For Questlove, The Pandemic Meant Embracing Quiet — And Buying A Farm

Jul 21, 2021
Originally published on July 21, 2021 2:07 pm

Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson is coming out of the pandemic a changed man. The co-founder of The Roots and the music director for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon did something he never thought he'd do — he bought a farm in upstate New York.

"The last year has really been a big lesson for me in terms of self-love," Questlove says. "I was world famous for being a machine. ... I thought chaos was the only way that I could exist. But now I embrace quiet, and I can hear myself think."

Now Questlove has ventured into a new arena: He's made his directorial debut with the documentary Summer of Soul, which tells the story of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of six free concerts held in what is now Harlem's Marcus Garvey Park.

The festival, which became known as the "Black Woodstock," featured performances from some of the biggest names in Black music, including Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone and B.B. King. But footage of the concert wasn't broadcast widely, and memory of the festival had faded from history — until the documentary.

He says one of the best things about the film is the number of people who reached out to him to say they had unexpectedly seen a loved one among the 300,000 concertgoers. One person spotted their brother, who later died in Vietnam.

"They never had a photo of him. And somehow we had a close-up of him for like six seconds," Questlove says. "So that was really emotional for them to see him as a 19-year-old. So every day this is happening, people are getting their memories back."

Read the edited and condensed highlights from the interview below and listen to the full chat in the player above:


On how Tony Lawrence, the organizer of the festival, pulled off securing such an amazing lineup

Somehow he just managed and leveraged one promise on top of another based on what we call "FOMO," fear of missing out, like that. That was his friend. He's the original FOMO baiter. ... So it's sort of that was his level of, of negotiating but really just the audacity to dream.

Looking at the contracts, I was really shocked at what life was back in 1969. Like who knew that you could get Sly and the Family Stone for just $2,500? I wouldn't even pay that to my opening DJ. I realize that the inflation was there still, but yeah – Mahalia Jackson was the highest paid at $10,000.

On why the Black Panthers provided the initial security at the Harlem Cultural Festival

The Panther known as "Bullwhip," he was at the time, I believe, a young teenager. And he explained to us that at the very beginning, the police didn't want to provide security for the festival, basically because of what had happened the year before – of all the cities that sort of went into turmoil during the aftermath of Martin Luther King's assassination, Harlem probably got hit the hardest of all as far as rioting is concerned. ... So their response was basically, "We don't want to be anywhere near this, because we're going to be outnumbered," and that sort of thing. But I believe that as the weeks went on, by the second week, then [the police] realized, like, we'll provide security.

As a result, there was absolutely no incidents whatsoever, which, I hate to say this, but in comparing it to that other festival [Woodstock], if even 5% of the things that happened at Woodstock happened at the Harlem Cultural Festival, then there is a possibility that you would have heard of this festival.

On what surprised him most watching footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival

I would say probably the Sly and the Family Stone performance is probably the most shocking to watch at the time, because ... up until that point, Black entertainers were hyper-aware of their presence in the world, even if it was the professional sense. And so kind of rule No. 1 was always this sort of unspoken, "I come in peace, I'm not a threat," kind of disposition that most Black people have to have in the workspace, especially during this time period.

Motown was especially known for sending all their acts to charm school and whatnot, and their whole disposition was basically like, you must wear a tuxedo all the time. ... And so the fact that Sly and the Family Stone is performing in their street clothes is such a shock to the audience. ...

And then suddenly to watch them have more excitement than the kids at the end of a set, that to me is almost like that should be taught in every university, like on how to really engage and perform and really have a plan that's unmarked and unprecedented and really execute it to perfection.

On learning to embrace all kinds of music, which came out of social survival among white peers

As you can see with all my peers in hip-hop, a lot of us ... thought that not getting shot in the club was the victory. 'Ah, OK. I'm 35 now. I'm too old to get shot in the club,' because that was always a concern in the '90s. Now there's a new getting 'shot in the club,' which is strokes, cardiac arrest, our mental health and whatnot. - Questlove

I knew early that my survival in whatever world that I create really depends on my education level, of what I knew, so that I could fit into that world. If you're in second grade and a bunch of your white musician friends are playing "Smoke on the Water," I have to investigate and study that.

A great example is [that], in order to watch "Billie Jean" on MTV, I had to sit through four hours of Def Leppard, of Phil Collins, of Thomas Dolby. ... Just sitting there just waiting for Michael Jackson to come on and suddenly all this other music is seeping into me. ... So I think in my case, it was a matter of social survival on how to relate to my friends at school. But then once hip-hop came along, then it's like, oh – everything I learned, I'm just going to add into this pot of stew I'm making. In a way it's genuine love, but in a lot of ways it's survival. ... I'm certain that if I didn't have this range of knowledge that I probably wouldn't be chosen to be on The Tonight Show.

On learning how white people see him as a threat

That's one of the first lessons that I was taught in my life. Every Black parent has to have this conversation with their kid. And the way that you internalize that information might affect you. ... One of the first lessons I had to learn about myself was how much of a threat I was, and that's weird. Like to be a kid who constantly [was being told], "You're so cute! His Afro!" and pinch my cheeks and all these things.

