A while back I wrote a Top 5 Dave Grohl beats article that got mixed reviews in the comments. Writing that list was an incredibly fun way to go back through my history as a student drummer as so many Nirvana and Foo Fighters songs played an important role in my playing and style. I wanted to make a similar list for another drummer who has had a massive impact on my playing: Amir “?uestlove” Thompson.
I really can’t express how difficult this list was for me to make. Narrowing down and picking out five beats from someone who has been so influential to me both as a musician and a fan of music was nearly goddamn impossible! After years of playing mostly punk and alternative genres, hearing The Roots genuinely changed the way I thought about music. It lead to me listening to acts like Outkast, Hieroglyphics, Blackalicious, Tupac, and an endless string of hip-hop artists that I should have had an open enough mind to listen to way before I did.
As a young drummer, I beat the shit out of my drums. I would literally knock pictures off the wall! After discovering ?uestlove and studying his style, I learned that hard hitting does not a good drummer make. It’s all about the groove. Making heads bob and asses shake. Appealing to that which humans find most primally convincing: rhythm.
Below are the five best beats from ?uestlove, the drummer that so many now know as “Oh, the guy with the ‘fro and pick, right?” or “That guy from Jimmy Fallon’s band?” He is arguably my favorite drummer and most definitely the hardest working drummer (possibly musician) in the business. Though he has performed and recorded with countless acts, these are all from his own band, The Roots.
5. “Ain’t Sayin’ Nothin’ New”
This is one of my favorite grooves from ?uestlove. A lot of the songs on this list highlight the moments the legendary drummer chooses to go the fuck off, but “Ain’t Sayin’ Nothin’ New” is a clear example of him doing what he does best. It’s a straight beat with a swung kick drum pattern that focuses on the groove, touch, and feel.
4. “Wise Up Ghost”
When I heard The Roots were teaming up with Elvis Costello, one of my favorite songwriters, I lost my shit. I knew combining Costello with a backing band as talented and stylish as The Roots would result in one of the best albums of the year. It did. The title track off Wise Up Ghost is one that lets Questo free in a way that shows his jazz chops as much as anything else. The lyrics are incredible as well.
“Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!” That kind of says it all. This track is all about forward motion. From the first few measures, I knew this would be the kind of song that would pump up a crowd. ?uestlove’s continuous drive pushes the song the entire time, and just listen to his snare work. This is an example of a song that has a simple rhythmic concept but that contains an entire drum clinic in the performance.
This high-energy song leaves no one sitting still, but what really gets me going in “Water” is the bass line. It’s jazzy and funky while maintaining a hummable tune. ?uestlove includes a single pattern at the root of the beat that is complex but still just grooves. What creates the magic in this beat is his hi-hat pattern. It floats above the rest of the beat with a consistent upbeat opening and closing, skipping like a stone.
1. “Break You Off”
Yes, the beat in the first half of the song is good, but what really makes this song special is the ending. With a solo consisting of only kick, snare, and hat, ?uestlove shows that the true root of hip hop is jazz. It is short and fades out after only a minute or so, but that minute is pure, contained, rhythmic energy.
It’s moments like these that make ?uestlove my favorite drummer. He is passionate about making a song groove and complementing the other sounds within it, but he also knows that there are moments when he needs to allow himself to indulge in some technical mastery. Thanks for everything, ?uest!