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'Fresh Air' presents: Christmas with Questlove

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to celebrate Christmas by listening back to Questlove playing songs from the Christmas playlist he put together for us last year. In addition to his many credits, Questlove is perhaps the most famous, popular and in-demand DJs. He even DJed a party for Obama. Last year, Questlove won an Oscar for his documentary "Summer Of Soul," in which he featured film performances from the overlooked 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which was nicknamed the Black Woodstock and featured performers like Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Nina Simone and Mahalia Jackson. "Summer Of Soul" won a Grammy for best music film. In 2021, Questlove was the music director for the Oscars ceremony. He co-founded the band the Roots, which, among other things, is the house band for "The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon." He was a producer of the original cast recording of "Hamilton." He's also written several books related to music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Questlove, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Thanks so much for doing this and choosing music for us. Why don't we start with a song that you selected? And this is a song by DRAM and his mother, who he calls BigBabyMom, and it's "Silver Bells."

QUESTLOVE: Yes.

GROSS: And I have to tell you, there's so much really schlocky Christmas music. And that's why we're so excited to have you on the show doing this, 'cause you're choosing really interesting stuff.

QUESTLOVE: Thank you.

GROSS: So the song "Silver Bells" is kind of high on my list of just, you know, schlocky and just annoying. It's one of the reasons I don't like a lot of Christmas songs.

QUESTLOVE: (Laughter).

GROSS: This is a great recording. So tell us about the recording and why you chose it.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah. It's a very unique recording. I always cringe at the older person that tries to put a tag on someone younger, like, oh yeah, he represents Gen Z, but, I mean, DRAM is kind of the post-neo soul set, like, one of the artists that I really dig his work. He has a really soulful voice, and when I listen to music, I like rawness. I like mistakes. I don't think there's good notes and bad notes or flat notes or sharp or pitchy notes, but this is just - it's almost like they're allowing us - him and his mom are allowing us to sort of eavesdrop in at the family gathering where they're just singing to each other. And that's - like, I really love the fact that they didn't overproduce this. Like, this is a really raw version of the song. So it kind of hits home to me.

GROSS: Let's hear it. Here we go. So this is "Silver Bells," a good version of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SILVER BELLS")

BIGBABYMOM: (Vocalizing). (Singing) City sidewalks, busy sidewalks dressed in holiday style. In the air, there's a feeling of Christmas.

DRAM: (Vocalizing).

BIGBABYMOM: (Singing) Children laughing, people passing, meeting smile after smile, and on every street corner, you hear, whoa, those silver bells.

DRAM: (Singing) Silver bells.

BIGBABYMOM: (Singing) Silver bells.

DRAM: (Singing) Silver bells.

DRAM AND BIGBABYMOM: (Singing) It's Christmastime in the city.

BIGBABYMOM: (Singing) Oh, ring-a-ling.

DRAM: (Singing) Ring-a-ling.

BIGBABYMOM: (Singing) Hear them ring.

DRAM: (Singing) Hear them ring.

DRAM AND BIGBABYMOM: (Singing) Soon it will be Christmas Day.

GROSS: When you were growing up and you were touring with your father's band, did you spend a lot of Christmases performing?

QUESTLOVE: Yeah. Like, we would often have Christmases in very unusual places. Probably one of the best places ever - there was a resort in San Juan, Puerto Rico, called the Dupont Plaza. And my father would do a residency down there. And, I believe, like, back in the '82, one of my favorite Christmases ever - like, it was real tropical. And that was the first tropical Christmas I had. Like, I spent two weeks with my family, although they were going for, like, four months. I would fly down there occasionally. And this is the year that Michael Jackson's "Thriller" came out. So, you know, it was a simpler time, where buying Ahmir one record was, like, the entire world to him. You know, now I have to buy, like, an entire library's jazz collection from, like, some university. But back in '82, you could just give me a "Thriller" record, and that was, like, everything to me.

GROSS: What songs did you have to perform around Christmas when you were touring with your father and his band, Lee Andrews & the Hearts?

QUESTLOVE: You know what's weird?

GROSS: Yeah.

