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9 Things We Learned From Sly Stone's New Memoir
Sly Stone in 1973

Photo: ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

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9 Things We Learned From Sly Stone's New Memoir

The recently released 'Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)' reflects on Sly Stone's career and personal history with a focus on the late '60s through the 1980s.

GRAMMYs/Oct 18, 2023 - 07:51 pm

Nearly 60 years into his career, Sly Stone remains thankful.

His recently released memoir, Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin), offers an earnest look into the life and music of the funk and soul giant.

"He's at the top of the pantheon for a certain part of rock ‘n’ roll and funk and soul, and should stay there," says Ben Greenman, who co-authored the memoir.

The book – which is the inaugural release on Questlove’s publishing imprint, AUWA Books – pulls its title from Sly and the Family Stone’s 1969 single of the same name.

"When I'm co-writing with somebody, they start to define the rhythm," says Greenman, who’s also co-written memoirs from Questlove, Brian Wilson, and George Clinton. "Sometimes I'll pitch a certain structure. Other times in the course of talking, they start to develop their own sense and rhythm of things and then you have to reflect that."

Thank You comes over 40 years since Stone released his final album, Ain’t But the One Way, and reflects on the musician’s career, along with surprising, little-known moments. To Greenman, Stone’s tales were reflective of his headspace in the late-1960s and throughout the ‘80s, when  the artist was often preoccupied with a chaotic rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.

Towards the midpoint of the book, Stone hilariously shared that he once loaned a Cadillac to  Etta James, although the police later discovered that the vehicle was stolen. 

"The assumption that I had is ‘Oh my God, you gave her this car and good faith and then it turned out it was stolen. How embarrassing, Greenman explains. "But the vibe I got was he probably knew, he just thought that the fake papers on it would hold. That story was so strange and weird and out of nowhere, but sort of representative of what it must have been [like] to be him at that time."

Despite certain points of misfortunes in Stone’s journey, including decades-long drug abuse, the Sly and the Family Stone frontman carried on as an prestigious musical act. To honor Stone’s legacy and Thank You, here are nine takeaways from the book. 

Stone Started Out In A Family Group

Stone, born Sylvester Stewart, began in music as part of 1950s family gospel group the Stewart Four. The second of five children, the Pentacostal family  got their start in church upon relocating from Denton, Texas to Vallejo, California. The siblings all learned an recited material by gospel pioneers Mahalia Jackson, the Soul Stirrers, Brother Joe May and the Swan Silvertones.

Stone’s parents, K.C. and Alpha, were multi-instrumentalists who noticed their children’s musical forte, and the Stewart Four signed a hyperlocal single deal with the Church of God in Christ, the Northern California Sunday School Dept. Released in 1956, Stone’s first-ever record "On The Battlefield / Walking In Jesus Name" was limited to roughly 100 copies.

Stone Influenced Herbie Hancock And Miles Davis

Sly and the Family Stone debuted in 1967 with A Whole New Thing, and the collective reinvented funk and progressive soul with follow-ups Dance to the Music, Life, Stand!, and their 1971 landmark There's a Riot Goin' On. Their 1973 album Fresh came at an auspicious time for Sly devotees.

Jazz greats Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock took notice of Stone's musicianship. The artist was a direct influence for Hancock’s seminal 1973 album Head Hunters, which includes a punchy jazz fusion cut named after Stone.

Stone recalls that in 1973, Columbia Records dropped multiple jazz acts, including  Charles Mingus, Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, in favor of rock and funk artists. Miles Davis was fascinated by the introductory Fresh track "In Time"; according to Stone, Davis was rumored to have replayed the song for his band to "work out the rhythms of it."

The Black Panther Party Took Offense To The Family Stone 

Sly and the Family Stone almost ended before the group went mainstream. In the ‘60s, the Bay Area-based group were neighbors to the Oakland chapter of the Black Panther Party. 

The organization protested the band’s for leaning into "what White America wanted," per Stone. The Panthers disdained the presence of white members Jerry Martini (saxophonist) and Greg Errico (drummer), pressuring Stone to get rid of the musicians. 

Early BPP leader Eldridge Cleaver also wanted Stone to make a six-figure donation to the cause, which Stone refused. Stone condemned the Panthers’ defiance of laws  and considered his group to be politically neutral.

Bob Marley And The Wailers Were Removed From The Family Stone’s 1973 Tour

In October 1973, Bob Marley and the Wailers began their first U.S. tour as a supporting act for Sly and the Family Stone. The 17-date tour ended after four shows for the reggae band, who had just released their seminal Catch A Fire. 

