At this point, it’s old news that Questlove — drummer of The Roots and all-around music legend — started teaching a course this semester at Clive Davis called Classic Albums. We’re a month into the semester now, and while students may have heard the occasional detail about the class from the lucky twenty-four students who sold a kidney (or two) to get a seat, very little information is known about the course.
Questlove and co-professor Harry Weinger (another hero in the music business) were generous enough to grant NYU Local the opportunity to sit and talk about the course for a solid hour.
The pair have known one another for over eight years, but they didn’t discuss teaching a class together until the two dissected Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On for a Kennedy Center event. They wanted to re-create the experience, but asked themselves if it would be another panel, a series of videos, or something else. Professor Jason King suggested the two come to NYU and combine their knowledge into something absorbable for the future music moguls in Clive Davis, and thus Classic Albums was born.
Questlove talked with Local about how he views himself as a student and not a teacher, his obsession with MetaCritic ratings, and how he balances doing a million tasks without spreading himself thin. Our Q&A after the jump.
NYU Local: How would you say the class is going so far?
Questlove: We’re getting good feedback from the students. For me, this is rather new. It’s new and it’s not new. I would do this normally, but I’ve never done this in such a professional manner. I’m enjoying the fact that someone’s trusting all the knowledge I’ve accumulated in the last four decades [laughs] with these students. I’m really enjoying it, and I’m learning a lot myself. This is my passive aggressive way of entering academia without having to pay for it. [laughs]
Harry Weinger: Sometimes in class we’ll look at each other and go, really?
Questlove: I think I’ve learned more than I taught, but that’s a good thing.
NYU Local: Could you see yourself teaching again?
Questlove: I would love to. Of course, juggling eleven other careers is a task.
NYU Local: Do you ever feel spread a bit too thinly and would maybe like to focus on one thing instead?
Questlove: Um, nah. It’s possible, but it just takes a certain system to make it happen successfully.
NYU Local: I originally heard that part of this class’s creation was in response to the article NPR intern Emily White wrote. And you wrote a response. Was that the spark needed?
Questlove: It influenced me because it’s so easy on the Internet. It allows anonymity and power to just brow-beat people. So I caught myself getting ready to write this scathing diatribe. Like, “You ungrateful 90s baby….” Then I caught myself and said to myself, “It’s your fault. You’re hoarding all this information, but have you taught someone that this is important?” The mistake we made is that the potent magic of the music I listened to when I was growing up would just somehow transcend mankind through the ages, like throwing a stone in a lake and watching it ripple. Now I realize that we’re the ripple. My goal is simply to teach 24 students how to enjoy music. There’s a wealth of knowledge and information on the Internet and a lot of it is overwhelming and there’s too much to process. I just want to point out and say, ‘Hey, try door 36. Try door 513 that’s kind of cool’ then have them decide for themselves.
NYU Local: In your class – are you analyzing how a society comes to deign some cultural artifact as classic? Or is it analyzing what made these albums so great and why they deserve the title classic?
Harry Weinger: The first one.
NYU Local: It’s the idea of what makes something a classic?
Harry Weinger: We have many specific texts that talk about the canon – what is canon? Then in literature and art, there is a canon. There’s an assumed greatness of Da Vinci, Picasso, Bach, Beethoven. In literature, there’s Shakespeare, etc. Now that rock music is sixty years old, there’s now discussion of the canon. Years and years of Rolling Stone, NME, Vibe, discussing the top 100, top 500 albums and, pretty soon, you see there are things that float to the top. The Stones, The Beatles, Velvet Underground, Marvin Gaye, begin to float to the top. So there’s a conversation of how that happens, who makes those decisions, what are these records and what do they have in common? Out of that then, Ahmir and I have subjectively chose the records for this class.
NYU Local: You mention in the syllabus how this topic can include social elitism and exclusion and how non-first world subjects should be paid just as much attention to. Would you describe your class as part social/cultural history? Part ethnomusicology?
Harry Weinger: We were clear upfront: look as much as the general canon is white, English rock musicians, as much as the canon is influenced by the age of the people creating the canon, their sort of fandom and nostalgia, well so is ours.
NYU Local: Did you guys have other goals in the creation of this class other than helping kids figure out how to enjoy and process music?
