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The name Questlove is synonymous with hip-hop, but Roots frontman Ahmir Thompson is much more than a musician. As his 3.6 million Twitter followers well know, he also dabbles in — excels in, even — writing, philosophizing, cooking and various other artistic endeavors.
On Sun., April 27, Thompson joined fellow Philadelphian Terry Gross at the Penn Museum for a live taping of her nationally-broadcast radio show Fresh Air. In the episode, which airs today at 7 p.m., the duo discuss everything from eating West Philly squirrel stew to Prince’s golden ping-pong paddles.
Seated across from each other on stage, the pair of hometown heroes were quite the juxtaposition — although their outfits were a near perfect match (did they call to coordinate?). Gross, the tiny but formidable public radio presenter who’s usually heard but not seen, was channeling her best Karl Lagerfeld with a black, wet-look blazer and white silk scarf. Thompson, a larger-than-life personality who cracks jokes with Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show every night, was in a black sweatsuit with a stark white drawstring and a big ice cream sandwich pin.
In an interview that touched on family, food, Fallon and funerals, their interaction was smooth and easy. Gross’ trademark, right-to-the-meat-of-the-matter questions played well with Thompson’s quick wit and thoughtful answers, giving audiences plenty of hand-to-heart moments and lots of laughs.
It’s hard to say which of the two is actually the bigger ham, but giggles gave way to decidedly real moments, like when Gross read an excerpt from the dedication of Thompson’s 2013 memoir, “Mo’Meta Blues,” which was addressed to his late father. Later, when Thompson mentioned he’d attended six or seven funerals in as many weeks, the audience was unified in a spontaneous murmur of sympathy — many were mourning the same losses (Natalie Cole, David Bowie, Prince, Phife Dawg).
Thompson did see a glimmer of positivity in the heartache. “I’m relieved that I am human enough for grief,” he told Gross.
Although clearly still grappling his sadness, Thompson shared some great memories of Prince. Anecdotes about his sundry encounters with The-Artist-Formerly-Known-As included a late-night texting session that ended with Thompson brokering a ping-pong match between him and Fallon, who’s wife had given birth to a daughter the day prior. The result? Prince put Fallon to shame with his golden ping-pong paddle. The story came to life as Thompson plucked his afro pick from its permanent perch atop his head to punctuate the story with energetic recreations of Prince’s table tennis talents.
Some other key quotes:
On local fauna and his uncles’ hunting prowess:
“I had no idea where they went hunting…but that was the big thing [for] my father’s brothers — he was one of eight. A lot of my uncles were military based or police based but a few would actually go hunting, in particular my uncle Roosevelt. Stew was my grandmother’s forte, so one week it was rabbit stew, the next week it was veal stew, squirrel stew, every type of stew. My cousins and I would always dare each other to look into the bag to see.”
On having strict parents:
“My parents were extremely strict with me being home [on time]. The rule was: ‘Do not let the Oprah theme come on and you’re not home. Even if I went to the record store or the arcade and ten minutes were left and I’m like eight blocks away, I’m like [hums “Flight of the Bumblebee”]. I’m serious. Not even one minute after. Or no Soul Train.”
“I guess coming from where we were, we have a way of always shielding and protecting ourselves from failure. We always have — not even Plan B, we plan for Plan J. [That] was always the key to our survival, always having another plan.”
On Jimmy Fallon’s final pick for The Tonight Show theme song:
“It was really just a song we were doing just to test the speakers. He came in the room for the first time and we had played the soundcheck on the soundstage and that’s the song we made up, and we never thought about it again. Somehow, that just accidentally wound up in Jimmy’s file, and he said “That’s the song.”
On first meeting Prince:
“You’re mad normal.”
The talk was followed by a book signing where he doodled self-portraits with a silver Sharpie in the matte-black opening pages of his fourth book, “somethingtofoodabout,” which is centered on interviews with 10 American chefs, including Michael Solomonov of Philly’s CookNSolo (Zahav, Dizengoff, Federal Donuts, Percy Street Barbecue).
On its inside cover, the book poses the questions “Can food be art? Can art be food?” but the front cover seems to already provide the answer. It features a likeness of its author constructed of fruit, vegetables and Twizzlers, complete with a beautifully coiffed kale afro and beard.
Inside, Q&A’s are paired with portraits of the ten chefs and their dinner guests in various states of meal preparation and consumption. Mouth-watering behind-the-scenes shots of breaking-bread sessions and private kitchens and are peppered with cheeky captions. A photo of perfectly portioned and seasoned pats of butter, for example, is labeled “See salt? I do. And it’s sea salt.”
In the book, Thompson played psychoanalyst and scientist, dissecting the thought processes behind what makes each chef tick. Gross, arguably one of radio’s most talented interviewers, was visibly impressed with the questions he posed, which she noted often paralleled making music with making food.
After the signing, Thompson was off to his mother’s house in Philly, and then he would head back to New York that same night, he said. So what’s the takeaway from the drummer, producer and author who seemingly never stops?
“Your dream job is the job you’re willing to wake up at 4 in the morning for.”
Fresh Air is broadcast Monday through Friday from 7 to 8 p.m. on WHYY and NPR stations across the country (reruns air the following day at 3 p.m.). This interview will air on Wed., April 27.