From Stone’s perspective, the Wailers weren’t a "good match" for American crowds at the time, and Bunny Wailer was no longer performing with the group. Stone dismissed allegations that his group felt they were upstaged.

"They played slow. They had accents," Stone wrote about the Wailers, adding, "There was no offense on our part but we shipped them off."

"How was Bob a threat to Sly Stone?" Joe Higgs, in the 2017 Marley biography So Much Things to Say. People said they can’t hear us: our accent, they couldn’t understand; our rhythm, too slow. We weren’t happening. And our outfits were inappropriate. We were rebels."

Stone And Kathy Silva Had 20,000 Guests At Their Madison Square Garden Wedding

Stone’s marriage to actress-model Kathy Silva was arguably the first concert-turned-wedding. The couple wed on June 5, 1974 at Madison Square Garden. Plans were made in a rush, and guests who received invitations were asked to RSVP by May 31.

An audience of almost 20,000 (some who paid as little as $8.50) attended the wedding ceremony, which doubled as Sly and the Family Stone’s concert. The Temptations co-founder Eddie Kendricks performed first before Stone’s mother and niece, Lisa, gave religious acknowledgements. 

Later, on the Starlight Roof at the Waldorf Astoria, champagne flowed and guests dug into a cake shaped like a vinyl record. A reception featured soul food and Japanese cuisine, honoring their Black and Hawaiian heritage.

The day after the special occasion, Stone discovered that wedding officiant Bishop B.R. Stewart wasn't registered in New York, but paperwork was hurried to the city clerk to make the marriage legally official.

Stone And Prince Almost Collaborated

Although Sly and the Family Stone disbanded in 1983, Stone had his eyes on up-and-coming artists. Stone was told that a young Prince was a "new version" of himself and peers Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix. Stone’s then-girlfriend (and now-manager) Arlene Hirschkowitz encouraged  the artists to collaborate following a late-’80s meeting at L.A.’s Roxbury Club. 

"I wasn't always on Prince, but that day I was," Stone wrote. "I told [Hirschkowitz] that I was excited about the idea and I meant it. But he never called."

Stone And George Clinton Were Close Friends 

In the mid-’70s Sly and the Family Stone was a supporting act on the collective’s P-Funk Earth Tour. After the Family Stone disbanded in the ‘80s, Sly Stone reconnected with fellow funkateer George Clinton. 

Clinton owned a farm in Michigan, where he and Stone dabbled in recreational drugs in their downtime. The two closely worked together, with Stone co-writing "Catch a Keeper" for Clinton’s all-female group the Brides of Funkenstein, composed of four women who were previously Stone’s background vocalists. The song was later released by the P-Funk All-Stars, and the Funkenstein was shelved, but Stone also had a writing credit on 1981 Funkadelic album The Electric Spanking of War Babies ("Funk Gets Stronger").

As Stone’s collaboration with P-Funk continued, he noticed that bassist and vocalist Bootsy Collins replicated his style. "Sometimes when I was out walking people would call to me, ‘Bootsy! Bootsy!’ I didn’t mind it so much," Stone wrote.

Michael Jackson Offered To Return Sly Stone’s Catalog

Stone was friendly with the Jackson family, mainly vocalist and former Jackson 5 member, Jermaine, but it was Michael Jackson who upheld Stone’s music. In 1983, Jackson acquired the international rights to Sly and the Family Stone’s catalog. The acquisition was Jackson’s first under his publishing company, MIJAC Music, as Stone didn’t assume that the group’s old songs were of monetary value.

Shortly before his death, Jackson offered to return Stone’s catalog under an agreement that he would go to substance abuse rehab. Stone disagreed with Jackson’s terms, even being a no-show to a meeting that the King of Pop scheduled. Stone later tried to make amends by sending  Jackson a letter, though Jackson never received it. Someone sold the letter as memorabilia. 

In 2019, Stone closed a deal with MIJAC, allowing Stone to keep minority interest in the catalog and resume collecting on his music.

Sly Stone Was Honored With A Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award

The music of Sly and the Family Stone was featured in a tribute performance at the 2006 GRAMMYs. The Nile Rodgers-curated ceremony consisted of tribute performances from Joss Stone, John Legend, and Van Hunt ("Family Affair"), Maroon 5 ("Everyday People"), will.i.am ("Dance to the Music"), with Steven Tyler and Stone ending with "I Wanna Take You Higher." The live show was Stone’s first since 1987.  

In 2017, Sly Stone was honored with the Recording Academy's Lifetime Achievement special merit award.

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Erick The Architect Steps Into A New World On 'I’ve Never Been Here Before'
Erick The Architect

Photo: Ellington Hammond

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Erick The Architect Steps Into A New World On 'I’ve Never Been Here Before'

The Flatbush Zombies' member says his debut double album is more than catchy introspections: 'I’ve Never Been Here Before' is the arrival of a new persona and sound.