QUESTLOVE: My dad, I believe, once - my dad had a voice very similar to Nat King Cole. So I do remember once in 1980 when I was 9 years old, kind of as an encore - like, he would normally do, like, either "Unforgettable" or something like that. But he actually did "The Christmas Song," and that stuck with me so good that I remember that the Roots had to fill in for a missing guest on "The Tonight Show," and with only, like, two hours to plan it, I kind of dared Black Thought to put on his best Nat King Cole. And he actually did it - like, one of our best performances. And, you know, I know people thought it was, like, an ironic thing. Like, wait, is this a comedy bit? Like, why are the Roots performing Nat King Cole in these Christmas sweaters? And we totally played it straight. Like, you know, people were expecting, like, a hip-hop version or something like that. But, yeah, I wanted to do it, just as a memory of performing when I was a kid.

GROSS: That's the chestnuts roasting on an open fire song.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah, "The Christmas Song," Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song." Yes.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, let's get to another song on your playlist. And this is "Disco Claus," which is by Bionic.

QUESTLOVE: Yes.

GROSS: And it sounds more like funk Santa than disco Claus.

QUESTLOVE: It is. You know, there's these two really influential DJs that have really inspired my DJ career. They're from the Boston area. They're called Amir and Akon (ph). And those guys, like, they're the DJs that, like, your favorite DJs' DJs listen to. And they're always, like, playing, like, really obscure music that's really under the radar. And I believe DJ Amir is the one that put me on to this particular piece, which, you know - it has a good drum break to it. And I think it came out in 1977 by a group called The Bionic. Yeah.

GROSS: OK. Let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DISCO CLAUS")

THE BIONIC I: (Rapping) It was the night before Christmas when all through the pad, not a record was spinning. Things really looked bad. (Singing) Disco Claus came into town, funking all the toys around. Susie Q and GI Joe funking under the mistletoe. Hey, ain't nothing silent about this night. Rudolph with your nose so bright, disco through the town tonight. I said, get on, Rudolph. We got to get through this town. Yeah. I say it's about that time. It's about that time. Mix it up. All right, get on down. Disco, disco Santa. Yeah, I said I'm going down.

GROSS: That's "Disco Claus" by Bionic, one of the songs chosen for us by Questlove. You've said that as a creator, you're 98% groove and 2% melody. And the track you just played is very much groove.

QUESTLOVE: Very much so, yes.

GROSS: Yeah.

QUESTLOVE: I mean, drums are - that's my calling card, you know? And for me, there's a lot of really obscure Christmas records that might, like - they'll do their version of, like, "Little Drummer Boy" or something like that. So kind of on the market, when people are shopping for records, they're looking for really good records with a lot of drum breaks on them. So Christmas records are often - you know, you're guaranteed to find one from a funk group in the '70s.

GROSS: "Little Drummer Boy" is one of the Christmas songs - the original recording of it - that just really, really drove me crazy.

QUESTLOVE: Really (laughter)?

GROSS: Oh, yeah. They played it so much on the radio when I was growing up. And yet - tell me you like it?

QUESTLOVE: It's hard to escape it. Yeah, all throughout, like, first and second grade, like, every Christmas pageant, I think it was expected that I was supposed to play "Little Drummer Boy."

GROSS: Oh, because you were the drummer.

QUESTLOVE: Because I was a drummer. Right, exactly.

GROSS: Oh, no.

QUESTLOVE: Exactly. Yeah, no...

GROSS: So did you like the song 'cause you got to play?

QUESTLOVE: Well, actually, you know, it wasn't that bad though. I probably did it, like, four times in my life. I didn't do it, like, every year. But, you know, oftentimes in school, at the Christmas pageant, even if it were, like, something totally the opposite, like our production of "The Nutcracker" or something like that, like, they would find some sort of excuse to, you know, give 8-year-old Ahmir a drumming spotlight in the program.

GROSS: Oh, boy. Well, let's hear a song that's lyrically the opposite of it's the most happiest time of the year. So this is James Brown's "Santa Claus, Santa Claus" from 1968.

QUESTLOVE: This is so hilarious to me.

GROSS: Yeah, why...

QUESTLOVE: I'm sorry.

GROSS: Why is it hilarious to you?

QUESTLOVE: (Laughter) This song - this particular song is my - one, this is my introduction to Christmas music; two, it's my introduction to James Brown.

GROSS: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. So the first time you heard a Christmas song...

QUESTLOVE: Yeah, yeah, I know (laughter).

