probably the only man alive who has not seen Star Wars.

BLVR: Shocking.

AT: I went to see it when I was six, and I fell asleep. When it got rereleased in ’97 I went again and fell asleep.

BLVR: Do you normally fall asleep in the movies?

AT: Ever since Rain Man I’ve realized that if I sit still for more than two hours, I’ll fall asleep. Anyway, I never saw Star Wars. So one day D says, [his voice gets deep and growly, a solid impression of D’Angelo; he pantomimes pulling on an imaginary joint twice, three times], “Yeah nigga. The way I see it [pulls on the joint again] the radio stations and the media is like the Death Star, and I’ma be Luke Skywalker. It was this whole revolution that was going to save music. Q-Tip was gonna be Harrison Ford. Lauryn [Hill] was gonna be Princess Leia. Erykah [Badu] was Queen Amidala. I said, “Who am I gonna be?” D said, “You’re gonna be Chewbacca.” I said OK. I accepted the role of Chewbacca without knowing who the hell Chewbacca was. But I knew that Yoda was the wise figure. I said, “Who’s gonna be Yoda?” He said, “We gotta divide Yoda up into different people and they’ll just be collectively known as Yoda.” So, it was Jimi [Hendrix], Marvin [Gaye], James Brown, [Bob] Marley, George [Clinton], Stevie [Wonder], Al [Green], Aretha [Franklin], Miles [Davis], and Nina [Simone]. We had a token white entry. Who was it? Oh, Joni [Mitchell]. The youngest one of all the Yodas is Prince. They are the elements that we refer to when we talk about Yoda.

BLVR: Who’s out here now who’ll be a Yoda for your kids thirty years from now?

AT: D’Angelo. Quiet as it’s kept, the reason why I worked on Voodoo was because I wanted to be a part of something that could possibly be on that level. [AT played on most of the songs and was musical director for D’Angelo’s tour.] One day my kids could say, “Wow, my Dad was a part of that.” My involvement was never monetary. I didn’t get the rest of my check.

BLVR: Are you still owed money from Voodoo?

AT: Stop playing.

BLVR: How much are you owed?

AT: Stop playin! You know I can’t go there.

BLVR: Four figures? Five figures?

AT: If creating music were a political party, then we were sort of being socialists. But it should be that way. Here’s a funny sidenote. John Mayer is incredibly underrated. Ohmigod. Severely. His whole Abercrombie and Fitch, nice guy, moms love him, that’s whatever. He wants to do his Voodoo so bad it hurts. I just finished workin with him and the songs we were doin were John Mayer–esque, but it was the stuff we were doin in between. I mean, it was like Voodoo all over again. We worked on his song for an hour, and then we worked on five other songs that were just crazy awesome. Then my manager calls and says, “How’s it going?” I say, “Man I ain’t had this much fun since Voodoo. Man, we did this one song, and then we created like five other songs.” He said, “Whoa, whoa. How many songs you work on?” I’m casually like, “Maybe six.” The next day all the jamming stopped. His manager was like, “Do the song you’re supposed to do. All this extracurricular jamming you’re doing is costing us money.” See, the way you’re supposed to do business is, if you add a chord or something significant, you might be a songwriter, or if you do whatever you might be a producer. We blurred those lines during Voodoo. It was just, let’s get it done. We’ll deal with the business later.

BLVR: So you’re a writer and producer on Voodoo, but you were neither paid like that nor credited as a producer.

AT: I was paid for my work on Voodoo.

BLVR: You were paid as a worker, a session drummer. Not as a writer and producer.

AT: I wasn’t.

BLVR: How much are you owed?

AT: I can’t tell you, Touré. But my point was that I saw him as the chosen one…

BLVR: A lot of people thought that.

AT: I still think it. Even though we’re not cool, I still think it.

BLVR: Was there a fight?

AT: It’s just me becoming a new person, and one of the roles of the old me was my role as enabler. But I can’t control my world and then go do maintenance on his world.

BLVR: Making music with D’Angelo is more than going to the studio and jamming?

AT: It’s so much more than that. It’s a whole lifestyle.

BLVR: Because he’s a genius? Because he’s troubled?

AT: He’s all of that; but more than that, he’s amazingly insecure. I mean, everyone’s insecure, but he’s insecure to the level where I felt as though I had to lose myself and play cheerleader. Some nights on tour he’d look in the mirror and say, “I don’t look like the video [‘Untitled,’ which featured nothing but a chiseled, naked D’Angelo from the waist up.]” It was totally in his mind, on some Kate Moss shit. So, he’d say, “Lemme do 200 more stomach crunches.” He’d literally hold the show up for half an hour just to do crunches. We would hold the show for an hour and a half if he didn’t feel mentally prepared or physically prepared. Some shows got cancelled because he didn’t feel physically prepared, but it was such a delusion.

