Born in Pennsylvania in 1971, Ahmir Khalib Thompson, also known as Questlove, is the drummer and co-founder of the hip-hop/neo-soul group the Roots. In addition to helping create the neo-soul movement, Questlove is known for his work on such groundbreaking hip-hop albums as Things Fall Apart (1999) and Phrenology (2002). Since 2008, he has come to popular acclaim as part of the house band for the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon talk show.
Early Life and Career
Ahmir Khalib Thompson was born on January 20, 1971, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, into a musical family. His father, Lee Andrews, performed as the frontman for the popular 1950s doo-wop group Lee Andrews & the Hearts, and the entire family became heavily involved in the "oldies" music circuit as well, performing with groups like the Coasters, the Drifters and the Chiffons. Ahmir, who started drumming at the age of 2, often accompanied his parents on tour. By the age of 8, he was well-versed in life on the road, learning how to “cut gels, place mics, place lights. Then I became the sound guy and tech guy. One night the drummer didn't make it, and then I was [my father's] drummer.”
Thompson’s first gig came at the age of 13, during a performance at Radio City Music Hall. “My parents didn't trust babysitters back in the early 70s,” Thompson told Mother Jones magazine in 2011. “So I had to play bongos on stage with them 'cause ‘No stranger’s gonna watch my son in Muncie, Indiana!’” That same year, Thompson was named the musical director for his father’s group, and he became determined to establish his own career in music.
His parents additionally fostered their son’s musical talents by enrolling him in the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts in the mid 1980s. It was there that Thompson befriended classmate Tariq Trotter, an aspiring MC. Thompson, performing under the name "Questlove," and Trotter, taking on the moniker "Black Thought," began performing around Philadelphia as The Square Roots in 1987; unable to afford expensive DJ equipment, Trotter simply rhymed over Thompson's drumbeats. The pair gradually moved from street performances to gigs at local clubs, earning them critical acclaim and underground credibility. Together, Questlove and Black Thought helped to develop a new musical movement, later recognized as neo-soul.
The Roots Begin
After high school, Thompson was offered a spot at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York, but the young musician couldn’t afford the tuition. Instead, Thompson devoted himself to making his unique style of music. During these early days, Thompson and Trotter added bassist Leon Hubbard and rapper Malik B. to their lineup, and changed their name to the Roots.
By 1993, the Roots were considered a hot, underground group—but they had yet to record an album. The opportunity came when they were invited to perform at a hip-hop festival in Germany. In order to have an album to sell at the show, the Roots recorded their independent debut record, Oraganix, in 1993. Organix created a buzz within the hip-hop community, which helped the Roots land a record deal with DGC that same year.
Their sophomore effort, Do You Want More?!!!??!, was released in 1995 on DGC, to moderate success. But a more important contribution to the music world at this time was their effort to foster the burgeoning community of new hip-hop and neo-soul stars. “The first thing we did when we took a label is we took that money and we hired a chef,” Thompson said. “When you say, ‘Free food at Ahmir's house,’ blammo! All of the sudden Mos [Def] is here, Common's here, Jill Scott's here. And then five hours a night we'd just jam. People are still benefiting: A core 17 of the musicians who would come every week are now bandleaders.”
Thompson and the Roots went on tour in 1995, playing second stage at Lollapalooza, and also performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Two of the guests on this tour, human beatbox Rahzel the Godfather of Noyze, and Scott Storch (later known as Kamal), became permanent members of the group around this time.
The following September, the group released Illadelph Halflife, which landed at No. 21 on the album charts, and also achieved modest sales. But it was the group’s third release, 1999's Things Fall Apart, that became their biggest critical, as well as commercial success. Named after a Chinua Achebe book, Things Fall Apart housed the single "You Got Me," which featured a now-legendary drum solo from Questlove and guest vocals from Erykah Badu. The album would eventually go gold, and the song with Badu earned the Roots a Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group in 2000. Their album Phrenology, released in 2002, also met with critical acclaim, earning a Grammy nod for Best Rap Album. That same year, they also became the first hip-hop group to perform at Lincoln Center.
In 2004, after frustrations with their label, Questlove and his bandmates formed Okayplayer, their own record label and production company. That July, they released The Tipping Point, a series of loose jam sessions, as well as a live album. After signing with Def Jam in 2005, the group released a series of new albums, including the 2006 Grammy-nominated album Game Theory, and 2008’s Rising Down.
Late Night with Jimmy Fallon
The same year they released Rising Down, the Roots shocked fans when they agreed to become the house band for comedian Jimmy Fallon’s new late-night talk show. In particular, Gawker writer Hamilton Nolan called it "the cultural equivalent of Miles Davis playing on the subway platform." Instead of becoming a career ending decision, however, the group rose to new heights of popularity, backing up groups as varied as tUnE-YaRds, Bob Mould and Hunter Hayes.
Freed from touring, the Roots appeared to be working harder than ever, releasing the albums How I Got Over and Wake Up! (featuring John Legend) in 2010. The Roots' work with Legend earned the group a 2011 Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance, as well as two NAACP Image Awards—one for Outstanding Album, and another for Outstanding Collaboration.
Also in 2011, the group released their next album, Undun, and created the score for Betty Wright: The Movie. “What Fallon has allowed us to do is really concentrate on the craft of production and music,” Thompson said of his new gig. “When we're touring, it's soundchecks, a night here, night there; it's really not a steady rhythm… But coming to Fallon—us being disciplined and there every day from 10 till 3 rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing—has made us better musicians, better craftsmen.”
Thompson, not one to rest on the heels of his success, has also been involved in a dizzying array of side projects. He appeared as a drummer for the instrumental jazz album, The Philadelphia Experiment in 2001, and in 2002 he released the compilation ?uestlove Presents: Babies Making Babies. He has also served as an executive producer for artists such as D’Angelo and Common; has written film scores; and drummed for artists like Christina Aguilera, Fiona Apple and Joss Stone.
In 2011 alone, Thompson has spun records for the Brooklyn Bowl, Heidi Klum’s Halloween Party, and Skullcandy’s three-story Sundance house; appeared in two documentaries—one about 70s black activists and another about A Tribe Called Quest; played a tsunami-relief concert; and co-produced albums for Booker T. and Al Green.
In addition, he has opened his own catering company, Quest Loves Food. The company focuses on chicken, but also serves other soul food items like macaroni and cheese balls, black-eyed peas, and kale. In addition, his high-end catering business provides musical accompaniment from members of his own group, or from special guests. “In a perfect world, I would like to have a line of 15 really funky food trucks that go to all the festivals, the Bonnaroos, the Coachellas,” he told reporters at Adweek.