People Who Show You New Music Are Important
some deep thoughts from Questlove
# of Tracks: 16
Length: 50+ minutes and some words from Questlove
Themes: a mix of unlikely funky1 songs — and a bunch of wisdom from the world’s greatest record collector-slash-musician
Like many things on the Internet, I’m not sure where the meme that inspired this post came from. (See image below.) My cursory research found the picture being shared as early as December 2020. But I’m sharing it with you now, off my regular monthly cycle, because it gets to the heart of why I started this mixtape delivery service.
I’ve included a link to a bonus mix3 above — but a new mixtape isn’t really the point of this post. Rather, this is a kind of meta-post, about why I am expending energies on this mixtape project in the first place.
Unfortunately (or not!) I semi-retired as a writer about a decade ago. So I will leave the explanation to Questlove, whose words about this meme struck me the hardest. Here’s what Questlove had to say about it when he shared the meme on his Instagram account — typos typed in the heat of the moment & all. Bold areas for emphasis are mine.
I agree STRONGLY with this. We are creatures of habit. It takes 30 days of repetition to form a new (or drop old) habits. Adding bandwidth to our lives seems daunting especially if you have a good thing going. But there is ALWAYS space for growth. Music habits is the perfect example of our lives: we have the “go to” playlist we live by, or something new comes on & because living by “NO!” rules our life (“no” as caution/safety measures even before we truly explore what it is we are saying “no!” To)—-we change the song 7 secs in until something familiar comes on. Also living by FOMO this is how new stuff comes in: you don’t wanna be the only dork not knowing (name tik tok song of the moment) so in a defensive move to not seem old/unhip/cutting edge/or enough for whatever culture you rep—in my case “not black enough cause I don’t listen to (name pop fav)—-doing anything from a defensive stance is NEVER a good thing. My general rule henceforth is switching things up so you don’t get locked in the same routine (it’s been said our morning habits are like clockwork. Observe the routine you do in the morning & see how long it is before the one detour occurs in your daily habit. You’ll be shocked to see how repetitive life is) a small place to practice expanding bandwidth is introducing undiscovered music into your system. I know the idea seems exhausting—-like we know there are at least 50 songs that can move mountains for us that we don’t know but we don’t have the patience to sift thru it all so once again you go back to that tired “high school jamz” mix that leaves you stuck. Search for the music guru in your life & peep their playlists (ask em) take an hour a week to sift & absorb (not the 10 sec test/skip process) but be in “YES”/open mode. Once you master this then apply same theory to other areas: take up doodling for 30 mins, try new restaurant, watch a doc on a subject you never knew, learn a new sport activity, “get lost” for a day in your town (or new town), gardening—-all the life “No’s!” Gotta be a yes for you to make it over the hump post 2020. If not? You’re stuck. Once stuck…that’s it. Baby steps? Is music. Ok class over
Well actually class doesn’t have to be over. I have more from Quest — “exclusive content” as some people like to call it.
About a decade ago, I was commissioned by a division of a major label to work on the text of a book about famous people’s record collections. Unfortunately the project got caught up in the politics and administrative silliness that often hamstrings major labels from doing anything more interesting than minting hits. (Which, to be fair, is pretty interesting!) My contact at the company quit or was fired before we finished. I was paid out a kill fee. All’s well that ends well?
Before the plug was pulled I’d spoken to a bunch of interesting people about their record collections: a member of the metal band Mastodon and iconic Los Angeles Americana punk poet Exene Cervenka; my old pals Matt Berninger and Nico Muhly4; Nels Cline from Wilco and Patrick Carney from the Black Keys. Hell I even got Sean Lennon5 on the record about his records.
Most interesting of all of course was — wait for it — Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. He had famously purchased an entire house to archive his very impressive record collection. He spoke to me backstage at The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, where his group The Roots have been the long-serving house band. As we were meeting, I recall him dodging calls from Metallica and Cat Stevens about a forthcoming event6 though I might be getting the particulars wrong on that.
I doubt a finished version of the record collection project will ever see the light of day, but this felt like a good time to share a taste of my interview with the man, the myth, the legend, the lover of records nonpareil.7 I’ve also included a selection of very low-res pictures from the photoshoot at his record collection house.
