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Most Saturday nights from age 5 to 10, Ahmir Thompson would go to bed at 8 p.m., only to be woken up a few hours later. When he was 3, he had taken a fruit-drink commercial too literally — “Hey, how about a nice Hawaiian punch?” ended with a fist to his mother’s face — so his parents decided to limit his television consumption. But on the weekends, they bent the rules and, around 12:45 a.m., nudged him awake. He would grab his crocheted-by-Grandma blanket and head downstairs, where he would switch on the television, wait for it to warm up and then crank the dial to Channel 48 as quietly as he could. Right at 1 a.m., he was greeted by a magical locomotive — chugging along so rhythmically that it almost seemed to dance, flipping gray buildings it passed into psychedelic colors — for his regular dose of peace, love and “Soul Train.”
Because “Soul Train” was the only show, besides “Sesame Street,” that he was allowed to watch as a child, and because Thompson, who you might better know as Questlove, grew up into the sort of adult who relies on an extensive knowledge of music to make sense of the world, his childhood memories are impossible to separate from which episode of “Soul Train” was playing at the time. The two are knotted together so intricately that the archive of the show and the archive of his brain are the same. An afternoon episode of “Soul Train” was playing — Curtis Mayfield, the Main Ingredient — when a 2-year-old Thompson rushed from the bathtub and toddled, still wet, into the living room, where he slipped and fell, his skin making contact with the radiator about 90 seconds into Mayfield’s performing “Freddie’s Dead,” right when the horns start crying. For decades, he was branded with a burn in the shape of a train track. The song still sounds sinister to him.
The first time he colored with the big Crayola box with the sharpener in the back? Sugarfoot leading Ohio Players. The time the Isley Brothers got to perform for an entire hour? Thompson was watching from a Valley Forge hotel, trying to replicate with his tennis racket Ernie Isley’s guitar solo — which Isley played with his mouth — forever changing the trajectory of Thompson’s two front teeth. When his ninth-grade girlfriend dumped him? The Thelma Houston episode was on that night. The day a teenage Thompson and his friend Tariq Trotter (better known now as Black Thought) performed music in public for the first time? They got the guts during a commercial break of “Soul Train.” The two have now been performing together as part of the Roots for decades.
Thompson missed the day his close friend and collaborator D’Angelo recorded his career-defining single, “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” for “Voodoo,” an album otherwise stamped with Thompson’s fingertips — because he was in Japan, digitizing 100 old episodes of “Soul Train,” refusing to get back on the plane home until he finished. It was 1997, and because of licensing issues, the trove was the first time he had been able to rewatch full episodes in decades. A Patti LaBelle episode sounded like getting snowed in with his cousins and making banana pancakes; Johnny (Guitar) Watson playing “Tarzan” took Thompson back to burning Jiffy Pop with his sister. For days, all he did was sit and watch and weep — he felt as if he had his childhood back.
Thompson now owns around 600 episodes of the show, which ended in 2006, though his collection is clustered mostly in the 1970s and 1980s. “Soul Train,” he explained, is his comfort food, his shortcut to joy. He plays the episodes in a constant loop on whichever screen is closest to him. The first time we met in person, “Soul Train” was playing on both television screens of his tour bus; the last time we talked by phone, he had just arrived home from a trip and, before even taking off his coat, had flipped on the show. “ ‘Soul Train’ served as a diary of what happened that week,” he said. “Retrieving these episodes allows me a chance to remember it — I didn’t have camera phones — and my memory breaks are all that I had in processing my childhood.” There is true love, which you can find time and time again, and then there is “Soul Train.”
