How Questlove Is Bringing Music Back to Television

The Roots bandleader isn’t just churning out viral music bits on ‘The Tonight Show.’ Now he’s created a new TV series that could turn music on television into an event again.

Anthony Barboza/Getty

When Ahmir Thompson was a little boy, his parents would wake him from a dead sleep at 1 in the morning to watch TV shows about music—Soul Train and Midnight Special were favorites. In the three decades since, a lot has changed when it comes to the role of music on television. (For one, an entire network, MTV, was founded on the basis of playing music on television, and has since abandoned its mission of showcasing music almost entirely.)

Now Ahmir Thompson is better known as Questlove, and he’s the one who’s actually making the music on TV that airs in those late-night hours. He’s the leader of The Roots, the house band for Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show, and one of the masterminds behind the late-night talk show’s brilliant musical bits that you’ve probably seen as they go viral: Justin Timberlake’s “History of Rap;” accompanying Idina Menzel on “Let It Go” with classroom instruments; having Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Fallon as Neil Young cover Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy.”

“The perception of me being a music know-it-all or music geek or whatever the world sees me as, a musicologist, a lot of my education was from the music I took in,” Questlove tells me. “And not just the records, but from watching it on television.”

Armed with that education and the clout that a platform such as The Tonight Show can give an artist, Questlove is now doing his damnedest to ensure that music on television is just as important—and just as digestible—as it was in its heyday. His first step: creating a television show that both forces your favorite artists out of their comfort zones and reflects our own eclectic modern musical tastes.

SoundClash, which Questlove created and executive produces, premieres Wednesday night on VH1. The idea is both simple and bold: Take three artists from three wildly different genres and have them play a concert together. Each artist has a chance to take the spotlight, and after an hour of music that transitions from rap to rock to pop and back again, the three acts unite for one collaborative performance.

Wednesday night’s episode features T.I., London Grammar, and Fall Out Boy. Next week, Sia, Ed Sheeran, and Grouplove will clash their sounds.

The result is an hour of music that actually reflects a person’s iPod—does anyone really only listen to one genre of music?—and a TV show that allows you to see artists perform like you’ve never seen or heard them perform them before. In other words, it’s music television that begs to be seen, at 1 a.m. or otherwise.

Ahead of SoundClash’s premiere we had the chance to chat with Questlove about his music-TV education, and how that gave birth to his new show. The biggest takeaway: This is someone who really knows his music.

At one point did you think, “T.I., London Grammar, and Fall Out Boy together”? How did this idea come about?

I wanted to pitch a show that’s collaborative, and I’m certain that when we get even farther in the process of doing the show it will get more advanced. Selling artists on the idea of stepping outside of their comfort zones can be a little risky sometimes, especially if you’re doing a brand of music that doesn’t leave room for a lot of spontaneity. Some artists rely more on their Mac computers than they do a band. It’s a challenge. I really just wanted a show where you could mix and match people. What if I put this particular act on that stage? What happens if this person does a stripped down version of this song? The Roots have always been on that level. Back when we used to do 275 shows a year, by the time you get to the 100th city, you get tired of doing the same thing. You have to make it fun for yourself.

Were there artists you had in mind when you were envisioning this show that helped you crystallize the concept and what you wanted it to end up like?

The artists I have a strong, solid, personal relationships with, most of them would be considered “A-listers,” so it’s a harder sell to get people of that level. There’s a funny story of this time when I was bandleading Jay Z’s Radio City Music Hall show back in 2006. We decided at the last minute to do this really complex version of “Can’t Knock the Hustle.” Beyoncé had to sing it. It was really complex jazz chords, and it was already hard enough! It was hard enough visualizing it, let alone getting her to execute it. But she’s the kind of artist who welcomes a challenge. Even with The Tonight Show, we ask artists if they mind if we take them out of their comfort zone. Some of them are wide open. “Yeah, dude, it’s a cool factor. I want to hear my music as done by you guys.” I forget that I’m on one of the best music platforms for television right now. It’s like being a kid in the candy store.

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When you approached T.I., London Grammar, and Fall Out Boy to do this, what was their initial response to it?

The artists who are doing these first programs, a lot of them were overtly excited about it. Ed Sheeran especially. He was like, “Dude, you gotta do it with me.” I was like, “I don’t know if NBC will let me do that right now.” Patrick Stump [of Fall Out Boy] and I go way back. He’s a music nerd. Truth be told, Patrick and Diplo [who hosts SoundClash] were neck and neck in my dream wish list for this show. Obviously this is a show that’s tailor-made for me, and if I couldn’t do it myself, I wanted a music nerd. These are cats who are always trying to one-up you on a particular song that you don’t have, or a particularly beat that they discovered, or, “Have you heard this version of George Michael’s 1981 ‘Careless Whisper’ demo?” So I wanted someone who just loved music.

