Since 2009, Questlove's longtime neo soul band, The Roots, has performed as the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Most recently, he worked with Ludwig to design a custom drum kit that proves bigger isn't always better. Still, through all of his success, Questlove stays humble.
"When you start celebrating," Questlove says, "that's when someone just runs you over and you don't even expect it. I've been on a very strange tortoise-and-the-hare journey," Questlove says, "and I'll just stay the course and keep my eyes on the road."
For Questlove, the musical journey began in his early years with his father, an oldies doo-wop singer, Lee Andrews of Lee Andrews & the Hearts. By the time Questlove was born, Lee was making music as part of the oldies revival.
"When I was a kid, my father would do studio sessions," says Questlove. "When I was four years old, my dad did a session and Bernard Purdie was on drums. He brought me up to Bernard and said, 'Purdie, tell my son how you keep food on the table.' And Bernard said, 'The two and the four.'
"He was trying to tell me to keep it in the pocket. Everyone wants to show flash, but you're more effective being simple. I feel like going that route is way harder than to compete with the fastest players. There will always be drummers that go above and beyond the call of duty to show you that they're there, but I've found out that the better you keep it in the pocket, the happier your musicians are. You'll get more work if you just play it simple."
Growing up close to the music industry had other perks, Questlove says, as his introduction to the legendary sound of Ludwig drums came with his very first kit.
"My first drum kit was a Ludwig Vistalight that one of my father's bandmates had left behind," Questlove says. "Then when The Roots first started professionally touring, opening up for the Beastie Boys, Mike D would go to pawn shops and music spots to grip up old vintage Ludwig kits, so he kind of continued it. I got a really nice Ludwig jazz set and used it as our prime drum kit opening for the Beastie Boys."
Years later, Questlove signed on with another drum company. While he says he loves the sound of their kits, it was almost too clean, and he quietly longed for a drum set that better reflected his personality.
"I'm a gritty, breakbeat drummer," says Questlove. "I'm pretty much known for my breakbeat style and my blues style and the funk and the soul. I told Ludwig that I wanted to make my mark, and how, as a New Yorker, I notice that often times musicians-New York musicians especially-complain about a lack of space in their small quarters to play their instrument. You can't pack standard size drums on the subway or in a cab. Not to mention, the city hosts an incredible amount of street musicians that would benefit from being more mobile." Questlove says the Breakbeats kit combines the gritty, vintage sound he prefers, and incorporates a unique, smaller setup to help redefine affordability for a high-quality drum kit.
"Many young drummers gravitate towards the massive Stewart Copeland or Neil Peart kits. I was one of those kids. I can empathize with that. But I have the same impact on a smaller kit, so I wanted to hit two birds with one stone. I wanted to design a vintage kit, and make it New York musician friendly. It's classy looking. It's miniature. This could be a first kit for young drummers, or a more portable option for working drummers. I've already recorded with it, and it plays just as good as a standard-size kit," Questlove says.
The kit combines Questlove's trademark 14x5" shallow snare, a 10" rack tom, a 13" floor tom and a 16" kick drum. The kit can be tuned up or down to get a wide range of tonality, and Questlove says he's been able to deliver the right sound for every situation.
"I've detuned both toms to low levels and gotten good depth," said Questlove. "And of course, I tighten them up to get that very tight, vintage Motown '60s soul, kind of jazz kit sound to it as well. People tend to think that a small kit doesn't offer you power, but I say otherwise."
Questlove says he plans to use the kit with The Roots on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and has been recording with
it in their makeshift studio in their small dressing room, a perfect application of the Breakbeats' smaller footprint.
"We turned our dressing room at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon into a studio. We do an average of five to ten songs a day. We're four years into it, so we've recorded over four thousand songs, grooves and jingles and rhythms since we started. We're also creating an album with the legendary Elvis Costello. This is the first time I've admitted this, but we've been making this record on and off for about a year," says Questlove.
"Often times, I'll come in contact with artists that say, 'Hey, we should do something together,' and nothing ever happens. But with Elvis, it's serious. I told him, 'Well, this is where we record, so if you want to come here in the shoe closet and record, you're more than welcome.' Elvis comes by after the show, and we'll 'shed until about midnight or 1:00 in the morning. We have about 13 songs recorded, but there isn't any tentative release date. We'll just turn it in when we feel it's ready. It's a very adventuresome album for him and for us, and that's the first record that'll feature the Breakbeats kit."
The release of the Breakbeats kit puts yet another hard-earned feather in Questlove's cap. But no matter how many top-selling records, international tours, and custom-designed shoes the man racks up, Questlove says the key to winning on his tortoise-and-the-hare journey is keeping it simple.
"I play in the pocket and then a bass player like Pino Paladino plays better because I'm assisting him. I see my job like a well-organized traffic cop. Normally with a traffic cop, you see a lot of traffic and hold up, just a lot of obstacles. I feel like I'm an effective traffic cop. I'm in a situation in which I have seven other bandmates and I have to guide them through traffic," Questlove says.
"The less I play, the more effective I am. Drummers need to trust that more. They tend to think they can't last without making their mark, making a fill, or doing some triplet roll or something. Some of the best records that hip-hoppers sample have just been simple two and four rhythms. And that's all you need."