Thompson loves the show holistically — the music and the dancing and the all-Black commercials (advertising Afro and Ultra Sheen) and the Afrocentricity. He has described the show as a “sibling, a parent, a baby sitter, a friend, a textbook, a newscast, a business school and a church,” ultimately culminating in a single role: a teacher. It instructed not by lecture but by breadth, showcasing a wide selection — appearances by everyone from Donna Summer to Richard Pryor to Hugh Masekela and even a few white singers, invited over to the proverbial barbecue — that producers hoped would draw you in. With Thompson, though, everything was a draw. He sucked up every dance craze and coquettish smile, every interview between Don Cornelius and the acts, every vaunted cultural moment — Michael Jackson unveiling the robot (1973), David Bowie so nervous to perform that he supposedly got drunk beforehand (1975), Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson reminiscing about Detroit and duetting “Ooo Baby Baby” (1979), Teena Marie revealing that she was white (1979), Kurtis Blow inaugurating the show’s slow embrace of hip-hop (1980) — and lodged it in his brain.
It’s no wonder, then, that he grew up into a griot, a walking, talking encyclopedia of late-20th-century musical history. A quick survey of the ways I’ve heard him described: hip-hop’s Library of Congress, hip-hop’s Dumbledore, a cross between Mozart and Alan Turing, a mash-up of Stanley Crouch and Isaac Asimov, a blend of Stephen Hawking and a hundred back issues of the hip-hop magazine The Source. Thompson even finds himself in possession of other people’s music memorabilia, which they send to him as if he might know what to do with it. “Like I’m the soul whisperer,” he joked.
To consider his career — making 11 albums with the Roots; producing three dozen records, including neo-soul landmarks like Common’s “Like Water for Chocolate,” Erykah Badu’s “Mama’s Gun” and Solange’s “A Seat at the Table”; hosting the interview podcast “Questlove Supreme”; becoming a sought-after D.J.; co-founding the music community websites OkayPlayer and OkayAfrica; writing six books (including, naturally, one on “Soul Train”); serving as the director of music on productions as diverse as the Oscars and the recent mini-series reboot of “Roots”; and directing the documentary “Summer of Soul” — is to see the natural maturation of the same boy who woke up in the middle of the night to study the “Soul Train” line.
Questlove performing with the Roots in BrooklynCredit…Theo Wargo/Getty Images
For decades, that enthusiasm has won him deep respect within the music industry, making him a go-to figure to ask about musical lore. (His list of talking-head appearances in music documentaries is so extensive that he gets embarrassed.) More recently, it has won him awards. about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a six-week series of concerts, won the Grand Jury and Audience awards at the Sundance Film Festival this year. The film revives forgotten documentary footage of an eye-popping lineup — Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone — bringing the largely forgotten event, full of beloved performers, out for a proper, reverential memorialization, in the way of Woodstock.
Born in 1971, Thompson missed the concert series by two years. But as the project started to come together, its producers, like so many others, looked directly to him. One of them, Robert Fyvolent, said in an email, “As a storyteller, we knew his ability to contextualize crossed genres and generations.” Fyvolent had been watching him on “The Tonight Show,” where Thompson has been the band leader for more than a decade, and was struck by both his prodigious musical knowledge and genuine curiosity. Despite never directing a feature before, Thompson was at the top of their list.
It was funny, the singer Madison McFerrin told me, to watch Thompson’s documentary as his friend, knowing how obsessed he is with Black musical history. She remembered the informal music-appreciation syllabus Thompson texted her the day after they first met. Ten albums, one book. It’s almost, we surmised, as though what “Soul Train” did for him, he wants to do for everybody else.
On a September afternoon, killing time before a concert in Highland Park, Ill., on a short tour with the Roots, Thompson was thinking about the anointing of a “classic.” Kanye West’s “Donda” had just dropped, and clout-chasers were already rushing to dub it so. Thompson was on Twitter, scolding them to give it a second.
He finished the show and immediately wanted to argue about it some more, only this time with me and two of his close friends. To him, classics take much more time to determine. Only now, for example, can Thompson see an album like “Voodoo,” released in 2000, for the masterwork that it is — though he has been credited with being its “co-pilot.” Janet Jackson’s “Control,” released in 1986, is a bona fide classic. “Criminal Minded” by Boogie Down Productions (1987)? Classic! “My theory is that something has to sit for 20 years before you really give an assessment of how you feel about that,” he said.
