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"Questlove Announces New Hip-Hop Is History Book - Pitchfork"




The Roots’ Questlove Announces New Hip-Hop Is History Book

The drummer and director reunites with his Music Is History collaborator, author Ben Greenman, for a new book about “the creative and cultural forces that made and shaped hip-hop”

By Matthew Strauss

March 7, 2024

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is releasing another book. The Roots drummer and acclaimed director will issue Hip-Hop Is History on June 11 via his own Auwa Books. See the book’s cover, designed by Reed Barrow, below.

Questlove wrote Hip-Hop Is History with Ben Greenman—the musician’s collaborator on 2016’s Something to Food About: Exploring Creativity With Innovative Chefs; 2018’s Creative Quest; 2019’s Mixtape Potluck Cookbook: A Dinner Party for Friends, Their Recipes, and the Songs They Inspire; and 2021’s Music Is History.

A press release offers the following preview of Hip-Hop Is History:

Questlove skillfully traces the creative and cultural forces that made and shaped hip-hop, highlighting both the forgotten but influential gems and the undeniable chart-topping hits—and weaves it all together with the stories no one else knows. It is at once an intimate, sharply observed story of a cultural revolution and a sweeping, grand theory of the evolution of the great artistic movement of our time. And Questlove, of course, approaches it with not only the encyclopedic fluency and passion of an obsessive fan but also the expertise and originality of an innovative participant.

Questlove won the 2022 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature Film for his directorial debut, Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). Along with his duties with the Roots, the drummer has been hard at work on a new version of The Aristocats.

Read the 2021 interview “Questlove on Restoring Black Music History and Making One of the Year’s Best Films.”

All products featured on Pitchfork are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.


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Pitchfork Summer of Soul interview with Questlove
Mar 10th 2024

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1. "Pitchfork Summer of Soul interview with Questlove"
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Questlove on Restoring Black Music History and Making One of the Year’s Best Films

The Roots drummer discusses Summer of Soul, his new documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, and the ongoing fight to give Black musicians their rightful due.
By Clover Hope

June 30, 2021

While the rest of America was celebrating the Apollo 11 moon landing in the summer of 1969, Harlem was awash in the sounds of soul, blues, jazz, gospel, and pop. There at Mount Morris (now Marcus Garvey) Park, it was a different leap for mankind. The Harlem Cultural Festival, a concert series held over six Sundays, featured a seemingly infinite Rushmore of Black music icons: a then 19-year-old Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, B.B. King, David Ruffin, and the Staple Singers, to name just a few. Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke. Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson practically ripped the clouds out of the sky with their gospel duet. It all started in the weeks before Woodstock.

And yet, the remarkable festival footage lay dormant for 50 years before the Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson unfurled it for his directorial debut, Summer of Soul. The documentary—in theaters and on Hulu July 2, after winning top awards at Sundance—functions as both a concert film and a loving artifact of Black music amid the Civil Rights Movement. “Never mind the moon,” one festival-goer says in the doc. “Let’s get some of that cash in Harlem.”

Questlove first discovered the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1997 during a Roots tour stop in Tokyo, where he sat in the Soul Train Café dazzled by a two-minute bootleg clip of Sly and the Family Stone’s set, shown on a video screen. “I didn’t know they were playing to an all-Black crowd,” he recalled to Pitchfork. “I saw the word ‘festival’ and thought, Obviously it must be in Switzerland or Montreaux.” Two decades later, producers unearthed 40 hours of lost footage from the late videographer Hal Tulchin and tapped Questlove to condense it into archival gold. It was no easy feat, with the original cut clocking in at three and a half hours: “Cutting 90 minutes was one of the most painful things I’ve ever done,” he said. The result is a breathtaking capsule of Black music history that gives as much energy and gravity to the performances as it does to artists’ and attendees’ relived memories of the event.

Talking over Zoom from his office at The Tonight Show in June, Questlove discussed the daunting task of chronicling and curating such a timeless display of grandeur.

