The Roots' Questlove and Black Thought On Their 'Rap Yearbook' Docu-Series: Q&A

Questlove & Black Thought, 2015
Walter McBride/WireImage

Questlove and Black Thought attend the Broadway Opening Night Performance of 'Hamilton at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Aug. 6, 2015 in New York City. 

AMC recently announced “Visionaries: Rap Yearbook,” a six-part documentary series based on Shea Serrano's 2015 best-selling book The Rap Yearbook. The program, which is part of the larger "AMC Visionaries," will be produced by The RootsAhmir "Questlove" Thompson and Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter (Passyunk Productions) along with Shawn Gee (Philly Films) and filmmakers Alex Gibney and Stacey Offman (Jigsaw Productions).

"'Visionaries: Rap Yearbook' debates, deconstructs and illuminates the most important moments and songs from the biggest years in the history of hip-hop," according to a release, "with each episode focusing on the story of one key song and featuring a special guest MC as well as legendary rap artists, acclaimed music experts and others."

Billboard caught up with the musician-producers Questlove and Black Thought to get the lowdown on the series, including how they hooked up with Gibney, future Passyunk Productions' video projects and, of course, what exactly "Passyunk" means.

Billboard: What chapters/episodes you are planning to cover from Rap Yearbook when it launches in 2018?

Black Thought: So far we've focused on our “1994" [for which Serrano chose “Juicy” by The Notorious B.I.G.] for our Pilot Episode that was such an important year for hip-hop music & culture. Although the genesis of the show is built around the music, or the song, we also examine how the song was tied into what was happening from a societal, economic and political perspective during the particular period it was created and released. There are so many important songs and important stories to tell, we are just now planning and prioritizing the order in which we collectively feel the stories should be told.

Will there be musician cameos?

BT: We're still debating that. In general, we're looking at artists that have driven the culture over the past few decades from Nas and Notorious B.I.G. to Ice-T, NWA, Kanye and Outkast—all artists who appear in the book—however, we haven't chosen the exact years yet and we will examine specifically for the first 6 episodes. But we will also have contributors participating in each Rap Year book episode—musicians, journalists, opinionated individuals who live and breathe the culture.

Will there be performances?

BT: It isn’t a music show with performances and such, its an in depth docu-series that debates and deconstructs the most important songs from the biggest years in hip hop. Our goal is to facilitate conversation, facilitate discussion, to inform, to educate and also to entertain.

What’s Shawn Gee’s role?

Questlove: Shawn is our manager and partner, in this particular project he is an cxecutive producer, along with me and Tariq, and part of the brain trust (along with Jigsaw Productions) helping to develop and produce this show. He actually brought the book and project to our attention after he met with the Jigsaw team sometime last year. He is leading the charge as we build out our footprint in the film & tv world.

How about Alex Gibney, how did you get with him? Any work of his that you’re fans of?

Q: Quite honestly, if Alex and the Jigsaw team weren’t involved in this project, I’m not sure we would have signed on to participate. They make GREAT documentaries, from the Steve Jobs documentary, the Killing Season, Going Clear and many others. We are passionate about music and the stories that surround the music and we trust their vision in bringing these stories to life in a compelling, unique way.

What does Passyunk Productions mean? Is it safe to say in a work environment?

BT: Passyunk Productions is our film & tv production company. The name comes from a street in Philly, Passyunk Avenue, where the concept of The Roots was born, as Ahmir and I started out busking on the corner of 5th & Passyunk back in the early 90’s. Our vision is to become a full service production company which will take interesting ideas and concepts and develop them into compelling stories.

As students of music history and culture, are you discovering/unearthing original research and getting deeper perspective?

Q: Yes, that is the goal. As musicians who have tried to remain relevant for over two decades, we have opinions, experiences and resources that aren’t readily available to the general public. However, our word isn’t gospel, if you have ever seen any of the Jigsaw documentaries, you know they take a REALLY deep dive into whatever subject matter is being examined, that is why we are excited to work with them. So we hope to uncover stories and unique perspectives that have never before been told, and present them in a way that will spark conversation and maybe even some thoughtful debates off platform.

Do you have any other programs in the pipeline?

BT: We are starting to staff up and are actively looking for projects. In addition to Rap Year Book at AMC, we also currently have two projects in development at Amazon. We are also shopping a project called Soundclash, which is a music based performance show, designed in the vein of Jools Holland’s amazing show in the UK. We produced two episodes of the show a few years ago, which featured acts like Sia, Ed Sheehan, TI, London Grammar, Fallout Boy and others, that aired on VH1. Our plan for Passyunk Productions is to make an impact in the film & tv world by leveraging our collective resources, telling great stories and creating smart programming told from a unique perspective.