Rooted in rhythm

Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson marches to his own beat as drummer, writer, producer and DJ


Music - buying it, making it, spinning it for others - consumes so much of Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson's life these days that sleep is a rare luxury.

But he wouldn't have it any other way.

When the Philadelphia-based drummer isn't in the studio or on the road with his band, the Roots, playing more than 200 dates a year, he's beating the skins for other acts (Jay-Z, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Jaguar Wright, Christina Aguilera, the list flows on). And when he isn't keeping time on the drums, he's accelerating or suspending it as a DJ on the turntables.

In the next two weeks, Baltimore hip-hop heads will get a generous taste of Thompson's impressive skills as a beat maker. On Saturday, he'll anchor the Roots at Rams Head Live, and July 23 he'll perform a set on the DJ stage at Artscape.

"People are under the impression that I'm just the drummer guy," says Thompson, 34. "But I write, produce; I DJ. If you want to inspect further, my true passion is with DJing."

It's a passion Thompson discovered during his childhood, not long after he started drumming professionally at age 7. Thompson's father, Lee Andrews, was the leader of a '50s doo-wop group, Lee Andrews & the Hearts. Although the drummer didn't take up vocalizing, he absorbed his father's eclectic record collection, which included 5,000 discs. Not only did the family music library spark Thompson's interest in DJing, it also served as the foundation for the artist's encyclopedic knowledge of black music - from be-bop to rock, from doo-wop to hip-hop.

In his teens, Thompson tested his burgeoning skills on the turntables at family barbecues. But he "got serious" about DJing in 1999, shortly after the release of the Roots' commercial breakthrough, Things Fall Apart. Named after the 1958 Chinua Achebe novel, the album hit the streets in February of that year. At that point, Thompson had been leading the band on the drums for nearly a decade. The bearded, Afro'd artist began to see how one art informed the other.

One of the most acclaimed groups in hip-hop and the only self-contained black band releasing major albums these days, the Roots are known among rap aficionados for its lyrical proficiency and musical adventurousness. The group's songs, driven by Thompson's hard, metronomical drumming, dexterously meld elements of various styles. The precision and spontaneity with which the artist plays the drums apply when he's splicing and mixing beats on the turntables.

"Having good rhythm helps," says Thompson, who last week was in Miami performing with the Roots. "I treat each, the drumming and the DJing, with the same scrutiny. ... There's a psychology and art to both gigs. You learn by trial and error. Like with DJing, I don't like to play more than one verse of a song. The first 10 seconds of `Make It Last Forever' by Keith Sweat, for instance, can get the adrenaline pumping in anyone between 30 and 35, then you go into something else. A DJ has got to be prepared with an in-depth collection and go with the energy of the crowd. And you're working off the energy of the crowd when you're onstage on the drums."

In the past six years among industry insiders and underground soul and hip-hop fans, Thompson's reputation as a DJ has mushroomed.

"He really knows the essence of hip-hop," says producer-rapper Kerry "Krucial" Brothers, who is renowned for his work with multi-Grammy winner Alicia Keys, acclaimed R&B newcomer Keyshia Cole and others. "I've heard his sets on this online show called The Lesson on BBC, and he's playing all these records where a lot of hip-hop samples came from. ?uestlove knows his stuff, and the way he mixes the music, what he plays is very eclectic."

Because of his celebrity, Thompson gets away with mixing disparate styles in his sets. Some DJs feel constrained by the demands of the dance crowd to play the same records over and over. But Thompson aims to blend elements of familiar tunes with unlikely beats.

"I resent the fact that DJs are held hostage by the audience," Thompson says. "Their palate is only used to what's fed to them. DJs don't get to break stuff [introduce new music] as much anymore. But I can get away with blending Johnny Cash with [Afro-beat innovator] Fela Kuti because Johnny's brand of country was so rhythmic and the guitars work perfectly with the drumming on Fela's records."

As he does when he's crafting Roots albums, Thompson the DJ weaves various musical elements to create a mood, building to a climax. This wild sense of musical experimentation has helped (and perhaps in some cases, hindered) Thompson's work with his Grammy-winning band, whose new album, Game Theory, drops in stores Aug. 29.

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