At 12 a.m. last Saturday I had a lot of questions about the down-to-earth dilettante whose moniker begins with the punctuation mark.
Where was he? Why wasn’t this event sold out? Which of the 80,000 records in his collection would DC hear tonight? Does he ever sleep?
To say Amir “Questlove” Thompson is a busy man is an understatement. His schedule on September 24th was a testament to not only his insatiable work ethic, but also his passion for music, pop culture, and his ethnic heritage. He wasn’t just in town for a late-night DJ set at the Howard Theatre, you see. His band, The Roots, had the distinction of headlining “Freedom Sounds: A Community Celebration” with Living Colour and Public Enemy in commemoration of the much-anticipated opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. And as if playing the National Mall wasn’t enough, you can find a quote from Questlove emblazoned on wall of the museum’s Musical Crossroads exhibit, along with some of his liner notes and studio scribbles on display.
After walking past the block-long line of people queued up after 11 p.m. outside the historic venue I quickly realized the posted “showtime” was a suggestion. En route to the box office, I overheard one of Questlove’s fans that had attended the night’s free show at the Washington Monument. Public Enemy had apparently started a half hour late, and The Roots played over their 45-minute allotted time, ending at 10 p.m.
At 12:15 the lights dimmed and Questlove’s iconic visage appeared on one of the venue’s two large side stage screens. It was a pre-recorded interview produced by the Howard Theatre highlighting Questlove’s appreciation for the legendary entertainment spot.
Watch some opening footage from Questlove’s DJ set at the Howard Theatre:
“For a black artist playing the Apollo in New York, it’s just as important as playing the Uptown in Philadelphia, and the Howard in D.C. My father always told me stories of doing shows down here and watching The Isley Brothers jump off stage and do splits into the audience, which amazed me, because how can’t you break your legs doing that? A very good friend of mine – Alan Leeds – who has been kind of like a spiritual godfather and tour manger for so many people like Chris Rock and Maxwell, D’Angelo, Prince, and so many other luminaries – he told me a lot of stories about – he first saw James Brown at this theater. So he told me, you know, about the legacy here. I’m very proud to finally play here. Maybe it’s a sign from God. There’s James Brown’s spirit right up there. I’m very honored to be here.”
Given the huge black and white photo of James Brown overlooking the theater and main bar, he might not be wrong. But I digress.
Upon the video’s completion, the audience cheered, the curtain rose and revealed the 6-foot-four DJ standing behind the decks, with his signature style in full effect:
* Afro, sans hair pick b/c he was rocking headphones (uncut for years prior to 2015, when he shaved it in solidarity with hairless kittens)
* vintage glasses (he owns at least 500 pairs)
* black hoodie (he opened The Hoodie Shop on New York’s LES the day before “The Million Hoodie March” – it closed after 4 years due to rent costs, but they’re looking for a new spot)
* Mulit-colored, heart-shaped Lego lapel pin (by Dee & Ricky in Brooklyn)
He was in DJ mode. About a minute into his set, he took the mic and greeted the crowd, which over the course of the night reached about 600 people (nearly have of the space’s capacity).
“What’s up y’all? How you doing? A long time ago today – 25 years ago – a classic album came out called ‘The Low End Theory,” by one of the greatest hip hop groups of all time – A Tribe Called Quest. Tonight I’m going to celebrate all the work, all the production, all the songs of Q-Tip, Ali, the late Phife Dawg, and Jarobi. I will be on tour. How you all doing out there?”
The audience was ecstatic and rightfully so. It’s safe to say this record changed Questlove’s life – and that of many of his peers and fans. He highlighted the album anniversary earlier that day on his Twitter and Instagram pages. Incidentally, Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” also came out on that same September day a quarter of a century ago. For those who have followed the drummer Rolling Stone just ranked number 54 in their “Top 100” list, he was credited as “B.R.O. the R.? (Beat Recycler of the Rhythym” on their first album “Organix” (1993). Prior to that, his high school BFF and co-founder of The Roots Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter called him everything from “A Sample” to “The Divine Technician.” In a November 2015 interview with Billboard, he further explains the impact of the groundbreaking hip-hop/soul group had on his branding:
“The Questlove name (or ?uestove if you’re feeling punctuational) grew from the seed of A Tribe Called Quest, though I watered it with my own questions about self-knowledge and searching. They helped name me, and now I name them for what they were, are and always will be: one of the brightest constellations in hip-hop’s endless sky.”
So, for the next 2.5 hours, he wove together a tapestry of transformational hip hop, soul, R&B, and house music much to the audience’s delight. Some stood at the stage’s edge, watching every move he made: from licking his middle finger to scratching the wax – at times it was as if he was in a transcendental trance. One fan stood in the same place the entire night, guarding a copy of his 2013 memoir “Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove.” You can’t miss it – his artfully stylized rainbow afro commands the front cover an is an homage to Milton Glaser’s iconic 1967 Bob Dylan poster design. Many others in attendance were dancing in groove with the music.
One of the highlights of the evening happened at about 2:10 a.m. when comedian David Chappelle came onstage to drop by to see his friend and former Comedy Central series musical director. After sharing one of the more enthusiastically choreographed handshakes I’ve seen in awhile, the two talked briefly. Dave then danced on stage a bit, took off his baseball hat, waved to the audience, shook a couple hands, laughed, danced some more, and then exited as smoothly as he arrived.
Watch Dave Chapelle greet Questlove at the Howard Theatre:
Questlove closed the night out with “Scenario,” a rousing anthem of sorts and interesting but effective choice to use as a send off. He took the mic one last time saying “Alright you all. Get home safely. This is the last go around. Talk to you all later. See you all later. Be safe. Be safe.”
Given the weight of the day’s events, speeches, performances, the “Black Lives Matter” movement, and the overall dark climate our society is currently living in, the repetition of those two words was powerful.
Upon closing his MacBook, the curtain closed, and the music stopped. There was still a good amount of people in attendance at nearly 3 a.m., many had come from other museum-related invite-only galas. It didn’t matter if you were in shorts or black-tie attire, Questlove brought the people of DC together under one roof to dance and celebrate a breakthrough album.
It wasn’t Questlove’s first time in DC and it won’t be his last.
On Saturday, October 22, The Roots will return to the area playing the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric.
Last week, Questlove returned to his Thursday night residency “Bowl Train” at the Brooklyn Bowl.
For more on the Grammy-winning, musician, visionary, author, actor, foodie, and teacher head to www.questlove.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @Questlove. Also tune in Wednesday through Friday to catch his 3-hour Pandora radio show, Questlove Supreme, which debuted September 7th.
Here are some additional pictures of Questlove performing at the Howard Theatre on Sept. 24, 2016, copyright and courtesy of Theresa Sanchez: