Chris Rock and Questlove Talk the Greatest MCs of All Time and Collaborating on New Movie 'Top Five'
It's a cold November morning, and Chris Rock has come to meet Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson at his office, which is also his dressing room and his studio, on the sixth floor of 30 Rock, where Jimmy Fallon shoots The Tonight Show. Questlove, 43 -- the drummer for The Roots, Fallon's house band -- is the executive music producer and co-composer of the score for Top Five, which Rock, 49, wrote, directed and stars in. The film (in theaters Dec. 12 through Paramount) is a day in the life of stand-up comic turned movie star Andre Allen, who's trying to stay sober, get married and turn the corner on becoming a serious actor (his audience, like Woody Allen's in Stardust Memories, prefers his early, funny films). Hip-hop is woven throughout the movie: Jay Z and Kanye West's "Ni--as in Paris" functions as a theme song (the rappers are co-producers of Top Five), and one of the standout scenes features Rock as Allen debating the greatest MCs of all time with friends and family. The soundtrack is packed with classic hip-hop from Slick Rick, LL Cool J and Scarface, and there is a surprising cameo from DMX, who displays a Will Ferrell-level of commitment to his bit. "We had a small budget but I spent all day shooting that one scene," says Rock. "We probably did it 80 times. I was on some [David] Fincher shit for that: I got every angle."
How did you two team up for Top Five?
Rock: I love Ahmir. First, he's a good guy; second, he's a fabulous musician; and most importantly, you can find him.
Questlove: From 11 to 7 I'm in this building.
Rock: I remember [Jim] Jarmusch telling me stories about Ghost Dog, "Every now and then I had to meet RZA [who did the music for the 1999 movie] at a White Castle in the Bronx and he'd give me a DAT tape." I'm too old to be going to White Castles in the Bronx at four in the morning.
Questlove: I heard about the folklore of Top Five, because the buzz of it actually started a year and a half before, based on the table read. I'd like to thank this man: I've never had a bevy of the finest working actresses in Hollywood call me out of the blue. And then their ninth question was always, "So... do you know Chris Rock?" All of black Hollywood was clambering...
Rock and costar Rosario Dawson in Top Five
Rock: And beige Hollywood.
Questlove: All of non-white Hollywood was clambering to be part of this. Someone told me it's the first non-minstrel-based, low-caliber comedy. It's just regular people, and that's very hard to portray with African Americans onscreen. I felt like it was going to be historic. I have that one sense-of-purpose thing every year. Like 2008 was campaigning for Obama, this year...
Rock: So does that mean eventually white people aren't going to like this movie?
When you talked about the music used in the film, what was the conversation?
Questlove: He had shown me the rough cut, and what spoke to me more than any of the characters was the invisible character of what I call midlife crisis hip-hop. I was like, "Wow, finally there is a film that appeals to my generation and its inability to grow up." We're first generation hip-hoppers. How do you belong to a culture that celebrates being 16, 17, 18? How do you grow up? This is one of the first films that really deals with it.
Rock: It's the Big Chill of hip-hop.
Rock, you've talked about Top Five's reference to Stardust Memories. What about Nick Hornby's High Fidelity?
Rock: You're right. It's very Nick Hornby. Whenever I hire a new manager they always go, "What kind of movie do you want to be in?" I always say, "I would be great in High Fidelity." I love Cusack, everything he does. When you're a black guy, all they have for you are fake Eddie Murphy movies. No disrespect to any of them -- Rush Hour, Ride Along, whatever -- if you don't want to do one of those, they don't know what the f-- to do with you. And I go, "You know, me and John Cusack are the same f--ing age. As a matter of fact, I've seen him play a dad. He's got no kids. I'm f---in' married with kids."
High Fidelity is about the male obsession with list making, and women are left out of that. But in this movie, the women are right in there.
Rock: They got to be, because black people, it's a matriarchal society. We always go, "Wow, how would the world be if women ran the world?" Just look at black people. That's pretty much it. You can't make a boy-centric movie about black people.
You can't make CB4 right now?
Rock: You can make it but no one's going to see it. All the money is in the women. Tyler Perry figured this out: Black men don't feel slighted by movies. There is always a Tyrese Gibson or somebody doing something. When black guys see Transformers or whatever, they don't feel left out. But you can go to five movies without seeing a black woman. There's no black women in Interstellar. If you go down the 10 Oscar movies right now, there's no black women in Birdman. Nothing. So when you making a movie for black people you better have really, really great women parts or you're doing yourself a disservice.
ROCK'S Top 5 Rappers
"He's coming up and cannot be ignored."
"The only artist right now that doesn't have a toe in Nickelodeon."
The 'Top Five' soundtrack is available Dec. 9 on Def Jam, digital only.
This article first appeared in the Dec. 13 issue of Billboard.