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Jay-Z & Timbaland »

What do you get when you take the greatest living rapper and the greatest hip hip producer. You get one hot album. Sign the petition and lets make it happen.

by kenn on 2/07/2005 11:32:00 PM

Jamming with Jay-Z


Jay-Z’s Black Album was a watershed moment in the history of hip hop, partly because the rap superstar actively decided to retire just as he had reached the top of his game.

But Jay wasn’t content to fade gently into anonymity; his recent beef with Best of Both Worlds co-headliner R. Kelly is proof enough of that. Instead, he staged a sold-out concert at Madison Square Garden to both celebrate his illustrious career and act as a suitable send-off for arguably the most successful artist in the history of the genre.

Appropriately, Jay called upon the assistance of a few talented friends to make the evening that much more special: Foxy Brown, with whom he enjoyed his first single “Ain’t No N*gga;” Beyonce Knowles, the woman he’s thus far only “unofficially” been dating for the past two years; his Roc-A-Fella labelmates Memphis Bleek, Freeway and Beanie Siegel; frequent collaborator Missy Elliott; and the hardest working band in hip-hop, the Illadelphonics, led by no other than The Roots’ time-keeper ?uestlove.

Ahmir Thompson, a.k.a ?uestlove, spent the past 12-plus years pounding the skins for The Roots, and after Jay-Z asked him to provide percussive back-up for a 2001 MTV Unplugged performance (the first of many high-profile greatest hits concerts for the artist), it was only natural that the esteemed rapper enlist the drummer for his farewell show. ?uestlove, who has always served as The Roots’ mouthpiece, recently caught up with FilmStew by phone to discuss his participation in this historic concert, which has been captured for posterity by the new documentary Fade to Black, new this week on DVD.

?uestlove indicates that the dialogue between himself and Jay pre-dates even their memorable Unplugged show. “He called me to be his musical director for Saturday Night Live when he was a musical guest,” he says. “Because of scheduling, I wasn’t able to do that. But we always kept a dialogue open about doing something together just in case the moment sort of came up.”

?uestlove’s Roots crew hardly exists in the same commercial circles as Jay-Z, with seven albums (including a live recording) released in a little over twelve years, to muted success. But the drummer’s initial hesitation to work with the industry’s one-man empire was motivated by art, not commerce.

“When I got the call for MTV Unplugged, I was excited but just a little bit skeptical,” he says. “I really didn’t want to be in a position where I wasn’t able to execute my best performance, so I told him, ‘In order to make you come off good, I need certain things as far as the band and strings’- really just making it goofy.”

To ?uestlove’s surprise, the mogul warmly received almost all of his ideas, no matter how outlandish they might seem for a genre largely predicated on pre-recorded backing tracks comprised of deafening bass and neck-snapping percussion. “He was like, ‘Hey, man, whatever you want, I’ll do it. Make me look good. Do what you have to do to make this whole situation go to another level.’ That was music to my ears.”

From that initial performance on Unplugged, ?uestlove says their relationship bloomed, though the Fade to Black concert provided a different set of challenges than performing in an intimate studio on one end of MTV’s Times Square studios. “[It was] magnified at a higher level because it wasn’t unplugged,” he explains. “MTV has restrictions: every instrument had to be acoustic, we had a half-hour time constraint, and the audience pretty much knew what they were getting into. There was about 150 people in the audience as opposed to 45,000 people, and there was no going back and doing it again.”

“There was pressure that it had to be perfect, and also there was pressure that we had to surpass Unplugged,” he adds, though he confesses that the disparity in audience size amplified the energy of the show to a level befitting the size of a Madison Square Garden-sized production. “The adrenaline of the audience is what got it to that next level, which is something you don’t have in that unplugged situation- it’s really quiet. There’s nothing but pure adrenaline and that’s what we were running off of.”

Given the glut of lawsuits brought against rappers in the late 1980s and early ‘90s for unauthorized sampling (think Rick James’ “Super Freak” for MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This”), public performance, particularly in any recorded context, has become a sticky prospect. Thankfully, Jay’s Roc-A-Fella muscle greased the wheels when time came to assemble a collection of older tunes that could be worked into his own songs.

“He wanted to do a lot of musical flips and turns that we didn’t do [on Unplugged],” ?uestlove points out. “When you’re on television, if you do the music to someone else’s songs, you run into clearance issues, and we were kind of limited there. With the concert, we weren’t limited, but this is now a concert movie, which we didn’t know at the time we were doing.”

“We definitely took bigger liberties and flipped the script, which [included] doing things like playing Biggie’s music for the second verse or doing something really popular- just flipping it,” he says proudly. “That’s pretty much how we took it to another level.”

?uestlove, who has spent the past decade-plus perfecting the sound of his very-real drums for audiences accustomed almost exclusively to programmed beats, says he knew exactly how to create the right sound for his band’s performance in the cavernous Garden. “One of the first steps I took was I made sure that the engineer for that particular night was one that I’ve been working with for a long time,” he says. “His name is Kenyatta Williams, and he is a house engineer who is very experienced on how to make instruments sonically appeal to the hip-hop community.”

“There’s a very raw execution when it comes to playing instruments at a hip-hop concert,” he maintains. “There has to be a ‘boom-bap’ appeal to it, and that’s something that your average engineer doesn’t know about.”

“When I accepted [the job], I was like, ‘I’m not doing it unless it get to use this guy to do our sound,’ because if you leave the house guy to do it, whose last concert was Celine Dion or whoever, that’s really not going to help our situation,” he explains. “It’s going to be very anticlimactic following prerecorded music that can be played a loud volume.”

Ultimately, ?uestlove says that as the show’s musical director – his credited title in the film - he’s less timekeeper and more ringleader. “It’s my job to be the traffic cop, just to make sure that things go smoothly,” he says. “We had to keep some of the organic purity of the Unplugged show, but you still had to rev up the energy so that it could reach the bleachers, and that’s a very thin line.”

“You don’t want to overplay and sort of take the soul out of it, because the whole reason he had us on that stage was sort of like for a wind-down period,” he continues. “He comes out and does music from his earlier albums and he wanted a more somber moment.”

“It’s not like with rock bands,” ?ueslove concludes. “If you’re Motley Crue playing at Madison Square Garden, you have to play your loudest and your hardest. There’s definitely an energy difference between the two [genres]. To execute soul music to that level, you really have to play with discipline.”

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