GRAMMYs/Feb 21, 2024 - 08:47 pm

Rapper/producer Erick The Architect is no stranger to reinvention. 

The Brooklyn-bred MC cut his teeth over alt-East Coast beats as Erick Arc Elliot before forming psychedelic rap trio Flatbush Zombies with childhood friends Meechy Darko and Zombie Juice. But after multiple mixtapes and two albums with the group, Erick is returning to solo form and venturing into new creative ground. 

Following 2021’s Future Proof EP, Erick is embarking on new musical travels with the release of his official debut album, I’ve Never Been Here Before. Out Feb. 23, the double album explores Erick’s flowy instrumentation, poeticism, and artistry at full scale. The project is fueled by singles "Shook Up" featuring FARR and Joey Bada$$, "Ezekiel’s Wheel" with funk forefather George Clinton, and the breezy "Instincts" with Westside Boogie.

Erick says I’ve Never Been Here Before is more than a collection of catchy introspections, melodic monologues, and '90s-inspired jams. It’s the shedding of one persona — and sound — and the beginning of a new: the Mandevillain. 

"This album is an identity of a new person," Erick the Architect tells GRAMMY.com, noting that the moniker is an ode to his father’s hometown of Mandeville, Jamaica. "A lot of people may have thought there was a ceiling to what I’m capable of, but I think this album will showcase a brand new artist and identity, which is really hard to do when people think they already know you. But I really think this is unique." 

The switch isn’t just in name — he’s taken on a new approach to music, too. For the first time in years, Erick says he’s prioritizing himself and his specific musical world. "It’s the first time I have created with the headspace that I’m free," he says. "I find that other artists don’t listen to other people’s music when they’re in a creative space, but this is the most locked off I’ve been from things."

As much as I’ve Never Been Here Before signals new creative ground for Erick to fertilize, it also represents his collective efforts to limit distractions and break free of any barriers — personally and sonically. 

While it was difficult to stay so focused and inward-looking while creating his debut album, turning to some of his legendary collaborators provided some clarity. After having conversations with James Blake, George Clinton, and other artists as part of the project, Erick no longer feels forced to fit a mold or address outside criticism. 

"This album is about sacrifice, and I’ve Never Been Here Before is me being okay with losing things," he says. "I think that losing has always a negative connotation because nobody wants to lose, everybody wants to win. But it's the first time I'm losing stuff and it’s better being lost. Whether it's a habit or a person in your life, you don't need to hold everything."

I’ve Never Been Here Before lives up to its title in both theme and creation. Where Erick previously wrote songs in moments of vulnerability, the rapper says he "doesn’t feel that way anymore." 

Citing the work of Keith Haring, Miles Davis and Pablo Picasso as inspiration, Erick says he was driven to write more high-spirited songs, rather than ones tethered to struggle and hardship. As a result, the album is more accessible than some of his previous work.

"I’m tired of writing from a perspective of just being like, 'I’m sad today, bro,'" he says. "I haven’t made a project that I feel like you can just put that joint on and just play it, don’t even think about anything else because it’s commanding an energy that we all need." 

In transforming the project, the "Die 4 U" artist pieced together a blend of new and older songs he recorded five years ago. And while a double album is a "death sentence" in the eyes of most rap fans, Erick says he’s prepared for both heaps of praise and hurls of "he’s overrated" from listeners. He would feel more anxiety only if the music never came out.

"I’ve always believed that I had another special part of me that I think people didn’t witness because I didn’t put it out in the forefront," he says.

While getting a new release across the finish line can be a heavy weight to bear, Erick says he’s determined to prove his doubters wrong and own his legitimacy as a solo act. "I didn’t get lucky or sneak in here and steal beats from somebody’s laptop," Erick says. "This project is great to defeat people who have perceptions about me that are incorrect."

With the momentum of I’ve Never Been Here Before, Erick is set to test his new music and moniker on the road during his upcoming Mandevillain Tour, which kicks off in Austin on March 25.

Now that he’s fulfilling his ambitions as a solo act, the artist has a few more mediums he plans to explore – TV and film. After being a rapper/producer for more than a decade, Erick says he’s ready to take grander creative leaps.  "I’m just trying to take this to the highest caliber," he says.