We were sitting in a short, princely minivan that felt like the cockpit of a spaceship, or the physical embodiment of Thompson’s brain, or both. He was dressed in paint-splattered Army-green pants, a dashiki and tricked-out bright blue Crocs, his trademark Afro set in small two-strand twists, kept back from his forehead by a headband. Thompson talks with his whole body, loudly slapping his flat, wide palm to his thigh to punctuate a point or tapping his forehead to rescue a stuck thought. There was a small pullout tray in front of him for his laptop, which he deployed regularly, fact-checking himself or insisting that he show exactly what he was talking about.
The simplest way to describe Thompson might be to call him a music guy. A music guy is a person, irrespective of gender, who loves music and is committed to making sure you love it, too, or at least can spurt a few fun facts about it at any given time. A music guy is the type who suddenly stops during a conversation on an otherwise good date and says: “Wait, do you hear that? That’s the sample from. … ” A music guy will argue with you about the genius of his genre’s venerated producer of choice — Phil Spector, Linda Perry, Lee (Scratch) Perry — even though you never disagreed with him in the first place. A music guy knows just the thing that will change your life: a clip of grainy concert footage from 1975 on YouTube. Music guys are proselytizers with headphones. A decade ago, Thompson was so excited about the release of “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest,” a documentary about his friends, that he bought out an entire showing at the old Landmark Sunshine Cinema in Manhattan, free for anyone who wanted a ticket. I remember seeing the tweet on my cracked iPod touch and running for the C train, landing one of the last seats, my own transformation from innocent woman to rudimentary music guy starting to form.
In the van, Thompson was desperately trying to find a recent collaboration between Kanye West and André 3000 that had been cut from “Donda.” The song had inspired a bunch of convoluted drama, but Thompson wasn’t interested in that. Instead, he wanted us to hear West’s ad-libs at the end of the song, so bad they were good. The lyric video he watched earlier in the day had completely abdicated its responsibility and simply captioned West’s inane bleating with “???????” Thompson was hunched over the computer tray, still laughing at that memory, but he was for the moment stymied by the copyright gods, who managed to remove versions uploaded to YouTube and Twitter over the course of his concert. In the background, an Isley Brothers episode of “Soul Train” was playing.
We were on our way to Soho House in Chicago, where he was scheduled to D.J. a set. D.J.ing is both Thompson’s genuine passion — he owns more than 200,000 records — and his lucrative side hustle. In his recent online MasterClass on the skill, he admitted that everything else he has done in his career has ultimately been an attempt to allow him more time to collect records and D.J.
Shortly before midnight, we pulled into the Soho House parking lot and silently paraded through the halls and stairwells of the hotel until we found ourselves at the club’s core: the dance floor. While Thompson was getting into his groove, a beautiful Black woman approached his booth, leaning seductively over its edge. I assumed that she was requesting a song, trying to get in good with the famous D.J., maybe score a free drink from his ice bucket of liquor. Panic filled his face: He could lose his place in the process! She slinked off, only to return a few minutes later — maybe now was a good time — but was rebuffed yet again. She rolled her eyes as she walked away.
Thompson opened his set with a familiar sample: “And now, for my next number, I’d like to return to the classics.” Divorced from its origin — Liberace gleefully introducing his rendition of “Chopsticks” — the clip takes on a winking bravado, puffing up a song’s chest before it even begins. Accordingly, it’s an ideal hip-hop sample: I know it from De La Soul’s “Plug Tunin’,” but it has also appeared on songs by Kanye West, Prince Paul and others. A group of guests formed in front of Thompson once his music began. My eyes flicked between a group of three Black women who rapped along to every bar of Knxwledge and ILoveMakonnen and a white dude who nodded along to all the music — regardless of song — at the same speed, watching Thompson with the same admiration of someone watching meat sear on a grill.
