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Photograph by Cathy Bauer

Vinyl Killer: Ahmir '?uestlove' Thompson takes a break from recording 'Game Theory' to spin in San Jose.

Funky Drummer

?uestlove was groomed early to be the hardest-working drummer in hip-hop

By Geoff Wong

BEFORE HE WAS ?uestlove, spiritual leader of the hip-hop band the Roots and owner of one of the most iconic Afros in recent memory, Ahmir Thompson was a talented student. The son of doo-wop singer Lee Andrews, Thompson's famous Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts classmates included jazz bassist Christian McBride and organist Joey DeFrancesco and the members of Boyz II Men.

"McBride and I used to get in trouble for turning every song in the key of D into a James Brown song," Thompson recalled in a 2003 phone interview from France. "It could be Gershwin, Stravinsky, whatever. Our conductor was very anal-retentive—not strict, but disciplined.

"Being that James had 81 songs in the key of D, whenever we'd get to a section that was in the key of D, we'd sneak some James Brown reference in it," he continued. "We'd drive him crazy and then get sent to the principal's office."

When not driving the professors batty or riding the pine in the principal's office, Thompson jammed with a core that would become the Roots. The compadres turned their love of jazz, funk and hip-hop into the world's most dangerous live hip-hop bands. Now on its eighth record, ?uestlove takes a breather with a DJ gig at Agenda Lounge.

With a cooler than cool disposition, ?uestlove is a terrific drummer and band leader—known for production and session work with Jay-Z, Erykah Badu, D'Angelo, Common, Joss Stone and John Mayer. He composed the soundtrack to Michael Mann's Collateral, and he's music director for Chappelle's Show and for Jay-Z's episode of Unplugged.

He still keeps his jazz-funk chops strong. He was in the all-star quartet the Philadelphia Experiment with McBride and a pair of fellow Philly brothers, pianist-keyboardist Uri Caine and guitarist Pat Martino. Thompson can also be heard on "Put It in Your Pocket," a track off of local hero Joshua Redman's latest album, Momentum. "Put It in Your Pocket" features keyboardist-organist Sam Yahel, a regular member of Redman's Elastic Band, plus trumpeter Nicholas Payton and guitarist Peter Bernstein. ?uestlove plays the grooves loosely, yet with swinging authority.

The stickman's versatility and work ethic recall a time in jazz when a player might have a chair in a big band, then a spot with a vocalist's backing trio or quartet and eventually lead his own group. Later on, that same type of musician would earn his keep doing session or live TV work while gigging after hours.

It's this journeyman spirit that has made him a highly requested session musician. His knowledge of genres has extended his vocation to include "celebrity DJ." He's been around the world spinning at parties, conferences and film festivals. Setlists run the gamut from his favorite slow jams (memorably collected on the 2002 BBE CD Babies Making Babies) to an extended Stevie Wonder appreciation set, to whatever is bumping in his laptop.

In January, he packed Zoë with a back-to-basics seminar. Nas, the Meters, Jamie Cullum, Michael Jackson and Cameo were in rotation. He mans the decks and desktops this Thursday at Agenda for an intimate evening inside the mind of one of pop music's most critical drummers, producers and tastemakers. You can take notes or just dance if you want to. Whatever he spins—hopefully some demos from the Roots' forthcoming release Game Theory or that Gladys Knight track for the Motown Remixed album—will likely blow your mind.

Additional reporting by Todd Inoue

Sample presents DJ ?uestlove and resident DJs Golden Chyld and As-Is on Thursday (June 16) at the Agenda Lounge, 399 S. First St., San Jose. Doors open at 10pm. Admission is free before 11pm (passes are downloadable from www.agendalounge.com) and $5 after.

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From the June 15-21, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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