Pitchfork: In documenting this type of lost Black culture, a powerful thing happens. It’s rewriting history by actually writing us into it. What sense of obligation did you feel while working on the film?

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson: When I was going through that funk of “ugh, I don’t know if I can do this,” my girlfriend snapped me out of it. Like: This is bigger than you. This is your chance to make history. It’s bigger than your nervousness of getting a bad review or embarrassing yourself in your directorial debut. This is your chance to right a wrong. It’s weird because the main motherlode of the interview weeks was March 13, 2020. And within days, the world was shut down. For half a second, I was like, I guess it was nice working with you guys, see ya. You’re watching death after death after death every night. Trucks of body bags on the corner. Who has the time to think about a movie when it’s like, is my mom going to be alive? After a two-week panic period, we got it together. We figured out inventive ways to conduct interviews. Mavis is a great example. We had this wheelie device that was like the Mars rovers, with a camera crew in the hallway of her apartment. They had to remote control this thing inside her apartment, and we did our audio interview that way. The timing of making this film changed this film.

Was there any point where you felt like people wouldn’t care?

Questlove: No. It was gold. If anything, it was an embarrassment of riches. It was too much. I kept this on a 24-hour loop for about six months straight. Slept to it. Traveled to it. It was the only thing I consumed. I didn’t watch any movies, television shows. Nothing. If something hit me, I wanted to get it organically. While the master reel was being reprocessed and digitized—which took like five months—anything interesting I saw, I noted. When I felt that I had enough goosebump moments, I curated it like I curate my DJ sets or like I curate a show. I work backward. Always start with the ending first, and then work my way to the front.

The Mavis and Mahalia moment in the middle is insanely moving. How did the emotions in these performances help you decide the sequence?

Questlove: The summit meeting between Mavis and Mahalia was one of the first things I saw. I knew it was so powerful; I didn’t want any interruptions. My first draft was three and a half hours, and that was my initial ending. But as we were cutting, we couldn’t help but see the mirroring of what was happening 50 years ago happening right now. My producer Joseph was like, “I don’t know if you want to go Kumbaya with this.” Once you force Mavis and Mahalia to the middle, it forces you to come up with an even stronger ending. By that point, I realized this is Nina’s moment to cap this off. With Nina at the end, suddenly, this film has an edge and energy to it.

When I got to the Stevie Wonder drum solo, I knew that was the gob-smacking cold-open shocker of all shockers. People have never seen Stevie Wonder in a sort of percussion context. So I figured that’s my little wink to anyone coming in with folded arms like, OK, what’s the Roots drummer going to do with this film? Of course, he’s going to do a drum solo. There’s a point where Stevie and his bandleader Gene are riffing. When Stevie comes on stage, that’s when Apollo lands on the moon. When he lightly mentioned it, you hear boos, and that was curious to me. Of course, growing up, I listened to Gil Scott and Curtis Mayfield. I’ve heard snide remarks about the moon landing in soul songs, but I didn’t realize the disdain was that strong. Once we heard boos, it’s like, whoa, let’s investigate. Unbeknownst to us, CBS Evening News’ Walter Cronkite happened to send a man-on-the-street (reporter). It was done in a snarky way, like, “While the world stands by to watch history, they’re in the park…”

Why hasn’t there been such attentiveness toward archiving Black music, and why is it important?

