Questlove rethinks the summer playlist
What does a summer soundtrack sound like when "summer" means strapping a piece of cloth over your mouth and staying at least six feet away from anyone who doesn't already live with you? For the answer, we hit up drummer, producer, DJ, and all-around music aficionado Questlove, who provided us with a list of songs for a new kind of summertime.
"The whole world's going to experience summer in a new way, a lot of patience will be tested," he tells EW. "For those that have something north of middle-class luxury, they'll be able to cope. But for people in a hand-to-mouth situation, summer's going to have a whole other meaning. The standard fare of what feel-good songs were won't have the same association. 'I Get Around' by the Beach Boys won't necessarily feel the same if this is your fifth month quarantined inside of a small apartment."
Enter Questlove's Summer Playlist Redux, which was borne from the nightly DJ sessions the Roots drummer has been hosting on his Instagram account throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Called #QuestosWreckaStow (a reference to Prince's Under the Cherry Moon), these performances go past the usual "always keep them dancing" club M.O. to something a bit more educational — part high energy, part music history lesson.
"These are songs I really got great reactions to," he says. "I almost feel like summer is going to be our view of outside from windows, and really our imaginations. For me, that's what these songs represent. It puts you in a near-synesthesia experience of relaxation, which I feel is the most important thing. This should calm people."
"See the Light" — Earth, Wind, and Fire (1975)
"'See the Light' goes through several musical codas and motifs. But to me, it feels like a Saturday afternoon, and the sound of Philip Daily's voice, it just reeks of optimism and hope — the kind we need right now. And that doesn't feel like an empty, mindless gesture that most music sometimes has and just feels too cookie cutter. This to me, is probably the most succinct, powerful way to bottle up positivity in five minutes without cookie cutter."
"Calypso" — Herbie Hancock (1980)
"'Calypso,' I mean it's a musical output from the beginning. For some reason, I feel like the first half of the song feels like daytime in Brazil, and then they go to this bridge, which feels like a summer night, and then returns to the day at the end. That's just how I see it. And for jazz fans, the drummer on this is Tony Williams, who really hadn't played with Herbie since the days of the Miles Davis Quintet. They have a very different relationship, in which Miles cultivated Tony Williams being kind of a manifestation of what we would imagine Animal as a drummer being. Very just going outside the lines. But just melodically was so good."
"Outside My Window" — Stevie Wonder (1979)
"I just realized how literal the title is right now. So this comes from Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants. I know that most people and critics tend to scoff or slightly dismiss [the album], because its perception was that it wasn't as powerful as Songs in the Key of Life. Especially the pressure of him following up the record a few years later. It's like, 'This is what you gave us?'
"I tell most people that I didn't grow up with the immersive experience of listening to Dark Side of the Moon and closing my eyes and having those imaginations. For me, this Plants album was my Dark Side Of The Moon, in which I pretty much just put on headphones and listened to it with my eyes closed. This song to me just reeks of kids playing on a playground and being carefree, so it always felt like a summer song."
"Uno Esta" — Yesterday's New Quintet (2001)
"'Uno Esta' is actually a cover song of flute player Bobbi Humphrey's song of the same title. I think this album hit me during a period of a lot of touring summer festivals. I always on our tour bus. So just to see the backdrop of us driving past the Grand Canyon and through the mountains of Colorado, it's a daytime-sounding sound for me. And even though Bobbi Humphrey's original is probably more superior, I kind of like the simplicity of this version."
"Virtue" (Live) — Mongo Santamaria and Dizzy Gillespie (1981)
"There's two versions of 'Virtue.' The live one came from Mongo Santamaria's album Announcing With A1. Oftentimes when people pick a summer song, usually your imagination goes to anything before 7 p.m. And for some reason, this particular song reminds me of a summer night. I think part of it is that the repetition and sort of urgent way that the song accelerates and is speeding up and speeding up and maybe reminds me of heat. For me, the star of that whole performance isn't Dizzy Gillespie or Mongo Santamaria, but their piano player, Milton Hamilton, who I feel is actually the GPS."
"Bis" — Arthur Verocai (2007)
"And Arthur Verocai's music… People often ask, 'What's the most you've ever paid for a record?' I was charged a large amount for his debut. I think the dealer wanted $5,000 for it… I will say that what he does with his horn section, it's hard to make one section color that way but his arrangements are breezy. It just feels like summer to me."
"Lil's Paradise" — Roy Ayers (1968)
"You know the way Pee-wee Herman wakes up in the morning in Pee-wee's Big Adventure to Danny Elfman’s music? 'Lil’s Paradise' is my Pee-wee morning song. If you were to ask what's my motivation song for getting up out of bed, just hear those first opening 10 seconds."
"Everybody Wants to Rule the World" — Tears for Fears (1985)
"'Everybody Wants to Rule the World' is probably the most perfect pop song I know. It's just the happiest. It works in any and every environment. It's a dance song, it's a driving song — which is weird because the message isn't necessarily over-the-top optimistic."
"High Up on the Hook" — Alice Russell (2005)
"Jazz songs and shuffle songs are, to me, the happiest-feeling songs. That's the same for 'High Up on the Hook,' by Alice Russel. She's a U.K. soul singer that came to my attention via Charles Peterson, a very influential DJ in London. The song feels like kids skipping down the street. So if someone like Marlo Thomas resists someone hipper with their Free to Be… You and Me-type of approach, I would say that Alice Russell's song sort of embodies that happy feeling."