Thompson was light and agile, his legs and head on perpetual jockey bounce, barely looking up from his turntable over the several hours he spun, immune to the eyelashes fluttering his way. He meticulously plans his sets — each one has a beginning, establishing action, rising action, climax, falling action and ending, as he instructed his MasterClass — but knows how to read the room. He played to hype the crowd (“Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” because in Chicago everyone raps along to Kanye West), to cast a spell (Ginuwine’s “Pony,” spawning body rolls and stank faces), to cause a double-take (Jeff Lorber’s “Rain Dance,” the jazz-fusion sample for Lil’ Kim’s “Crush on You”). But most successfully, he assessed the average age in the room — mid to late 20s — and put on music that made us feel nostalgic: D4L’s “Laffy Taffy,” or “Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It,” by Dem Franchize Boyz, mid-aughts highlights of Southern hip-hop that sound, for this demographic, like getting in the car after getting your braces removed or being kicked out of a bar mitzvah for grinding too hard. Noticing the crowd’s elation, and feeling guilty about my own, I wrote in my notes: “Are these our oldies?!”
For the last few minutes of the night, he juggled the first two notes of Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” repeating them in rapid succession so that they started to resemble their most popular sampled use: Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya.” He teased the plinky piano notes, playing them on an extended loop, bringing the audience to the brink of explosion, making everyone believe that the beat would continue down the phrase. You could feel O.D.B.’s first line, “Ooh, baby, I like it raw,” crystallizing on people’s tongues, ready to be spit out. But at the last second, he did a fake-out, letting the Stevie Wonder song play out — a falling action into an ending.
Love songs at 2 a.m. mean the party is over. As everyone recalibrated the energy they had dedicated to the promise of erupting, it was like suddenly no one knew what to do with their hands. A Black man in front of me yelled, “I wasn’t ready for that!”
Seconds later, it seemed, we were back in Thompson’s van, comparing notes about the night. It turned out that the woman who kept approaching the D.J. booth wasn’t a fan — she had lost her friends and was asking if he could say her name into the microphone, assuming that he worked there. Ru, Thompson’s tour manager, told us that an irate drunk woman came up to him, screaming, “Who does this D.J. think he is?”
The music journalist Touré told me that Thompson often finds himself in the situation where he passes a couple on the street: “The boyfriend is like, ‘Questlove!’ And the girlfriend is like, ‘Who is he?’” he said. “And the guy cannot give the chorus to any song or tell her quickly, ‘Oh, they’re the ones who do “Thong Song” or whatever.’” Thompson himself acknowledged earlier: “I’ve made a million-dollar empire out of being the Wizard of Oz. I’m world famous for hiding in plain sight.” Now he laughed at Ru’s story, again slapping his palms to his thighs. “No one knew who I was, and I loved it.”
When Thompson was born, his pediatrician — an aspiring child psychologist — implored his parents to allow their child as much creative freedom as possible. Lee Andrews and Jacquelin Thompson were singers, and the doctor was curious to see whether their musicality would pass down to their newborn. From an early age, Thompson was encouraged to play in his food or draw on the walls. Luckily, he quickly took to the mess-free habit of banging on pots and pans. At age 5, he started drum lessons, which is to say he began tap-dancing lessons, learning the sort of rhythmic coordination that drumming demands. Eventually, he was allowed to touch the actual drums.
At the same time, he was receiving his own musical education from his family, who had a collection of nearly 5,000 records. At age 4, Thompson was already schooled on the difference between Carole King’s “It’s Too Late” and the version by the Isley Brothers. His older sister liked mainstream rock (Queen, the Eagles); his mother grabbed any album with a cool cover (Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew”). His father liked rock, soul, folk — pretty much everything. Any albums he discarded went to Thompson; one of his first was Stevie Wonder’s outré “Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants,” which, he has joked, was his version of Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon.”
Although Thompson was raised in West Philadelphia, he likes to say that he grew up on the road. In the 1950s, his father fronted a successful doo-wop group, Lee Andrews and the Hearts. Twenty years later, nostalgia for that era had set in — think “Happy Days,” “Laverne and Shirley,” “American Graffiti” — and Andrews revitalized his show for nightclubs and took it on the road, adding his wife and daughter. The youngest Thompson worked, too. At age 7, he steamed and ironed the costumes; at 9, he operated the spotlights; at 12, he joined the band. The family played in the Poconos and Atlantic City and Las Vegas and lived in airport Sheratons, where Thompson would spend his school vacations swimming in the hotel pool or running into Kiss in the hallway.