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GRAMMY Rewind: Lizzo Thanks Prince For His Influence After "About Damn Time" Wins Record Of The Year In 2023
Lizzo at the 2023 GRAMMYs

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

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GRAMMY Rewind: Lizzo Thanks Prince For His Influence After "About Damn Time" Wins Record Of The Year In 2023

Watch Lizzo describe how Prince’s empowering sound led her to “dedicate my life to positive music” during her Record Of The Year acceptance speech for “About Damn Time” at the 2023 GRAMMYs.

GRAMMYs/Jan 19, 2024 - 06:00 pm

Since the start of her career, four-time GRAMMY winner Lizzo has been making music that radiates positive energy. Her Record Of The Year win for "About Damn Time" at the 2023 GRAMMYs proved that being true to yourself and kind to one another always wins.

Travel back to revisit the moment Lizzo won her award in the coveted category in this episode of GRAMMY Rewind. 

"Um, huh?" Lizzo exclaimed at the start of her acceptance speech. "Let me tell you something. Me and Adele are having a good time, just enjoying ourselves and rooting for our friends. So, this is an amazing night. This is so unexpected."

Lizzo kicked off her GRAMMY acceptance speech by acknowledging Prince's influence on her sound. "When we lost Prince, I decided to dedicate my life to making positive music," she said. "This was at a time when positive music and feel-good music wasn't mainstream at that point and I felt very misunderstood. I felt on the outside looking in. But I stayed true to myself because I wanted to make the world a better place so I had to be that change."

As tracks like "Good as Hell" and "Truth Hurts" scaled the charts, she noticed more body positivity and self-love anthems from other artists. "I'm just so proud to be a part of it," she cheered.

Most importantly, Lizzo credited staying true to herself despite the pushback for her win. "I promise that you will attract people in your life who believe in you and support you," she said in front of a tearful audience that included Beyoncé and Taylor Swift in standing ovation, before giving a shout-out to her team, family, partner and producers on the record, Blake Slatkin and Ricky Reed

Watch the video above for Lizzo's complete acceptance speech for Record Of The Year at the 2023 GRAMMYs. Check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of GRAMMY Rewind, and be sure to tune into the 2024 GRAMMYs on Sunday, Feb. 4, airing live on the CBS Television Network (8-11:30 p.m. LIVE ET/5-8:30 p.m. LIVE PT) and streaming on Paramount+ (live and on-demand for Paramount+ with SHOWTIME subscribers, or on-demand for Paramount+ Essential subscribers the day after the special airs).

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GRAMMY.com’s 50th Anniversary Of Hip-Hop Coverage: A Recap
A tribute to the 50th anniversary of hip-hop at the 2023 GRAMMYs

Photo: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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GRAMMY.com’s 50th Anniversary Of Hip-Hop Coverage: A Recap

The Recording Academy’s celebration of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary included televised events and captivating interviews. Check out the wide range of articles and features produced by GRAMMY.com commemorating this musical milestone.

GRAMMYs/Dec 28, 2023 - 02:51 pm

When we look back at the Recording Academy’s 2023, the 50th anniversary of hip-hop will loom exceptionally large.

The ongoing celebration permeated every facet of the world’s leading society of music professionals this year, from the 65th Annual Awards Ceremony in February to the special airing of "A GRAMMY Salute To Hip-Hop" in December — a dense, thrillingly kaleidoscopic televised tribute to the breadth of this genre.

One major accompaniment to this was coverage of the genre’s legacy via GRAMMY.com, the editorial site run by the Recording Academy. If you haven’t been keeping up, we’ve got you covered. Here’s a highlight reel of the work GRAMMY.com published in honor of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop.

We Profiled Rising Stars

From Lola Brooke to Tkay Maidza, GRAMMY.com engaged in comprehensive in-depth interviews with artists who are at the forefront of shaping the future of hip-hop, and held a roundtable discussion about exactly what the next 50 years might look like. 

We Published Conversations With Legends

DJ Kool Herc and Questlove, who have played unquestionable roles in hip-hop’s continuing evolution, spoke to GRAMMY.com about their profound and abiding connections to the idiom.

The Contributions Of Women Were Highlighted

Without the inspired vision of countless women, hip-hop would not be what it is today. The "Ladies First" segment, which kicked off "A GRAMMY Salute To Hip-Hop" featuring Queen Latifah, Monie Love, and MC Lyte, among other lady greats with Spinderella as DJ, was an ode to this. 

In acknowledgment of female trailblazers in a world dominated by men, GRAMMY.com wrote about teen girl pioneers, women behind the scenes, a revealing Netflix doc, and women artists pushing the genre forward in 2023, from Ice Spice to Lil Simz.

We Revisted Hip-Hop’s Biggest Releases

From Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) to Jay-Z’s The Black Album to Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy, GRAMMY.com dove deep into the core hip-hop canon. We also broke down the genre’s development decade by decade through the 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s, 10s, and 20s, with a focus on classic albums from each era.

