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'Fresh Air' presents: Christmas with Questlove

Questlove, shown here performing in New York City in June, won an Oscar in March for his documentary, <em>Summer of Soul. </em>
Dimitrios Kambouris
Getty Images for Mythical Games
Questlove, shown here performing in New York City in June, won an Oscar in March for his documentary, Summer of Soul.

The holiday season is Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson's favorite time of year — in part, he says, because it lets him brush up on his repetoire of Christmas music.

Questlove is the cofounder of the hip-hop band The Roots, which is, among many other things, the house band for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Each year The Roots inevitably play "Christmas in Hollis" by RUN-DMC, as well as Questlove's all-time favorite holiday song, "Wonderful Christmastime" by Paul McCartney.

"You know, Paul doesn't like [that song] too much," Questlove says. "Every time I talk to him and tell him, 'Not only is it my favorite Christmas song, but it might be my favorite Paul McCartney Post-Beatles song.' And he's just, like, cringing his face, like, 'No, no, but that was a rush job.' "

McCartney's song is in great company on Questlove's playlist of holiday music. Click the audio link above to hear our chat with Questlove about his Christmas mixtape, as well some stories about each song. Highlights from our conversation follow below, along with a Spotify version of Questlove's picks.

Questlove's playlist highlights

"Silver Bells," by DRAM and BigBabyMom (DRAM's mother)

"It's a very unique recording. ... DRAM is kind of the post-neo soul set, like one of the artists that I really dig his work. He has a really soulful voice. And when I listen to music, I like rawness. I like mistakes. I don't think there's good notes and bad notes or flat notes or sharp or pitchy notes. It's almost like him and his mom are allowing us to sort of eavesdrop at the family gathering where they're just singing to each other. And I really love the fact that they didn't overproduce this. This is a really raw version of the song. So it kind of hits home to me."

"Disco Claus," by The Bionic I

"There's these two really influential DJs that have really inspired my DJ career. They're from the Boston area. They're called Amir & Kon – they're the DJs that your favorite DJs listen to. And they're always playing really obscure music that's really under-the-radar. I believe DJ Amir is the one that put me on to this particular piece, which has a good drum break to it. I think it came out in 1977, by a group called The Bionic."

"Santa Claus, Santa Claus" by James Brown

"This particular song [was] my introduction to Christmas music and [it was] my introduction to James Brown. ... James Brown has a voice similar to my grandmother's – she's a very animated woman. So as a baby, I thought that was grandmom singing all the songs because, like, James Brown really belts like a female gospel singer, you know what I mean? Like, with his high notes and his yelling. So when I hear this very, very depressing song about misfortune — this is the Murphy's Law of Christmas songs — I don't know, I think my 3-year-old self just thought that grandmom was performing a comedy skit or something like that. So I added that song for ironic reasons. Like, I think this is one of the most hilarious songs ever, because James Brown is overselling the woe-is-me character."

"Santa Claus Is a Black Man," by Akim & Teddy Vann

"Back when Wendy Williamswas a DJ on [New York hip-hop station] Hot 97 — this is in the '90s — she had a Christmas-themed show once, and I remember they played this song, called 'Santa Claus is a Black Man.' And I called the station and just left a note like, 'I don't know if you guys know who I am, it is Questlove of The Roots, and I got to know the name of that song.' And shockingly, like, two days later they emailed me back and sent me a cassette copy of the song.

"I just love the absolute innocence of it. Similar to 'I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.' This is Christmas through the eyes of a child."

"Christmas in the City," by Marvin Gaye

"I can almost imagine [Motown founder and producer] Berry Gordy just saying like, 'Look, Marvin, just make a Christmas song real quick,' and Marvin's like, 'Alright, hold my beer.' And 'Christmas in the City' is just one of the most depressing-sounding, sad, lonely [songs] — it's almost the music I would expect [from] the Charlie Brown Christmas special. ... [There's] just something hilarious about hearing Marvin Gaye struggle with this monophonic synthesizer, turning it into the blues."

The Stevie Wonder jingle

"Stevie Wonder is world-famous for his unique jingles for radio stations – if you search the Internet high and low, you can find some that he's done over the years and over the decades. There's actually a Philadelphia version of this particular jingle that I grew up with. And that's the thing that's always close to my heart. So there was a point in time in which Stevie Wonder might take time out to craft maybe somewhere between 30 to 50 individualized, customized radio station jingles for the territories that were playing his music the most. And so that's why I chose this one. This is sort of a companion piece to the Marvin Gaye 'Christmas in the City' bit. This is Stevie Wonder playing synthesizer."

Sam Briger and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Andrew Flanagan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.