"Going Up the Country" — Canned Heat (1969)
"I love the fact that the lead singer actually sounds like Jim Henson. Half these songs have flute in them or some sort of soft-sounding horn at the beginning. I think a flute's a very disarming instrument, tonally. It puts you at ease. Again, similar to 'Lil's Paradise.' Between disarming flute and someone that sounds like a Muppet singing, it puts you at a more vulnerable state to listen to it."
"Aigrette" — Hatfield & The North (1974)
"I know for some critics, prog rock is kind of like a four-letter word because it's mega-overindulgent composing for people who can't grasp onto what it is. But this is one of the rare songs that has a sing-along that's easy to follow while still satisfying the challenges of the composer moving all over the place. It's hard not to feel like summer in the vocals."
"Free Soul" — John Klemmer (1969)
"Again a horn… Maybe horn's sole purpose is for announcing some fanfare and also putting out heat, which is really weird because mid-song it kind of goes, not in free-jazz, but it goes elsewhere. But for me, I just always associate this song with its 20-second intro. It's almost like a drive up the Pacific Coast Highway."
"F_rd Jingle" — Karriem Riggins (2012)
"Karriem Riggins is possibly one of my favorite living producers today. Especially in light of J Dilla passing. I wonder who was going to fill that void for me. Like the person who made me excited when I heard their work. Riggins is like Dilla's apprentice. By day [Riggins] was a sought-after jazz drummer and then by night… I mean he's from Detroit so it's like, 'S—, I want to make some beats too.' It sounds weird, like when you hear a jazz cat you should be off with Marcellus somewhere at some festival, but you have a drum machine which you learn to make beats? But I mean, God, he's never let up and he was relentless and now I feel as though he's one of like three to four cats a day that is taking up the time from Dilla and is continuing on the mission of just challenging himself. So, the 'F_rd Jingle''s based on the commercial music that was used in a local Detroit Ford dealership. My guess is that he used it as sort of a sentimental connection to his hometown of Detroit, but it's probably one of the happiest melodies I've heard."
"Superlove" — Lenny Kravitz (2011)
"A lot of Lenny's stuff get slept on. For me, there's always a gem on his records. 'Superlove,' I love the engineering, I love the craftsmanship, I love the retro-funk sound to it. When I first heard it, [I thought it was] an afternoon song. I hear songs, also the time periods. So where 'Virtue' is nighttime and 'Lil's Paradise' is morning, 'Superlove' to me, is a 4-6 p.m. song all week in the summer."
"Route 101" — Herb Alpert (1982)
"I won't hesitate to say that it's just probably my top three songs of all time, which I think I embraced in an ironic way because initially, the first time that it re-entered my life as an adult, during the time of making Common's Like Water for Chocolate album, Dilla and the Slum Village guys were trying to think of an ironic yacht rock, like dentist's-office-music-type song that they should flip. Because at that point they had already sampled a Carpenters song. They had already flipped 'Steppin' Out,' by Joe Jackson. So they were looking for ironic songs that hip-hop artists should not be sampling. But because they're from Detroit, they're just a whole new animal. Much like my DJ sets, he would play Kraftwerk and he would play Prince and he would play P-Funk and he would play Gary Neuman.
"So one of the members, Baatin, there was two songs he wanted to flip. There was a Depeche Mode or New Order song. And then he's like, 'I've got a song that we can flip that will kill everybody.' And they never knew the name of 'Route 101.' It wasn't like Shazam helped it. So we just kept calling it 'the dentist's song' because that's the song that you always hear when you go on the dentist's office. And for like 10 years, we never knew what that song was. So by the time I got to [The Tonight Show], I think me and Jimmy [Fallon] were just having a yacht-rock-off, like what square tub of yacht rock song can I outdo you with. It was like yacht rock poker.
"And I won with 'Route 101.' The whole place is like, 'What's the name of this song?' I embraced it in an ironic way, and I declared, I was like, 'There's no way for you to not feel happy one minute from when the song is over.' It makes every playlist. Any playlist that I have to make for somebody, I put it on there just to watch… It's almost like a wait for it moment where I wait for the text three hours later. Like, 'Why did you put that supermarket song on my playlist?'"
"Pancake Feet" — Tennyson (2017)
"I don't know how it hit me but it was just like… Rarely do keyboard patches speak to you. I don't know what I think of when I think of how these keyboards sound or feel to me, but it's just a happy-daytime-feeling song. That's why I chose it."
"Lazy Nina" — Greg Phillinganes (1985)
"So in 1985, Greg Phillinganes, a longtime session musician for Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and Quincy Jones, finally embarked on his very first solo album. To me, 'Lady Nina' is powerful black yacht rock at its finest. And again, yacht rock is often seen as the punchline. My friendship with Anthony Bourdain, it started with his hate of yacht rock and his equal hate of me loving it. He was so disappointed because this whole thing was like, 'Really, you're trying to tell me this is the hill that you want to die on?' And I'm like, 'Damn right.'
"To me, ['Lazy Nina'] is L.A. musicianship. I don't want to be like the music snob that chastises another territory. In L.A., that sheen, that clean Toto sound… That's their s—, and I respect their s—. So for me, a song about reading the paper and watching Soul Train and walking the dog, over a prototypical yacht rock L.A. groove, I love that s—."
"Reach Out of the Darkness" — Friend & Lover (1968)
"I was trying to think, is there one hip-hop sample that stands on its own as a song and just works as a cool summer song? I was a little apprehensive [including this] because literally the message of this song is giving instructions on what we should not be doing in 2020. It was literally 'I think it's so groovy now that people are finally getting together.' Definitely don't get together. Please."