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'Fresh Air' presents: Christmas with Questlove

Amir “Questlove” Thompson plays us Christmas recordings – some favorites and some unusual ones. He’s perhaps the most popular DJ in America, in addition to being the co-founder of The Roots, the houseband for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” This year he won an Oscar for his documentary “Summer of Soul.”

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This is a moment everyone on our show has been looking forward to. It's a Questlove Christmas. Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson has returned to our show, this time with some Christmas songs to play for us, kind of like a Questlove Christmas mixtape, the annotated version. It's an honor to have him choose recordings for us. In addition to his many credits, Questlove is perhaps the most famous, popular and in-demand DJ. He even DJed a party for Obama.

This year, Questlove won an Oscar for his documentary "Summer Of Soul," in which he featured film performances from the overlooked 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which was nicknamed the Black Woodstock and featured performers like Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Nina Simone and Mahalia Jackson. "Summer Of Soul" won a Grammy for best music film. In 2021, Questlove was the music director for the Oscars ceremony. He co-founded the band the Roots. He's the band's drummer. It's the house band for "The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon." He was a producer of the original cast recording of "Hamilton." He's written several books, including "Music Is History," and now is involved with several projects around plant-based, environmentally sound, tasty food. In the spring, his children's book, "Rhythm Of Time," will be published.

Questlove, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Thanks so much for doing this and choosing music for us. Why don't we start with a song that you selected? And this is a song by DRAM and his mother, who he calls BigBabyMom, and it's "Silver Bells."


GROSS: And I have to tell you, there's so much really schlocky Christmas music. And that's why we're so excited to have you on the show doing this, 'cause you're choosing really interesting stuff.

QUESTLOVE: Thank you.

GROSS: So the song "Silver Bells" is kind of high on my list of just, you know, schlocky and just annoying. It's one of the reasons I don't like a lot of Christmas songs. This is a great recording. So tell us about the recording and why you chose it.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah. It's a very unique recording. I always cringe at the older person that tries to put a tag on someone younger, like, oh yeah, he represents Gen Z, but, I mean, DRAM is kind of the post-neo soul set, like, one of the artists that I really dig his work. He has a really soulful voice, and when I listen to music, I like rawness. I like mistakes. I don't think there's good notes and bad notes or flat notes or sharp or pitchy notes, but this is just - it's almost like they're allowing us - him and his mom are allowing us to sort of eavesdrop in at the family gathering where they're just singing to each other. And that's - like, I really love the fact that they didn't overproduce this. Like, this is a really raw version of the song. So it kind of hits home to me.

GROSS: Let's hear it. Here we go. So this is "Silver Bells," a good version of it.


BIGBABYMOM: (Vocalizing). (Singing) City sidewalks, busy sidewalks dressed in holiday style - in the air, there's a feeling of Christmas.

DRAM: (Vocalizing).

BIGBABYMOM: (Singing) Children laughing, people passing, meeting smile after smile, and on every street corner, you hear, whoa, those silver bells.

DRAM: (Singing) Silver bells.

BIGBABYMOM: (Singing) Silver bells.

DRAM: (Singing) Silver bells.

DRAM AND BIGBABYMOM: (Singing) It's Christmastime in the city.

BIGBABYMOM: (Singing) Oh, ring-a-ling.

DRAM: (Singing) Ring-a-ling.

BIGBABYMOM: (Singing) Hear them ring.

DRAM: (Singing) Hear them ring.

DRAM AND BIGBABYMOM: (Singing) Soon it will be Christmas Day.

GROSS: When you were growing up and you were touring with your father's band, did you spend a lot of Christmases performing?

