The Roots frontman teaches a course in the classics to a handful of lucky music geeks
In January 2011, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the drummer and musical visionary for The Roots, walked into his office at NBC Studios in Manhattan and found a treasure. It was his 40th birthday and someone had sent him an anonymous gift in care of the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon show, where The Roots serve as house band. Inside the package was a USB drive containing dozens of “stems” — individual tracks and submixes, demos and discards — from the 1979 recording sessions for Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall.
Questlove was telling this story on a recent Monday morning to a classroom full of New York University undergrads. Since February, Questlove has co-taught a class in NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, along with another music major domo, Harry Weinger, the vice president of A&R for Universal Music Enterprises. “Topics in Recorded Music: Classic Albums,” has the trappings, and the rigor, of a serious college course. The setting, though, is not quite as traditional. Class sessions take place in a small, state-of-the art recording studio, with students seated, stadium style, above a big mixing console, where Questlove and Weinger lecture and cue up music.
There is no figure in pop culture quite like Questlove. He’s a world-class musician, a hip-hop icon, and now, thanks to his Fallon gig, a ubiquitous show-biz presence — a Doc Severinsen for millennials. He is also a self-proclaimed “black nerd” and music cognoscente, with a record collection so vast — reportedly, more than 60,000 albums — that he had to build a library to house it. He devours music history books, exchanges tweets with rock critics and speaks at academic conferences. When he was introduced to his hero, Prince, he was unable to play it cool, first choking back tears and then blurting out: “‘Dinner with Delores’ was the greatest ending in post-modern black rock history!”
"I thought, ‘This is my fault.’ Somebody has to properly explain why these records are important."
His love of black rock history and the musical naivete of a young journalist is what led Questlove to take the gig at NYU. Last July, NPR published a post by an intern, Austin Cooper, which blithely dismissed Public Enemy’s landmark 1988 album It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. (“Nothing grabs me and sucks me in,” wrote Cooper. “Given the choice, I’m going to blast Drake’s infectiously triumphant mp3s every time.”) “People were browbeating the intern, but I was browbeating myself,” Questlove said. “I thought, ‘This is my fault.’ Somebody has to properly explain why these records are important.”
With “Topics in Recorded Music: Classic Albums,” Questlove has started to explain. As teachers, Questlove and Weinger face a challenge: They have to bridge a generational gulf, to reach students, born and raised in the digital era, who are accustomed to hearing music in bits and bytes — who view vinyl LPs and even CDs as antiques, and who may never have heard of, let alone heard, those albums hallowed by their elders as canonical classics. At the same time, “Topics in Recorded Music: Classic Albums” is a rebuke to the traditional pop-rock canon, which has been tilted heavily toward music by white, often British, guitar-playing men. Questlove and Weinger’s syllabus is all soul, funk and hip-hop: Aretha Franklin, Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye, Prince, Public Enemy, De La Soul, the Beastie Boys, Mary J. Blige.
And, of course, Michael Jackson. That Monday morning, Questlove led the students through those Off the Wall stems, showing how Jackson, still a teenager, stepped out of the Motown factory system to claim his own auteurist voice. Questlove played demo versions of the bustling funk jam “Workin’ Day and Night”: Jackson humming, crooning and beatboxing, crafting the song’s melodic and rhythmic parts in real time.
“What I noticed about Off the Wall is that every song had between 38 to 50 tracks in it,” Questlove said. “It’s not what went into this record — it’s what was taken away from it.” He highlighted examples on the album’s title track: how the drummer modified the beat to make the song less generically disco, how Jackson’s multi-tracked vocals were chosen over the bland of professional background singers. “It just loses all of its personality and gets cheesy with those other vocalists,” he said. “It sounds like the Muppets.”
As a professor, Questlove wears several hats. He’s a fan and a connoisseur, a historian and an exegete; he’s a musician with inside knowledge, the veteran of hundreds of recording sessions. He’s also a sharp thinker on pop culture and race with a keen sense of the particular struggles faced by African-American pop stars. At NYU, he told the class “part of the troubling mission of post-modern black entertainers” is to cast off the legacy of certain caricatures, “to be seen as human beings.”
The class ended with a startling example of Jackson’s humanity: Questlove played multiple takes of the desolate “She’s Out of My Life,” recorded soon after Jackson’s breakup with the actress Tatum O’Neal, in which he audibly weeps while singing the final verse. Questlove told the class: “This is a rare moment where Michael really lets you see him, hear him. There are so many images of Michael — he’s a genius, he’s crazy. Here, he’s just a person.”
It was a triumph for the teacher — and a tale of the tape. And what about the tape? Did Questlove ever figure out who gave him the Off the Wall recordings? “I still don’t know who sent them to me.” He chuckled. “Some mystery person — I guess they knew about my thirst for knowledge. And that I like Off the Wall.”