A Different Drummer

Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson helped kick-start Philly’s neo-soul scene, pals with everyone from Jay-Z to Norah Jones, and is one of today’s most in-­demand musicians. But his most ­impressive feat is ­becoming an icon in the swaggering world of hip-hop while staying true to the geek within

Just days after Benedict XVI took his place in the Pope-mobile, Ahmir Thompson sits in his dressing room, grappling with temptation of -near Biblical proportions. He’s here at Madison Square -Garden to perform at the Jammy Awards, the
hippie answer to the -Grammys, a spectacle uniting Deadhead icons with blues godfathers and country crooners for extended live jam sessions. The unifying characteristic of everyone here — Huey Lewis being perhaps tonight’s only exception — is that they all carry a hefty degree of musical cred. That includes Ahmir, curator of the most famous Afro in Philadelphia since Julius Erving’s floated high above the Spectrum hardwood, and better known as “?uestlove,” drummer for and leader of the Roots, who’ve risen from 5th and Passyunk street-corner gigs to become the most ­revered — and only — band in hip-hop.

In a genre where excess and vice sell, Ahmir doesn’t follow the blueprint. He’s not iced out. He’s never been shot. He talks to his mom daily. He once called his assistant in the middle of the night to announce he’d dropped “quagmire” for not one, but two triple word scores in Scrabble. So when a certain pungent aroma wafts through the Garden’s backstage hallways, he isn’t lured to find its source. What’s calling to him is the dressing-room door of Sinéad O’Connor.

“Should I hang up a picture of the pope?” he asks, referencing the mercurial Irish singer’s shredding of Pope John Paul II’s photo on Saturday Night Live. He laughs, knowing it’s nothing more than talk from the smart-ass kid inside his six-foot-two, nearly 300-pound frame (including the ’fro and the black-fisted pick that’s forever perched therein). But he’s connected to the Internet intravenously, messaging with friends like Norah Jones and posting on the Roots message boards at every opportunity, so you know with a keystroke on his laptop, he’d find that papal portrait if he wanted it.

Like the Roots themselves, poets and musical craftsmen in a genre that is often more about counting your bullet wounds and units sold than artistry, Ahmir is a living contradiction. Maybe that’s where the ? comes from. The answer is simple. The beatmaster for the baddest band in the land is actually a super-sized nerd. That’s why at 34, he’s not only a revered skinsman, but also perhaps the most diverse musician in the business. Rappers Jay-Z and Eminem, the former lead singer of vitriolic rockers Rage Against the Machine, soul man D’Angelo, singer and Gap spokesgirl Joss Stone, and even comedian Dave Chappelle have all tapped him for guidance, either on the drum kit or in the studio.

He’s also an architect of neo-soul — the retro movement that made Jill Scott a star and filled the regional rails with A&R reps, contracts in hand, itching for a piece of the biggest Philly scene since Philadelphia International Records defined the city. But while Kenny Gamble crafted his signature sound for mass appeal, Ahmir actively challenges his own fan base, and his record labels, with every release. In a savage, hit-driven music industry, that’s professional hara-kiri. Yet for over a decade, rarely has a day gone by without a gig to play, or someone calling for his help. Take all your jokes (What do you call a guy who hangs out with musicians? A drummer!) and shove them. That is genius.