Questlove: I know that is my purpose. No one is more of a sentimental packrat than I am. I am a VHS-collecting, Super 8-collecting archivist. I’ll take all the first five years of Jet Magazine archives, and make my girlfriend angry because five other boxes of Right On! Magazine are in the living room. I was collecting for personal reasons. But I now see that this is important. Once I finished this, everyone was coming out of the woodworks, DMing me like, “Questlove, we have 19 hours of footage of this concert.” Wait, what?! Things I never heard of before. Somewhere between nine to 15 other incredible high-level events were filmed for posterity and rejected, so now it’s in the basement of UCLA or somewhere. I’m keeping my eye on the Universal Hip-Hop Museum that’s opening in the Bronx. I’m hoping they will preserve history. But all too often, Black culture is so easily disposable in every aspect. TikTok content creations, our slang, our music, our style. I guess the attitude has always been: It’s not a big deal. It’s just a dance; it’s just a concert. But it is a big deal. And I realized it was a big deal with our very first interviewee Musa Jackson. Initially, I was concerned because he was 5 years old (during the Harlem Cultural Festival). What 5-year-old is going to have true insight into the magnitude of what they’re going through? But when he talked to us, he was like, “This is my first memory of life.” He’s 56, 57 now. The common thing was that no one believed. Can you imagine trying to tell people, “Yeah, in Harlem, I saw Sly and the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder”? It’s unbelievable that this could be that easily dismissed.

We conducted this interview without any context, no photos, showed him nothing. Just: “Alright, tell us everything you know.” And it was almost like talking to a medium. You don’t believe him because he was spot-on with everything. He knew the Fifth Dimension had on creamsicle outfits. When we showed him the footage, the emotional outpouring started. I realized we’re giving him his life back. Even for Marilyn McCoo (of the Fifth Dimension). She’s done everything. She was in one of the first Black groups to win a major Grammy. I was wondering, why is this particular show hitting your heartstrings with the millions of things that you’ve done? And suddenly, I realized that she and I had something in common. No matter what job they have, every Black person in their workspace has to juggle code-switching. Between Motown and certain acts that wanted not to make it but survive, you had to code-switch.

No example is more obvious than David Ruffin’s performance. It’s in the middle of August. He has on a wool tuxedo and a coat. Why would he do this? And then I thought, man, you’d rather suffer and be uncomfortable in the name of professionalism. That’s something. That was implemented in him via his Motown charm school days. I asked Marilyn McCoo why I’d never seen them be this loose and relaxed at a performance before. She was like, “We’d been dying to perform for Black people for the longest.” At that point, they were the biggest act in the world, bigger than the Supremes. They had the No. 1 song. To them, it’s like, “We had to do this because this is our one chance to get to our people.”

What role have traditionally white-centric music outlets like Rolling Stone or Pitchfork played in overlooking the contributions of Black artists?

Questlove: I’m very shocked that you’re interviewing me (laughs). That means that a change is happening because this ain’t the Pitchfork of 15 years ago. I didn’t want to compare and contrast to the original Woodstock, but it was only in doing this film that I was like, Ohhh, I get it. Woodstock itself wasn’t the life-changing event. The life-changing event was the Woodstock movie. What made Woodstock great was the fact that we were told that Woodstock was great. I waited a long-ass time to finally open Prince’s autobiography (The Beautiful Ones) because closure is a hard thing. But there’s a chapter where Prince talks about his dad taking him to see Woodstock and Woodstock really speaking to him. He’s 11 years old, sitting in that chair, and he’s like, “This is what I want to do.” I sat there, like, I wonder if this film had come out and been held up in the same light and importance, would this have made a difference in my life?

This last year was exhausting, with platform after platform, vehicle after vehicle, series after movie dealing with torture porn, Black pain. I know the intent is to be authentic to the story, but it’s also sending a message that we have a high tolerance for pain. I didn’t realize how important it is to balance it with Black joy. I think about the millions of people out there that could have had their come to Jesus moment with this film like Prince did. Could it have happened? And even if it were completed, what would have been the platform that would have lifted it up? This film is potent enough now to work its magic in ways that it wasn’t allowed to 50 years ago. Black people and history—it’s a painful thing. That plays a role in why it’s easy to forget things. I’m very happy that people see this now. But it’s a deeper well that we have to dig, and this film might be just the beginning of it.