And then one day you turn 11, and your dad [sits down and tells you], "You're not cute anymore." And that's all I kept with me, like, "Oh, I'm not cute anymore. I'm a threat." And my whole entire life that never left me, to the point where if I'm in a dark parking lot, I'll sit in the car for hours because I'm afraid of the threat that I posed to people – when women are walking in dark parking lots in the hotel that I'm staying in or that sort of thing. "I'll let you do the elevator. I'll go in this one by myself." And so that whole way of life, that affects you as an adult.

On changing his signature hairstyle, an Afro with a big pick

I kind of retired it. ... I just think I got tired of searching for it. Like the panic of "I gotta go back and get my Afro pick" was really just getting on my nerves.

And when I was quarantining I'd pretty much been wearing my hair braids, just so I wouldn't have to deal with the nightmare of doing my hair for an hour every day. Occasionally I bring my Afro out, but I'm kind of enjoying the anonymity of what life was like wearing a mask and having my hair braided, like the places I could go to and not be recognized. It's been kind of awesome. So I'm enjoying my newfound freedom without looking like Questlove.

On taking time to care for himself during the pandemic

Had this not happened, I would have probably been on an express lane to the next life. As you can see with all my peers in hip-hop, a lot of us ... thought that not getting shot in the club was the victory. "Ah, OK. I'm 35 now. I'm too old to get shot in the club," because that was always a concern in the '90s. Now there's a new getting "shot in the club," which is strokes, cardiac arrest, our mental health and whatnot. ... A lot of us can't even get past the age of 60; so many of my peers in hip-hop are succumbing ... in their 50s. Like 10 a year. So it's a fight to the finish. I'm at probably the best place I've [ever been] right now. I've lost over 100 pounds. I'm happier. I'm just happy to be alive.


Heidi Saman and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Andrew Flanagan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, has made his directorial debut with the new documentary "Summer Of Soul." Questlove co-founded The Roots, which is, among other things, the house band for "The Tonight Show," where Questlove serves as the music director. He describes his new film as his chance to restore history.

The historic-but-forgotten event the film documents is the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of six concerts held in Harlem's Mount Morris Park, which is now called Marcus Garvey Park. It was free and open to the public. And tens of thousands of people attended, mostly Black and brown. The roster of performers representing different strains of Black and Latino music included Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, B.B. King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The 5th Dimension, The Staple Singers, Mahalia Jackson, Ray Barretto, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln. The festival was one year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, during the period of the Black Power movement.

The concerts spanned from June 29 to August 24, overlapping with both the Woodstock Festival and the first moonwalk. About 40 hours of performances were recorded on video by Hal Tulchin. A couple of hours were shown on local TV in New York. But Tulchin was unable to produce it into a film or TV series in spite of trying for years to attract funders. The tape sat in his basement for about 50 years.

Just before his death, he signed over the rights to two producers, who brought on Questlove to turn it into the film that is now "Summer Of Soul." Questlove wrote about the period in Black music just after the festival in his book about "Soul Train." He has a new book that will be published in the fall called "Music Is History," focusing on 1971 to the present.

Questlove, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the film.

QUESTLOVE: Thank you.

GROSS: It's so great to be able to see this. I mean, it really is a historic document. Now, I'd like to start with a clip of Gladys Knight performing at the festival. And I think this is one of the real standout performances in the movie. And so we'll also hear a little voice-over in this, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SUMMER OF SOUL")

GLADYS KNIGHT AND THE PIPS: (Singing) I bet you're wondering how I knew - baby, baby, baby - about your plan to make me blue with some other girl you before. Between the two of us girls, you know I love you more. It took me by surprise, I must say, when I found out yesterday. Don't you know that I heard it through the grapevine? Oh, I heard it through the grapevine. Not much longer would you be mine - not much longer would you be mine. Don't you know that I heard it through the grapevine? Oh, I heard it through the grapevine. And I'm just about, just about, just about to lose my mind. Whoa, yes I am. Whoa, yes I am. Whoa, yes I am. Whoa, yes I am. Baby, won't you listen to me? Boy, take a good look at these tears of mine. Baby, baby, these tears I can't hold inside. Losing you would end my life, you see, because you mean that much to me. You could've told me and said that you were loving somebody else. Instead I heard it through the grapevine. Whoa, I heard it through the grapevine. Oh, not much longer would you be mine.

QUESTLOVE: Gladys Knight was everything to us. She was the queen of soul. She gave it to us good. And the Pips were working.

GROSS: So, you know, Gladys Knight says in the film that she wasn't expecting such a big crowd. And she seems like so happy to be there. And I think really probably no one knew what to expect. And you probably didn't know what to expect when you started looking at the many hours of video. So when you first started watching these approximately 40 hours of concert footage, what did you find most surprising or most exciting?

