Questlove on Pandora's Algorithm: 'I Feel Like It Validated Me'

Questlove and Tim Westergren photographed on Dec. 7, 2016 at Root Studios in New York.
Miller Mobley

Questlove and Tim Westergren photographed on Dec. 7, 2016 at Root Studios in New York.

Questlove, Pandora's artist ambassador, believes music nerds have common cause with algorithms.

How did you decide to work with Pandora?
When I met Tim, I saw the infamous Music Genome section [of the office] and it blew my mind. I didn’t believe that humans were determining the music -- I thought it was impossible. And I was mind-blown at how similar my process for segueing songs is to theirs. What makes my DJ sets unique is that I conduct them based on tone, beats per minute, whether a song has a bridge in another key. There’s a melodic feng shui. I spend five hours every Sunday notating music. I feel like Pandora validated me.

Are you afraid of being replaced by machines?
I was elated that actual humans are doing it [at Pandora]. I’m the guy that everyone begs for a playlist. My wedding gift to Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel was a 600-song slow-jam playlist for their honeymoon. I have memberships at most streaming services, and oftentimes [the playlists are] Captain Obvious. When you’re looking up Christmas music, you have to go deep in the 1,000s to find the cool shit. I’ve been approached by many services to be their face, but it didn’t appeal to me.

When did you begin making playlists?
When [Jay Z and Beyonc√©’s daughter] Blue Ivy was born [in 2012]. At the time, iPods were still a thing, and I’d given [Jay Z] two iPods. My whole thing was, like, “Leave this on in her crib 24/7, no matter what, and you’re going to train her musical ear.” Later I was like, “So how’s it working?” He was like, “We kept [playing] that shit.”

You have a legendary collection of LPs.
I kind of cheat now because I have a broker that has my music taste. Back when I used to tour with The Roots, a spot like Jerry’s Records in Pittsburgh, which is, like, the size of a city block, might open for me at 7 a.m. and I’d stay there until 5 o’clock, then run out and do sound check and the show. Then he might open up late at night till two in the morning for me. Those days are kind of gone.

What do you make of key artists and releases missing from the streaming services?
Before Prince’s unfortunate demise, we were in talks with him about his entire catalog. We were pretty much 80 percent there, and talks are still continuing with his estate. Soon, we should hopefully have some good news to announce to all the purple fans.

Questlove talks about his show on Pandora, Questlove Supreme, where he and his "chosen squad" of musicians, actors and comedians "wax poetic" about music: "The most interesting part of artistry isn't the vehicle, but the engine that runs it. Questlove Supreme is a three-hour dissection into how the engine is made."

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 28 issue of Billboard.

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