There’s an ongoing conversation about validation around institutions like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Oscars, which you DJ’ed this year. How do we avoid seeing the recognition in terms of validation? A word that’s mentioned toward the end of the film is confirmation.
Yes, that we’re even here. We are struggling for a space to exist. I consider myself in that spook who sat by the door position for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I’ve been there for seven years. Right now, I’m proud that my Harriet Tubman mission at least gets one person in. I feel like I’m ushering one person in at a time, almost like you have to do the Gettysburg Address the night before just to pray that they see your persuasive argument on why Chaka Khan deserves this. I’m trying to use my positioning and my platform now to make real, actual change. In the case of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, initially, I thought, well, it’s not the voting staff. If it were just the 40 of us, it would be the most progressive thing ever because the 40 of us in the room know what time it is. But once the votes go to the general public, it’s like, this guy who was a former label CEO in 1961, is he going to think Janet Jackson deserves her moment? And that’s where things fall apart. So yeah, I’m screaming to the rafters about this actively.

Is the value of a Grammy or an Oscar purely financial? What value does it still hold for Black artists?

Questlove: I was one of those people that was too cool for school. Before my girlfriend moved to the crib, all my awards, all my Grammys, were in the bathroom. Like, “I don’t care, whatever.” And she’s like, “That’s a waste. If that means nothing to you, why do you bust your ass 20 hours a day to run in a maze if this will wind up next to the incense on the toilet? You do care, don’t you?” Right now, I am going through a personal transformation. A lot of us put on this protective shield. Being too cool for school, cynical. This performative defense mechanism that I’m using—is this what it really is? This is from someone who has broken two Grammys and used them as door stops and trained himself to believe that he didn’t care. But I’ll be the first to be like, “Wait a minute, how come we didn’t get invited? What the fuck?” At least as of June of 2021, I do see that celebrating is important. And acknowledging history is very important.

There’s a related conversation around Fifth Dimension and music segregation in the film. Why was it essential to cover those topics?

Questlove: I mean, I related to that. I told (5th Dimension singer - c71 correction - Pitchfork originally wrote "rock guitarist") Billy Davis, “I’d never, ever seen you sing like a gospel preacher before. I never knew you had a growl in your baritone.” And once Marilyn McCoo started to open up about the pain that it was to play both sides of the fence and getting criticized from both ends—not being Black enough, not being white enough—that hit me. I could relate to that as a person that had to tour opening for the White Stripes and then spend a month and a half with Lauryn Hill. Again, it’s code-switching. It’s an exhausting thing when you can’t just be yourself.

At another point, Mavis talks about Black music overlap and recalls her dad telling her, “You’ll hear every kind of music in our songs.”
You know, at the time when we were working on that segment, “WAP”-gate was happening. And I was trying to explain to friends of mine that, believe it or not, this is nothing new. When Ray Charles was in his stride in 1963, the Black church was upset with him. Mavis explained that we had one foot in the gospel world, but we also had another foot in the blues/folk world. 1969 was this transformative time for everyone, for Civil Rights people, for Black people, especially for the music community in terms of what they were embracing. It was important for me to contextualize certain expressions. The irony of it all is that Jimi Hendrix is the one artist who requested to do this festival and got rejected. Jimi had a strange relationship with the Black community at that time. Like, “He’s a little too wild for us, so he’s on that side of the fence.” He got to a point where he got tired of being the freak-show darling of the industry, so he disbanded his group, got an all-Black group—the Band of Gypsys—and asked (the Harlem Culture Festival), “Can we perform? We want to do a blues set.” And they said no. He’s not even deterred; he winds up booking all the after-shows, so for three weeks, Jimi Hendrix plays at these blues clubs (in Harlem) with Freddie King, his blues mentor.

How can the industry do better at providing a platform for images of Black joy?

Well, I got about six more projects down the pike (laughs). I need y’all to keep this energy up. The main takeaway is that storytelling is important. I’ve heard Gen Z and millennials say, “All y’all do is diss us, and y’all never talk to us.” The older people are like, “I don’t know what the fuck they saying. That ain’t hip-hop, that’s mumble.” I think generationally speaking, there has to be a meeting in the middle and a real understanding of the culture and not so much disdain for history. Yes, Disney is presenting it through my filter, but it’s also important that we start to take our history seriously. We have to hold our own history up right now.


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