Class is in Session: Questlove at the Drake Underground 6/29/10

In about four seconds, a teacher will begin to speak.

He said he had two sets: the set for dancing and getting wild, and the set for standing around and watching. The crowd obviously wanted the dancing set. He surveyed the crowd, repositioning the pick in his trademark afro and arching an eyebrow.

“Y’all are getting the fishbowl set,” he said, as the younger members of the crowd groaned their disapproval. “They’re both good sets!” he assured them.

“This is the history of the hip-hop sample according to Questlove.”

And like the bell rang, homeroom started. While my companion might have preferred he went with the dancing set, as a very amateur student of hip-hop, I was enthralled.

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of The Roots, I was there when ‘Do You Want More?!?!’ dropped, appreciated the video for ‘What They Do’ and to this day consider at least four tracks on ‘Things Fall Apart’ to be among the best rap tracks ever recorded [the drums at the end of Double Trouble are miracles of engineering]. But a lot of the shifts in direction over the next few albums lost me, even if I admired the crew’s willingness to do new things. A starmaking gig as Jimmy Fallon’s house band and what could be one of their best albums in years has given the Illafifth Dynasty a relevance they’d been lacking outside of true-school fan circles. But no matter the level of success or my personal interest in where the music may have taken them as a band, I never lost my love for Mr. Ahmir Thompson.

Back in the 90’s I had friends who would favourably compare me to Thompson. Both husky gentlemen who played drums with a geeky fanaticism for whatever captured our passion, I suppose there were some facile similarities. But I’ll never be the drummer or producer he is, I’ll never have the record collection, and I’ll damn sure never have the encyclopedic knowledge, even if it feels like I come close sometimes.

I’ve mentioned before that part of what I love about hip-hop is the detective work that goes into a full appreciation of it: knowing what breaks were used and how they were reconstructed into the songs you love. I have my GED in hip-hop musicology, Thompson defended his doctoral thesis long ago, and June 29 was a clinic, as he played not only the records used to make hip-hop classics, he often recreated them live onstage with his laptop and a couple of turntables. While it didn’t exactly lend itself to ass shaking [as the blonde who tried to dance onstage found out when Quest cut the music and everyone in the crowd booed her ass off] there were enough moments to throw your hands in the air.

The only disappointment was Thompson’s unwillingness to engage with the crowd at all. But, considering the band was on a cross-Canada blitz playing a show in Toronto hours before his set at the Drake on the heels of the G20 fiasco, I can cut dude some slack for being a tad low-key. I could forgive anything when he reconstructed the samples used in Biggie’s ‘Ten Crack Commandments.’ Check the videos below for two more of my favourite moments of the night.

Breaking down Michael Jackson’s ‘P.Y.T.’ into Kanye West’s ‘Good Life’.

A suite tracing the contributions of the Isley Brothers to hip-hop, from Biggie to A Tribe Called Quest, to Ice Cube and J.Dilla.

Speaking of having my GED, why did it take me going to this show to learn about this song?  Good gawd, there really is too much music in the world.  Heartbreaking and encouraging all at once.

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