QUESTLOVE: Yeah. Like, we would often have Christmases in very unusual places. Probably one of the best places ever - there was a resort in San Juan, Puerto Rico, called the Dupont Plaza. And my father would do a residency down there. And, I believe, like, back in the '82, one of my favorite Christmases ever - like, it was real tropical. And that was the first tropical Christmas I had. Like, I spent two weeks with my family, although they were going for, like, four months. I would fly down there occasionally. And this is the year that Michael Jackson's "Thriller" came out. So, you know, it was a simpler time, where buying Ahmir one record was, like, the entire world to him. You know, now I have to buy, like, an entire library's jazz collection from, like, some university. But back in '82, you could just give me a "Thriller" record, and that was, like, everything to me.

GROSS: What songs did you have to perform around Christmas when you were touring with your father and his band, Lee Andrews & the Hearts?

QUESTLOVE: You know what's weird?

GROSS: Yeah.

QUESTLOVE: My dad, I believe, once - my dad had a voice very similar to Nat King Cole. So I do remember once in 1980 when I was 9 years old, kind of as an encore - like, he would normally do, like, either "Unforgettable" or something like that. But he actually did "The Christmas Song," and that stuck with me so good that I remember that the Roots had to fill in for a missing guest on "The Tonight Show," and with only, like, two hours to plan it, I kind of dared Black Thought to put on his best Nat King Cole. And he actually did it - like, one of our best performances. And, you know, I know people thought it was, like, an ironic thing. Like, wait, is this a comedy bit? Like, why are the Roots performing Nat King Cole in these Christmas sweaters? And we totally played it straight. Like, you know, people were expecting, like, a hip-hop version or something like that. But yeah, I wanted to do it, just as a memory of performing when I was a kid.

GROSS: That's the chestnuts roasting on an open fire song.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah, "The Christmas Song," Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song." Yes.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, let's get to another song on your playlist. And this is "Disco Claus," which is by The Bionic I.


GROSS: And it sounds more like funk Santa than disco Claus.

QUESTLOVE: It is. You know, there's these two really influential DJs that have really inspired my DJ career. They're from the Boston area. They're called Amir and Kon. And those guys, like, they're the DJ that, like, your favorite DJs' DJs listen to. And they're always, like, playing, like, really obscure music that's really under the radar. And I believe DJ Amir is the one that put me on to this particular piece, which, you know - it has a good drum break to it. And I think it came out in 1977 by a group called The Bionic I. Yeah.

GROSS: OK. Let's hear it.


THE BIONIC I: (Rapping) It was the night before Christmas when all through the pad, not a record was spinning. Things really looked bad. (Singing) Disco Claus came into town, funking all the toys around. Susie Q and GI Joe funking under the mistletoe. Hey, ain't nothing silent about this night. Rudolph with your nose so bright, disco through the town tonight. I said, get on, Rudolph. We got to get through this town. Yeah. I say it's about that time. It's about that time. Mix it up. All right, get on down. Disco, disco (inaudible). Yeah, I said I'm going down.

GROSS: That's "Disco Claus" by Bionic, one of the songs chosen for us by Questlove. You've said that as a creator, you're 98% groove and 2% melody. And the track you just played is very much groove.

QUESTLOVE: Very much so, yes.

GROSS: Yeah.

QUESTLOVE: I mean, drums are - that's my calling card, you know? And for me, there's a lot of really obscure Christmas records that might, like - they'll do their version of, like, "Little Drummer Boy" or something like that. So kind of on the market, when people are shopping for records, they're looking for really good records with a lot of drum breaks on them. So Christmas records are often - you know, you're guaranteed to find one from a funk group in the '70s.

GROSS: "Little Drummer Boy" is one of the Christmas songs - the original recording of it - that just really, really drove me crazy.

QUESTLOVE: Really (laughter)?

GROSS: Oh, yeah. They played it so much on the radio when I was growing up. And yet - tell me you like it?

QUESTLOVE: It's hard to escape it. Yeah, all throughout, like, first and second grade, like, every Christmas pageant, I think it was expected that I was supposed to play "Little Drummer Boy."

GROSS: Oh, because you were the drummer.

QUESTLOVE: Because I was a drummer. Right, exactly.

GROSS: Oh, no.

QUESTLOVE: Exactly. Yeah, no...

