[Weekly Q&A]

Questlove talks spinning Hakkasan, his Bowl Train party and ‘Cornbread Thursday’

Just dance: From The Tonight Show to Brooklyn Bowl, Questlove keeps it fun.
Ben Watts

When Vegas got its own Brooklyn Bowl, we could only hope that we would also get a Bowl Train. Finally, it’s happening. This weekend, Questlove—Roots founder/drummer, Tonight Show bandleader, author and all-knowing, all-spinning arbiter of cool culture—brings his Soul Train-inspired dance party to the Linq. Considering he’ll be back with the Roots to play Life Is Beautiful in October, it seemed like the right time to catch up with Quest.

Where are you right now? I’m in the studio lounge at 30 Rock, just finished rehearsing with TI, and now we’re prepping for a spoof of House of Cards. It’s also Cornbread Thursday, so I’m trying to stay on my healthy eating plan.

The last time we talked was 12 years ago. You were in France, touring behind Phrenology, and we talked about The Roots achieving this new level of popularity. Wow.

Yeah. It’s hard to pin down how famous The Roots are now, thanks mostly to The Tonight Show. How has TV impacted The Roots? I don’t know if it’s my post Obama campaign thinking, but I don’t scoff or dismiss the idea of small changes anymore, and the small change that occurred since we started doing the show is really going to affect us in the long run. This show has enabled us to do something we’ve never, ever, ever done. The amount of times we practiced in our first stage of touring, probably 1992 all the way to 2009, you could probably count the times we rehearsed together as a band on two hands. And mainly because of the Springsteen-esque length of our shows, doing that every night for three hours, the shows themselves became rehearsals. And also, we depend heavily on spontaneity and free-styling and not knowing what’ll happen next. I was always afraid: What if something magic happens during rehearsal and we won’t be able to re-create it in front of a crowd? I thought it was a jinx.

Here, playing to each other in a very small, confined room, it was a very foreign idea to us and it took days to get used to it. It was too intimate. But now, since 2009, we’re almost close to our 10,000 hours of practice, and now the shows—and we’re doing less now, from 240 to just 50 shows a year—because we’ve put this practice in, we’re way better musicians now. It’s borderline that I feel like we’ve been fooling you guys for 16 years now. I almost want to send out an apology letter. But now we’re worthy of all those accolades. That’s the best change ever. Not to mention that our networking game is just on steroids right now. I can cut out the middleman and go right to the artist, and the magic of that is getting to work with our favorite artists and collaborate. That’s how the Elvis Costello record came to be, and we’re messing with Todd Rundgren right now.

Was moving from Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to The Tonight Show as big a transition for the Roots as it was for Fallon? It was a little funny because when we finished Late Night there were camera people and wardrobe people crying. Wait a minute, we’re all coming back on Monday, right? Just going to a way better and bigger studio. Don’t worry, I’m still going to be late, like always.

My mentality was to not get inside my head and overthink the situation. I’ve been witness to a lot of some of the most tragic self-saboteur successful people. That was my fear. People always ask what makes an artist just mess up in the face of such an obvious easy victory, and I just shake my head because I know being scared of success is a real thing … especially if you’re a chess player, and I’m a chess player. I’m more worried about the eighth year and the ninth year, what is that gonna be? We’re in the zone now. TV shows, ones that are loved, there’s always that golden period. If anything, I’m more concerned about what will make us great 10 years from now.

You’re starting new Vegas DJ gigs at Brooklyn Bowl. How will they be different from what you’ve done at Hakkasan? The weird thing is Hakkasan messed up my palate. Hakkasan is actually one of the smartest clubs I’ve ever played. I come into the battle very prepared. When I come to Vegas or Miami or Atlantic City where the resorts draw people from all over, I know there’s a formula. I would never do a Brooklyn set like a Vegas set. There’s an expectation. So I come into Hakkasan, and the promoters are doing what they always do, “Just do you, man, do you.” I’m like, Nah. If I do me, I’ma clear the dancefloor. The promoter is promising, “Nah, man, you can do it, you can play J Dilla here!” I’m like, Get out of here! Didn’t listen to him. I came in with my EDM military weapons cocked and loaded.

And the audience looked at me like I ran over their grandmother with the car. The promoter came running to me the way I would have imagined him running if I played Roots or Slum Village. They wanted the real. So I put “Apache” on and the place came alive. I was like, What?! So basically Hakkasan is the midlife crisis hip-hop room. The main room that fits 10,000 people, that was in my head. But the Ling Ling club is the small room where [you] can keep it realer than real.

So I’ve already showed Vegas my cards. I was expecting Brooklyn Bowl to be my spot where I give you my quality, and by that I don’t mean to negate what’s popular. So I’ll play Iggy Azalea, but I’ll also play the Meters. I’m gonna play Skrillex and Diplo and A-Trak, but I’m also gonna play Gang Starr. For Bowl Train in Vegas, I’ll do what I do in Brooklyn and bring you different themes. One night I might play all MJ. I’ve trained my crowd so well in Brooklyn I can actually do an all slow jams set and it’s one of the most popular nights. Vegas will be an alternative to what is expected.

You’re also coming back in October for Life Is Beautiful, a festival that is emblematic of a different kind of growth in Las Vegas. How do you feel about Vegas right now? I was like anyone else when I first came to Vegas, thinking there was only the Strip and nothing else. Now I actually spend a lot of my time outside the Strip. Right now my obsession is with your pinball museum [Pinball Hall of Fame]. Any chance I get to be a 12-year-old again and play Dragonslayer is like a miracle. But I think we are all starting to notice Vegas isn’t a place for your grandmother to play nickel slots anymore.

DJ Questlove Presents: Bowl Train August 28 & 29, midnight, $11-$20. Brooklyn Bowl, 702-862-2695.

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Brock is an award-winning writer who has been documenting life in Las Vegas for 20 years. He currently leads entertainment ...

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