“The Internet offers you that platform to be your own God or your own critic,” Questlove noted on the Skirball stage last night, while reflecting on the reason he recently decided to teach his classic albums class here at NYU. “I’m not here to force anyone at gunpoint to see my way… I just wanna show everyone a different option.”
Appropriately, this began a night of discussion between Questlove, David Byrne, and moderator Jeremy McCarter that was neither overly reverential nor critical, but rather, a charmingly thoughtful opener to the Public Theater’s spring Public Forum series of culturally guided conversations. All the same though, the evening’s casually academic tone didn’t make it any less awesome when The Roots’ drummer was introduced to chuckles and applause as “Professor Questlove.”
But that’s not to say that either Byrne or Questlove feel there exists any such thing as an “approved canon,” even while discussing albums of undeniable impact (such as the one that Questlove claims helped inspire his class upon seeing it discussed an NPR blog – Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back). Byrne even began by dismissing the notion that one is “a better person for liking Mozart over pop music” as “complete bullshit,” though Questlove conceded that since his father holds classical music to that higher standard, he wasn’t aware of The Roots’ first album for the first three months of its release.” Naturally, this led into the musical pair further breaking down industry customs between now and then.
“Everyone’s contextualized in a movement,” Questlove said. “The funeral of our [neo soul] movement was Chappelle’s block party movie.” Yet as Questlove bemoaned how “the biggest mistake hip-hop made” was “erasing the idea of underground,” with the inherent subculture ruined by a “winner-take-all mentality,” Byrne expressed amusement that we’re long past the days where “you had to have a record,” back when Talking Heads were just starting out at the Bottom Line in 1977. Though while for Byrne starting out, “the idea that a band would just be out there, working stuff out” was unheard of, the two came together on the industry’s inherently mercurial nature, regardless of which club a movement started inside, or outside. “Hip-hop has become now what it was once against,” added Questlove. “Hip-hop is Studio 54.”
Both confessed that they’ve never felt temptation to betray their artistic impulses though, for even as The Roots’ first few critical darlings proved relative commercial nonstarters, Byrne noted that how that was when there existed a patience in the music world that’s basically now gone. “There was this feeling that if you were selling enough records, you didn’t need to sell a million,” Byrne said. “You got to make another record.”
The industry talk dissipated near the evening’s conclusion though, as the conversation gravitated towards topics like Questlove’s main “bucket list target” for collaboration (Bill Withers) and how Byrne currently handles reviews (“I’ll read [critics] after the [release] cycle is over”). On the topic of music education, Questlove even shared a personal experiment of his, as he’s been giving friends who are recent parents iPods for their children, loaded with what he considers truly seminal music. “If this experiment works, Blue Ivy Carter will soon know Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa.”
However, as careful as Questlove was to choose his words for much of the evening, he didn’t hesitate when asked by an audience member which superhero he’d be, shooting back two words with a giant grin: “David Byrne!” Considering the easy, understanding rapport between the two of them, and their mutual love of unusual collaborations, it’s hard not to hope for a Byrne/Questlove partnership of some kind in the future. That is, once Questlove finally manages to get Bill Withers in the studio with him.