Questlove: I’m sure out of the twenty-four students, if five are influenced – and I know this sounds idealistic and naïve, but I really learned this when I was campaigning in 2008 with Obama that a lot of the people taught me that everyone’s trying to cast this wide net and gather the world together, but the person who was training me kept saying, ‘It’s my job to just get 100 people revved up and inspired. Your job is to get 250 revved up and inspired.’ And that’s how it grows and grows. If I can get five students, and only one of the five of the twenty-four has the same passion about music as me, then maybe they’ll be a teacher. And so on and so forth. I’m not trying to hold the world hostage and say, ‘Just listen to Sly and the Family Stone and nothing else!'”
Harry Weinger: I think what I particularly want to do, in along with what Ahmir’s saying, is that you get these lists and they can educational – these best of lists – they can be educational but they can also be a burden. It becomes something you have to learn. We’re trying to get the students to question this information and ask questions – what goes into these lists and how can inform my own opinions about what makes something a classic. What sort of information do I need growing up and becoming an adult and getting better informed and more interested in the context to be able to make these decisions for yourself. That’s why we chose records we wanted. We never said ‘well, we’ve got to do The Beatles, you’ve got to do The Stones.’ That’s been done already. We said, let’s talk about Prince – I mean who talks about Prince in the context of the canon? Well, it’s valid. And it’s valid for x, y, z.
NYU Local: There are so many albums that are described as classics today – there’s the whole 33 1/3 series – so how did you narrow your individual tastes into one succinct syllabus.
Harry Weinger: Meetings.
Questlove: Initially based on the NPR article, I wanted to dissect the work of The Bomb Squad, the production unit behind Public Enemy, and kind of the nine albums in their arsenal. That alone and all their references and all their samples would take an 18 week course. So I guess this is my audition process to sort of catalog it. This is how to contextualize the work of an artist and show where they were before and after and the influence and it’s hard to cram all the information in three hours. It’s so much work that I don’t want it to be like I’m filling your head with all this information, so I guess we wanted to choose some records that were under-the-radar and not so obvious as he said. Even I was taught that Exile on Main St. was necessary and Highway 61 and Revolver but rarely do you hear of contemporary records or funk records held in that same light.
NYU Local: What about even more modern albums? Like Loveless, which came out 22 years ago, is particularly relevant right now due to My Bloody Valentine finally releasing a follow-up.
Questlove: You know what, it’s funny that you say that because I just read the Pitchfork review of it, and that made me go and buy both records and I was really unfamiliar with both. Someone’s influence spreads and now I’m curious about it.
NYU Local: Mark Richardson came and spoke in one of my classes. Have you listened yet?
Questlove: I haven’t yet. I’d have to absorb it all first and start really thinking about them before I’d teach the material, though. I thought about contemporary albums, but I also hold the rule that an album should at least be twenty to twenty-five years old before we instantly stamp it – i.e. Pitchforkitus and giving something a 10.0 before there’s been enough time.
NYU Local: That leads to one of my other questions. With the rise of the Internet, there’s so much music and, thus, so much writing and thinking about an album that came out a week ago. So I feel like people described the Kendrick Lamar or Frank Ocean albums as classics and that idea was sold to us by the press when they were released.
Questlove: It’s that way all-around. When Nas’ Illmatic came out and he got that 5 star review in The Source, the world just stood still like, holy shit, is that possible?
Harry Weinger: Stood still in that it was that great or that it got the five star review?
Questlove: No, The Source was the only credible, non-fanzine, journalism publication that we trusted. It’s interesting because in light of Ocean’s Grammy performance, those discussions are coming up like ‘Oh did we jump the gun on this?’ I still say that he made a very steady, solid debut. Will it stand the test of time? I don’t know. You can declare something a masterpiece, but a classic?
NYU Local: How do you differentiate the two?
Questlove: A masterpiece is like a 4 ½ star review. I like those way better – journalists who know me know I hate perfect reviews. 4 ½ is the best you can get because once you get a 5 or a perfect or a 10.0 you dissect it and it’s too scrutinized. A 4 ½ star review or a 9.2 is just close enough to perfection where it’s not going to get scrutinized or run into the ground.
NYU Local: So you’re an active music journalism consumer?
Questlove: My bedroom wall growing up was adorned with all the lead reviews from Rolling Stone magazine.
NYU Local: I used to do the same thing.
