At the ASCAP “I Create Music” Expo in Hollywood on Friday (May 3), the producer, drummer and bandleader of The Roots joined the organization’s chairman, Paul Williams, in conversation. He touched on how much he admired Dilla for his talent and work ethic during the chat, and opened up about the unforgettable visit to his collaborator’s hospital bed just weeks before he died.
“When he passed away that really hit me super hard,” Questlove told a packed ballroom at the Loews Hollywood Hotel. “I stopped making music. Unless it was a Roots album, I pretty much had stopped working and collaborating with other people.”
Questlove called Dilla “the music god that music gods and music experts and music lovers worship.” With the exception of Pharrell Williams, Dilla showed Questlove the greatest dedication he had ever seen in a fellow musician. Dilla would keep a meticulous schedule, Questlove recalled: he would wake up at 6 a.m., listen to records for three hours a day and then focus on creating new sounds or patches. He’d round out his day working on what he had started earlier in the week.
Questlove mentioned others artists and producers who had shaped his musical outlook, including Quincy Jones and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. While touring with the Chili Peppers in 2005 he was inspired by the band’s strong bond. “Every three songs they would like stop and have this like football huddle,” Questlove said.
“I would ask Flea, ‘What do you talk about in that circle?'” And he responded, “We are playing this soccer stadium with 90,000 people. We are just this raggedy band from L.A…. We just want to hug each other in the magic circle and feel the moment.”
The Chili Peppers’ close-knit nature made him realize that the friendships that had brought together members of the Roots in high school had frayed. “Realizing that, all of us make a real effort to connect with each other, and now it’s the most fun it’s ever been,” Questlove said.
Williams also honored Questlove with the ASCAP Creative Voice Award for “being a role model for the creative community in every way.” Turning Questlove’s own words back on him, he asked the producer if he had yet created a “devastating masterpiece” of his own.
“My position in life is I am in the passenger’s seat for a lot of great moments,” Questlove responded. “Being in the passenger’s seat watching J Dilla at his zenith, at his most creative ever, that to me was that moment. And creating D’Angelo’s Voodoo album with him for those five years… As a fan of music I have had the best seat in the house to just sit and watch people create stuff, and I just coincidentally have had a part in it.”
In January of 2006 Questlove visited Dilla in the hospital, finding the rapper in a wheelchair and a “near vegetable state.” Despite his physical appearance, “his brain and his fingers were still creating these miracles musically,” Questlove said. Much of what would be Dilla’s final album, Donuts — which was released three days before he died — was made in the hospital, he said.
Before he left the hospital Dilla bestowed a rare gift on his friend and fellow producer: a Brazilian pressing of a Stevie Wonder record that Questlove had long worshipped. At that moment, “I knew this was our final goodbye.”
Questlove returned to music in 2009 with the Roots’ gig as the in-house band for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. The Roots collaborated with new wave icon Elvis Costello on their joint Wise Up Ghost album in 2013, and released their 11th studio album, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, in 2014.
“I would say that now is probably the most excited I have been to have music ready for you guys in the longest [time],” Questlove said.