QUESTLOVE: I would say probably the Sly and the Family Stone performance is probably the most shocking to watch at the time, because, you know, up until that point, Black entertainers were hyper-aware of their presence in the world, even if it was the professional sense. And so kind of rule No. 1 was always this sort of unspoken I come in peace, I'm not a threat kind of disposition that most Black people have to have in the workspace, especially during this time period. So oftentimes, Motown was especially known for, like, sending all their acts to charm school and whatnot. And their whole disposition was basically like, you know, you must wear a tuxedo all the time. And, you know, you look at David Ruffin's performance in this film, and he's wearing a wool tuxedo and a coat, like, scorching in the middle of July.

And so the fact that Sly the Family Stone is performing in their street clothes is such a shock to the audience. Like, to look at anyone over the age of 22, 23, they're looking at them like they're aliens, like wait, we've never seen an intersectional band. We've never seen women play the trumpet. We never seen - wait. Why is - like, a white guy is the drummer in a Black group? Like, how good is if he's that guy? And they're wearing these - they're not wearing suits. What's going on here?

And then suddenly, to watch them have more excitement than the kids at the end of the set, that, to me, is almost like - that should be taught in every university, like, on how to really engage and perform and really have a plan that's unmarked and unprecedented and really execute it to perfection.

GROSS: Had there been a concert series like this before with tens of thousands of people, Black people and people of color in a Black neighborhood, like Harlem, before?

QUESTLOVE: Besides the previous two Harlem Cultural Festival events, which wasn't hardly the size magnitude of the one that happened at Mount Morris Park, I believe that that answer would be no. I do know that there were jazz festivals previous to this, but not to this very specific level in the inner city for Black people.

GROSS: The festival seemed to mean a lot to the people performing at it. You know, like, Gladys Knight seems, like, so surprised that there's such a big crowd. And The 5th Dimension is featured there. And I want to play a little bit of that because, you know, Marilyn McCoo just seems - and she's like the lead singer of the group - she just seems - you film her watching the video of her performance then, and she talks about how important it was for them to perform in front of a Black audience. A lot of people thought they were white because they were considered very middle-of-the-road, songs like "Up, Up And Away." So I want to play an excerpt of their performance - of The 5th Dimension's performance - at the Harlem Cultural Festival. And mixed in this will be a clip of of Marilyn McCoo watching The 5th Dimension perform in 1969.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SUMMER OF SOUL")

MARILYN MCCOO: He made all those wonderful gospel licks in his ad libs. Our producer said, OK, Billy, take them to church. Billy knew exactly what to do because Billy sang gospel in his teen years.

THE 5TH DIMENSION: You know, The 5th Dimension, we travel all over the world. And our main purpose for traveling is just to bring and spread a little love. Ain't nothing wrong with that, is there? Talk to me.

MCCOO: We were constantly being attacked because we weren't, quote-unquote, "Black enough." Sometimes we were called the Black group with the white sound. We didn't like that. We happened to be artists who are Black, and our voices sound the way they sound. And how do you color - that used to be one of our questions - how do you color a sound? That was one of the reasons why performing in Harlem was so important to us, because we wanted our people to know what we were about. And we were hoping that they would receive us.

THE 5TH DIMENSION: Come on.

GROSS: So that was Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis speaking over their performance - over The 5th Dimension's performance of "The Age Of Aquarius," which was a big hit for them. I had no idea that they had been confused for white, that they felt so bad about not getting recognition from Black audiences. It was very moving to see the significance that this had for her and for Billy Davis. And it just made me think about what it meant to the performers, you know, to be at the festival. Did you play the tape back for all the performers to get their reaction?

QUESTLOVE: Pretty much, you know, a lot of it was just to jog their memory. That particular moment that we just saw with Marilyn McCoo, I realized something. You know, it was sort of an unplanned question, and I guess when I saw an entry, I investigated further only because it's what I recognized in myself and my own career. I was commenting to Billy Davis that, you know, in all the performances I've seen of The 5th Dimension, I've never heard you use sort of your gospel growl, your James Brown sermon preacher (imitating James Brown) hey, dig it - you know, that sort of thing. And he was just joking, like, because I was happy. Like, we've never been in front of a crowd like this before. So it brought out my inner gospel preacher set thing.

And, you know, and I - in Marilyn McCoo - you know, it just opened the door because I realized that, oh, so this is sort of like when The Roots are performing and, you know, one night we're with Beck, the next night we're with Wu Tang Clan. One night we're with, you know, like, Soundgarden, the next night - or Rage Against the Machine. The next night we're with, you know, A Tribe Called Quest or the Fugees. And there's sort of again - code switching is sort of the overall theme for a lot of these Black performers, where you have to change your presentation to fit the situation that you're in to make the audience feel comfortable with you and for you to feel comfortable. And sometimes it's exhausting.

So when you see her cry, it's relief of finally being accepted by your own people, which is important. But it's also - it's very exhausting, you know. Like, it's juggling plates in the kitchen, like, 20 plates at a time. So I believe that when you see her crying, that's the exhaust feeling of a life of code switching sort of to make people comfortable.