GROSS: ...And the first time you heard James Brown was this?

QUESTLOVE: Yeah, my first James Brown was this. No, it was just that - you know what it is? You know, I was a kid of the "Muppets" era. And there was a tortured genius musician on "Sesame Street," and his name was Don Music. And he was always full of self-doubt and insecurity. And whenever he couldn't find the right words or the right chord, he just, like - you know, he'd bang his head on the piano like a tortured soul. And, you know, it was exaggerated. So I used to think it was funny.

And James Brown has a voice similar to my grandmother's. So - and she's a very - (laughter) she's a very animated woman. So, you know, as a baby, I thought that was Grandmom singing all the songs because, like, James Brown really belts like a female gospel singer - you know what I mean? - like, with his high notes and his yelling. So when I hear this very, very depressing song about misfortune, like, this is the Murphy's Law of Christmas songs. I don't know. I think my 3-year-old self just thought that Grandmom was performing, like, a comedy skit or something like that.

So I added that song for the ironic reasons. Like, I think this is one of the most hilarious songs ever because James Brown is overselling the - he's really overselling the woe-is-me character of the song. So...

GROSS: Yeah, he's asking Santa and the Lord, why does he have to suffer so? So, OK.

QUESTLOVE: Right, exactly (laughter).

GROSS: All right. Let's hear it.

QUESTLOVE: All right.

GROSS: This is James Brown from 1968.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SANTA CLAUS, SANTA CLAUS")

JAMES BROWN: I've wanted so many things, I wanted so. But you experience the wants when you live in the ghetto. But now I understand what it means to be a man. So there's one thing I'd like know.

(Singing) I been good, Lord, have mercy - so good, you know. Why, oh, why do I have to suffer so? Santa Claus, Santa Claus, please, please, please don't make me - don't make me suffer so. Christmas comes but once a year. Oh, won't somebody please, please, please bring me some Christmas cheer? I need a Christmas cheer. Santa Claus, please, please don't make me suffer so. Can't take it no more.

GROSS: That was James Brown from 1968. I'm still processing that this was, like, your introduction to James Brown.

QUESTLOVE: Yes. But, see, after that, then I wanted to hear all the songs where he's, like, screaming and crying.

GROSS: This is another very unusual recording with a story behind it. It's called "Santa Claus Is A Black Man," and it's by Akim & Teddy Vann from 1973.

QUESTLOVE: Teddy Vann, her father. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. Teddy Vann, her father. And she was - what? - 5 when she recorded this?

QUESTLOVE: She was 5 when she did this. So, you know, Akim Vann, most would know her - she's a staple in the Prospect Heights area because she's, like - she's the owner of a really awesome bakery. It's called the Bakery on Bergen, and it's in Prospect Heights. But the weirdest thing was back when Wendy Williams, the personality William - Wendy Williams was a DJ on Hot 97 - this is, like, in the '90s. It's - she had a Christmas-themed show once. And I remember they played this song called "Santa Claus Is A Black Man."

And I called the station and just left a note - like, I don't know if you guys know who I am and whatever. This is Questlove of The Roots, and I got to know the name of that song. And shockingly, I think, like, two days later, they emailed me back and sent me a cassette copy of the song 'cause that's the times we were living in. And what's also notable about this song is that I believe that singer Luther Vandross, who, at the time, was a local singer and ironically the one act I had to leave off of "Summer Of Soul" - he's also singing background on the song.

GROSS: Oh, oh. Well, apparently Teddy Vann, Akim's father...

QUESTLOVE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Wrote one of Luther Vandross' hits?

QUESTLOVE: Yeah, "The Power Of Love." Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I could see why - OK. I could see why he was singing backup on this.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah.

GROSS: OK. All right. So you loved about the song what?

QUESTLOVE: Well, I just loved the absolute innocence of it. Like, similar to "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," this is Christmas through the eyes of a child who - you know, the whole point is that kids don't know that their parents are really Santa Claus. So, you know, this is - besides "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," this is sort of another song in that vein where, you know...

GROSS: He looked just like you, Daddy (laughter).

QUESTLOVE: Yeah. She doesn't realize that her dad...

GROSS: Yeah.

QUESTLOVE: ...Is actually Santa Claus. So it's a cute song.

