On the cusp of the new millennium, at Electric Lady Studios, three of the brightest lights in modern R&B made their masterpieces simultaneously. D’Angelo conjured Voodoo in Studio A. In Studio B, Common concocted Like Water for Chocolate. Erykah Badu polished up Mama’s Gun in Studio C. The common thread between these three artists? They all relied on Questlove to bring their finest albums to the finish line.
Twenty years on, Rolling Stone considers Voodoo to be the 28th greatest album of all time; Pitchfork deems Like Water For Chocolate to be one of the best of the 2000s; Mama’s Gun is one of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. While these accomplishments would be more than enough to hang his hat on, Questlove also co-founded the Roots, one of the most revered hip-hop bands of all time. Plus, every week, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon beams him and his bandmates into millions of living rooms worldwide.
January 20, 2021, marks Questlove’s 50th birthday. The drummer extraordinaire born Ahmir Khalib Thompson is a rare bird: he’s a magnificent rhythmic thinker and a magnetic TV personality. Soul, funk, adult-contemporary, R&B, and hip-hop artists tend to ring up Questlove due to his tremendous musical imagination and reliability as a second set of ears. But when Fallon needed not only a rhythmic engine for his show but someone to challenge Justin Bieber and Fred Armisen to silly drum-offs, he went with Questlove, too.
Questlove isn’t just a drummer’s drummer; he’s everybody’s drummer, which puts him on a tiny island with Buddy Rich, Sheila E., and Ringo Starr. To celebrate his big day, fans and the uninitiated alike shouldn’t only crank up the Roots’ classic albums, like 1994’s Do You Want More?!!!??!, 1999’s Things Fall Apart, and 2006’s Game Theory. Nor should they simply cue up one of many Tonight Show clips, like the one in which David Blaine grosses him out by swallowing a frog. Questlove’s prowess behind the kit and ability to ham it up on TV may be his most visible aspects, but his facilitative touch is just as crucial to his art.
If you want to dig deeper into the essence of this stellar artist, check out these 10 non-Roots albums that wouldn’t be the same without Questlove’s writing, drumming, production, or all three.
(Note: These credits were culled from sources like AllMusic and Questlove’s 2013 memoir; the Discogs Database may not reflect them.)
To hear him tell it, Questlove turned down an early opportunity to play with D’Angelo on his 1995 debut album, Brown Sugar.
“At the time, I was like, ‘Eh, soul singers in the ‘90s, whatever,’” he told producer Rick Rubin and author Malcolm Gladwell on the Broken Record Podcast in 2020. “Nothing about soul singing had moved me from any ‘90s offering in the same way it did [from] Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder, Lou Rawls … soul music.”
But when Quest’ heard the finished product? “Oh my god,” he remembered telling himself. “This could be the one.” While on tour with Fugees and Goodie Mob, Questlove saw D’Angelo’s silhouette in the audience. He led off a tune with an obscure Prince drumroll to impress the singer, throwing off the band but grabbing D’Angelo’s attention.
“That was an African communication thing,” Questlove explained. “I had to use my drum to tell him, ‘We speak the same language.’”
During the final day of recording for Things Fall Apart, Questlove and D’Angelo found themselves with seven hours on their hands. “We continued to play, and then it was like, ‘Come by next week. Come by next week,” Quest’ recalled.
While recording Voodoo, D’Angelo asked Questlove to drag the beat to a quasi-drunken degree, which Quest’ initially resisted. “The musician community’s going to laugh at me,” he protested, as he recalled in 2014 to Red Bull Music Academy. “He’s like, ‘Nah, man! Trust me. Use the Force!’ He used all these Star Wars analogies with me.”
D’Angelo’s and Questlove’s connection on that ineffable level made “Devil’s Pie,” “Chicken Grease,” and “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” slippery, haunting, and utterly unique. Virgin Records may have initially resisted this strange music, but it made at least one high-profile fan.