GROSS: Questlove, for you, when you're playing for different audiences, you're doing that in part because you love so many different kinds of music. And you're so, like, musically knowledgeable and versatile. And people from all different kinds of music love you and want you to be on the same bill or to perform with you to back them up.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah.

GROSS: So do you think of that as code switching or as just, like, being loved by different audiences?

QUESTLOVE: Yes, in my heart, at the age of 50, I could say that I genuinely love every type of music you ever present to me. But I knew early that my survival in whatever world that I create really depends on my education level of what I knew so that I could fit into that world. You know, if you're in second grade and a bunch of your - like your white musician friends are playing, like, "Smoke On The Water," yeah, I mean, I have to investigate and study that, you know. And that's the thing. Like, I don't think I would have naturally had come to - a great example is in order to watch "Billie Jean" on MTV, I had to sit through four hours of Def Leppard...

GROSS: (Laughter).

QUESTLOVE: ...Of Phil Collins or Thomas Dolby. You know, and I go through that in my book. Like, it's just sitting there just waiting for Michael Jackson to come on. And suddenly, all this other music is seeping into me. And after seven or eight times of it coming on, you know these songs. So now it's like, OK, well, let me get the Van Halen catalog. Let me study them since I know them so well now, you know.

So I think in my case, it was a matter of social survival on how to relate to my friends at school. But then once hip-hop came along, then it's like, oh, everything I learned, I'm just going to add in this this pot of stew I'm making. So, yeah, in a way it's genuine love, but in a lot of ways, it's survival. It's using everything I know to - I'm certain that if I didn't have this range of knowledge that I probably wouldn't have been chosen to be on "The Tonight Show."

GROSS: Oh, sure. Yeah, no, of course. Because you have to know so many different kinds of music to be...

QUESTLOVE: You have to know everything.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Questlove. The new documentary he directed is called "Summer Of Soul." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF B.B. KING SONG, "LUCILLE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson. He co-founded the band The Roots, which is the house band for "The Tonight Show," where he serves as music director. He directed the new concert documentary, "The Summer Of Soul," which features performances from and interviews about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which presented top performers including Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, B.B. King, Mahalia Jackson, the Staple Singers, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln.

So Tony Lawrence, he was the host of the festival, but also the producer of it. And he's the one who got everybody to sign on. I'm wondering, like, how did he do that? I mean, he was not, like, a big-name producer. The previous couple of Harlem Cultural Festivals were pretty small. They were nothing like this. So how do you get B.B. King? How do you get Gladys Knight? How do you get Stevie Wonder to sign onto this? Like, what did he promised them? And did he deliver?

QUESTLOVE: Probably the most distinct way that I could describe it - if you're at all familiar with, like, Adam Sandler's character in "Uncut Gems," which is the bad version of this hustler, but it's almost like a person that will have to rob Peter to pay Paul, that sort of thing. Oftentimes, he would say that, you know, well, I talked to Stevie Wonder. And, you know, he's considering it, too. And of course, if you say that, then, you know, David Ruffin will say, wait, wait, Stevie's doing it? Well, hell yeah, I'm going to do it. And then, blammo (ph). Then you go to Gladys Knight - well, David Ruffin and Stevie Wonder is considering it. It's just adding on and adding on and adding on.

Of course, not having - like, it could have just started with I have the phone number of the Staple Singers. And somehow, he just managed and leveraged one promise on top of another based on the what we call FOMO - fear of missing out. Like, that was his friend. He's the original FOMO baiter. Like, you know, hey, Terry, if you want to do this thing that I'm doing next week, you know, the guys from Podcast America are doing it as well. Oh, yeah. I'll do it, Ahmir. So it's sort of - that was his level of negotiating. But really, it's just the audacity to dream.

GROSS: Yeah. You're a dreamer when it works out. You're a hustler when it doesn't (laughter). So...

QUESTLOVE: Exact - you're perfect.

GROSS: Do you know if he delivered on his promises? Did he pay people on time?

QUESTLOVE: He totally did. Looking at the contracts, I was really shocked at what life was back in 1969. Like, who knew that you could get Sly and the Family Stone for just $2,500 back then (laughter).

GROSS: No. Really?

QUESTLOVE: I'm like, I wouldn't even pay that to my opening DJ set. But, yeah. OK. Yes. I realize that the inflation, you know, is different.

GROSS: Oh, still (laughter).

QUESTLOVE: Still. But, yeah, Mahalia Jackson was the most - she was the highest paid at 10,000.

GROSS: So you were unable to interview Tony Lawrence. And my impression is...

QUESTLOVE: Or find him (laughter).

GROSS: Or find him, yeah. So do you have any clues, because he's such an important figure in all of this? Like we were saying, like, he's the person who got the commitments from everyone and made the promises and did the deals.

QUESTLOVE: I will say that...

GROSS: And he hosted it. So we see him a bunch of times, wearing a different outfit each time. Yeah.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah. We had a kind of a paper trail. We were, like, looking, you know? And somehow, like, we just lost track of him in 1982. We know that he had one son and that's it, and only because of, like - I believe, like, you know, he was also trying to establish himself as a singer and a recording career. I'm still hoping to this day that this somehow reaches him or a family member, somebody.

