Questlove Aims To Save Your Brain: 'Creativity Might Be In Jeopardy'

May 1, 2018
Originally published on May 3, 2018 3:29 pm

As a DJ, music and television producer, one-time NYU professor, founder of the online community Okayplayer — and, oh yeah, the drummer and bandleader of The Roots — Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson can't seem to stop adding hyphens to his job.

Lately, he's found distinction as an author as well. His latest book, out now, is a meditation on creativity entitled Creative Quest. Speaking with NPR's Audie Cornish, Questlove shared his theory on why channeling creativity is a dying process due to distractions at our fingertips.

"Dare I hesitate to say that creativity might be in jeopardy because one of the key components of being creative is boredom and silence and isolation," he says.

In order for Quest and The Roots to create with someone new, the band sets aside time to get lost in the things that inspire them. That means listening to records together — "I'll get a feel of what they like from there" — and having jam sessions. Quest says one of his greatest lessons as an artist came when The Roots had to adjust from life as a touring band to a house band on NBC's The Tonight Show.

"The nature of the group was so spontaneous and so jam-based that we didn't want to ruin it," he says. "Once we got to The Tonight Show and the eight of us are in this really small room facing each other ... it was one of the hardest things ever to make music. But after a month, it's probably the best thing that ever happened to us. And we're better musicians and creators now than we've ever been — to the point where I discount the first 17 years of our career. I'm like, 'I cheated you guys. I'm so much better now as a musician.' "

Hear the full conversation on All Things Considered at the audio link.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Our next guest is Ahmir Thompson, also known as Questlove. He's a drummer and a bunch of other things.

AHMIR THOMPSON: People know me as a founding member of The Roots. I DJ occasionally. I was a professor at NYU - oh, a television producer. I work for "Soul Train." I own what I feel is the original social media called okayplayer.com. Oh, and I produce music.

CORNISH: You also produce music.

THOMPSON: And the show's over.

CORNISH: Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JIMMY FALLON")

THE ROOTS: (Singing) Hey, hey, hey, hey. Hey, hey, hey, hey.

CORNISH: Of course he's got that regular gig with "The Tonight Show," and he writes books. He just finished his fourth. It's called "Creative Quest." So this is a guy who knows a bit about creativity. And with this book, he digs into how to nurture that process.

THOMPSON: Dare I hesitate to say that creativity might be in jeopardy because one of the key components of being creative is boredom and silence and isolation.

CORNISH: Right, and these are rare commodities today - right? - when you have the antidote to all of that in your pocket.

THOMPSON: I mean, even as I speak to you now, like, I have both my phones in my hands just in case something comes up.

CORNISH: Come on, man.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: No, I can chew and walk at the same time, so...

CORNISH: We're talking here (laughter). In the book, you talk about people from all walks of life that you talked to about creativity who are in different artistic mediums. Is there someone who you encountered where you thought, that creative process is really something special?

THOMPSON: Chris Rock - watching him prepare for his Netflix special. You know, if it's an artist like Beyonce, if it's Bruno Mars, if it's someone that's real big in music, they have the luxury of practicing behind closed doors. But for comedians, the choices are far and few between. And a lot of them frequent the Comedy Cellar in the village. They're not doing their full-blown shtick. They have their notepads. They have their glasses - their reading glasses on. And they're - you know, they're looking. OK, what do you want me to talk about? Politics - everyone does that. Let's talk about asparagus, OK?

And he turns the page, and then he just rattles off some jokes. And, you know, if it's a spark there, he'll riff on it. If not - oh, y'all didn't like that - wow, damn. I see him working in real time. And then when it's over, they all go upstairs, and then they critique each other. And then I'll watch him work through the process over and over and over again. And then you literally watch it morph into gut-busting laughter, like, a year later.

CORNISH: Hearing you talk about Chris Rock leads me to another point in the book how working on "The Late Show" and "The Tonight Show" affected how you and the group think about collaboration and creativity as you are sort of supporting acts that come on these shows. At a certain point, you're just sitting in a room looking at each other, and some suit somewhere has said, OK, guys, create. To you, what's the first step in making that work?

THOMPSON: Always throwing the suit out the door.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: I never start the work immediately. I'll set aside some time where we could just listen to records. Usually I get a feel of what they like from there. It's a slow process to start jamming.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MILEY CYRUS: (Singing) We run things. Things don't run we. We don't take nothing from nobody, yeah, yeah.

THE ROOTS: (Singing) It's our party. We can do what we want.

CORNISH: It kind of reminds me of when a person is in their teens or college age and they are building intimacy with another person, right? Like, you establish a friendship on fast forward.

THOMPSON: It's the hardest thing in the world. When we started "The Tonight Show," maybe The Roots rehearsed 10 to 15 times in our entire duration to that point. The nature of the group was so spontaneous and so jam-based that we didn't want to ruin it. Once we got to "The Tonight Show" and the eight of us are in this really small room, the small quarters facing each other, it was one of the hardest things ever to make music. But it's probably the best thing that ever happened to us, and we're better musicians and creators now than we've ever been, like, to the point where I discount the first 17 years of our career. I'm like, I cheated you guys. Like, I'm so much better now as a musician.

CORNISH: What's your advice to someone who wants to work on kind of building their creative life, especially later in life?

THOMPSON: That is so hard. This is why a lot of creatives that we love - usually they get started at the age of 5.

CORNISH: Let's say you're starting a little later than 5 (laughter).

THOMPSON: Well, I mean, there's some people - OK, how late? Like, I don't want to be that person being like, you know, give up on your dreams; you know it's not going to happen. But you have to be ready for the relentless uphill climb. Imagine being in the gym and being on the treadmill. Like, think of the hardest level with the incline on "Smooth Criminal" level. Like, it's like that.

CORNISH: (Laughter) Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal"?

THOMPSON: Yeah, the Michael Jackson "Smooth Criminal" lean. Like, that - you're going to have to be...

CORNISH: (Laughter) That is your treadmill song.

THOMPSON: Yeah. That's the struggle you're going to have to go through. Now, if you're willing to go through that and bleed for it, then, yeah, more power to you. Keep doing it.

CORNISH: Ahmir Questlove Thompson - he's the author of "Creative Quest." Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

THOMPSON: I appreciate being here. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMOOTH CRIMINAL")

MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) Annie, are you OK? Will you tell us that you're OK? There's a sound at the window. Then he struck you - a crescendo, Annie. He came into your apartment, left the bloodstains on the carpet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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