Q: So the idea behind "7 Years," your Audible original, is that the cells in our bodies kind of reinvent themselves and are replaced and reborn. You're breaking your life into seven-year segments because you feel like this is an important marker.
A: The first section is about the first seven years of my life in which I lost one of my parents. My father was murdered. So it speaks to the events that led up to his untimely passing and then what it was like to be a young person in Philadelphia in the early ’70s.
Q: Your father died under mysterious circumstances when you were 2, right?
A: Yeah, the case hasn’t really been solved. Without giving too much of the story away, he was active in the Islamic community . . . in Philadelphia, as well as in the criminal community in Philadelphia. And the events that resulted or led to his untimely passing set off a sequence of events that ultimately made me the person that I am today. I think that’s the short of it, but the first seven years of my life, it’s a piece of the puzzle that many people might find shocking or tragic or just sort of fill in the blank, a jaw-dropper, sad. But for me it’s part of my story and what makes my journey unique.
Q: And your mother, who had trouble with drugs, also died when you were young. I don't want to use a cliche like, you know, what doesn't kill us makes us stronger, but what happened to you is clearly a thread to who you are now.
A: Yeah, absolutely. People who are in similar situations or worse, everyone has choices, that’s what life is about. It’s about the choices we make. And I think it’s about reaching a level of consciousness of how choices that we make now are going to affect what takes place at the opposite end. So that ties into the seven-year theory in that not only is there all this stuff happening internally and physically on a biological level with us, but the same sort of evolution and changes over a seven-year period are taking place in the universe. So it’s about . . . interconnectedness and how we’re walking intersections. And it’s about the ability to change and the willingness to change or unwillingness of some people and things to change. It’s about being able to breathe without folding. I think it’s kind of corny, but I almost do believe, you know, to a certain extent that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
Q: Let's talk about the Roots. Questlove is much more than a drummer. Now he's got this amazing movie out, "Summer of Soul." But do you think it has hurt you to be in a group with such high-profile people? I feel like you don't get the credit you deserve.
A: It has hurt me a little bit, you know? I mean that’s one way to look at it. Maybe I would have gained more notoriety over the years if it was just me and a producer or a DJ and there was no live instrumentation. But another way to look at it is that that’s sort of why I’m still here and why I haven’t peaked, why I haven’t burned out yet, creatively, emotionally, with regards to the brotherhood dynamic of the Roots. I’m still here. But I do say that maybe I’ve done myself a little bit of a disservice, but I think the word is gotten out. I think my legacy is safe.
Q: It's a funny thing, because who the heck would think a drummer would get attention?
A: It depends on who wants the attention. He’s a genius. He’s a musical historian. And he’s always wanted to be the person being interviewed. He really loves to speak and to engage people in this way. And I guess it’s just different upbringings, because that’s just part of the way he is. I’ve always been just more guarded, a bit more introverted. Maybe I picked the wrong job, but we’ve been able to work it out in this way. Earlier on, it was almost a beast of burden in that he had to pick up the slack in order to promote the Roots brand. So every accolade, all the attention he gets now has been a long time coming. And he’s really worked hard for it.
Q: When you talk about the Roots, you often use the word "brand." Clearly, you believe there is a Roots brand. How would you describe it?
A: The Roots, we are America’s band, we are Black America’s band. We occupy one of the most unique spaces in the world of music, of entertainment, in that way of being able to put out material that makes real social commentary and speaks to real things that are going on and that represents the way people really feel about the moment, about the future, about history. And then you can go and do some animated thing or something with puppets. You know, I think we have a unique appeal in just a matter of factness in our musicality that I wouldn’t say is universal, but babies get it and young people get it and all the way on up, so to speak.
Anying Guo contributed to the production of this story.