GROSS: Well, look; if he is alive any place in the world, I think he'll know that this film exists and will want to reach out to you. I can't imagine him not.

QUESTLOVE: Well, yeah, every day I'm getting a new revelation. Like, probably the best thing about this film is the amount of people that are reaching out to me saying that, oh, my God. My great-grandmother is 19 years old. We see her. There's one person who's never had a photo of their brother who died. I believe he had to go to Vietnam. They never had a photo of him. And somehow, we had a close-up of him for, like, six seconds. And that's their only view of somebody they have not seen in 50 years. So that was really emotional for them to see him as a 19-year-old. So every day, this is happening. People are getting their memories back.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here because it's time for another break. My guest is Questlove. His new documentary is called "Summer Of Soul." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOO-BE-DOO-BE-DOO-DA-DAY")

STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) Your precious sweetheart, she's so faithful. She's so true. Oh, yeah. Her dreams are tumbling, her world is crumbling because of you. One day you'll hurt her just once too much. And when you finally lose your tender touch - hey, hey, shoo-be-doo-be-doo-be-doo-da-day - her feet may wander, her heart may stray. Oh, yeah. Shoo-be-doo-be-doo-be-doo-da-dee, you're going to send your baby straight to me. I'm going to give her all the loving within my heart. Oh, yeah. I'm going to patch up every single little dream you tore apart. Understand me. And when she tells you she's cried her last tear, heaven knows I'm going to be somewhere near. Oh, yeah. Shoo-be-doo-be-doo-be-doo-da-day...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT TO TAKE YOU HIGHER")

SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE: (Singing) Hey, hey. I want to take you. Do you want to go? Hey, baby, got to show you. You light my fire. Whoo. Yeah. I want to take you higher.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's get back to my interview with Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson. He directed the new film "Summer Of Soul," which features performances from and interviews about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of six free concerts at Mount Morris Park in Harlem between June and August of 1969. Tens of thousands of people attended, and some of the most important names in music performed, including Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone and B.B. King. About 40 hours of video were shot at the festival by Hal Tulchin with the intention of turning it into a TV series or film, but he was unable to attract interest, and the tape sat in his basement for about 50 years until "Summer Of Soul" was produced. Questlove is also the co-founder of the band The Roots, which is the house band of "The Tonight Show," where Questlove is music director. He's also an author, and his new book, "Music Is History" - focusing on 1971 to the present - will be published in the fall.

So I have to talk to you a little bit more about clothes because we see a whole range of clothes in the documentary. So The 5th Dimension is wearing yellow shirts with orange vests that I think were fringed with red ties and blackish bell bottoms with stripes going down the side. And it's just an era where, like, fashion is really changing. Some of the collars are huge (laughter).

QUESTLOVE: Very huge, yes.

GROSS: Big collars are coming in. And some of the - you know, some of the performers are dressed very basically. Like, Gladys Knight is wearing, you know, like, a skirt and a top, and The Pips are wearing, like, beige matching suits. And, you know, Sly is dressed like Sly (laughter) with his big glasses and the big gold chain. So what are your thoughts now about dressing on stage, how you want to be, and do you think you've changed at all?

QUESTLOVE: You know, there's part of me that wants to look semi-professional.

GROSS: (Laughter).

QUESTLOVE: Because, you know, I mean, we're 50 now? You know, it's - I was just - you know, we just started doing our first shows in 16 months, like, a week ago. And, you know, we're all different people now than we were before we went into quarantine. So I myself was wondering for, like, this new album that we're doing, like what - like, what do we present? Do we dress our age? Or are we still, like, jeans and T-shirts? Like, what are we? So we're still trying to figure that out right now. But, you know, I still have my afro, and there's still holes in my jeans, and I love wearing ironic T-shirts. So for the time being, yes, we're still in our street clothes.

GROSS: What about the comb in your hair? It's not...

QUESTLOVE: You know...

GROSS: It's not there anymore, is it?

QUESTLOVE: I - yeah, I kind of retired it, not even as a mission statement; I just think I got tired of searching for it. Like, the panic of, ah, I got to go back and get my afro pick was really just getting on my nerves. So I just stopped wearing it. And when I was quarantining, I pretty much - been wearing my hair in braids just so I wouldn't have to deal with the nightmare of doing my hair for an hour every day. Occasionally I'll bring my afro out. But I'm kind of enjoying the anonymity of what life was, like wearing a mask and having my hair braided, like the places I could go to and not be recognized. Like, it's been kind of awesome. So I'm enjoying my newfound freedom without looking like Questlove.

GROSS: Yeah. So is it hard to not look like Questlove sometimes? Do you know what I mean? 'Cause when how you look becomes almost a brand...