BLVR: It was the trap women often fall into, thinking they’re fat when they’re not.

AT: Yes. In the world of karma, it was sweet poetic justice for any woman that’s ever been sexually harassed, that’s ever had to work twice as hard just to prove she could work like a man. Literally. When we started this Voodoo project, we were like, “Man, we’re gonna give a gift to the world, and not on a pretentious level. We’re gonna create something that’s totally our world, and we’re gonna bring people to our world and they’re gonna love it, and it’s gonna be art.” But the first night of the Voodoo tour the “take-it-off” chants started not ten minutes into the show. This is a three-hour show. And he had mastered all the tricks from the Yodas. The Al Green Yoda tricks of him giving a wink to the drummer, and all the music stops, and Al Green goin away from the mic and singing to the audience without the microphone. We planned every trick out. But the girls are like, “Take it off! Take it off!” That put too much pressure on him.

BLVR: To be the sex god.

AT: Yep. And by night four he was angry and resentful. He was like, “Is this what you want? Is this what you want?”

BLVR: He was being viewed as a sexual being and not as a genius.

AT: They didn’t care about the art, they didn’t care for the fact that Jeff Lee Johnson was doing the note-for-note “Crosstown Traffic” solo in—

BLVR: They wanted to see the abs, the bod.

AT: They wanted “Untitled.” He hated every moment of that. So… to motivate him past night four became problematic. He’d say, “Well, [frustrated] let’s do ‘Untitled’ earlier.” We’d say, “No, you gotta end with ‘Untitled.’” Then it became just compromise. How can we stop the bleeding so that we can at least get the show out [of] the way before the “take it off” chants come? But no night was unscathed. Three weeks into it, it became unbearable. Absolutely unbearable. So as a result, the cheerleading starts. If we need him to get out of his disappointment, depression thing, you might have to start at four o’clock in the afternoon like, “What’s up, man [with exaggerated happiness]! Yo, let’s go record shopping!” Like, let’s con him into being happy all day! We go record shopping, then it’s like, “Let’s go to Roscoe’s! Oh, that’s right, you can’t eat, so you go exercise. All right, Mark [the physical trainer], you’re it.” Mark comes, trains him. I come back. “Yo, man! I got this new Prince joint!” We watch Prince. We get amped. Rewind it a couple times. “Alright, you ready? I’ma get dressed, and in fifteen minutes we’ll get in the car, go to the venue.” Some nights that would work. Other nights he’d just be psychosomatic. Like, “Yo man, I can’t do it.” I’m like, “What?” He’s like, “I can’t do it.” I’m like, “Just go out there. They love you!” He’s like, “They don’t love me, man.” That’s the respect and love thing. He wants the respect. I want the love.

BLVR: Everyone wants what they don’t have.

AT: He was like, “They don’t understand. They don’t get it. They just want me to take off my clothes.” So every night for eight months it was how to solve this Rubik’s cube in one minute, before the bomb detonates. Every night. And sometimes I failed.

BLVR: And the show did not go on.

AT: The show didn’t go on.

BLVR: How many shows did you cancel?

AT: Maybe three weeks’ worth. We threw away at least two weeks of Japan.

BLVR: That’s unbelievable. What’s going on with him now? Is he retired?

AT: He’s recording. I heard he’s got, like, four songs done. I know him, he’ll stop at song twelve. But what he wants is to get fat. He doesn’t want his braider braiding every nook and cranny of his hair. He doesn’t wanna have to have ripples in his stomach. He doesn’t want the pressure of being “Untitled” the video.

BLVR: So we’ll never get that kind of unbridled sexuality from him again.

AT: I don’t know.

BLVR: Do you think “Untitled” was a mistake? Because I remember when he was shooting that, and he did not want to make that video. They had to coax him into doing it, and maybe he was right to not want that if it created expectations that he wasn’t emotionally prepared to shoulder.

AT: Had he known what the repercussions of “Untitled” would’ve been, I don’t think he would’ve done it.

“I SAW DE LA SOUL
AND WAS LIKE, ‘THAT’S ME.’”

BLVR: It’s very easy for a hiphop historian to say, “Oh, yeah, the Roots are a post-Native Tongues band and they follow in the line of groups like De La Soul.” But how does that work for you? Is there an actual connection for you, or are we making that up?

