54 Minutes With Questlove

Photo: Sipa via AP Images

I do love a hoodie,” Questlove says, stepping into the Hoodie Shop on Orchard Street from a light afternoon rain. The Roots drummer and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon bandleader (real name: Ahmir Thompson) is an old friend of the shop’s co-founder, Peter Shapiro, who owns the Brooklyn Bowl, where Quest spins on Thursdays. Soon he’ll D.J. here, too—there’s even a booth built to suit him. “I have a love affair with hoodies that goes way back,” he continues, checking the price tag on a plain yellow option. “When Tariq [Trotter, the Roots’ M.C.] and I first saw the Tribe Called Quest video for ‘Can I Kick It?’ and they were all wearing hoodies, I was like, ‘Yo, we gotta go to the Gap and get that.’ That’s when I purchased my first bona fide hoodie.”

In a slightly macabre coincidence, the Hoodie Shop, which sells only hooded clothing, opened on Tuesday, March 20, the day before thousands of people gathered in Union Square for the “Million Hoodie March” to protest the killing of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black 17-year-old gunned down February 26 in Sanford, Florida, while—and perhaps because—he was wearing a hoodie. Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, hasn’t been charged, and since the story went national last week, the hoodie has become a kind of rallying cry for justice—worn in protest by news anchors, the Miami Heat, several New York State assemblymen, and Congressman Bobby Rush, who was kicked off the House floor Wednesday for it.

“I texted Pete and said how ironic is it that we’re going into this Hoodie Shop venture now, with what’s happened,” Questlove says. He’s sans hoodie today, wearing a black corduroy blazer over a black T-shirt. His hair, usually picked into a frizzy penumbra for public appearances, is braided tightly against his head. “I was like, ‘How we gonna handle this, because I don’t want people to think we’re jumping on the hoodie bandwagon.’ ”

The Hoodie Store has been in the works for a year, Shapiro says, the spring opening planned for months. But if the timing seems freighted, Questlove is willing to roll with it. As he sees it, the broader hoodie moment has been a long time coming. “Fashion-wise, for the skinny-jean generation, we’re undergoing the first significant comeback of the hoodie since those Gap hoodies back in the early nineties. I never even thought about it as something a scary dude wears. When I think of someone trying to rob you, I think of a ski mask. Now would I walk around wearing a ski mask? Nah. That wouldn’t do me much good.”

It’s hard to imagine Questlove ever seeming menacing. If anything, he’s getting a little cuddlier now that he’s over 40, despite being nearly six weeks into what he calls “a great vegan experiment.” “I want to be the first member of the hip-hop generation to live past 60.” A middle-class Philadelphia native, Quest helped form the Roots in the late eighties, rode a wave of funky multidimensional hip-hop, released thirteen albums, and commuted from Philly to New York for Late Night tapings until he finally got a crash pad in the financial district. He’s also been spending a lot of time in the outer boroughs.

“I found a company in Brooklyn called Dee and Ricky,” he says. “They make these brooches out of Legos, and they gave Kanye and me the very first ones. It’s a heart made out of Legos. As of lately, I’ve been rocking my nondescript blank hoodies with my Lego heart piece. It’s a great conversation piece.” He pauses as a customer comes in and snaps a picture of him. “And you know, to the people I meet it’s probably one of the most peaceful-­looking hoodies in existence.”

The Who’s “Tommy” comes up on the shop’s large video screen, and Quest steps back out onto Orchard Street and gets reflective. “The difference between this situation with Trayvon Martin and Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell and any other unarmed guy who got killed is that this time, there’s a fashion accessory associated with it.” He calls “the hoodie thing” a ­“distraction … to keep eyes off the ­issue of race relations in America. ”

Whatever the hoodies’ new symbolism, Questlove is not going to let it change his habits, he tells me as he strides slowly down the street in the light rain toward a new Scion parked nearby. “Because the hoodie and braiding my hair are what literally makes my Saturday: I’m getting my hair braided, I put my ­favorite plain hoodie on, and that gets me a great two minutes alone before someone recognizes me. And I need that time. And I need that hoodie.”

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54 Minutes With Questlove