QUESTLOVE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...There's a lot of resistance to changing it from fans.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah, and I think - yeah, I get the occasional, OK, we get it; like, can you bring your afro back? But, you know, I think I'm defiantly sort of in this thing where it's like, I'm not my afro.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

QUESTLOVE: Like, I know you guys, like, think - afro, Lego heart pick. So now that - you know, especially just - the person that I've morphed into this past year, I'm kind of enjoying him. You know, first, it was just convenience. Like, OK, I'm going to not wear my afro, wear my hair in braids, just wear, you know, dashikis and pajamas and sweats and Crocs. And, like, I became the man that I used to laugh at a lot.

GROSS: Why were you laughing at that man?

QUESTLOVE: Well, you know, just - you know, all my friends were like, you know, like, yeah, we live in a farm, and we live upstate in a cabin, and we do yoga every morning, and we take morning walks. And, you know, I used to just, behind their backs - doo, doo, doo, doo, doo (ph), like, that'll never be me.

GROSS: (Laughter).

QUESTLOVE: Like, I'm going to live in my bachelor pad and my, you know, my cozy 73rd-floor apartment and all that stuff. But yeah, I took a - just an assessment of what my life was during the - during quarantine. And now I'm - you know, I too own a farm.

GROSS: You do?

QUESTLOVE: Yeah. During the - during quarantine, my girlfriend and I got a spot upstate in New York - words I thought I'd never say in this lifetime. And I'm really enjoying it. Like, I like the quiet. I didn't think I'd like the quiet. I thought I had to be in proximity of a 24-hour pharmacy just in case of emergency - that sort of thing. But no, I kind of like the isolation and the serenity of it all. I didn't realize that that would serve me. I thought, like, chaos was the only way that I could exist, but now I embrace quiet, and I can hear myself think.

GROSS: Do you have animals on the farm?

QUESTLOVE: Not animals that I want. I mean, I...

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTLOVE: My girlfriend made me get two cats to teach me empathy, which is helping. So I'm a cat dad. However, you know, every day there's new fawn, new deer, way more rabbits than I'd like to see on my property. So yeah, I'm surrounded by animals, even though they're none that I've purchased or own myself. They're just there every day.

GROSS: I have to say, my cat is not famous for empathy.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So my cat would not be a good teacher.

QUESTLOVE: We got our kittens, like, 20 days after they were born, so I think they don't know how to be too-cool-for-school yet.

GROSS: So why do you need to be taught empathy?

QUESTLOVE: You know, again, the last year has really been a big lesson for me in terms of like self-love, in terms of - you know, I was world famous for being a machine, you know? Last time I was there, I'm sure we talked about me having 19 jobs and really not making time for myself but, like, always, like, trying to fill the day with more jobs and more jobs and more jobs and more jobs. Because even as a machine, as a 19-job machine workhorse, you know, my attitude was often like, well, I'm an expert at this thing. So listen to me, and duh, duh, duh, duh, duh (ph). Like, just because I churn out great product might not necessarily mean that I'm also pleasurable to work with, you know, or that I'm big on - or really good at communicating or expressing emotions and feelings and all those things. And so I'm sure that that's the seed that was planted to get to this point. I wouldn't even hesitate to say that had this not happened, I would have probably been on an express lane to the next life...

GROSS: Really?

QUESTLOVE: ...You know? And as you can see with all my peers in hip-hop, a lot of us, like, we thought that not getting shot in the club was the victory. Like, ah, OK. I'm 35 now. I'm too old to get shot in the club because that was always a concern in the '90s. Now there's a new getting shot in the club, which is strokes, cardiac arrest, like, our mental health and whatnot. So it's a wonder that a lot of us can't even get past the age of 60. Like, so many of my peers in hip-hop are succumbing at 52, 53, 54, 50 - like, in their 50s, like, 10 a year. So it's a fight to the finish. I'm at probably the best place I've - I am right now. Like, I've lost over 100 pounds. I'm happier. You know, I'm just - I'm happy to be alive.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ahmir Questlove Thompson. And his new documentary is called "Summer Of Soul." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NINA SIMONE SONG, "BACKLASH BLUES")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson. He co-founded the band The Roots, which is the house band for "The Tonight Show," where he serves as music director. And he directed the new concert documentary "The Summer Of Soul," which features performances from and interviews about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival.

I want to get back to the movie. So the festival was held in Harlem at a park there. And the security was provided - at least a lot of the security was provided by the Black Panthers. And it says in the movie that some of them were wearing, like, the Black Panther uniform of the beret and the, you know, black lapel leather jacket and everything so you can recognize them as Panthers. But some of them were just wearing plain clothes. There were also some police there. Did you get to interview any of the Panthers who were there?

QUESTLOVE: Yeah, the Panther known as Bullwhip. He was, at the time, I believe, a young teenager. And he explained to us that at the very beginning, the police didn't want to provide security for the festival, basically, because of what had happened the year before. You know, of all the cities that sort of went into turmoil during the aftermath of Martin Luther King's assassination, Harlem probably got hit the hardest of all, as far as rioting is concerned. And so in their minds, they were sort of like, you guys are absolutely crazy to - you know, this is like a keg of dynamite. Like, why would you guys even entertain this thought? So their response was basically like, we don't want to be anywhere near this because it's - we're going to be outnumbered and that sort of thing.

