Rather than attempt to approach Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s career with any sort of breadth, I want to focus on a small facet. I highly recommend a deep dive into the guy’s work, from The Roots, to the “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” incident, to his own explanation for why The Roots took the job with Jimmy Fallon.
I want to talk instead about the way Questlove approaches his celebrity drum-offs.
Mind you, I’m not a “real” drummer. I worked for a few years as a drummer in cover bands, which was a lot of fun. But to compare that work to Questlove’s would be to compare a new hire on a house painting crew to those of a renowned painter and art historian.
Muscling it in
When you are trying to play a particular pattern at a particular tempo and your muscles begin to fail you, your body’s response will be to try to use other resources to help out. Other muscles will try to assist.
You can see this in action if you use your hands. Pat them on your thighs in a regular pattern as fast as you can as if you’re playing a conga drum. First you start using just your wrists. When those fail your forearms will tighten up. Next, your biceps and triceps tighten up.
When you’re playing something and you’re riding that line of your primary muscles tapping out and moving to bigger muscles, that’s called “muscling it in.” Or, at least, that’s what a drum idol of mine, Marcus, used to call it when I was learning from him.
There are two problems with muscling your drumming in:
1. It sounds, and looks, forced.
2. The only way to move past it is to practice. Years and years and years of practice.
This is why, in general, a pro drummer can play the most intricate patterns you ever heard at a conversational sound level and a newer drummer is likely to beat the kit within an inch of its life. A seasoned pro can also play on time at any tempo whereas a newer drummer is going to have a comfort zone.
When you see Questlove play the drums, his whole body is moving, but his whole body isn’t playing drums. Most of his body is just flowing with the music. He has practiced his art so much for so long that the sticks and the drums are all part of the flow.
There are a lot of people in the world who, after developing the kind of expertise Questlove has, would lord it over others. They would never let themselves be shown in an unflattering way, even if it was silly.
Questlove vs. Fred Armisen
Fred Armisen’s work is hilarious. Portlandia alone, in my opinion, makes him worthy of comedy legend and that’s only a fraction of his career. He’s a big fan and lover of music, particularly drummers. For him, being around Questlove at all must be pretty cool.
Watch Questlove in a “Drum Off” with Armisen on Jimmy Fallon. This is from 2013 or thereabouts.
Here’s how I see this. Mind you, I have zero context so I’m speculating wildly, but:
1. Armisen drops the beat in his second measure of his first break. The look on his face says to me he’s taking this seriously. Then again, the guy’s a seasoned comedian so maybe he’s just playing it up. Seems like a real beat drop to me though, and I’ve dropped plenty
2. Questlove’s first break reads (to me) like him pointing out that the whole thing is silly by playing the simplest beat he can think of. His face reads to me as 100% sarcasm.
3. Armisen tries to play what Questlove just played, but seems to realize he isn’t on time like Questlove is. Armisen speeds up.
4. Questlove realizes that watching two people play drums slowly is not great TV, so he picks it up more. Could be that they agreed to start slowly and build up.
5. Armisen much more comfortable at this tempo. He has a presentable break.
6. Questlove has another great break.
7. Armisen goes to the disco beat.
8. Questlove improves on Armisen at the same tempo.
9. Here, to me, it looks like Armisen is really muscling it in. He’s crowding the drums.
10. Questlove ends the drumoff by conceding.
Watching this video shoots my respect for Questlove sky high. He could easily make Fred Armisen look like a fool. He could have behaved in a way that showed he guards his critical acclaim and his drumming ability. He could keep his drumming for himself.
But he doesn’t do that. I think he shows here that he’s willing to share his drumming even though he’s put more thought and more time into it than most of us can fathom.
What a guy.
Questlove vs. Bieber
Two years later, Questlove has another drum-off, this time with Justin Bieber.
Unquestionably, Justin Bieber has had more commercial musical success than Questlove. But in terms of critical success and respect, Questlove is light years ahead. Again, Questlove could keep all that for himself.
Judging by the exhale and the look before he starts playing, I’m guessing Bieber has had a lesson or two from Questlove. Bieber then puts on a master class in muscling it in.
There are no hard rules of what a “Drum off” should be like, but on the first couple of breaks here it seems like they’re both taking the same length of time. At one point, Questlove is finishing a break, looks over at Bieber, realizes Bieber isn’t ready to play, so Questlove plays one more measure and counts Bieber in. “One two three four!”
Not for nothing, but if someone has to count you in, I think it’s fair to say you’ve lost the drumoff.
Bieber finishes here with his party piece, the triplets popularized, as far as I know, by John Bonham. Its a lot of notes. They’re loud. Questlove concedes and walks off stage shaking his head.
My respect for Questlove here shoots into intergalactic space. This is the best possible outcome for the show. Bieber feels good. His fans get to say he “beat” Questlove in a drumoff. Granted, anyone who is a fan of music or of Questlove knows that’s absurd, but there are a lot of people in the world who, in Questlove’s shoes, would not do that.
I think there’s a lot to learn from Questlove in a lot of areas. But when I think about how I’d like to see myself and my work, I hope I have the fortitude to get out of the way and share it with people like he does.