GROSS: So did you like the song 'cause you got to play?

QUESTLOVE: Well, actually, you know, it wasn't that bad though. I probably did it, like, four times in my life. I didn't do it, like, every year. But, you know, oftentimes in school, at the Christmas pageant, even if it were, like, something totally the opposite, like our production of "The Nutcracker" or something like that, like, they would find some sort of excuse to, you know, give 8-year-old Ahmir a drumming spotlight in the program.

GROSS: Oh, boy. Well, let's hear a song that's lyrically the opposite of it's the most happiest time of the year. So this is James Brown's "Santa Claus, Santa Claus" from 1968.

QUESTLOVE: This is so hilarious to me.

GROSS: Yeah, why...

QUESTLOVE: I'm sorry.

GROSS: Why is it hilarious to you?

QUESTLOVE: (Laughter) This song - this particular song is my - one, this is my introduction to Christmas music; two, it's my introduction to James Brown.

GROSS: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. So the first time you heard a Christmas song...

QUESTLOVE: Yeah, yeah, I know (laughter).

GROSS: ...And the first time you heard James Brown was this?

QUESTLOVE: Yeah, my first James Brown was this. No, it was just that - you know what it is? You know, I was a kid of the "Muppets" era. And there was a tortured genius musician on "Sesame Street," and his name was Don Music. And he was always full of self-doubt and insecurity. And whenever he couldn't find the right words or the right chord, he just, like - you know, he'd bang his head on the piano like a tortured soul. And, you know, it was exaggerated. So I used to think it was funny.

And James Brown has a voice similar to my grandmother's. So - and she's a very - (laughter) she's a very animated woman. So, you know, as a baby, I thought that was Grandmom singing all the songs because, like, James Brown really belts like a female gospel singer - you know what I mean? - like, with his high notes and his yelling. So when I hear this very, very depressing song about misfortune, like, this is the Murphy's Law of Christmas songs. I don't know. I think my 3-year-old self just thought that Grandmom was performing, like, a comedy skit or something like that.

So I added that song for the ironic reasons. Like, I think this is one of the most hilarious songs ever because James Brown is overselling the - he's really overselling the woe-is-me character of the song. So...

GROSS: Yeah, he's asking Santa and the Lord, why does he have to suffer so? So, OK.

QUESTLOVE: Right, exactly (laughter).

GROSS: All right. Let's hear it.

QUESTLOVE: All right.

GROSS: This is James Brown from 1968.


JAMES BROWN: I've wanted so many things, I wanted so. But you experience the wants when you live in the ghetto. But now I understand what it means to be a man. So there's one thing I'd like know.

(Singing) I been good, Lord, have mercy - so good, you know. Why, oh, why do I have to suffer so? Santa Claus, Santa Claus, please, please, please don't make me - don't make me suffer so. Christmas comes but once a year. Oh, won't somebody please, please, please bring me some Christmas cheer? I need a Christmas cheer. Santa Claus, please, please don't make me suffer so. Can't take it no more.

GROSS: That was James Brown from 1968. I'm still processing that this was, like, your introduction to James Brown.

QUESTLOVE: Yes. But, see, after that, then I wanted to hear all the songs where he's, like, screaming and crying.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Questlove, and he'll play more Christmas recordings after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to some Christmas music selected for us by Questlove, who's famous for several things. He co-founded the hip-hop band The Roots, the house band for "The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon." He won an Oscar this year for directing "Summer Of Soul." And he was a producer of the original cast recording of "Hamilton" - and much more, some of which we'll talk about a little bit later.

But right now, let's get back to some Christmas music. This is another very unusual recording with a story behind it. It's called "Santa Claus Is A Black Man," and it's by Akim & Teddy Vann from 1973.

QUESTLOVE: Teddy Vann, her father. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. Teddy Vann, her father. And she was - what? - 5 when she recorded this?