But I believe that as the weeks went on, by the second week, then they realized, like, OK, well - OK, we'll provide security. And as a result, there was absolutely no incidents whatsoever, which, you know, I hate to say this, but, you know, in comparing it to that other festival, I was going to say that if even 5% of the things that happened at Woodstock happened at the Harlem Cultural Festival, then there is a possibility that you would have heard of this festival but sort of painted in that Altamont light, you know, the position that Altamont has with the Rolling Stones being the tragic version...

GROSS: There was a killing, yeah.

QUESTLOVE: ...Being the tragic version of what happens at a festival. You would have probably heard about the Harlem Cultural Festival. But, yeah, 300,000 people over that summer in '69, and it was not one incident.

GROSS: I'm sure in the past year and while you were making the film, you thought a lot about the police and, you know, systemic injustice.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah.

GROSS: And you told me in a earlier interview that we did that you had uncles who were, like, career military people. You had uncles who were in the police.

QUESTLOVE: Yes.

GROSS: And I'm wondering how that's affected your thinking about police and your relationship with police.

QUESTLOVE: You know, it's weird now. You know, I came from a time period in which, you know, I was - again, hyper-awareness is a word that I use a lot. You know, that's one of the first lessons that I was taught in my life. You know, every Black parent has to have this conversation with their kid. And the way that you internalize that information might affect you. And in talking about - you know, when I was talking about my evolution to where I am right now, one of the first things - lessons I had to learn about myself was, like, how much of a threat I was, you know? And that's weird, like, to be a kid who constantly, like - women and people were like, oh, he's so cute and his afro and pinch my cheeks and all those things. And then one day you turn 11, and then your dad's sitting you down and telling you, like, you're not cute anymore. And that's all I kept with me. Like, oh, I'm not cute anymore. I'm a...

GROSS: You're a threat.

QUESTLOVE: I'm a threat. In my whole entire life, I've had to - I kind of - that never left me to the point where it's like, you know, if I'm in a dark parking lot, like, I'll sit in the car for hours because I'm afraid of the threat that I pose to people when they - you know, when women are walking in dark parking lots in the hotel that I'm staying in or that sort of thing, or - well, I'll let you do the elevator. And, ah, no, I'll go in this one by myself. And so that whole way of life, that affects you as an adult. And even, you know, in growing up, yes, I mean, I've learned early, like, you know, you got to avoid gangs in your neighborhood, and you got to avoid police in your neighborhood.

So I never had that - sort of even with my uncles and hearing them tell these nightmare stories of, like, their day of - you know, 'cause once you're in - kind of once you're in that situation, you're in a fraternity. And I would hear these constant nightmares of, like, what would happen down at the station with this shoplifter or that sort of thing. My uncle once told a story of catching three kids that shoplifted ice cream and how they were taken to the station and they were force-fed two gallons of ice cream as a lesson. And that used to give me nightmares. Like, you know, and that would be casual dinner conversation. Oh, how was your day, Uncle Rosy (ph)? And, yeah, you know, three guys had to come to the station, and, you know, we - and we had to - we force-fed them ice cream. And that never, ever left me.

So, yeah, I've - it's hard to even unwrap that box of how Black people tend to think of police as opposed to, you know, someone that's supposed to be your protector and that sort of - like, when your protector's your predator, that's a problematic life to live, you know? And, you know, and even in interviewing everyone for this movie - oh, God, the stories that Mavis Staples had to tell me, the fact that they were still using the Green Book almost, like - almost into the beginning of the '80s.

GROSS: To find out places that were safe for Black people in the South.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah, exactly. The Green Book was sort of like the Zagat guide or the safe guide for how not to get lynched, basically. And the idea of sundown towns, which is basically if you're Black and you're in this town after 8 p.m. when the sun goes down, you know, then you're not safe. You're either going to get killed or arrested. And so, yeah, Mavis Staples had these stories. Gladys Knight & the Pips had these stories.

GROSS: My guest is Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, and his new documentary is called "Summer Of Soul." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAX ROACH'S "EQUIPOISE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson. He co-founded the band The Roots, which is the house band for "The Tonight Show," where he serves as music director. And he directed the new concert documentary the "Summer Of Soul," which features performances from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival.

So the Harlem Cultural Festival that you document in the movie is from 1969. Two years later, you're born - 1971. You turned 50 this year. It's also the 50th anniversary of Philadelphia International Records, which means that Gamble and Huff started the company in 1971. And that had a really big impact on soul and rhythm and blues and...

QUESTLOVE: My life, too.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, 'cause you're from Philly.

QUESTLOVE: Well, my first six years of school was right next door to Philly International Records, so.

GROSS: Oh, I didn't realize that.

QUESTLOVE: Seeing Teddy Pendergrass get chased, (laughter) it was...

GROSS: No.

QUESTLOVE: You know, that was my Beatles, you know, "Hard Day's Night" - like, going out of school and - oh, yeah. Yeah, that's right. Teddy Pendergrass getting chased again, you know?

