Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, drummer extraordinaire and co-founder of the hardest working hip hop band, The Roots, talks with OurStage during a break from taping the Jimmy Fallon Show. Beside touring all over the world, The Roots also manage to be the house band for Fallon which has given ?uestlove recent insight into what it takes these days to make it in the music business.
OS: What advice would you give to a hip hop band that’s just starting out? Would you tell them to simply go out on the road and do as many shows live as possible, or would you tell them to hone their chops in the studio and build a fan base making mixes/demos/singles etc.?
?L: The answer will actually handle both of those together: I would insist that they rehearse for three to four hours a day. Real rehearsal. That is the key. This job with Fallon has forced us to do something that we’ve never ever done in our 17 years. We’ve never rehearsed. I know that’s weird to hear. We’ll do soundchecks, but that’s hardly rehearsal. It used to be where I considered Boise, Idaho, or St. Paul, Minnesota, as rehearsals, real shows would be L.A., New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Paris, major cities. What I’m finding out now is that with the show, that we have to rehearse hard for four hours, every day, we’re becoming better musicians, and we’re becoming way better songwriters. I feel like I’ve cheated us and cheated our fan base. All I can say is, damn, if we’d only rehearsed four hours every day since we started, we could have literally Lennon/McCartneyed the shit out of this industry. All our songs are based off a riff and a jam. If we really just applied that whole Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours of rehearsal thing, we’d be kings.
OS: It’s refreshing to hear you say that, because I feel artists just starting out feel that if they just play live all the time that their sound will grow organically.
?L: Having this job is making me feel like we’ve only been operating at 40% of our powers, when we could have really been kicking ass at 95%. Its gonna make you a stronger songwriter, socially it’s gonna make you stronger— well you still have to deal with the closeness of being in a band and seeing these people all the time, i.e. the social aspect—but from a creative standpoint, as a band, you will be better, and you know I’m not saying you’ll be the best in the world. I know Deerhoof puts rehearsal before performance, by no means of their imagination are they virtuosos on some David Murray/ John Coltrane thing, but you can tell that those guys practice and play together.
OS: It’s funny cause you mentioned Deerhoof, because I was actually spoke to them once about how hard they rehearse, it’s amazing how it all comes down to practice. Look at someone like Trey Anastasio from Phish. When that band was at its apex, it’s not because they noodled for 18 minutes on a song, it’s because those guys rehearsed, they said they would spend like 6 hours a day when their not on tour, just sitting in a room, they would play rehearsal games, they would turn off all the lights so you can’t look for visual queues, you have to listen. They would do this for hours. Trey felt that the whole dynamic fell apart because life got in the way. Kids, getting so big, interviews, tours, all the “distractions” that took them away from practice time as they got bigger— it may sound like we’re just improvising all this stuff, and a lot of it is, but really a lot of that improvisation comes from hours and hours and hours together in a room knowing where each other are musically.
?L: That’s why we do the Highline jam sessions as well. Tuesday, we played from midnight to four in the morning at the Highline. First of all, the pressure of practicing in front of an audience, that brings out an 7th sense that I didn’t know I had; that of an oppressor. The hardest thing about this gig is doing it each night. I guess I’m a perfectionist by nature, and I will say to all people that thought by taking this job and we were gonna phone it in from home. NO WAY! It’s funny when you mention the whole lights off rehearsal game, because we can’t all see each other during the show the way they have us set up, so this really does mean that we have to listen to each other. Which is always for the best.