QUESTLOVE: She was 5 when she did this. So, you know, Akim Vann is - you know, most would know her - she's a staple in the Prospect Heights area because she's like - she has - she's the owner of a really awesome bakery. It's called the Bakery on Bergen, and it's in Prospect Heights. And so - but the weirdest thing was back when Wendy Williams, the personality William - Wendy Williams was a DJ on Hot 97 - this is, like, in the '90s. It's - she had a Christmas-themed show once. And I remember they played this song called "Santa Claus Is A Black Man."

And I called the station and just left a note - like, I don't know if you guys know who I am and whatever. This is Questlove of The Roots, and I got to know the name of that song. And shockingly, I think, like, two days later, they emailed me back and sent me a cassette copy of the song 'cause that's the times we were living in. And what's also notable about this song is that I believe that singer Luther Vandross, who at the time was a local singer and ironically the one act I had to leave off of "Summer Of Soul" - he's also singing background on the song.

GROSS: Oh, oh. Well, apparently Teddy Vann, Akim's father...


GROSS: ...Wrote one of Luther Vandross' hits?

QUESTLOVE: Yeah, "The Power Of Love." Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I could see why - OK. I could see why he was singing backup on this.


GROSS: OK. All right. So you loved about the song what?

QUESTLOVE: Well, I just loved the absolute innocence of it. Like, similar to "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," this is Christmas through the eyes of a child who - you know, the whole point is that kids don't know that their parents are really Santa Claus. So, you know, this is - besides "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," this is sort of another song in that vein where, you know...

GROSS: He looked just like you, Daddy (laughter).

QUESTLOVE: Yeah. She doesn't realize that her dad...

GROSS: Yeah.

QUESTLOVE: ...Is actually Santa Claus. So it's a cute song.

GROSS: Yeah, that he's dressed as Santa Claus. OK.


GROSS: So let's hear it.


AKIM VANN: (Singing) Hey, you want to hear something that's out of sight? You know what I found out last night? It's when Mama turned out the light. I went in the living room to see what the noise that woke up me. And I saw him by the Christmas tree. Santa Claus is a Black man. Santa Claus is a Black man, and he's handsome like my daddy, too. Santa Claus is a Black man. Santa Claus is a Black man. And I found out. That's what I'm telling you.

GROSS: So that's one of the songs selected for us by Questlove, who we asked to select some Christmas songs to play for us. And happily...


GROSS: ...For us, he agreed. So what was Santa Claus to you? Did your parents tell you that there was a Santa Claus or that that was somebody who only existed in movies?

QUESTLOVE: You know, it's weird - yeah. Santa - I was one of those kids - it's weird that if I see a clown, I love it. But if I saw Santa Claus, I was afraid of it. So every time I saw Santa Claus before the age of 3, I just get super panicky. And so the effects of that, you know, you know of people that are, like, deathly afraid of clowns? I was deathly afraid of Santa Claus. So - and what's weird is that probably the two most important gifts that I've gotten, well, were both my drum sets - you know, my drum set when I was 3 years old and my drum set when I was 7 years old. And I definitely know that my parents did this for me, not Santa Claus.

GROSS: Well, I think we need to take a short break here. So let's take a break.


GROSS: And then, we'll hear some more Christmas music chosen for us by Questlove. So we'll be back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


J D MCPHERSON: (Singing) Early Christmas morning, sneaky as can be, I creep across the carpet, and I peek under the tree. Pick out a gift from mom to me, and bring it to my ear. Give it a little shimmy shake, and what do I hear? Socks. Tube socks. This is the worst gift I ever got. It doesn't beep or buzz or bop or rattle in the box. Hey, why'd you waste the paper on a lousy pair of socks?

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to some Christmas music selected for us by Questlove, who's famous for several things. He's co-founder of the hip-hop band The Roots, the house band for "The Tonight Show" with Jimmy Fallon. He won an Oscar this year for directing "Summer Of Soul," featuring performance music from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. The film won a Grammy for best music film. He was a producer of the original cast recording of "Hamilton." He's written several books, including "Music Is History." And he's involved with several projects revolving around plant-based, environmentally sustainable and tasty foods.