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We Criss-Crossed The Country

GRAMMY.com’s series of regional guides — from the Bay Area and SoCal, to Texas and the Dirty South, to D.C. and NYC highlight hip-hop’s diversity of culture and sound.

We Went International

Although hip-hop is a quintessentially American phenomenon, its impact, appeal, and influence has spread worldwide. The international appetite for hip-hop was showcased in coverage of Latinx and Argentinian rappers to know, as well as five international hip-hop scenes to know: France, Nigeria, Brazil, South Africa, and England.

We Explored Hip-Hop’s Larger Impact

Hip-hop is more than a sound. It’s a culture that permeates almost every sector of life. Showcasing this effervescence, GRAMMY.com ran pieces about the evolution of hip-hop’s influence on educational curriculum worldwide, as well as its biggest fashion and style moments.

We Covered On Stage Celebrations

"A GRAMMY Salute To 50 Years Of Hip-Hop," the two-hour special that aired in December on CBS and is available on demand on Paramount+ represented a culmination of the Recording Academy’s 50th year anniversary celebration.

Revisit the 2023 GRAMMYs’ hip-hop revue, and check out a recap of "A GRAMMY Salute" with photos, a rundown of all the performers and songs and coverage of the Black Music Collective’s Recording Academy honors in February.

It Didn’t Stop There…

Notable coverage also included the evolution of the mixtape, 11 Hip-Hop Subgenres to Know and 10 Binge-worthy Hip-Hop Podcasts, as well as a breakdown of Jay-Z’s Songbook and Snoop Dogg’s discography.

For everything GRAMMY.com and all things hip-hop — including our rap-focused run in the GRAMMY Rewind series — visit here.

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For Questlove, "A GRAMMY Salute To 50 Years Of Hip-Hop" Is Crucial For Rap's Legacy
Questlove

Photo: Leon Bennett/Getty Images for Netflix

interview

For Questlove, "A GRAMMY Salute To 50 Years Of Hip-Hop" Is Crucial For Rap's Legacy

When Questlove worked on the Hip-Hop 50 revue at the 2023 GRAMMYs, the experience was so stressful that he lost two teeth. But he didn't balk at the opportunity to co-produce a two-hour special; the task was too important.

GRAMMYs/Dec 7, 2023 - 05:45 pm

Today, Public Enemy's 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is correctly viewed as a watershed not just for hip-hop, but all of music. But when Questlove's father overheard him playing it, it didn't even sound like music to him.

"He happened to pass my room while 'Night of the Living Baseheads' came on and he had a look of disgust and dismay, like he caught me watching porn," the artist born Ahmir Thompson tells GRAMMY.com. "He literally was like, 'Dude, when you were three, I was playing you Charlie Parker records, and I was playing you real singers and real arrangers, and this is what you call music? All those years I wasted on private school and jazz classes. This is what you like?'

"I couldn't explain to him: 'Dad, you don't understand. Your entire boring-ass record collection downstairs is now being redefined in this very album. Everything you've ever played is in this record,'" he says. "If my dad — who was relatively cool and hip, but just getting older — couldn't understand it, then I know there's a world of people out there that are really just like, whatever."

That nagging reality has powered him ever since — whether he's co-leading three-time GRAMMY winners the Roots, authoring books and liner notes, or directing Oscar-winning films.

And that path led straight to Questlove's role as a executive producer for "A GRAMMY Salute To 50 Years Of Hip-Hop," which will air Sunday, Dec. 10, from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. ET and 8:00 to 10:00 p.m. PT on the CBS Television Network, and stream live and on demand on Paramount+.

Questlove makes no bones about it: working on that 12-minute Hip-Hop 50 revue at the 2023 GRAMMYs was taxing. So taxing, in fact, that he lost two teeth due to the psychological pressure. But he soldiered on, and the result is an inspiring rush of a two-hour special.

"The thing that really motivated me — Look, man, roll up your sleeves and run through this mud — was like, if there ever was going to be a hip-hop time capsule, a lot of the participants in this show are somewhere between the ages of 20 and 60, and everybody's still kind of in their prime," he says.

"So that way,” Questlove continues, “in 2030, 2040, 2050, when our great, great, great, great grandkids are born and they want to look up someone, this'll probably be one of the top five things they look up. And I wanted to be a part of that."

Read on for a rangey interview with Questlove about his role in "A GRAMMY Salute To 50 Years of Hip-Hop," in all its dimensions.

Explore More Of "A GRAMMY Salute to 50 Years of Hip-Hop"

This interview has been edited for clarity.

