Questlove Discusses The Time He Changed The Roots’ Entire Show To Impress D’Angelo
D’Angelo is known to be one of the greatest producers, writers, and singers of the last 25 years. He has maintained that status, even with over half of that time spent between albums. His breakthrough soul album Brown Sugar came out in 1995, but it would take the singer five more years to perfect his Voodoo, before it saw the light of day.
Released 20 years ago last month, Voodoo was one of the apexes of the Neo-Soul movement. Recorded at Electric Lady Studios in New York while Common was working on Like Water For Chocolate and Erykah Badu was working on Mama’s Gun, Voodoo was guided by a legendary cast of newly-formed Soulquarians. This included Badu, Common, The Roots, J Dilla, James Poyser, the late Roy Hargrove, and others. Through funky basslines, innovative melodies, and forward-thinking instrumentals, the Virgin Records LP set a new standard in the genre and garnered love from many new fans.
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The Roots’ Questlove also worked with D’Angelo’s Voodoo during this time, banging out songs and working on new sounds over the course of five years. Although Questlove gives some light to D’Angelo’s legendary status as a whole on the new documentary film, Devil’s Pie: D’Angelo, the drummer/producer/band-leader had a candid conversation alongside best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell and legendary producer/label executive Rick Rubin. This comes on the latter duo’s podcast, Broken Record. The West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania native details how he first linked up with D’Angelo to work on the project, and how the initial process involved throwing off a Roots concert with an aim to impress.
“The D’Angelo Voodoo album, to me, is absolutely perfect,” Rick Rubin tells Questlove on Broken Record. “It’s the first time I can remember listening through to an album wishing I had something to do with it because it was so good.”
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At Malcolm Gladwell’s request, Questlove recalls the story of how he came to work with D’Angelo during the 1990s: “I met D’Angelo and Erykah Badu, coincidentally, on April Fools 1996. I’m on tour with The Fugees and the Goodie Mob. It is the Soul Train Awards weekend, one year before the Biggie [murder]. The Fugees [were] just beginning their crescent to the stars with The Score album, so there was a lot of playful tension between the two groups.”
“I remember dismissively talking myself out of Brown Sugar,” Questlove said of D’Angelo’s first album, due to largely ignoring modern R&B and Soul singing. “Nothing about Soul singing had moved me from any ’90s offering the same way that it did [with] Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder, Lou Rawls. Soul music.” Quest’ recalled being approached to work with D’Angelo and shooting the opportunity down. “[EMI Records was] like, ‘Yeah, he wants you to jump on his record,’ then I looked at him like, ‘I’ll pass.’ And then I got Brown Sugar and was like, ‘Oh, my God, this guy could be the one.’ And so I’ve been trying to figure out how to get back in his good graces so I could be there for round two.”
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To get back in favor, Questlove chose to grab D’Angelo’s attention during a performance alongside The Roots at this Soul Train Awards weekend. “When I saw D’Angelo, I decided to call an audible and basically have a conversation with just him, which meant that I was now about to throw my entire band off.” He explains, “Because what I would normally do for a particular interval of a song, I’m now saying, ‘Okay, I’ma do this very obscure Prince drum roll and see if he gets it,'” he tells Rubin and Gladwell. “So I’m doing the Prince drumroll instead and my bands looking at me like, ‘What are you doing?!’ They’re looking at me like you’re thwarting and throwing off the entire show, but the only person that mattered to me in the room that night was [D’Angelo]. And when he heard that intro, he stood at attention. It was like ‘Yo!’ And when I seen that, I was like ‘Yeah I got you motherf*cker.'” And then that whole show was the first time that the drumming I’m known for now starting to come to light.”
It was deeper than just a 1996 concert, though. Even beyond hoping to collaborate, Questlove says he was honoring his ancestors and tradition. “That was an African communication thing,” Questlove explained, “I had to use my drum to tell him, ‘Okay, we speak the same language.'” After The Roots’ performance, D’Angelo was pulled by Questlove to travel to Philly and help The Roots’ last day of recording their 1996 album Illadelph Halflife.
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After the two parties wrapped up what became to be known as “The Hypnotic,” they would work weekly in Philly before Questlove eventually made his way to New York’s Electric Lady Land to play with D’Angelo. The two would end up studying old Al Green and soul concert performances on VHS, playing what they just watched, and analyzing the tapes for inspiration that would see the light on D’Angelo’s Voodoo album.
Rick Rubin and Malcolm Gladwell’s two-part conversation with Questlove can be heard in its entirety on the Broken Record’s official podcast website. The trio also discusses Questlove’s influences, drumming style, DJing experience, and The Roots’ personal relationship.
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Last year, D’Angelo worked alongside GZA and 9th Wonder on Rapsody’s Eve album. That album was named among Ambrosia For Heads’ Best Of 2019. Meanwhile, The Roots just released their first new band song in more than two years.