I’m the kind of person whose iPod is schizophrenic when it comes to genres, everything from bubblegum pop to hardcore rap. I feel like I can’t be alone in that, which is why I think SoundClash is such a good idea, blending artists of different genres together. Do you think that mirrors our musical tastes these days?

There’s a term I love called “shuffle culture.” That’s how we live now. We live in a shuffle culture society. Twenty years ago I used to have the biggest Giants backpack. That backpack was strictly for however many CDs I could squeeze in there. If I wanted compilation CDs, I’d have to make my own. To be honest with you, I still carry a big bag with about 8 or 9, maybe 10 terabytes worth of music in a bag with me. I always joke, “You never know when you’re going to need a 1974 Polish jazz band reference.” I carry every episode of Soul Train, every episode of Midnight Special. Me and a network of about 12 DJs have pretty much converted a lot of record collection. I haven’t even put a dent in mine. I have about 70,000, and I’d say of those I probably put a dent in about 9,000. But between all of us, there’s a lot of music. And that’s how society is. I catch myself just pressing “random, random, random—oh, I like that!—random, random, random,” just fast-forwarding to the part I like and then pressing next.

Right. I get bored listening to the same kind of artist and song constantly. I like changing it up, and I think you see that in the music charts, too, which are getting more and more diverse.

To me it just feels natural. Really, it’s an old idea. In my head, I would like to think that Sound Clash was like making Midnight Special With a Twist. When I was kid, the Tonight Show would be 90 minutes, and then from 12:30 to 2 a.m., Burt Sugarman’s Midnight Special would come on and I used to watch every episode faithfully. When they got reissued on DVD I’d still watch that stuff. Then, it was a time when Ted Nugent was actually cool. And you’d have Nugent, Earth Wind and Fire, Edgar Winter, Steve Miller Band, the Pointer Sisters, and James Brown all on the bill. There’s a lot of classic prestige acts that I want to bring aboard. Groups from the ’70, the early ’80s. This show isn’t just going to be the flavor of the moment right now.

The episode builds up to the collaboration at the end where the three acts perform one song together. I’ve always been a fan of those kinds of performances at the Grammys and on awards shows. Do you have a favorite moment like that from the past, where artists from different genres collaborated?

The quintessential moment where I saw that was at a time I was so young that I didn’t know it was history. I remember my sister being mindblown that Bing Crosby and David Bowie were singing “The Little Drummer Boy” together. That was a major, major deal.

That was the best.

I’ll tell you what’s funny. There was a point when there were talks that The Roots and Jay Z were going to collaborate. I can count the number of band meetings that The Roots have had on one hand. Normally band meetings are emergency, like, “Should we bail him out or get him a lawyer?” kind of emergencies. Not, “Should we collaborate with Jay Z?” That’s how divided hip-hop was at the time. It was like, he was the anti-Christ and we came from a snobby, purist direction. We had a two-hour band meeting on the pros and the cons, debated whether we were going to lose our fan base or destroy our career. But it ended up being one the coolest things. After that, that was all she wrote.

Between SoundClash and The Tonight Show you seem to be changing the conversation about the relationship between music and TV, by making music a buzzy part of TV the way it hasn’t been since MTV stopped playing music altogether. How seriously do you take the platform you’ve been given with The Tonight Show?

Not only does my life depend on it, but my life is based on it. There’s no record that I make that I’m not imagining the 16-year-old me wanting to buy the first day it’s out. In my head, all I’m thinking about is, “I gotta make something that 16-year-old Amir, whose parents would wake him at 12 a.m. to watch TV, would watch.” A lot of my favorite shows came on at 1 in the morning. My parents were cool enough to wake me up for them. But Soul Train came on at 1 in the morning. Saturday Night Live, you had to tune in late to watch the music guests on that show. That is the crux of my life. For me, it really wasn’t even a save-the-world thing. I didn’t even know that I had enough cool factor to even suggest this show. It was just a wish-list thing. I have so many more ideas I would love to do, too. Especially for music game shows. Do you remember Remote Control? I dream of music shows. I want a show that music geeks would watch as seriously as Jeopardy! fans watch Jeopardy!. That’s what I want.

What is the relationship between music and television?

The thing is now we live in a society in which you can, at the click of a button, watch all the music you want to at the computer. But there is still a part of the population that isn’t as advanced in that direction. But I’m one of those people, because I spend a lot of my time in airplanes. To me, though, television is still a magical medium and it still has life in it. And at that, music, in my opinion—it sounds clichéd—but it calms the savage beast. The perception of me being a music know-it-all or music geek or whatever the world sees me as, a musicologist, a lot of my education was from the music I took in—and not just the records, but from watching it on television.