Questlove: I was obsessed with Rolling Stone lead review illustrations and write-ups. When we made the first eight Roots records, the process I’d actually have to go into was to do a mock of my lead review — it’s a weird process – but I’d actually write the review of an unrecorded Roots album so I could physically see what I wanted the album to be. “This song’s the highlight of the record, this is where they took a risk” and so I make a map before I start recording that record. I think that’s why, quiet as it’s kept, nothing means more to me than my MetaCritic rating. Oh my God. The fact that we’re sixteen albums deep and we’re still above an 80 is hard to maintain. Sixteen records and most of them getting above an 85. That’s why I’m obsessed with it. Every night I have to check and make sure no one wrote a scathing 47 to bring my rating down.
NYU Local: So MetaCritic ratings mean a lot to you, but why critics’ opinions and not public opinion?
Questlove: I guess. The thing is you’re motivated by something. Now if we were more monetarily influenced – I’m not saying acts that aren’t rich – you know, some think about wealth and how many number one hits they have, other acts think about how it’s their first hundred million dollar check for a soundtrack single, or whatever, we have none of that, so for The Roots our critical acclaim was our saving grace. Every album from Do You Want More?!!??! to Undun. When it’s time to clean up shop and put The Roots on the chopping block, and labels are about to press the guillotine button, we can say “Ah ah ah! It made the Best Year Lists” and then they’ll be like “Okay, we’ll spare your life.” I doubt that Columbia would ever drop Dylan, I’m sure that Joni Mitchell will always find a label to record for, Neil Young — same thing. Black artists, more or less — with the exception of jazz artists — don’t necessarily…most have to sell or prove their worth in order to stay or else they’re easily disposed of. You have to at least break even, which we do, to maintain status. So that’s why I’m concerned with critics.
NYU Local: Would you consider The Roots an underdog band in a way?
Questlove: We’re middle ground. I think that’s what critics want to shoot us for because it makes us look non-committal. Shit or get off the pot – you’re either going to be an underground group or a commercial group, while we’re really just straddling the fence. We’re on Late Night every night in front of 11 million people, but we make albums with no singles on them about people dying in 24 hours. So we kind of have one foot in both. I do know though that our past attempts to try and kind of please label executives has failed, so now our whole MO is to make the label promise us that they’ll allow us to do what we want to do from the heart as long as we promise we’ll put 100% into it.
Questlove: Not my Twitter account [laughs].
NYU Local: When I took Jason King’s class, he made us get Twitter and Tumblr accounts, so we could actively communicate outside the classroom.
Questlove: It’s kind of hard for me because the first week I did a rehearsal class, it was made into a big deal like ‘Oh first day of school’ [laughs] and then, at three o’clock ,there was like ten people outside who weren’t students saying stuff like ‘Yo Quest! We saw you on…’ you know. That’s kind of the danger of my situation so I don’t want to put anyone into that [public setting]. I try to downplay it as much as I can.
NYU Local: Do kids use laptops in class?
Questlove: I use three laptops. Until they invent a computer with 2 terabytes on it, I just have too much music.
NYU Local: I just had to clean out my whole hard drive.
Questlove: Ain’t that the worst?
NYU Local: I just want all my music in one place, man.
Questlove: [laughs] Yeah, I now have to get a television computer just to watch the TV shows I want to watch. I can’t keep 40 shows and your iTunes on there.
NYU Local: I guess this is your first real semester at NYU. What do you think of it as a campus and could you imagine being a student in such an overwhelming place?
Questlove: I mean it’s weird because I’ve always been around this area. Electric Lady Studios is around the corner from one of the campuses, so during my whole tenure with D’Angelo from 1996-2003, I kind of felt like an NYU student based on where we’d hang out and what restaurants we’d go to. I even think the only Chick-Fil-A in NYC was on NYU’s campus.
NYU Local: Yeah, they’re not doing so hot right now.
Questlove: Yeah, I hated giving that up.
NYU Local: What kind of music did you put on the iPods you gave students?
Questlove: I kind of went overboard. I thought 16 gigs would be enough, and Harry was like you’re going to overwhelm them, but at the end of the day, if one person absorbs it then good. The seven records we’re focusing on are Lady Soul, My Life, Here My Dear, There’s A Riot Going On, Off The Wall, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, 3 Feet High And Rising, Dirty Mind and Paul’s Boutique.
NYU Local: I also saw Zeppelin on the syllabus?
Questlove: Well here’s the thing. Not only do we have those records but I felt we should have the records that led to those albums, so we had to put License to Ill, we had to put early Prince stuff, then I wanted to show where we went after. We had to put 1999, Purple Rain. Then I wanted to put on albums that our chosen albums were particularly influenced by. So if they’re hip-hop albums, then I had to put all the albums that had the samples. It was way over 16 gigs. I wanted them to have the family tree that spawned our chosen albums.
