Questlove, who will serve as musical director for the 93rd annual Academy Awards, which airs Sunday on ABC, has had his eye on that job for nearly a decade.
Questlove says he “manifested” working on the Oscars after the 2012 ceremony, where musical directors Pharrell Williams and Hans Zimmer enlisted an all-star band including A.R. Rahman, Sheila E and Esperanza Spalding. “I remember watching like, ‘Hey, wait a minute! I want to do that!’” he tells Billboard over Zoom.
The drummer, DJ, producer and member of the legendary hip-hop band The Roots performed at last year’s ceremony when Rickey Minor was musical director. In the Academy Awards’ 93-year history, Questlove is the event’s fifth Black musical director, following Quincy Jones, Minor, Harold Wheeler and Williams.
As musical director, the five-time Grammy winner (born Ahmir Thompson) will oversee the ceremony’s major musical elements, from the opening music to the show’s presenter and winner bumpers.
While this is the first time Questlove, a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, will fulfill this role at the Oscars, he’s no stranger to this sort of position. In the past, he has held musical directing positions for such top artists as Jay-Z and D’Angelo, and he currently serves as musical director of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, where The Roots are house band.
“This is not work for me. This is like ‘Wow, all that useless [music] information I had before is going to pay off,’” he says. He adds that the first thing he thought about after confirming the role was the “wrap it up, B” music, or the play-off music for much-too-long acceptance speeches. “I didn’t work on anything. I immediately just had dreams of, ‘Man, what creative way can I disrupt someone’s overindulgent acceptance speech?’ That’s how excited I was,” he laughs.
Jesse Collins, who is producing this year’s Oscars with Stacey Sher and Steven Soderbergh, lauds Questlove for “the way his mind works with music,” noting that he is a “true historian” and “understands music better than anyone [he] knows.”
“With the show, we wanted a DJ experience, and we also wanted a DJ who could create music,” Collins says of the decision to hire Questlove for the role. “It started out with ‘We just need you to be the music director [and] deejay the Oscars.’ Once he said yes, then we were like, ‘Oh, well we need an opening title sequence! Oh, we need score for this! Oh, well we need this!’ [We’re adding components] every day, but he’s still able to do it. … You can go to him with Play-Doh, and he will mold it into something that the culture will just respond to as absolute musical brilliance.”
While the event’s producers didn’t give any specific notes or suggestions to Questlove before he began working, the musician explains that he established some sonic goals of his own. In order to come up with the score for the night’s major sequences, he opted to “pay tribute” to the iconic film composers of yesteryear. Music lovers should keep their ears open for homages to ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s cinema throughout the evening, while also expecting a hip-hop-tinged twist to those compositions.
“I’m a junkie for a lot of [film] composers that oftentimes hip-hop producers will sample, like Musiq Soulchild sampling [French composer] Frances Lai for ‘Halfcrazy,’” he explains, “Alan Hackshaw, Brian Bennett — a lot of these composers have never really truly got their props. For me, it’s a chance to ‘Easter egg,’ if you will, little bits and pieces.” With help from The Roots, Questlove crafted and mixed “about 50 to 60 different instrumentals” fitting the vein of this theme. While gathering different inspiration for the bumpers “is way harder than [he] thought,” he was most excited to work with his legendary crew outside of their daily work setting.
“Besides The Tonight Show, this is probably the first time that we’ve played as a band,” he says of The Roots, who will play alongside him on Oscar Sunday. “I think that’s what really made it fun for us. It wasn’t like, ‘Ah, we gotta do 60 songs.’ This provided us a moment to get together and play again in a studio.”
Given some of the challenges the pandemic has had on live productions such as the Academy Awards, there will be a few changes to the show this year. There is no pit or live orchestra accompanying Questlove, there will reportedly be multiple filming locations, and, most notably, there will be some restructuring of the telecast in the interest of time. It was announced Friday that the best original song nominees will perform their songs during the awards’ pre-show, Oscars: Into the Spotlight, rather than during the main event. Nevertheless, Questlove is staying positive about being able to put on a show.
“We’re fortunate enough to be alive and in a place where we could start writing the next chapter of what the new normal is,” he explains of working alongside the Oscars team.
Despite the minor limitations surrounding this year’s festivities, Questlove is not letting anything squander the excitement of his latest role. The Philly-bred Roots crew playing at the Oscars is huge not only for the group, but for hip-hop in general. While some may see hip-hop and the Academy Awards as an unlikely pairing, the genre has been strongly represented at Hollywood’s biggest night throughout the 21st century.
Eminem, members of Three 6 Mafia and Common (in tandem with John Legend) have won in the best original song category. Hip-hop-aligned acts have also been recognized by the Academy in other ways; Queen Latifah was nominated for best supporting actress for her role in Chicago in 2003, and this year, Diddy and Pro-Era rapper Joey Bada$$ were involved with Two Distant Strangers, as executive producer and the film’s star, respectively. It is up for a win in the short film (live action) category.
Questlove is eager to “be the bridge” between film and hip-hop and to “plant seeds” of education surrounding where music comes from, which he believes will be accomplished through the work he and The Roots have done for this year’s ceremony. It’s no easy feat, but he’s up for the task.
“If a hip-hop head is watching and they hear something that sounds familiar, hopefully that leads into their discovery that a particular song that you liked actually came from an old film score,” he says. “You know, not many people know that Busta Rhymes’ ‘Gimme Some More’ comes from the score of [Alfred Hitchcock’s] Psycho. Even if five people get it and hit me on Twitter about it, then I feel like it’s an accomplishment — then this gig was a job well done.”