If you purchase an independently reviewed product or service through a link on our website, Variety may receive an affiliate commission.
Questlove spends most of his waking (and sometimes sleeping) hours of his life at the Greenwich Village’s famed Electric Lady Studios. So it makes sense that he chose the psychedelic lair, with curved walls, groovy multicolored lights and Morrocan rugs, to host conversations with a few of today’s most influential artists for the third season of his Youtube series “Quest for Craft.”
“I consider this room like my college dorm because we spent all of ’96 here,” Questlove, whose birth name is Ahmir Thompson, recalls from the corner of the studio, looking out at the “drumming prison” in which he’s recorded dozens of albums. “The recording of [D’Angelo’s] ‘Voodoo’ ended in November of ’99 so I would say for a good 3, 4 years I spent in this room…like funky socks, sleeping in the same clothes, not showering. Literally, the funk that emanates from that album is because of us. But we chose it because it was the purest room ever.”
The room, commissioned and designed by Jimi Hendrix in 1970, has no corners. It’s designed to feel like a spaceship, but instead of traveling to the cosmos, visitors are transported back in time. Stevie Wonders’ Rhodes piano, which he played on “Music of My Mind” sits in the corner, later used by Roy Ayers on “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” and “Lifeline.” Mark Ronson’s Coronado bass leans against the galactic-designed wall in the back. A Gruggett guitar, left by Ryan Adams after recording “Easy Tiger,” is on display.
Even the studio’s wi-fi password, “tabletennis” (one word, no caps) is an ode to Prince, who on his first visit to Electric Lady only agreed to record if a ping pong table was delivered. They had one successfully delivered to Studio A, where it remained for years. As the story has it, he spent hours playing — and recorded nothing.
It’s in the midst of all this palpable history that QuestLove sat down with each of his interview subjects for the third season of “Quest for Craft,” which dropped on Youtube on Monday morning. This season’s guests include Anderson.Paak, Yo-Yo Ma, Lena Waithe and Fred Armisen, spread out across four episodes.
QuestLove’s guests aren’t all musicians like himself, but they’re all artists that have spent their respective lives perfecting their “craft,” hence the title of the series. He’s always resonated with comedians, in particular. And as the frontman of The Roots, the house band for the “Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon,” 30 Rock has become his second home (or third, if you count Electric Lady), where he’s offered a front-row seat to the best comedy every night of the week.
“I always think, ‘Who can I spy on this week?’” he says.
Although “The Tonight Show” films on floor 14 of the iconic building, he often sneaks to floor 17, where SNL is shot, to get a glimpse at the cast’s creative process. “Like comedy, improvisation and mistakes are welcome in the music community,” he says.
He mentions a mantra from the late American jazz composer Sun Ra: “Make a mistake? Do something wrong. Make another mistake? Do something right.”
“I noticed the same thing with comedians,” he continues. “Like the Comedy Cellar is the one place where everybody’s neutral. Like Seinfeld and Chappelle and Bill Burr and all these A listers have to go in that dungeon, and work things out. And so watching them think on the spot, watching them deal with a heckler [see] them not deliver the punchline right. And the same with SNL, right? I’m always on 17, spying on them, figuring out how they’re going to figure out their sketch and whatnot.”
Now that he’s on his third season of the web series, QuestLove has become a more skilled interviewer — not a huge jump for the prolific music documentarian whose insatiable, almost compulsive, curiosity can lead him to hours-long conversations with anyone he meets. “Whenever I meet a fellow artist I have so many nerd-out questions about them that it might scare them,” he says.
He recounts the first time he met A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip and scared him away with his incessant questions. “He thought I was a narc, a creative narc.”
But “Quest for Craft,” sponsored by the whisky brand The Balvenie, gives him the platform, and permission, to ask those questions — whether it’s asking Anderson.Paak what’s really hiding behind that perpetual toothy grin, or grilling Yo-Yo Ma on what takes up his life outside of the cello.
And he doesn’t even have to leave Electric Lady Studios.