So one of the surprises on your playlist is a track from a Marvin Gaye album from 1972, and it's called - the track is called "Christmas In The City". It's an...

QUESTLOVE: Right (laughter).

GROSS: ...Instrumental. Why did you choose an - you know, Marvin Gaye's such a great singer, but why did you find, like, the instrumental track that you'd have no idea is about Christmas?

QUESTLOVE: Well, this - OK, so this song, although it was recorded in '72, this only found its way - like, it only circulated amongst, like, the bootleg collectors amongst the years. And finally, Motown, like, maybe 10 or 15 years ago, finally rereleased it on a compilation. But the - you know, the early '70s was a really interesting time for technology. And, you know, there are a lot of these - there's a lot of futuristic - sonic futuristic synthesizer gurus, like, people like Raymond Scott, who are, like, developing these new sounds and these groups, like this group named Tonto. Stevie Wonder hears the Tonto record, and he actually tracks them down at their house and says, I have these sounds in my head. I want to make music with you. And then Stevie Wonder winds up making, like, five of the most life-changing albums of his career.

So, you know, it's a period in which people were just discovering space and the new sounds and all this stuff. And so there's a point where, like, everyone in Black music gets a monophonic synthesizer, which is basically a keyboard device that only allows you to play, like, one note at a time. So you can't play chords yet. Like, a polyphonic won't come until, like, 1975, '76, with Stevie Wonder's "Songs In The Key Of Life". But, you know, there's this period between, like, '67 and '73 in which, like, one note at a time, you're hearing this, like, weird space music. And leave it to Marvin Gaye to, sort of in that similar way that James Brown paints a depressing or a hilariously depressing Christmas, Marvin Gaye's - like, I can almost imagine Berry Gordy just saying like, look; Marvin, just make a Christmas song real quick, and Marvin's like, all right, hold my beer.

GROSS: (Laughter).

QUESTLOVE: And "Christmas In The City" is just one of the most - it's one of the most depressing-sounding, like, sad, loneliest - like, it's almost like the music I would expect the "Charlie Brown Christmas" special to be as depressed as Charlie Brown is. So I don't know. There's just something hilarious about hearing Marvin Gaye struggle with this monophonic synthesizer, you know, turning it into the blues. So that's why I chose it.

GROSS: So let's hear it. So this is Marvin Gaye, "Christmas In The City".


GROSS: That's a Marvin Gaye track without Marvin Gaye singing, which, you know, kind of makes no sense. But...


GROSS: ...There you go. And that's one of the Christmas songs - it's called "Christmas In The City" - chosen for us by Questlove. So let's get to Stevie Wonder. I know you love Stevie Wonder, and he's in your...


GROSS: ...Film performing in "Summer Of Soul". And this is a promotional disc from Britain.


GROSS: It's a kind of Christmas greetings song. So - which - Christmas greetings message. It's not even a whole song. So tell us about the origin of this.

QUESTLOVE: Well, I - you know why I chose this? Stevie Wonder is world famous for his unique jingles for radio stations. You know, if you search the internet high and low, you can find some that he's done over the years and over the decades. So these jingles, there's actually a Philadelphia version of this particular jingle that I grew up with, and that's the thing that's always close to my heart. So there was a point in time in which Stevie Wonder would - might take time out to craft maybe somewhere between 30 to 50 individualized, customized radio station jingles for, you know, the territories that were playing his music the most. And so that's why I chose this one. And this is sort of a companion piece to the Marvin Gaye "Christmas In The City" bit, of which this is Stevie Wonder playing synthesizer. This time he's playing a polyphonic synthesizer, which gives him the ability to hit all the notes together. So this is kind of the opposite. This is when synthesizers get in the right hands of its creator.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK. Here's Stevie Wonder.


STEVIE WONDER: Hi, this is Stevie Wonder. On behalf of the Motown family, I'd like to say (singing) happy holiday from all of us to you.

GROSS: I wish I could hear more of that, but I guess there isn't more of that.