What can you tell me about your involvement in "A GRAMMY Salute To 50 Years Of Hip-Hop"?

I could be the guy that complains and complains and complains and complains: Man, I wish somebody would dah, dah, dah. Man, somebody needs to dah, dah, dah. And then the universe the whole time is poking you in the stomach like a dog. You think you're going to be drumming for life — like, that's your job.

So I went through this period where I just hated the lay of the land. And now people are like, "Well, the door is open if you want to come and see if you could change it." And for me, it was just important to.

And at first, I was really skeptical about this because even when I was an artist, my peers all the time would — I say in air quotes jokingly, but it's like, man, I know they're serious — they would just call me a suit. Whenever someone's called a suit in a sitcom or it is like, that's always the bad guy. Or especially for me that's known for all this artistry.

But for me, it's like, I can either just sit on the sidelines and watch this thing slowly kind of go in a direction that I don't want it to go. And often with the history of Black music in America, we're innovating this stuff, but we're really not behind the scenes in power positions to control it or to decide what direction it is. And it's a lot of heartbreaking and hard work.

After the success of the thing that we did in March — that 12-minute revue thing — I'll be honest with you. For 12 minutes that was like going through damn near, and I'm not even using hyperbolic statements by saying, coming out within an inch of my life.

When that moment was literally over and I was on the airplane landing back in New York, two of my teeth fell out. That's the level of stress I was [under]. Imagine landing in JFK and I got to rush to "The Tonight Show," but then it's like, Oh, wait, what's happening? Oh God, no! My teeth are falling out! And going to emergency surgery. My whole takeaway was like: Never again.

So of course when they hit me in July, "Hey, remember that 12 minute thing you did? You want to do the two-hour version of it?" I was like, "Hell no." And of course I hell noed for three weeks and it's like, "All right, I'll do it, but I'll just be a name on it. I ain't doing nothing." And then it went from that to like, "All right, what do you need me to do?"

What I will say is it's a two-hour show in which you got to figure out how to tell [the story of] hip-hop's 50-year totality — its origins, its peak period, its first moments of breaking new ground, the moment it went global around the world. You got to figure out a way to tell this story in two-hour interstitials and be all-inclusive. 

It was just as stressful, even up until four hours ago. I'll just basically say that my teeth didn't fall out, thank God. And it was worth everything, because it's really a beautiful moment.

Sorry for that 12-hour answer, but that's just how my life rolls.

It was a great answer. What was your specific role behind the scenes?

Oh, I'm a producer. Jesse Collins called a group of us in to help facilitate: me, LL [Cool J], Fatima Robinson, Dionne Harmon, Brittany Brazil. There's a group of nine of us who were producers.

So, [part of] my actual division of labor thing was finding people to help facilitate music. This is a genre in which maybe the first six years of the art form, there was no such thing as an instrumental. "Or, "Hey, J.Period, can you recreate 'Check Out My Melody' by Eric B. & Rakim with no vocals in it?"

Finding the right people to do the music, sometimes I'd have to do it myself. And a lot of people in hip-hop have been super burnt. Super burnt. And I mean, that's putting it lightly.

And so you're giving these impassioned, Jerry Maguire, help-me-help-you speeches. The amount of times I was like, "Look, I really want you to reconsider your answer. This is our legacy we're talking about."

I'm using terms that a lot of these people, frankly, are hearing for the first time, Because like I've said in past interviews, hip-hop started as outlaw music. No one thought it was going to be a thing. So there's a whole generation that had to lay out the red carpet, just so that the next generation could benefit from it while we disposed of them.

But then that next generation gets disposed of, and then here comes my generation. And then the next thing, you wake up and it's like, "Oh, we're not relevant anymore," and dah, dah, dah.

And I'm trying to convince people, "Wait, you don't understand. Now we have a seat at the table. Now we get to control. All that we talked about, we need to control our destiny, and this is our culture." And there was a lot of that. And some people [were like], "All right, I'll do it for you." [To which I said,] "No, no, don't do it for me. Do it for the culture."

But then there were also people like, "Man, never again. F— all that." And there was also, "Hey, why wasn't I asked?" and all that stuff.  So in these two hours, you're going to see eight to nine segments in which we try to wisely cover every base.

This is the "Lyricist" section, and this is the "Down South" section. And ["Ladies First"] is all about the ladies. And this is for those that passed away. And this is for the club bangers. And this is for music outside of America. And this is for the left-of-center alternative hip-hop.

Yes, we wanted to include everybody, but this is network television. And at that, you only get eight to 12 minutes at a time. So that's even hard. "Hey, why can't I do my chorus and my verse?" "Look, man, you got 32 seconds." If you've ever seen those "Tom and Jerry" cartoons where they're juggling plates in a kitchen — like 30 at a time — I don't recommend that to anybody.