By the time he started elementary school, Thompson had spent more time on the road with adults than in Philadelphia with kids his own age. When his first-grade class had to bring music to school, he chose “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, not understanding it wasn’t a contemporary choice. By his own account, he was an unusual child, not wild or temperamental but easily obsessed. As a baby, to soothe him, his parents would place him in front of something he liked — a spinning record or an episode of “Soul Train” — and he would be sedated for hours, almost in a trance. His father used to half-joke that the family worried whether he was OK. (“I don’t think ‘autistic’ was a common term back then, but I later found out that they had taken me to a doctor to see if something was really wrong,” he writes in his memoir, “Mo’ Meta Blues.”) That, combined with the violence of his neighborhood — the rise of crack cocaine, the state-sanctioned MOVE bombing — and his parents’ abrupt swerve to Christianity in the early 1980s, made for a sheltered childhood.
Luckily, music was enough of a distraction from the padlock on the front gate. As a teenager, Thompson venerated the reviews section in Rolling Stone, going to the library every Saturday to request microfilm reels of back issues and papering his bedroom with cutouts of the lead reviews. (Even now, to understand his own records, he will mock up fake Rolling Stone reviews — byline, cover image, full story — before they are released.) His parents welcomed his interest in music but hoped that he would find a more traditional, stable job within it. They wanted, he writes, to raise a “future ‘Jeopardy!’ contestant instead of a future ‘Jeopardy!’ clue.”
Still, when he got into the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, they let him transfer from the Christian school he had been attending. CAPA, as it’s called, was a hotbox of ingenuity and genuine success. Thompson played drums in a music video for a few guys in his class — Boyz II Men. He palled around with the bassist Christian McBride. He took the singer Amel Larrieux to prom. But the real prize was meeting Tariq Trotter, the rebel art kid who got caught making out with girls in the bathroom, who was somehow intrigued by Thompson and his geeky hippie jeans covered in acrylic paint. Trotter would ask Thompson to accompany his freestyles in the cafeteria, Thompson banging out rhythms on the lunch table, eventually playing in front of whomever wanted to listen.
The Roots’ career, while both commercially and critically successful, has been marked by a series of near hits. When they began, they hoped to follow in the footsteps of groups like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, cutting a sturdy place in the alternative hip-hop arena. But by the time they started casting about for record deals in 1993, the tides had changed: Dr. Dre had broken records with “The Chronic,” and all labels seemed to want were gangsta-rap artists who could sell huge numbers of records. After a brief stint in London to drum up a following, they signed with Geffen, released two albums and eventually landed a successful single, “You Got Me,” with Erykah Badu, from their 1999 album, “Things Fall Apart.”
By this point, they were hosting jam sessions at Thompson’s Philadelphia home, gathering like-minded musicians into a creative community that stood apart from the gritty coastal rap filling the airwaves. They called this community “the movement,” and their experiment worked almost too well: Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, Bilal, Eve, India.Arie, Jazmine Sullivan and Common were all regulars. Thompson also began working with D’Angelo, which he has called one of the crowning achievements of his life. “When I think about that time, the most amazing thing is how many of those artists made it,” he writes in his memoir. “There were at least 18 record contracts in the room, and at least nine of the people who became recording artists ended up bigger than us.”
Thompson began producing people’s records, becoming one of the architects of a hugely influential strain of soul music. He was the backbone of a collective of bohemian neo-soul and alternative hip-hop artists called the Soulquarians, named for the many members’ shared astrological sign, which included Badu, Common, Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Q-Tip. But eventually, the collective loosened: People left the game, or started filming movies, or made music with the new superproducer in town, Kanye West.
