Jamin’ on the One

Prince at the drums back in the day

On what was an otherwise quiet Sunday evening for me a couple of weeks ago, Questlove – of The Roots and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon fame – tweeted this:

Questlove has almost 1.5 million followers on Twitter as I write this, so I can only imagine all the dumb questions he gets on a regular basis. I had, however, what I thought was a good question for him, so I posed it to him in a tweet:

Now, I’m not in the habit of asking questions of celebrities on Twitter, but it’s something I’ve done a few times, each time never expecting, though I suppose secretly hoping for, a reply.

My question didn’t come out of nowhere. I’ve been a fan of The Roots since buying their first full-length album Do You Want More?!!!??! on cassette when it came out in 1995, and a Prince fanatic since well before that. Namely, the sort of Prince fanatic who’s prone to idly wonder if Prince’s prodigious electric guitar playing has overshadowed his prodigious drumming and beat making, and what the racial implications of this might be. I’ve long known Questlove was a huge Prince fan, and his recent live-tweetings of multiple Prince “Welcome 2 America” concerts at Madison Square Garden, not to mention his recent choice Prince playlist in Rolling Stone, reminded me of this fact.

Lo and behold, a short while later, Questlove replied to me:

This tweet was more or less just a link to Questlove’s TwitLonger reply. TwitLonger isn’t a service I use, mainly because I feel like it’s antithetical to the spirit of Twitter, which is partly about limits, and I think constraints are important, but in this case I was willing to overlook it.

Here’s Questlove’s reply in full, edited slightly to make it easier to read and laced with links:

Two of my biggest influences on my “drunken” style are two drummers not known for their drumming: Stevie and Prince.

I know it’s uber-cliche and lazy when every artist in black music lists them as influences, but in this case their unorthodox styles kinda caught my ear early.

Stevie’s gift is his process of hi hat and cymbal hitting. Since he came from the School of Motown in which two drummers would share simultaneous duties, it’s only natural for him to utilize the same method on his own records.

Peep “Love Having You Around” on Music of My Mind – that trombone solo is hillllllllarious. He hits that hi hat so freely and sloppily. And the same with his zepplin-bonzo-style, ride-and-crash cymbal work on “I Wish,” “All Day Sucker,” and “Black Man.” And “That Girl” hits it so hard you wanna call child services.

Prince on the other hand … his fluctuating rhythm gives you the sense that an actual band is playing his stuff. Best demonstrated by his “careful or you’ll drop it” drunken pace on Dirty Mind’s title track. His overexcited virgin getting some Muppet Animal style of “Irresistible Bitch,” the maniac drumline snare solo of “Lady Cab Driver,” and the inventiveness of Parade’s first four song suite.

When I jam with him (actually with them – once at P’s crib) I don’t channel the WW?D page. I channel the WWSWD and WWPD page.

Last month when he grabbed the bass, I knew exactly where to go. I’ve learned when you jam with Prince, you get better results playing the drums as he would’ve played it. Which in my case worked like gangbusters (our “Cloreen” was about 25 minutes long and marked the first time that two-hour night he sang on the mic).

Of course, there are always “better” cats, but sometimes better ain’t “better.” In other words, Dylan is a poet’s poet. But if I put him in a cypher with five killer MCs, would he fare well? Same for ’81-era Steve Vai … would he fit in the J.B.’s circa ’69?

I look for more “color” and less “flash’ when I jam with other cats. It’s easy to juggle nine balls on a unicycle, but so much harder to make a mark keeping it simple. The latter is my route. If your simplicity speaks louder than “LOOKATMELOOKATME!!!!!!!!!!” then thumbs up.

Where to even begin.

I think Questlove’s reply largely speaks for itself; nevertheless, there are a few things I’d like to add.

One, Questlove clearly put some thought into his answer. He could have replied to my tweet with “I love Prince’s drumming!”  but didn’t. Instead, he basically wrote me a letter. I appreciate the effort he put into it. I felt like I learned something reading it. It was almost as if (as my brother later pointed out), itching to proclaim his love for Stevie’s and Prince’s drumming, Questlove had been waiting years for someone to ask him this question.

Two, I agree wholeheartedly with Questlove’s “more color and less flash” argument. Back when I used to work in a music store, I used to get in arguments about the merits of prog rock. (Funny how one never gets into such arguments in real life.) Though there’s music that might technically be considered prog rock that I like, I’d always argue that prog rock sucked, much to the chagrin of my Dream Theater-loving coworkers. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain incredible technical virtuosity, and lose his own soul?

Three, our mini-exchange, which caught several hundred other people’s attention if all the re-tweets I saw were any indication, was abetted by Twitter. What other medium, or combination of media, would have as easily allowed me, someone who doesn’t know or have any business with Questlove, to ask him such a question, and made it so easy for him to respond? Twitter works differently than other social networks. Namely, Twitter’s asymmetry means I can follow Questlove even if he doesn’t follow me back, yet he still theoretically sees any tweet of mine that contains his username. Today all it takes is one tweet to capture the ear of your favorite celebrity. Or, to paraphrase Amanda Ann Klein, Facebook is for connecting with people you already know; Twitter is for connecting with people you’d like to know.

If I didn’t already love Twitter, Questlove’s reply to my question would have convinced me of its value. Thanks, Questlove.

Note: The title of this post is a reference to Stevie Wonder’s delightful second-season appearance on The Cosby Show. If you haven’t seen it, or haven’t see it recently, you should watch it.

8 responses to “Jamin’ on the One

  1. My oh my, lots of solid stuff in this post… a Twitter success story to say the least! Honestly, I really like the emphasis of drummers making their mark with simplicity — tried and true, the flashiest drummers are remembered for their antics (does the world remember Keith Moon for his drumming style?) and true drummers are adored for their spot-on accents on classic, yet basic drum rhythms. Stanton Moore hasn’t invented a new rhythm, just an incredible version – Buddy Miles played with Hendrix in the Band of Gypsies because he could play any rhythm and not disrupt the overall sound of the band. Questlove has definitely incorporated the classic concept of drumming into modern hip-hop, and if anything has made a name for himself in keeping true to that motif.

    I think it’s a really cool question you posed to him, and that he responded with such enthusiasm… kudos!

  2. Hi Matt
    Thanks for the shout out! But I can’t take credit for that brilliant (ahem!) observation about the differences between Twitter and Facebook. That was an idea that has been quoted and requoted several times by people I follow on Twitter, but I have yet to locate the original source.
    On a totally unrelated note, I just received a “Bayside Tigers” T shirt in the mail, and I wonder if you’re jealous.

  3. Pingback: the truth about prog rock. | clusterflock

  4. Excellent post, and your commentary is on point.

    I’ll cosign “More color, less flash.” I suppose I like some of what is considered prog rock, but flash for flash’s sake does not appeal to me. Great, you can fit 27 notes into two measures of guitar playing. Whoopee. I can appreciate technical mastery, but music is about feeling or dare I say it, soul. Much of the most enduring pop music is straightforward, to the point, and done with heart. Dream Theater can make an overproduced, guitar-wanking prog piece, but it’s never going to affect me anywhere near the way that “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” does.

    Also, Cosby is now streaming on Netflix, FYI. (And props for referencing my favorite – though rarely aired – episode.)

  5. Pingback: A reason for Twitter? « Other People's Ideas

  6. Reblogged this on Hey Persephone and commented:
    Questlove on drumming

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