GROSS: Yeah, that he's dressed as Santa Claus. OK.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah.

GROSS: So let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SANTA CLAUS IS A BLACK MAN")

AKIM VANN: (Singing) Hey, you want to hear something that's out of sight? You know what I found out last night? It's when Mama turned out the light. I went in the living room to see what the noise that woke up me. And I saw him by the Christmas tree. Santa Claus is a Black man. Santa Claus is a Black man, and he's handsome like my daddy, too. Santa Claus is a Black man. Santa Claus is a Black man. And I found out. That's what I'm telling you.

GROSS: So that's one of the songs selected for us by Questlove, who we asked to select some Christmas songs to play for us. And happily...

QUESTLOVE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...For us, he agreed. So what was Santa Claus to you? Did your parents tell you that there was a Santa Claus or that that was somebody who only existed in movies?

QUESTLOVE: You know, it's weird - yeah. Santa - I was one of those kids - it's weird that if I see a clown, I love it. But if I saw Santa Claus, I was afraid of it. So every time I saw Santa Claus before the age of 3, I'd just get super panicky. And so the effects of that - you know of people that are, like, deathly afraid of clowns? I was deathly afraid of Santa Claus. So - and what's weird is that probably the two most important gifts that I've gotten, well, were both my drum sets - you know, my drum set when I was 3 years old and my drum set when I was 7 years old. And I definitely know that my parents did this for me, not Santa Claus.

GROSS: So one of the surprises on your playlist is a track from a Marvin Gaye album from 1972, and it's called - the track is called "Christmas In The City". It's an...

QUESTLOVE: Right (laughter).

GROSS: ...Instrumental. Why did you choose an - you know, Marvin Gaye's such a great singer, but why did you find, like, the instrumental track that you'd have no idea is about Christmas?

QUESTLOVE: So this song, although it was recorded in '72, like, it only circulated amongst, like, the bootleg collectors amongst the years. And finally, Motown, like, maybe 10 or 15 years ago, finally rereleased it on a compilation. But the early '70s was a really interesting time for technology. There's a lot of futuristic - sonic futuristic synthesizer gurus, like Raymond Scott, who are, like, developing these new sounds and these groups, like this group named Tonto. Stevie Wonder hears the Tonto record, and he actually tracks them down at their house and says, I have these sounds in my head. I want to make music with you. And then Stevie Wonder winds up making, like, five of the most life-changing albums of his career.

So, there's a point where, like, everyone in Black music gets a monophonic synthesizer, which is basically a keyboard device that only allows you to play, like, one note at a time. So you can't play chords yet. Like, a polyphonic won't come until, like, 1975, '76, with Stevie Wonder's "Songs In The Key Of Life". But there's this period between, like, '67 and '73 in which, like, one note at a time, you're hearing this, like, weird space music. And leave it to Marvin Gaye to, sort of in that similar way that James Brown paints a hilariously depressing Christmas, Marvin Gaye's - like, I can almost imagine Berry Gordy just saying like, look, Marvin, just make a Christmas song real quick, and Marvin's like, all right, hold my beer.

GROSS: (Laughter).

QUESTLOVE: And "Christmas In The City" is just one of the most - it's one of the most depressing-sounding, like, sad, loneliest - I don't know. There's just something hilarious about hearing Marvin Gaye struggle with this monophonic synthesizer, you know, turning it into the blues. So that's why I chose it.

GROSS: So let's hear it. So this is Marvin Gaye, "Christmas In The City".

(SOUNDBITE OF MARVIN GAYE'S "CHRISTMAS IN THE CITY")

GROSS: That's a Marvin Gaye track without Marvin Gaye singing. And that's one of the Christmas songs - it's called "Christmas In The City" - chosen for us by Questlove. So let's get to Stevie Wonder. I know you love Stevie Wonder, and he's in your...

QUESTLOVE: Yes.

GROSS: ...Film performing in "Summer Of Soul". And this is a promotional disc from Britain.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah.

GROSS: It's a kind of Christmas greetings song - Christmas greetings message. It's not even a whole song. So tell us about the origin of this.