“To me, the D’Angelo Voodoo album is absolutely perfect,” Rubin declared in the podcast. “It was unlike anything I had ever heard before.”
Common’s breakthrough album and Voodoo are twinned in multiple ways. Not only did the Soulquarians collective — which then comprised Questlove, D’Angelo, Jay Dee, and James Poyser — produce Like Water for Chocolate, but each album contains a track meant for the other.
“We were working on Common’s [album] when we came up with this lethal jam,” Questlove said in 2002. “It was so good that D pulled me to the side and said, “I ain’t no Indian giver, but I ain’t letting Com walk off with this song.” That track was “Chicken Grease,” which Common traded for “Geto Heaven Part Two,” featuring vocalist Macy Gray.
While the 78-minute Like Water for Chocolate represented a musical growth spurt for the MC, the real draw is his energetic flow and socially conscious lyrics, which touch on economic malaise, racial disharmony, and Afrocentrism. The centerpiece is “A Song for Assata,” a seven-minute, Cee-Lo-assisted tribute to the Black Panther activist Assata Shakur.
In his 2003 memoir with Ben Greenman, Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove, Quest’ describes Like Water for Chocolate as “knee-deep in experimentation and excitement,” exuding “the spark of the new.”
Badu flecked her second album with heartbreak, stemming both from police brutality (“A.D. 2000,” about Amadou Dallo, a Guinean immigrant shot 41 times by the NYPD in 1999) and personal loss (“Green Eyes,” about her breakup with OutKast’s André “3000″ Benjamin).
The lineup on Mama’s Gun almost can’t be beaten: Questlove, bassist Pino Palladino, vibraphonist Roy Ayers, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, and other heavyweights. While working on the album, Questlove felt it was the end of an era.
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“Though I didn’t know it for sure, I was pretty certain it was the twilight of the Soulquarians,” he wrote of the collective of which Badu was a member, “the last gasp of that utopia that had started to take root a few years earlier.”
Partly due to Badu’s life experiences at the time — she was then raising her infant son, Seven, who she’d had with Benjamin — Mama’s Gun has an introspective, downcast feel and remains something of a neo-soul classic.
Questlove co-wrote, produced, and drummed on “Nowhere Fast” from the Sacramento underground rap duo’s major-label debut, and his presence elevates the track.
Over a skittering, heavily flanged boom-bap beat, MC Gift of Gab boasts that he’s his own man: “I’m just today, I’m just the way I am / I am every single day, I am / I’m February, April, March, and even May, I am.”
Twelve years later, Questlove called Blackalicious’s Chief Xcel and told him to DVR that night’s episode of The Tonight Show. Daniel Radcliffe — Harry Potter himself! — had rapped their track “Alphabet Aerobics.” “That was kind of surreal,” Xcel later told Westword. “The thing that’s cool about it is that it introduces new generations to our music.”
Mos Def and Talib Kweli had experienced critical acclaim with their joint 1998 album Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star. The plan was to make a similarly co-billed sequel, but Mos got tied up by his role in the 2003 heist flick The Italian Job. So Kweli opted to go it alone for Quality, which features production from the Soulquarians.
On that topic: Kweli himself was a Soulquarian, despite not being born under Aquarius like several other members. “[W]e also made special dispensation for Common and Bilal and Mos and Talib Kweli,” Questlove wrote in Mo’ Meta Blues. “And Q-Tip: how could we leave him out?”
Quality (read: as opposed to “Quantity”) is a nimble alternative hip-hop album featuring star producers like Kanye West and J Dilla. The slow jam “Talk to You (Lil’ Darlin),” which the Soulquarians produced and Quest’ drummed on, is a soothing rest-stop featuring the vocalist Bilal.
The English singer-songwriter was only 16 when she arrived with this debut album of all covers, drawing from the well of the White Stripes (“Fell in Love with a Boy”), John Sebastian (“I Had a Dream”), the Isley Brothers (“For the Love of You”) and other luminaries.