But we got through it. I want everyone to feel proud of where hip-hop has come, because to be nine years old and to get on punishment for hip-hop — you know what I mean? I come from that generation. You've got to pay a price to live this culture.

And now it's established. So that's why I got involved. So there was a lot I had to do. A lot of calls, a lot of begging, a lot of arrangements, a lot of talking to people about clearing their samples, to call up publishing companies: "Look, it's just a four-second segment. It's just one drum roll. Can you please overlook it just for the sake of it?"

The amount of times I had to give those speeches. So yeah, that's what I had to do.

Jesus.

And that's just me. It's nine of us. So there's lighting directions, and choreography, and wardrobe, and dealing with clearance — like FCC, and, "They can't say that." And, "All right, which one of us is going to try to call Snoop to ask him that sort of thing?"

And the amount of Zooms that we were on at five in the morning in the Maldives or halfway around the world.

There must be some component of this process where you recognize that there could never be a perfect two-hour special. There could never be a perfect 200-hour special. There must be something freeing about realizing that nothing can be comprehensive when you're dealing with a cultural ocean like this.

[At one point], I had to take a hip-hop break. And the first thing that I did a week later, after recuperating, was I went on YouTube and I just watched every award show I remember watching — like prime Soul Train Awards back in '87, '88, '89, the years that Michael Jackson was killing the GRAMMYs.

Award shows were so magical to me, when I was a kid. There was a period just between five to maybe 15 or 16 in which I religiously watched that stuff, and you just take it for granted.

When Herbie Hancock did Rockit back in 1983 with all those mechanical break dancers, I wonder the work and the headaches that it took to make that happen. The drummer from Guns N' Roses [was] missing while they had to do "Patience" at the American Music Awards — and Don Henley, of all people, was just on the sidelines like, "Does anyone know how to drum?"

I was in the audience during the whole Chris Brown-Rihanna controversy of [2009]. I was literally at the GRAMMYs. There were like 40 minutes left, and I watched the producer run up the aisles.

Because the thing was, that was the year they decided, "You know what? This is going to be the first year in which we're going to ask artists to double down on stuff. So we're going to have Rihanna sing three songs, and we're going to have Chris do two songs. We're going to have Justin Timberlake. And then, suddenly, their absence now means that there's five major gaps open.

And they had 40 minutes left before they went to go live and I'm watching the producer make an announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen, something just happened. We can't get into it."

The level of viralness now on Instagram or Twitter is expected, but back then it was like, Oh, I wonder what happened? And they're just running up the aisles to Stevie Wonder, "Yo, can you [mimics rapid-fire, inaudible chatter]?"

And I'm looking at him, pondering: What the hell are they asking him? And then Stevie's getting up and doing it, and then, "Jonas Brothers, can you duh, duh, duh? Boyz II Men. Where's Al Green? Is Al Green here?" So literally, I'm watching them solve a headache in real time. And with 20 minutes left, backstage rehearsing, and we were really none the wiser.

I've seen that a few times. My very first GRAMMYs was when Luciano Pavarotti got sick and someone just randomly asked, "Hey, does anyone out there know the lyrics to 'Ave Maria'?" Aretha Franklin raised her hand, and we were all like, 'Wait, we mean the Italian version, like that 'Ave Maria.'" And she's like, "I do know the version."

We underestimated if Aretha Franklin from Detroit, Michigan knew how to sing something in Italian. And within a half hour she was on that stage and she killed that s—.

So it made me literally recapitulate every award show I ever watched.Now I'm watching with the analytical eye: I wonder what headaches it took to put that together? So, it changed me as a spectator and a participant.

I have a friend who's been a dedicated hip-hop fan his entire life. We were talking about the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. He questioned the entire enterprise, arguing that it's an arbitrary number that doesn't mean much to true rap fans. What does the 50th anniversary of hip-hop mean to you, personally?

Well, to me, it's important. There's an interlude that I put on the Things Fall Apart record. The album starts with an argument from [the 1990 film] Mo' Better Blues in which Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes' jazz musician characters are arguing about just the disposability of the art form.

And it ends with a quote from Harry Allen saying that the thing about hip-hop is that most people think that it's disposable: Let me get what I can out this thing, and I'll throw them out the window. And on top of that, people don't even see it as art. And that really hit me in the gut, because I see the beauty of it.

This is kind of why I got into the game of: first it was with liner notes, and then with social media doing these mammoth history posts. And then it's like, Alright, well, let me write some books, because I'm afraid that no one's doing this level of critical thinking about this particular thing.

