Today's confection, courtesy of Sony Records, is the original master tapes of Sly & The Family Stone's "Everybody Is A Star," which Thompson and his band, The Roots, sampled for the opening track of their recent hip-hop opus, The Tipping Point.
Sliding faders up and down, Thompson goes through vocal tracks until the only thing you hear is Sly Stone, front and center, crooning for all his life. This is a truly spooky and wonderful experience, like being in a time machine with Ahmir Thompson as your commander. He pulls up more faders: brass and bass kick in, Larry Graham's thunderous voice booms from the speakers. This is not simply for fun-Thompson is also working on a Sly Stone tribute album.
"Tribute records are always pointless," Thompson asserts. "And when someone asked me to do the Sly thing, I knew it could be a disaster. But I was so curious about the drum sound; I really did it because I knew they would send me the masters. They even sent me the original engineer's notes for the session."
Ahmir adjusts the faders that control the chorus. Then, while bringing down the vocals with his left hand, he slides up another fader with his right that exposes a drum track blasting over a tinny '60s-era click. Gregg Errico's drums are a revelation of funky, slapping, shape-shifting patterns. The sound is tight, popping, and well-recorded.
Now the drummer-turned-engineer is beaming. Ahmir plays the master for The Isley Brothers' 1973 hit "That Lady (Part 1)." He brings up Ernie Isley's walloping, gut-bucket groove. The drumming is frenetic but deep, even if Isley's drums sound like cardboard boxes being struck with flyswatters. The groove is raw and in the pocket as Isley hums along to his own rhythm.
But Ahmir isn't satisfied. He searches for the hi-hats in the track. "Listen," he says. "You can hear all the nuances-everything is in the stereo mix. And you can hear him singing! I like the fact that he's singing the rhythm. I couldn't find a click, though, and I doubt there is one."
Surrounded by '70s analog recording gear as well as state-of-the-art digital, Thompson is in his element. In the adjacent record room, 3,000 LPs are arranged on ten shelves that wrap around the small space like books in a massive library. The LPs are all ordered and categorized, small paper tags reading Funkadelic, Aretha, Stevie Wonder, Sly, Gil Scott-Heron, James Brown, Beatles, Neptunes, Mr. T's Be Somebody, Oldies LPs, Country, '60s, Jazz, and Blues. The bottom shelf is devoted to hip-hop 12"s labeled by year from 1979 to present. The opposite end of the room holds the tools of his trade, including a gorgeous Yamaha kit along with a few guitars and basses. Another room at the studio, the main room, houses everything from recording gear and Erykah Badu and Roots platinum records to '50s-era vintage bass drums and some ancient Kohn and Champion snare drums.
If you haven't guessed, Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson is much more than a drummer. One of the most in-demand producers on the planet since Joss Stone's debut went triple platinum, Ahmir Thompson is a one-man production industry, the wise man behind The Roots' success (his historical knowledge and commentary fills their liner notes), as well as a key player in the neo-soul movement that has launched the ascent of such R&B icons as Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Angelo, Common, India.Arie, and Joss Stone.
More recently, Thompson appeared with Jay Z in the concert documentary Fade To Black, and he produced two projects, Detroit hip-hop collective Slum Village's Fantastic, Vol. 2, and the soundtrack to director Michael Mann's thriller Collateral. Tracks for Justin Timberlake, Macy Gray, and Christina Aguilera have also raised Ahmir's profile (and no doubt his hourly rate) even further.
But it all comes down to Ahmir's top-tight, bottom-heavy groove. Whether playing with Eminem, John Mayer, or the Neo-Soul Stars, Ahmir has mastered the art of replicating the breakbeat on an acoustic set. With Angelo's Voodoo album, heads were bobbing even more than usual to Ahmir's beat, leaving most listeners wondering, "Is that a sample or a live drummer?"
Ahmir's sleight-of-sticks magic is all over The Tipping Point. On some tracks his beats sound like scratched-up Clyde Stubblefield-a ten-ton groove a millisecond behind the beat. And his extremely cool production techniques are evident throughout.