QUESTLOVE: Very brief. Sometimes, you know, you can make a point in 26 seconds. I mean, look at the Ramones. They made a life-changing record, and not one song is over two minutes. So, you know, I think more artists need to follow suit and figure - and challenge themselves to make impactful art in less than, you know, the normal time.

GROSS: Do you think he did these promotional recordings because he wanted to or because the record company urged him to? Or because it would, like, get him more airplay?

QUESTLOVE: I - yeah. I mean, Stevie Wonder came from - Stevie Wonder not only came from like the first generation of Motown, but he also came from the first generation of a professional Black record company that had to cross every T and dot every I. So, you know, not only did you have to release your single, you had to make a mono version of it, a stereo version of it. And then, some of these songs, you know, if - you took time out to sing the Spanish versions of them, you took time out to sing the Italian version. Like, I have a collection of Stevie Wonder singles in other languages. You know, it's just maximizing on your appeal.

And Stevie Wonder had the means and the technology to just knock this all out. And it's not like he's alive in a period in which he can get distracted by an iPhone or television or that sort of thing. So, you know, I can imagine that this level of creativity was his bread and butter.

GROSS: So what songs do you plan on performing this Christmas? Like in the next...

QUESTLOVE: You know what?

GROSS: ...Few days. Yeah.

QUESTLOVE: I think, you know, so far - this is my favorite time of the year because at "The Tonight Show," this is when The Roots have to brush up on their Christmas history. So I'll say, like, you know, when the audience comes to "The Tonight Show," we do a warmup song for the crowd before the show starts. So we're going to have to learn - we always do "Christmas In Hollis" by Run-D.M.C. We - my favorite all-time Christmas song is "Wonderful Christmastime" by Paul McCartney.

And you know, he - Paul doesn't like it too much. Every time I talk to him and tell him like, not only is it my favorite Christmas song, but it might be my favorite Paul McCartney post-Beatles song, and he's just, like, cringing his face, like, no, no, that was a rush job. So, yeah, we're going to do a lot of Wonderful "Christmastime" and "Christmas In Hollis."

GROSS: Should we play "Wonderful Christmastime" since you like it so much?

QUESTLOVE: It's my favorite. Yes, I love it.

GROSS: OK, so here's Paul McCartney.


PAUL MCCARTNEY: (Singing) The mood is right. The spirit's up. We're here tonight, and that's enough. Simply having a wonderful Christmas time. Simply having a wonderful Christmas time. The party's on. The feeling's here that only comes this time of year. Simply having a wonderful Christmas time. Simply having a wonderful Christmas time.

GROSS: That's Paul McCartney doing "Wonderful Christmastime," which is apparently Questlove's favorite Christmas song.

QUESTLOVE: And almost my top five Paul McCartney song.

GROSS: Well, let me introduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Questlove, and he's been playing some Christmas music for us, some of his favorite and some of the more unusual songs that he knows. So we're going to be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Questlove. He brought some Christmas music with him to play for us. And Questlove is famous for many things, including that he's co-founder of the hip hop band The Roots, the house band for "The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon." He won an Oscar this year for directing "Summer Of Soul," featuring performance footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival.

I want to talk about the Oscar that you won this year for "Summer Of Soul." In 1969, a filmmaker filmed the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of concerts in Harlem at a park there, and the TV networks he was hoping would make this into a movie decided to pass. And the footage just sat in his home for decades. And you got access to it, turned it into a film that's also a commentary not only on the festival but on the era and how the festival represented a turning point in pop culture and especially in Black pop culture. So that's what the film was about.

You won the Oscar, and you gave a very emotional speech. And the category that you won in, best documentary, was the category right after Will Smith walked on stage and slapped Chris Rock. And it's - that was a hard moment to follow because that was perhaps one of the most bizarre moments in Oscar history.


GROSS: And then you get on stage, and you give this emotional speech. I was watching TV. How aware...


GROSS: ...Were you of what happened from where you were seated?