QUESTLOVE: You know why I chose this? Stevie Wonder is world famous for his unique jingles for radio stations. You know, if you search the internet high and low, you can find some that he's done over the years and over the decades. So these jingles - there's actually a Philadelphia version of this particular jingle that I grew up with, and that's the thing that's always close to my heart. So there was a point in time in which Stevie Wonder might take time out to craft maybe somewhere between 30 to 50 individualized, customized radio station jingles for, you know, the territories that were playing his music the most. And this is sort of a companion piece to the Marvin Gaye "Christmas In The City" bit, of which this is Stevie Wonder playing synthesizer. This time he's playing a polyphonic synthesizer, which gives him the ability to hit all the notes together. So this is kind of the opposite. This is when synthesizers get in the right hands of its creator.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK. Here's Stevie Wonder.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY HOLIDAYS")

STEVIE WONDER: Hi, this is Stevie Wonder. On behalf of the Motown family, I'd like to say (singing) happy holiday from all of us to you.

GROSS: I wish I could hear more of that, but I guess there isn't more of that.

QUESTLOVE: Very brief. Sometimes, you know, you can make a point in 26 seconds. I mean, look at the Ramones. They made a life-changing record, and not one song is over two minutes. So, you know, I think more artists need to follow suit and figure - and challenge themselves to make impactful art in less than, you know, the normal time.

GROSS: Do you think he did these promotional recordings because he wanted to or because the record company urged him to or because it would, like, get him more airplay?

QUESTLOVE: I - yeah, I mean, Stevie Wonder came from - Stevie Wonder not only came from, like, the first generation of Motown, but he also came from the first generation of a professional Black record company that had to cross every T and dot every I. So, you know, not only did you have to release your single, you had to make a mono version of it, a stereo version of it. And then, some of these songs, you took time out to sing the Spanish versions of them, you took time out to sing the Italian version. Like, I have a collection of Stevie Wonder singles in other languages. It's just maximizing on your appeal. And Stevie Wonder had the means and the technology to just knock this all out. So, you know, I can imagine that this level of creativity was his bread and butter.

GROSS: So I'd like to close with another song. And I'm thinking, like, do you have a favorite - and I'm going to - I guess I'll get a little churchy here. Do you have a favorite, like, real Christmas song that is, say, like a gospel song or - 'cause I know you love Mahalia Jackson - she's in "Summer Of Soul" - and...

QUESTLOVE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Mavis Staples. So is there a song, like, from that tradition that you'd like to end with?

QUESTLOVE: You know, there's so many to choose from. I will say, though, there's a rendition of "Silent Night" that's done by The Temptations. It's their '73 version with Dennis Edwards singing lead vocals. And it's almost unspoken - like, it's - every Black household in the '70s, that's the only version of "Silent Night" that exists. A good friend of mine says that if the first three words of any ad-lib from a soul singer are the words, in my mind, then, you know the abyss levels of deep that that version of the song is going to be. And that's exactly what Dennis Edwards does. The fact that his first three words have nothing to do with "Silent Night," which is, in my mind, which is kind of like a go-to, like, I'm going to get real deep for you here when - you know, before I start sermonizing, like, that's a warning that you're about to get something special. The Temptations' version, their slow version of "Silent Night" is damn near a religion in Black households.

GROSS: Oh, thank you for choosing that. Questlove, it's always such a great treat when you're on our show. Thank you so much for choosing music for us. And I wish you, you know, a really good Christmas and a very healthy and happy and meditative and fulfilling...

QUESTLOVE: Yes.

GROSS: ...2023.

QUESTLOVE: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Yeah. It's just always such a pleasure to have you on our show.

QUESTLOVE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SILENT NIGHT")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Vocalizing). 'Twas the night before Christmas. And all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

(Singing) In my mind, I want you to be free. For all of our friends, would you listen to me? Now, hear what I say. We wish you a Merry Christmas to each one of you. Silent night, holy night. All is calm. All is bright. Round yon virgin, mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild. Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep, sleep in heaven, heavenly peace.

GROSS: That session with Questlove was recorded one year ago. Questlove is a founding member of the band The Roots, and the band's drummer. They're the house band for "The Tonight Show." If you want to hear the complete version of the songs from his Christmas playlist, you can find the link on our website, freshair.npr.org. And if you want to see his Oscar and Grammy Award-winning concert documentary, "Summer Of Soul," it's streaming on Hulu and Disney+. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Terry Gross
Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.