Here it goes:
My first house, where all my records and sneakers went, had become this room — a hoarder’s palace times a hundred to the point where you needed a map to jump from yard to yard to not break records. But then Q-tip lost 60,000 records in a house fire and that scared the living bejesus out of me. So when I got my really really first big check, I didn’t buy the baller house. Instead, I was going to build me the version of the Library of Congress museum. I wanted shellac cherry wood floors. I wanted the sliding ladder. I wanted enough capacity for me to at least get 50,000 records in there.
I built it in 2000, and ten years later we’re past capacity. It’s up to about 70,000. They're not catalogued and library style. I know, like, 12-inch records are here, Prince records are over there, [TK] records are on the third shelf but that's it. Me and my engineer, are trying to figure out a process to sort them, but we haven’t found a system yet. That’s a lot of records to count on your own. I can’t count to 5,000 without getting bored. I’ll have to hire two people for that.
Why do I do it? Well, music is the atmosphere I grew up in….
I’ve definitely passed the finish line of record collecting. I’ve spent thousands in Cuba, thousands in Poland, hundreds of thousands in Japan and in the States. I’ve just been crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy, you know, I’ve spent a lot of money. So, you know, no purist can ever turn their nose up at me and be like “you cheated!” you know.
My manager wants to sell it. He thinks now is the right time. He’s like, “You know you could get 4 million for this, right?” Someone right now will say, “I want Questlove’s records for 4 million!” But there's no price to it. There's three records alone in that record collection that are priceless. And I want it to be utilized. Usually I pick a day, a designated day, normally Sundays, just to listen to records, to hear something I haven’t discovered before, to get some inspiration. A whole lot of my music is definitely just based on listening to a whole bunch of records, and then trying something later: “Hmm, let me try something on that level.”
I want to leave it somebody — to the Smithsonian, something.
Music is the gas that runs my car, you know?
A good metaphor to end this on. I hope this email & this mixtape & Questlove’s words have given you some fuel today.
Acknowledged that the word “funky” is so misused abused and painful to anyone with a nuanced understanding of recording music it is practically a slur. I am extremely reluctant to use it, but am doing so because I think its effect, on the sensitive ear, is similar to that of the music I tried to feature in this mix. It’s not necessarily music with rhythmic loops or intriguingly syncopated beats or that makes you move your ass; rather it’s music that somehow moves you—that disturbs you from a standing state and seduces you into following nothing but the sound and the song.
A #triggerwarning about the cover art for this mix: It’s a white dude with an Afro or what, back in my day, was sometimes referred to as a Jewfro. (My best friend in high school was a living, breathing instance of the hairstyle. He was half-Dominican, half-Jewish and during significant portions of our alt-rock adolescence—viz Red Hot Chili Peppers, Faith No More—he actually sported dreadlocks dyed various shades.)
If I were making and publishing this mix today, I would not use the image I did. But I published it 10 years ago—prime Obama years, and a time when high school friends with ridiculous hairstyles were still front of mind and our current outbreak of casual white supremacy was inconceivable (to me). For anyone offended, please do keep in mind it’s a poke-fun at the kind white fellow who forms a college funk-rock band (and the word “funky” itself) not a glancing reference to blackface.
This bonus mix is a decade old — back when I was posting handcrafted mixes to Soundcloud. It shows how eclectic mix making could be back in an era before the convenience of the streaming playlist.
It contains a lot of oddities — some of which did not remain oddities for very long. For example it included the Gotye song “Somebody That I Used To Know” a few weeks (or months?) ahead of its commercial release. The song went on to win the Grammy for Record of the Year (presented by Prince!). This 10th anniversary oral history of the song in Stereogum was a nice read.
Nico’s “collection” was my favorite — basically just photos of his iTunes software, a few Naxos CDs, and some books of sheet music.
Sean Lennon was actually the first interview I did for the project. And while I barely remember doing any of the chats, looking back, it turns out our conversation was marred by a badly recorded phone call. About the only words I can make out from Lennon’s side of the transcript are these:
“Billie Holiday, Audrey Hepburn, Greta Garbo….the archives, the archaeology of my touring years”
Not all that illuminating — though this picture of his record room conveys a bit of the intimidating reality of being John and Yoko’s son:
Questlove was preparing to take part in Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s dueling events — the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. It looks like I’m 100% correct about the Cat Stevens part; I am possibly mistaking the Metallica (who did not participate) for Ozzy Osbourne (who did).