QUESTLOVE: This particular year, we all just sat spread out throughout the Kodak Theater, and they had all of us way in the back. So the doc branch - we were in the, like, the far back row. So that said, I knew that Chris Rock was presenting my category. So immediately I started going into trans meditation. It wasn't until I heard the second expletive from the audience - and, you know, Will Smith wasn't miked, so I couldn't hear what he was saying. And I was just like, ooh, this is a really bad sketch.

GROSS: (Laughter).

QUESTLOVE: And so as I walked to the stage, my first sign of, wait a minute, what's going on here, was that just everyone looked like - not saying that I had in my mind, like, what a hero's welcome should be like. But, you know, the walk was so long from the back to that stage that, you know, the energy of, like, Steven Spielberg talking to me for, like, 10 minutes and the reception of, like, oh, my God, you did that marvelous film? Oh, my - like, I wasn't getting that energy. I was getting more or less, like, this send for help. Like, it was that look. Like, I was looking at my friends like, wait, why is everyone looking so - what's going on? And then as I walked up the stairs, for, like, half a second, when my back was turned to you guys - the audience, like, that perspective - I kind of looked at Chris and I muttered, like, as a ventriloquist, I was like, wait a minute - that was real? And then I turned around and realized, oh, God, what just happened?

GROSS: Yeah.

QUESTLOVE: And I didn't know. So when I tell you it took - it was all the meditation that I've done for a year and a half that led me to those next 3 minutes in which I can absolutely, positively tell you, with no exaggeration, I have zero clue on what I said. I'll be honest with you. The moment was a little too traumatic for me to even revisit. Like, I have not - I literally don't know what I said. I just - I said some words. And, obviously, it made sense because everyone's reaction was like, wow, you really - you normalized that moment.

GROSS: I have a clip of the speech that you gave because I wanted to be able to play it...


GROSS: ...For our listeners. Given what you just said, I'm not sure whether you'd want to hear it.

QUESTLOVE: I'm all right with it.

GROSS: Are you? OK. So this is the part where you walk up onstage. And you basically say that, you know, the other people are so great who were also nominated. And you praise them. And then you start talking about yourself and the film.


QUESTLOVE: It's not lost on me that the story of the Harlem Cultural Festival should have been something that my beautiful mother, my dad, should have taken me to when I was 5 years old. And I'm - this is such a stunning moment for me right now. But this is not about me. This is about marginalized people in Harlem that needed to heal from pain. And just know that in 2022, you know, this is not just a 1969 story about marginalized people in Harlem. This is a story of - I'm sorry. I'm just overwhelmed right now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That's all right.


GROSS: Well, our listeners just heard that clip. But you weren't able to hear it because we're in a different studio than we usually are. So I regret that you didn't hear it. But maybe you didn't even want to. But I will say that you really started to tear up when you said, it's not lost on me that the story of the Harlem Festival should have been, you know - my beautiful mother and my dad should have taken me to when I was 5 years old. And meanwhile, like, the camera goes to your mother. And she's just, like, weeping. And you're tearing up. And you had to kind of stop talking for a few seconds. Were you thinking when you said that, that your parents had the possibility of taking you there, to the festival?

QUESTLOVE: Yeah. Like, I remember just the general feeling. Like, I just knew that at that moment, everything kind of went out the window. Someone joked with me, like, wow, that moment was so dark that you even forgot your producers' names. Like (laughter)...

GROSS: Yeah, you did (laughter).

QUESTLOVE: Yeah, it was such a - I just heard - maybe it was the voice of my father. Like, I was wearing - there was a piece that I was wearing, which, inside of that silver pouch, I take the ashes of my father where I go.


QUESTLOVE: And I don't know. I just kind of - I felt like, just talk from the heart. Like, what do you feel right now? And I just - you know, I wanted to relate to the...

GROSS: Well, you know, when you started tearing up, you clutched that. You just kind of grabbed - and I was going to ask you what that was. Now I know.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah, that was my dad. Yeah, that was my father. And...