Thompson likens the time he saw West perform at Dave Chappelle’s Block Party in 2004 to a car accident, a near-death experience. He believes that hip-hop operates in cycles, and with the rise of the new, his time had run out. He wasn’t panicked, just resigned. West, with the credibility of the underground, the materialistic gloss of the mainstream and an equally deep trove of soul samples, was going to be the new leader. The Roots continued to make albums but still struggled to stay afloat. In 2009, they took the job of house band for “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.” “I think at one point, if Fallon didn’t come along, then we were probably figuring out how to be the Black band that makes its survival in the jam-band route,” he told me. “It just became a thing like, ‘Yo, there’s a god out there who will create some kind of Celine Dion situation where we can be in one place’” — a reference to her residency in Las Vegas. “And then Fallon came.”
In the decades since, he has carved out time for all sorts of side hobbies: teaching at New York University, opening a fried-chicken stand and hosting food salons, writing for New York and Rolling Stone, becoming a regular D.J. presence at clubs and parties. He hadn’t been keen on taking up filmmaking — his first thought, he told me, was, How do I get out of this? — but before “Summer of Soul” even debuted, he had already formed the production company Two One Five Entertainment with Trotter and committed himself to upcoming film projects, including a documentary about Sly Stone and another about the Negro Leagues. “It’s less about like, Hey, what’s my legacy going to be?” he said. “It’s just that I’m always asking: ‘Who’s going to do it? Who’s going to do it?’”
An early title card declares “Summer of Soul” a “Questlove jawn,” the Philly version of Brooklyn’s “Spike Lee joint.” It opens, almost immediately, with a delightful surprise: a 19-year-old Stevie Wonder doing an awe-inspiring drum solo. Introducing the footage, Thompson asks from offscreen, “Do you remember the Harlem Cultural Festival?”
Of course some people do. Three hundred thousand people attended the six Sundays of programming over the summer of 1969. But despite its impressive list of performers, the festival was held the same year as Woodstock, which sucked up all the commemorative oxygen. An attendee grouses, “Even though the shows were recorded all summer, it feels like it happened and then they threw it away.”
The film stands on a bit of marketing magic, positing itself as a major success of rescue — stressing the footage’s decades-long neglect while glossing over a previous attempt at the project. A voice-over at the end says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that Black history is going to be erased.” The real sin, though, isn’t erasure: It’s discontinuity. Slices of the film had been available, without context, over the years; Thompson even unwittingly viewed a performance a few decades ago, not quite understanding what he was seeing.
The film’s true feat lies in Thompson’s restoration and contextualization. The difference between a concert like this and Woodstock is neither talent nor star power, but an enduring mythology that kept one rattling around in our head for decades after, while taking little notice of the other. Outside a handful of extremely popular artists, most Black soul, funk and R.&B. acts were denied the same serious study — obsessed over and scrutinized, the subjects of articles and films and books — as their white rock counterparts. Jazz was studied closely, but Black popular music, while not exactly ignored, seemed to be dismissed as faddish. It wasn’t until magazines like The Source, founded in 1988, and Vibe, in 1993, that we saw a well-read body of serious, published criticism of hip-hop and popular R.&B. By virtue of sampling, their ancestral genres were finally given some documented analysis, too.
Thompson’s work — maybe even Thompson himself — continues this corrective: using a music guy’s detailed scrutiny to ensure that Black music has its deserved place in the intellectual history. In his book “Music Is History,” Thompson mentions a clip he loved from an interview with Nina Simone, “where she talked about how Black people in America were, in one important respect, deprived of something that Africans had, and that was a sense of their own past.” A record is a culture’s lifeblood; remembrance is the first step toward being understood. This is where Thompson, a “Schoolhouse Rock!” episode of a man, shines. “I am also concerned (obsessed?) with looking at how the universe of music resolves into galaxies, and galaxies into constellations,” he writes. American music is connected to global music. Punk is a cousin of reggae. Rock and soul are related. “At some level, music is like one gigantic organism, flowing through people at different times, in different places.” He told me that he wants to “lay out the evidence before the people so that it’s not forgotten. And if they come to it and embrace it, perfect, but I’m very much aware and accepting of the fact that people move on.”
