The Roots' Questlove on 'Detroit,' Getting Pulled Over By The Police, and John Lennon & Yoko Ono's Influence

Questlove, 2015
Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Questlove attends the 87th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on Feb. 22, 2015 in Hollywood, Calif.

When director Kathryn Bigelow asked Questlove to contribute a song to Detroit, her searing account of the Algiers Motel incident during the 1967 Detroit riots when police killed three black teenagers, the drummer wasn’t sure he and his band, The Roots, were the right choice. 

Not only did he advocate for a more mainstream act, “like Chance the Rapper,” he says, Questlove also knew that he couldn’t contribute a song that provided inspiration in the face of the racially motivated police brutality displayed in the film that still exists today:  “You know, like that sort of ‘rise to the occasion and hope’ thing,” he says. 

Bigelow wanted The Roots, and she wanted their truth. The result was "It Ain’t Fair,” featuring Bilal, which plays over the movie’s end credits and is a contender for best original song at the upcoming Oscars. As Questlove told Billboard of the track, ‘This isn’t Toy Story’s ‘You’ve Got a Friend in Me’.”  

The bandleader, seen nightly with The Roots on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, further talked about the inspiration for  “It Ain’t Fair,” the fears he faces from police as a black man, and why he wouldn’t necessarily recommend that people see Detroit, which comes out on DVD Sept. 12.

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What was your reaction to seeing the film? 

Once the 45-minute torture scene happens, something inside me, as I’m watching... it just snapped. First, the Philando Castile [killing by police during a traffic stop] in Minnesota had just happened two weeks earlier. So, that’s already fresh in my head. And then what makes it even crazier is that I know I share a lot of my life on social media, but I never, ever share my run-ins with police on my social media. Maybe I feel like it will seem disingenuous, or like, “Oh, I’m the rich guy co-opting black pain.”  

By run-ins, do you mean getting pulled over? 

[It’s] kind of my biggest fear in life… After I do Fallon, I always go do DJ gigs. Most of them are in Brooklyn. Some are in Staten Island. Some are in Queens. It’s four in the morning. You’re in your car with your driver [and] I might be like, “Don’t go down DeKalb Avenue because you remember what happened last [time].” You automatically become, like, instant GPS on what you think the safest route is for you to get home unscathed and not pulled over… Every time they roll that window down, I’m just praying to God, “Yes, it’s me from The Tonight Show. I’m the guy from The Tonight Show.” 

There’s two things I dread the most at the top of the year: a new school of 21-year-olds will now be allowed in the nightclub, and that’s just one more generation that won’t know an obvious song that they should know, like Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough.” The second thing I dread is, what are the six instances that I get pulled over, and what are the results going be?

The song starts quietly with Bilal’s beautiful a cappella vocals before exploding into bitter raps from Tariq [aka The Roots’ Black Thought]. Did anything besides the movie influence you? 

There’s a quietness and meekness that grows to anger once Tariq comes in. There’s a range of emotions there. It just so happens that maybe four months before, I was working on Yoko Ono’s new project, with her son Sean. They were explaining to me about scream therapy, and how Yoko had used scream therapy as a way for John Lennon to get over him being abandoned by his mom and his dad.

I was trying to figure out, “How do you express anger in a way that won’t scare people, or just instantly turn them off?” [My engineer] said, “You just did the thing with Yoko Ono, with the scream therapy.” So, I guess Lennon’s mother encouraged me.

You recorded it in The Dap Kings’ studio on vintage equipment. Why?

I said it would be interesting to contextualize a song about 1967 on equipment from 1963.  We’re going straight Motown. No modern technology.  So, it’s eight tracks and there’s 19 musicians. One small room. It was such a technical nightmare. We had to do it 18 times in a row. 

The beginning of the song talks about people being “woke,” and yet nothing seems to change.   

And that’s the thing. This was what I would want to express to someone who doesn’t realize the power that they have to affect something, to speak up. I feel like people know what the right thing is. Maybe the reluctance of doing the right thing is because it’s inconvenient, or it might take them out of their comfort zone. That’s who I’m trying to appeal to. 

Were you disappointed the movie didn’t do better in theaters this summer?

I wasn’t shocked. I’m not trying to make therapy as a luxury item, but to be honest with you, a lot of black people are very dismissive about the idea of therapy. I have the convenience of talking [about] these things to my therapist. My point is that when I saw it, it triggers PTSD. It triggers where you sometimes might not have an outlet.

I wrestle [with], would I recommend [it] to someone of color to sit through this film and watch? There’s a psychological trauma that happens when you subject yourself to something of this level of pain and you don’t deal with it. You don’t get rid of it. It’s crippling, you know. But it’s also necessary.