NYU Local: Could you see yourself teaching another class after this?
Questlove: Absolutely. I would love this as a regular gig, pending I was lucky to get the go-ahead – which wasn’t easy because NBC is like “You must be here!”
NYU Local: If you were to teach another class, would it be the same topic or are there other areas you’re interested in exploring?
Questlove: Probably in the same vein, I don’t know whether we would choose the same albums again for new students. I’d like to challenge myself and pick new albums and really push myself to absorb. Now I have to be the student, as far as albums I’m not that familiar with, as far as their worth. Say, Lou Reed’s Transformer, or X’s first record Los Angelos. Shoot Out The Lights by Linda and Richard Thompson.
NYU Local: My dad is obsessed with that album.
Questlove: Yeah, stuff like that that I’d now have to educate myself about in order to teach it.
NYU Local: Do you like being a student as well as a teacher?
Questlove: I call myself a student, teacher sounds like I’m above you. It’s about learning and absorbing information.
NYU Local: Do students call you Questlove or Professor Thompson?
Questlove: I just have them call me Questlove – again, I don’t want the hierarchy title like I’m the king and you’re my subjects because we’re all learning together.
NYU Local: What other projects are your working on other than Fallon and the new D’Angelo album.
Questlove: The Elvis project’s almost done.
NYU Local: What’s that?
Questlove: You know one of our big experiments on the Fallon show – our room is a studio. So, after Elvis Costello’s third appearance, we liked him so much we were like hey why don’t we make a record? Well what went from being one song to be released on Record Store Day became – why don’t we try four songs? Now we have a brilliant album. And, in the whole history of The Roots, I have never bragged on an album first, but I actually love this record.
NYU Local: Does it have a title?
Questlove: Yes, but he doesn’t want me to release it yet. More likely, it’s going to go to some subsidiary of Universal, like Def Jam or Blue Note.
NYU Local: It would be so cool if it’s on Blue Note.
Questlove: Yeah, I want it to go on Blue Note. Speak of which, we’re going to start the next Al Green record, um what else, I’m going to go back to my comedy roots and start working on Amy Schumer’s comedy special.
NYU Local: Really?
Questlove: Yeah I haven’t had a feeling in my stomach since I first saw the early Chappelle’s Show sketches and scripts.
NYU Local: I remember you being on it.
Questlove: That’s how I got Fallon – I worked all of season two and season three on the music.
NYU Local: It was awesome.
Questlove: Thanks. Schumer has the same team – Neal Brennan. It’s just as edgy. Again, I don’t want to put her in such a position because it’d just become a soundbite – ‘Questlove said Schumer’s going to match Chappelle’ – but for real, the last time I felt like ,“Oh shit are you allowed to do that?”, was back when they showed me the Chappelle dailies. She’s breaking every rule and hopefully people will be open to it. Also! My restaurant’s opening at Chelsea Markets. People have been wondering what’s happening with my food truck and I got rid of the truck and Chelsea Market offered me a position there so in March – it’s called Hi-Bird.
NYU Local: What type of food is it?
Questlove: It’s the infamous drumsticks I’ve been bragging about on the net. My drumsticks. Vegetarian fare too – dumplings, cupcakes, mainly collaborations with various chefs.
NYU Local: I saw the foods you Instagrammed of the Dumplings in Shanghai and the sushi from Jiro. Looks like a good mix.
Questlove: Yeah, a solid mix – it’ll be open in about a month. I partnered with Stephen Starr of Buddakan. For him, it’s Buddakan Next Door; for me, it’s Hi-Bird.
NYU Local: Any word on the D’Angelo album? I heard he may appear at a Brooklyn Bowl show.
Questlove: They announced that already?
NYU Local: It’s a rumor going around.
Questlove: Nice rumor! [Laughs] On that note, I have to go to class.
NYU Local: Any legitimacy to it?
Questlove: I don’t know…. It’s definitely not in February, but at Brooklyn Bowl on Thursday nights I can do whatever I want. I’ve asked a lot of luminaries. I have someone – not D’Angelo – that I’m trying to pull a coup on to perform there. They’re of god status and they’re considering it.
NYU Local: Professor King just gave me a copy of the D’Angelo reissues and I’ve been playing it nonstop.
Questlove: Wait until you hear the new album.
Photos by Nick Reale