AT: The same way a white kid would look at Eminem and say, “Hey, that’s me,” I saw De La Soul and was like, “Yeah, that’s me.” I saw it with the Jungle Brothers at first, but De La pushed it over the top. They were full of inside jokes, full of inside cultural references that only I got. They had Led Zeppelin samples…

BLVR: They weren’t afraid to be suburban, weren’t afraid to be polyglot, weren’t afraid to be intellectual.

AT: They wore it like a badge of honor. They were my entry into hiphop. I worked at Sam Goody when Three Feet High and Rising came out, and my first act of theft at that store was taking the promo cassette. I took that cassette and made a lifestyle with it. With Nation of Millions I heard my father’s record collection inside the record. I said, “How can I utilize that so I can make that work for me?” Then De La totally introduced me to the lifestyle that I could relate to. They validated me.

BLVR: They allowed you to feel comfortable being yourself, being non-ghetto, non-thuggish, non-anti-intellectual.

AT: Exactly. I welcome people calling us post–Native Tongues. I wanna be a Native Tongue! We were very much like De La Soul in our theory and our lifestyle and the way we dressed and the way that we just wanted to be different for different’s sake and then came into our own and found our own niche.

 

“PHRENOLOGY EASILY COST
$2 MILLION TO MAKE.”

BLVR: If you were the commissioner of hiphop, what would you institute as new rules?

AT: My life’s goal is to find a happy medium for sampling to be not only legal but for the right parties to benefit from it. There have to be sampling laws. The survival of hiphop is based on that. Just make it legal and have an actual scaled rate for it. I mean, Pete Rock is wasting some of the best years of his life right now because he’s being handicapped because he can’t sample. It’s way too expensive. The reason why Jay-Z was able to make The Blueprint [filled with great soul samples] is because the motherfucker’s got a $2 million recording budget. He could pay for samples like that.

BLVR: Do you have that kind of budget?

AT: Well, each Roots album has cost $1 million plus, which is unheard of. Each album has cost between $1 million to $3 million. Phrenology easily cost $2 million to make.

BLVR: What adds up to $2 million?

AT: Mostly studio time. I use the best studios. The type of mics I use are expensive. If you want the shit from 1940 that Louis Armstrong played on that’s still in great working condition, that might cost you $300 a day. Engineers aren’t cheap. Bob Power [perhaps the most legendary hiphop engineer] charges $5,000 just to have a conversation. Things add up. It’s damn near five figures a day for every day at the studio.

BLVR: What do you think The Blueprint cost with all those samples?

AT: Wow. Well, it really depends what people are charging for samples. The reason George Clinton gets used a lot is cuz his charge is cheap.

BLVR: What’s cheap?

AT: You can nibble off of George for a flat rate of maybe $5,000. He’ll actually go above and beyond the call of duty and send you the master tape. I’d never do that, but he goes above and beyond the call of duty so you keep coming back. He’s like a smart crack dealer. Why do you think his sound was so prevalent? George allowed people to sample him. He’s smart with his. Prince doesn’t let anyone touch his stuff, because the way his deal is with [Warner Bros.], they would get the lion’s share of the money. He even goes so far as to tell people, “Don’t cover my shit because I’m not getting the money.”

“THEY DON’T HAVE TURNTABLES IN CUBA,
BUT THEY HAVE HIPHOP.”

BLVR: Everyone in hiphop has a list of their top five MCs of all time. What’s your list?

AT: Five is Posdnous [from De La]. The most untrumpeted hero of lyricism. Four is KRS-One. Three is Biggie. Two is Melle Mel.

BLVR: Wow, you went way back with him.

AT: Well, you have to. Everyone is derivative of Melle Mel. Number one is Rakim. He’s the Christopher Columbus. There are people more complex than he was, but him being first, he has to have it.

BLVR: You claim your life as an enabler is over, but tell me, whose life are you saving in your spare time?

AT: Right now in Cuba it’s 1981 in terms of hiphop. They’re just getting started. They don’t even have turntables in Cuba, but they have hiphop. I’m gonna do to Cuba what Dizzy Gillespie did to Cuba: totally reinvent the arc. I’m gonna buy Cuba its first set of turntables. I’ve always wanted to find a place where they have little concept of hiphop. If you go there and reinvent the wheel, you’ll be the shit.

Touré is the author of The Portable Promised Land, a collection of short stories published by Little, Brown. He is also a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and a contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered. He lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. A novel called Soul City will arrive in September 2004.

What did you think?
Write a letter to the editor

STAY CONNECTED
News on Facebook Photos on Instagram Stuff on Pinterest Announcements by RSS Sounds on Soundcloud Exclusives on Tumblr Updates on Twitter

Subscribe to our mailing list for periodic announcements about online exclusives and the occasional deal.