His D.J. sets have been his primary venue for instruction for decades, showcasing the history of soul or funk or dance. He keeps lengthy playlists, organized by genre, theme, era and style, and refines them into the story he wants to tell, a duty he approaches with reverence. It can take him months to work on a playlist. Thompson referred to his relationship with D.J.ing as an embodied love, as if the activity has taken on a physical form and turned into a person who changes and ages and might get traded in. “I’ve been married to records for 50 years — is it time for a new chick?” he said. The days in which he can spend hours combing through his trove of records grow fewer. Then he reconsidered: “Well, I mean, I don’t feel like I’m cheating — it’s almost like if my spouse were to pass away. It’s run its course.”
Last month, he D.J.ed a party for Madonna. He started off with a thematic set — “I’m in a room that sort of looks like a modern update of ‘Paris Is Burning’; I just naturally thought, OK, this is a rare chance for me to play a really good house set” — but the reaction was muted. Then he played a set similar to the one I heard at Soho House, and people went wild, dancing and vogueing to T.I. “I’ve been busting my ass for 10, 20 years, trying to figure out the definitive house music to play for parties. If these songs didn’t work at a Madonna party. … ” He trailed off. I asked him about the discordance between his efforts of preservation and the ways people my age approach history. “I’m just trying to figure out if this is a transition I might not want to face.”
Thankfully, it’s easier to educate off the dance floor. Joseph Patel, a producer on the film and a longtime friend of Thompson’s, told me that Thompson approached “Summer of Soul” as a kind of corrective. If the festival didn’t get to be the stuff of legend for their generation, maybe it could be for the next. “He’s on this mission to tell these stories as sort of a larger restoration project of Black history, and to show that Black history is American history.” Thompson encourages us to imagine a world in which Black music history isn’t merely consumed but is venerated and treated like the cultural monument it is — like the way it already exists to him.
This year, Thompson turned 50, a milestone in more ways than one. To look at the two places where he grew up — West Philadelphia and the world of hip-hop — is to see too many people who didn’t make it to that point. Of the 30-odd kids from his neighborhood in the 1970s, he estimates that there are maybe four or five still alive. Of the mentors and guiding stars of his own life — his manager Richard Nichols; Prince; the producer J Dilla; his own father — many of them are gone, too. He himself had a heart-attack scare onstage a few years ago. His first thought, once he realized what was happening, was that he didn’t want to die prematurely, flattened into a hip-hop cliché. Thompson’s fixation with the past feels as much about safety as it does a genuine interest. If the future isn’t promised, doesn’t the past start to feel like home?
Over the past five years, Thompson has asked recording artists he has come across whether they have a will. Most of them do not; everyone swears they will get to it someday. He himself made one, in part because he was concerned about what would happen to his estate after he died.
Since “Summer of Soul” was released, he has become the owner of quite a bit of unsolicited music memorabilia. He has gotten truckloads of heirlooms, with the occasional accompanying note: I want to make sure that you have these artifacts because I know you’ll know what to do with them after I’m gone. The first night we met, he showed me a mint-condition bread bag, a strange piece of merchandising that the Supremes had done in 1966. A jazz station in West Virginia gave him its library, some 30,000 records. This summer, a collector in Minnesota gave him 800 hours of tapes showcasing the history of Black radio. He understands why these things get sent to him. “Who would care about this as much as I do?” he said.
These histories either go to him or end up in the trash, so he takes them all, describing himself as a “walking Blacksonian,” preserving them as best he can. The actual Blacksonian, or the National Museum of African American History and Culture, has approached him about housing his collection after he dies. It’s an offer he’s still considering.
The objects tell a story, and their preservation asserts that there’s a story worth telling. Over and over, his friends told me that Thompson’s prolificness wasn’t his most impressive feature; it’s that he never stopped being a fan. “Somebody’s gonna have to do a term paper in 2050,” he told me, “and I just want to make sure they’ve got their information right.”
Bisa Butleris a United States Artist fellow who is known for creating quilted portraits of everyday and notable African Americans. Her work can be seen in museums across the United States, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History.