Ahmir Thompson – better known as Questlove – is super busy. But if the right project presents itself, he's all in.
Such was the case when he had the chance to write a song for the Kathryn Bigelow movie "Detroit":
Initially I was like, Yo man we're going to just come out of the gate angry as hell. And, you know, we're going to outdo Public Enemy's "Fight The Power." And then I thought, No, like we got to start off soft as willow– soft as a lamb– and slowly rise to a burning, justifiable anger.
"It Ain't Fair" is an 8-minute song that blends the soulful voice of the singer Bilal with the rap of Questlove's fellow Roots founder Tariq (aka Black Thought), the horns of the Dap Kings and a whole lot of strings. It is now in consideration for an Academy Award for Best Original Song.
His personal response to watching "Detroit":
I started taking it personal because I've been in situations in my own life in which – even as of this recording, maybe three weeks ago – like I still get stopped ... 6 to 8 times a year. And usually I have the luck or the fortune of being recognized as a person on late night television so it's always a 'Oh it's you. Ok, sorry. Nevermind.' And you know so it's like if I did a real traffic violation then okay, issue me my ticket for traffic violating. But if it's just a 'Well, what do 'we have here?' kind of thing that to me is problematic so watching the film was a very painful experience and as a result led to the song "It Ain't Fair."
How the death of Philando Castile influenced the song:
At the time, the Philando Castile/Minnesota situation just happened. And I said, you know, maybe if we take it out of a narrative form and put it more in a parallel form to let people know that this is still going on. I thought that if we could humanize the situation and let people know that this is real pain that's felt.
The complicated "math" of recording "It Ain't Fair":
I joked that [I had] the same math problem that Matt Damon had to solve in "Good Will Hunting." Like I had to sit there for three days and try to figure out how to record on 8-tracks. Because sonically we would sound like it's 1967 but message-wise we'll make it applicable for 2007, 2017 – hopefully not 2027, '37 and so on.
But then it's like, to make it sound authentic in 1967 finding the equipment wasn't that hard, finding the studio wasn't hard. But it's like there's 11 Roots and there's 9 additional horn players and there's 7 additional string players. And now it's a matter of how do you place these people in one room and not bleed on top of each other as we're recording? So it was almost like a technical nightmare. The only way to get a good performance was to do the song over and over and over. You're talking somewhere close to 15 to 19 takes. And it's an 8-minute song. And it's a gut-wrenching 8-minute song. So it's like how do you not run out of gas after your sixteenth?