He is best known as the drummer and joint frontman (with Black Thought) for the Grammy Award-winning band The Roots. The Roots have been serving as the in-house band for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon since February 14, 2014, continuing the role they served during the entire 969-episode run of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. He is also one of the producers of the Broadway phenomenon, Hamilton.
He has produced recordings for artists including Elvis Costello, Common, D'Angelo, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Bilal, Jay-Z, Nikka Costa, and more recently, Al Green, Amy Winehouse, and John Legend. He is a member of the production teams the Soulquarians, The Randy Watson Experience, The Soultronics, and The Grand Wizzards.
"I'm really into the game of making people guess, is it a machine, or is it him?" says Thompson, who also goes by the name ?uestlove (pronounced "Questlove"). One famous example is the Roots' biggest hit, "You Got Me," which sounds for all the world like a programmed side stick pattern—until Thompson cuts loose with a blazing drum-and-bass groove. Like much of Thompson's work, the passage is startling, witty, and funky.
"Hip-hop is based in rhythm, repetition, and perfect time," says Thompson. "With Roots stuff, I go for a more perfect, quantized-type sound than I would with, say, Erykah or D'Angelo. For D'Angelo's Voodoo, we wanted to play as perfectly as we could, but then deliberately insert the little glitch that makes it sound messed up. The idea was to sound disciplined, but with a total human feel."
For Thompson, "human feel" is bred in the bone. His father was the leader of the '50s doo-wop group Lee Andrews and the Hearts, and Ahmir literally grew up onstage. "My whole family was involved playing the oldies circuit with groups like the Coasters, the Drifters, the Chiffons," he says. "I was playing percussion at gigs from the age of seven because my parents didn't believe in babysitters. By 13, I was the musical director, and I stayed in that world until I got a record deal with the Roots at age 22."