GROSS: Oh, so you were holding onto his ashes when you were making that speech?

QUESTLOVE: Yeah, I was. Yeah. I just - I felt like, at that moment, to just talk from the heart, like, not use the cards in my pocket or, you know, try to remember all 17 of my producers and all that stuff. Like, that all just went out the window. And, you know, I was just like, I'm grateful for this honor. But, you know, I also never felt like it was ever about me, that it was just - that I was allowed the honor and the privilege to tell the story of a group of people that were often neglected in history.

And, really, you know, I wanted to make the movie that I truly believed that, you know, 5-year-old Ahmir should have seen when he was a kid. Like, that film should have been out by 1973, '74, '75. And my parents should have taken me to see it. So for me, it was my chance to correct history. And now that film is there for a 5-year-old or a 6-year-old child today to see.

GROSS: Well, let me introduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Questlove. And he's been playing some Christmas music for us, some of his favorite and some of the more unusual songs that he knows. So we're going to be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Questlove. He brought some Christmas music with him to play for us. And Questlove is famous for many things including that he's co-founder of the hip-hop band The Roots, the house band for "The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon." He won an Oscar this year for directing "Summer Of Soul," featuring performance footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival.

So I'd like to close with another song. And I'm thinking, like, do you have a favorite - and I'm going to - I guess I'll get a little churchy here. Do you have a favorite, like, real Christmas, like, song that is, say, like a gospel song or - 'cause I know you love Mahalia Jackson - she's in "Summer Of Soul" - and...


GROSS: ...Mavis Staples. So is there a song, like, from that tradition that you'd like to end with?

QUESTLOVE: You know, there's so many to choose from. I will say, though, there's a rendition of "Silent Night" that's done by the Temptations. It's their '73 version with Dennis Edwards singing lead vocals. And it's almost unspoken - like, it's - every Black household in the '70s, that's the only version of "Silent Night" that exists. A good friend of mine says that if the first three words of any ad-lib from a soul singer are the words, in my mind, then, you know the abyss levels of deep that that version of the song is going to be.

And that's exactly what Dennis Edwards does. The fact that his first three words have nothing to do with "Silent Night," which is, in my mind, which is kind of like a go-to, like I'm going to get real deep for you here when - you know, before I start sermonizing, like, that's a warning that you're about to get something special. And so - I don't know - like, the Temptations version, their slow version of "Silent Night" is damn near a religion in Black households.

GROSS: Oh, thank you for choosing that. Questlove, it's always such a great treat when you're on our show. Thank you so much for choosing music for us. And I wish you, you know, a really good Christmas and a very healthy and happy and meditative and fulfilling...


GROSS: ...2023.

QUESTLOVE: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Yeah. It's just always such a pleasure to have you on our show.

QUESTLOVE: Thank you.


THE TEMPTATIONS: (Vocalizing).

'Twas the night before Christmas. And all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

(Singing) In my mind, I want you to be free. For all of our friends, would you listen to me? Now, hear what I say. We wish you a Merry Christmas to each - to all of you - one of you. Silent night, holy night. All is calm. All is bright. Round...

GROSS: If you want to hear the full versions of the songs on Questlove's Christmas playlist and maybe even play them on Christmas Day, you'll find links on our website, Questlove is the co-founder of the hip-hop band The Roots, the house band for "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon." His Oscar and Grammy Award-winning documentary, "Summer Of Soul," is streaming on Hulu and Disney+.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we begin our end-of-the-year series featuring a few of our favorite interviews from 2022. We'll start with Sheryl Lee Ralph, who won an Emmy this year for her performance in the ABC comedy series "Abbott Elementary" about the teachers in an under-resourced elementary school in Philadelphia. In the series "Moesha," Ralph played the stepmother. Early in her career, she was in the original Broadway cast of "Dreamgirls." I hope you'll join us.

Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. I am Terry Gross.


THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) Silent night, holy night. Shepherds...

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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