Stone’s parents reared her on classic soul and R&B, which set her apart in the pop landscape and gave her boomer marketability. Thus, The Soul Sessions introduced the artist through that lens; she’d step out as a songwriter on its follow-up, 2004’s Mind Body & Soul.
At first, Stone felt insecure considering her backing musicians’ pedigree: not just Questlove, but guitarists Nile Rodgers and Willie “Little Beaver” Hale, and Tom “Bones” Malone of Saturday Night Live and Letterman fame.
“It was weird because they’ve worked with so many great, great singers,” she told MTV News in 2004. “I kind of walked in, just like this little girl, and started singing. I felt a bit weird about the whole thing because ‘Should I be here?’ I have no experience; I don’t know what I’m doing. But it was cool because they made me feel really comfortable.”
As a showcase for Stone’s powerhouse vocal ability, The Soul Sessions shines, and it may not have been so without Questlove genially egging her on from behind the kit.
His third album, Ain’t Nobody Worryin’, is a mostly easygoing trip through a Bill Withers-like space, and one tune — “Change Your World” — comes courtesy of Questlove, who wrote and co-produced the chilled-out, strings-laced ballad.
“Happy Bornday to Questlove of the legendary Roots crew!” Hamilton posted on Facebook in 2015. The following year, the pair appeared on a Billboard panel with director Spike Lee, journalist Alan Light, and more to celebrate Prince’s life and legacy.
Questlove was on a roll as a producer when he got a call to produce a new Al Green record for Blue Note. The prospect of working with the man behind “Take Me to the River” and “Let’s Stay Together” astonished him.
“Al Green was more than just another soul vocalist,” he wrote in Mo’ Metal Blues. “He was a legend, or maybe even more than a legend. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to enter that neo-soul space and bring his sound into the present.”
“He was mad at us, mad at the computers, mad at technology and the passage of time and the nerve of young producers who dared ask him to do something that he, Al Green, didn’t feel in his bones,” Questlove recalled in Mo’ Meta Blues. “But after he boiled over, he calmed down, and he sang beautifully.
“Replay that ad infinitum, and that will start to give you some sense of how Lay it Down got done,” Questlove continued. That said, whatever sweat went into the album’s making paid off; it proves Green fits as seamlessly into soul music’s present as he did its past.
Seven years before “This Is America” topped the Billboard Hot 100, swept the 61st Grammy Awards, and clocked 55 million YouTube views in less than a week, Donald Glover burst into the rap game as a rare quadruple threat — a skilled actor, writer, comedian, and MC.
Glover introduced the world to his Childish Gambino persona with Camp, which features outrageous, braggadocious highlights like “Outside,” “Fire Fly,” and “Bonfire.” The propulsion system of that album when analog drums show up is none other than Questlove.
Five years after Camp’s release, Questlove heard Glover’s third album Awaken, My Love! and practically lost it. “I can’t even form the proper hyperbolic sentence to explain to D’Angelo why I woke him up at 4 a.m. to listen to this,” Questlove gushed on Instagram. “When is the last time someone sucker-punched me on this level?”
Beyoncé’s younger sister, Solange Knowles, has been on the scene since the 1990s, first as a backup dancer for Destiny’s Child and then a solo artist on her 2002 debut album, Solo Star.
She experienced a creative growth spurt on 2016’s A Seat at the Table, her meditation on her Southern family life and identity as a Black woman that catapulted her into Pitchfork stardom and Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
In a three-hour conversation with Questlove on his Questlove Supreme podcast, Solange got in-depth about A Seat at the Table’s themes.
“[T]here was a thread of regality I wanted to connect to the album and the visuals,” she said. “I really wanted to present Black people as, you know, [the] regal, stately beings that we are. I think that regality can be expressed in so many different ways.
And partly thanks to Questlove’s touch, so many other artists remain musical royalty.