I know that the disdain and the dismissiveness that I got from some of hip-hop's participants does sort of stem from a place of ego being bruised. And it's righteous. It's righteous anger. But I also knew that if I sat on the sidelines, then it's like when I have grandkids and they Google this, and if it was a half-assed job, then that's my fault. And I definitely don't want to be the guy that talks, talks, complains, complains, without being a part of it.

So yeah, for the amount of people that prematurely died before the age of 30, and for the startling volume of people that have recently passed away in the last three years because of health issues, cardiac arrest, strokes, a lot of us are dying… You and I are talking right now, right when Norman Lear has passed away at the age of 101.

I just read that in The New York Times.

Dude, can you imagine "Tupac Shakur Dead at 103"? Can you imagine that for hip-hop?

It's a survival tool, because for a lot of us, that was the way out of poverty. It was vital for me. I couldn't just sit back and not watch one person behind the wheel. I have to be the designated driver. So, that's why it's important to celebrate that number.

And a big part of my convincing them was like when they were going to pass, like, "Nah, dog, I'm cool. I got a gig that night," I was like, "Dude, we're not going to do this for the 51st or the 52nd. And frankly, will we be here?" I will be 92 years old if it makes it to the 75th. You know what I mean?

The only person that got in my face was Latifah like, "Excuse me, I will be here for the 75th and I will be for the 100th. You don't know when I'm leaving." So I was like, "More power to you, Dana. All right, good. Queen Latifah will be here for the 100th."

What I'm gathering from what you're saying is that no matter what, it's important to have an organization of this prestige canonize this cultural force.

Oh, absolutely. And I know that oftentimes we play the game of public appearances for the gaze of the establishment. I don't want to get into that thing either: making performative celebrations just so that the mainstream can celebrate us.

I have to say that when you watch it, it really doesn't come off as compromised. This thing really looks good. That was the one thing that we laughed at in the group chat, like, "Man, we just went through Apocalypse Now, and are we all saying it was worth it?"

There are at least three people in my production thread that were sort of like, "Uh-huh, never again. I will never again subject myself." And one of them is dead serious. One of them started doing something the opposite, like, "Nah, I'm just doing classical music from now on. There's no stress there." But it was worth it. It was worth it to me.

Questlove

*Questlove in 2023. Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images*

It looks to be a classy, expansive special. I'm excited for it to air.

The best part about it? So if you remember, to me, the star of the 12-minute version that we did at the GRAMMYs in March, was Jay-Z.

It was one of the things where it's like, "Hey, do we even ask Jay-Z?" And that's the one guy we decided ourselves, "Well, let's pass on him because number one, he's already performing with DJ Khaled, so we'll pass on him."

Jay-Z actually wound up being the star of that because he was a fan mouthing it in the audience, which to me was almost like better than us just doing a song with Jay-Z on stage. But the audience is the absolute star.

To see Chuck D smile — I've never seen Chuck D smile. As all these acts are coming out and Chuck D's like, singing [Sly and the Family Stone's] "Everyday People," like Boston fans sing "Sweet Caroline" at Red Sox games. Who knew that Chuck D was so jovial about things? But that's with everyone in the audience watching, supporting each other.

So that to me is also an important thing because as audience members on stage, they're ripping it, but as audience members, they're supporting each other. And that, I think is the most important part, because a lot of my take was like, "Wow, I didn't know that dah, dah, dah was so supportive." Or, "Man, Nelly actually knows every Public Enemy lyric. Who knew?" There are a lot of "Who knew?" moments that will shock people for this show.

I'm so glad you brought that up. That was one of my favorite moments during the Hip-Hop 50 performance at the 2022 GRAMMYs. Jay-Z is a billionaire twice over and a global cultural figure, but we see him in the audience, grinning ear-to-ear like a little boy, doing finger guns in the air.

He's getting his life back. And it's important. Especially now, I'm all about joy. And it's not even just like this particular hip-hop figure celebrating his music.

When Chance the Rapper comes out, again, I'm like, "Wow, [Cee] Knowledge from Digable Planets knows Chance?" And then I was like, "Well, they got kids, so of course I'm sure their kids play around the house." I'm doing all this analytical things like, "Wait, how do they know this song? And this is past their age range."

And that to me is the most telling part of this whole thing, to watch generational people get out of their actual zone and to find out that they're fans of — when GloRilla comes out, to watch [Digable Planets' Ladybug] Mecca mouth the lyrics. I was just like, "Oh, wow, OK."

That kind of puts to bed that stereotype that we only listen to the music in our realm. So, yeah, man — to me, that was the magic part of it all.

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