GROSS: By women?

QUESTLOVE: Oh, yes. All the - Jesus Christ. He'd pull up in that...

GROSS: (Laughter).

QUESTLOVE: ...Rolls-Royce, and my teachers would just (imitating swoosh) - you know, would just flock to him. So from first grade to sixth grade, seeing that had a big effect on me.

GROSS: 1971 is also the year that "Soul Train" goes into syndication. You wrote a whole book about "Soul Train." And it's the year that "What's Going On" is released by Marvin Gaye...

QUESTLOVE: Yes.

GROSS: ...Which is a big year because that was such an implicit protest - well, more than implicit protest. It was a protest song...

QUESTLOVE: Yes, it was.

GROSS: ...That became kind of like an anthem. So - I don't know. Your new book that's coming out in the fall is about music history from 1971, the year we were just talking about, to now. So just give us a little - I hope you'll come back when the book is published.

QUESTLOVE: Absolutely, I'll come back.

GROSS: But for now, give us a little brief preview, and maybe just talk a little about thinking about the year that you were born, which is - it's a big year in music.

QUESTLOVE: Yes, it was. I will say that, you know, at the time when I was crafting it with my partner, Ben Greenman, I was wondering, like, if it's possible for us to take one song, one seminal song a year, and sort of connect it to the evolution of not only music but of the actual history because the thing is, is that in the age of the internet, we've kind of blurred the time line between what is journalism and what is history. And I'll give you an example. So let's take - I'm going to skip - I know you said '71, but I got to skip to 1990. So let's take two very important songs in the history of hip-hop, which is "Ice Ice Baby" by Vanilla Ice and "U Can't Touch This" by MC Hammer. Now, at the time, yes, these are two of the biggest songs from albums that sold, like, 14 million units.

Now, in terms of - its popularity is one thing, but as far as, like, the credibility is concerned, as far as, like - you know, it's almost like, you know, what's more credible, John Coltrane's "Love Supreme" or, like, "Tea For Two" - both jazz songs, but, like, what do you take serious? And the thing is, is that in most credible circles, like, you wouldn't be caught dead spinning "Ice Ice Baby" or "U Can't Touch This" in the hip-hop clubs that I've gone to as a kid. Like, those are seen as more, like, commercial songs that mainstream America is into, not the real stuff that we listen to. Yet - and still, 20 years later, if I were to spin, which I do now - I spin those two songs, and it almost elicits the excitement as if I were playing, like, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or something, like, exciting. Like, people then sort of have this revisionist view of what they felt about the song. Like, oh, man, he's playing - like that sort of thing. Whereas, you know, 20 years ago, it would've been like, yo, man, why are you playing this? And so I think people often think that something has to be, quote-unquote, "deep" or like...

GROSS: Or authentic.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah. Like, the more eclectic it is, the more serious that it should be taken. And oftentimes we scoff at simplicity. You know, but, again, I still maintain that, yeah, most of the musicians I engage in, yes, they could write you, like, this really awesome, like, you know, 12-8 meter, you know, free jazz song. But, you know, if they really want to impress me, then it's, like, OK, write me your version of, like, Katrina & The Waves' "Walking On Sunshine," you know? Like, that song to me expresses everything that's, like, bursting with excitement. Someone once described that song as how a kid feels when you put more chicken fingers on their plate than they were expecting.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTLOVE: And that's something that's hard to capture.

GROSS: Well, I'm really looking forward to talking with you after your book is published in the fall.

QUESTLOVE: Thank you.

GROSS: And congratulations on the movie. It's just been great to talk with you again.

QUESTLOVE: Well, I thank you for having me, and I really enjoy doing your show all the time. Thank you.

GROSS: Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson directed the new documentary "Summer Of Soul," which you can see in theaters and streaming on Hulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SUMMER OF SOUL")

THE EDWIN HAWKINS SINGERS: (Singing) Oh, happy day. Oh, happy day, when Jesus washed, when Jesus washed, when he washed, when Jesus washed, he washed all my sins away. Oh, happy day. He taught me how - oh, he taught me how, oh, yeah - to watch, fight and pray. Oh, yeah, good God, oh, yes. Happy day. Oh, happy day. Oh, happy day. Oh, happy day. Oh, happy day. Oh, happy day. When I get to heaven - oh, happy day - I'm gonna spread the news - oh, happy day. Don't tell me not to...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's amazing. Looking at all the people on the stage, my first reaction was, my, God.

THE EDWIN HAWKINS SINGERS: (Singing) Don't tell me not to scream (ph). Oh, no. Oh, happy day.

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Ronald Brownstein, a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about politics. He's been writing about how Republican state legislatures are passing voting rights restrictions and other conservative legislation advancing Republicans' most conservative agenda in years and reflecting Donald Trump's stamp on the Republican Party. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF B.B. KING SONG, "WHY I SING THE BLUES")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHY I SING THE BLUES")

B B KING: (Singing) Everybody wants to know why I sing the blues. Yes, I said everybody wants to know why I sing the blues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.