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What Is Soul?: Hamhocks, Cornflakes & Divas

Posted: 12/19/11 11:03 AM ET

What is Soul?

That's a big question that The Roots asked ourselves a lot while we were working with lots of other music lovers on VH1 Divas Celebrates Soul -- a show you can and should see tonight for yourselves at 9PM/8 C on VH1.

The best definition of soul that I ever heard came from Funkadelic. During Funkadelic's first appearance on PBS back in 1971, the great George Clinton declared, "Soul is a hamhock in your cornflakes." George proclaimed this wisdom while fronting this fantastic, crazy-looking band on their first big syndicated television appearance. For me, the hamhock represented plantation-era food somehow now being integrated right into Middle America, straight into the land of cornflakes. I still stick to Funkadelic's excellent theory.

Soul is actually secular gospel, and if you look at the early soul examples, it was very controversial for Ray Charles to add secular love lyrics to what was known as gospel records of the time. Soul is really the spiritual orgasm that you feel when a piece of music touches you -- and it doesn't necessarily have to be black music either. For instance, there's a point around eight minutes into "In My Time Of Dying" by Led Zeppelin where they are just so in the zone that it really hits me in a way that I personally consider soul as much as a great old Lou Rawls record. In that way, you could soul really is in the eyes and ears of the beholder.

Being part of VH1 Divas Celebrates Soul has been quite a soulful and interesting experience. As an avid watcher of these kinds of shows, I'd be the kid growing up sitting in front of the TV watching with a bowl of popcorn. Now as an adult, I'm the guy with his laptop on deck giving his opinion on my website or now on Twitter. This time, I'm the guy on the television, and I'm really glad that VH1 gave me some leverage to voice my opinions because we wanted to avoid clichés and not just have the obvious cast of characters. We've all seen a lot of tributes to soul over the years, and we all really wanted to do something special.

I am one voice of sixteen other people who have opinions, but my own main focus was to shine even a little light on the underdog. Of course, we wanted to honor the great ones, but it means a lot to me that we could spread some of our spotlight on the future great ones who are still making their good names like Ledisi and Marsha Ambrosius. Because I remember what it was like to be passed over on other shows when we were starting out for any bigger name. And as you'll see tonight, we have big names too on a bill that includes Mary J. Blige, Erykah Badu, Kelly Clarkson, Chaka Khan, Jennifer Hudson, Mavis Staples, Florence + The Machine, Boyz II Men, Jill Scott, Estelle, Wanda Jackson, Jessie J, Travie McCoy and Sharon Jones & her group The Dap Kings who back our Divas tribute to the late great and very soulful Amy Winehouse. But I also liked correcting the errors of twenty years ago, and giving some others their chance to show what they got, so you're gonna see all that and more. Because I am still that guy who asks: why doesn't radio play want I want to hear? Why doesn't TV show who I think is amazing? So I love taking any chance to help make that happen.

Of course, any sane person would have passed on this great opportunity with Divas because right in the middle of this whole operation, we had our new Roots album Undun coming out. Of course, I had our great gig as the house Late Night With Jimmy Fallon to deal with too -- not to mention that controversy I caused recently. So I was basically juggling six other plates in addition to the five plates I normally like to handle. But I felt it was absolutely imperative that I get involved with this Divas show to champion some talent and do what I could to help.

Was it easy? No, it was not. They don't call the show Divas for nothing. My pal Nelson George gave me the wisest advise. He said, "Ahmir, just take it one diva at a time." I told him that this show is the musical equivalent of that old Tom and Jerry cartoon where Jerry is in the kitchen slowly pushing the plates over the ledge, and Tom has to run back and forth to try and keep them all from breaking. Yes, it was a challenge. My unique job on this show was to be a wolf in sheep's clothes. I tried to walk a thin line -- keeping our Divas happy at the same time we were coloring between the lines that TV production will allow. There were some outlandish requests and difficult moments, but no blood was shed and a good and soulful time was had by us all.

Tune in tonight and see and hear for yourselves.

Follow questlove on twitter at @questlove and be sure to tweet him tonight about #VH1DIVAS.

 

Follow Questlove on Twitter: www.twitter.com/questlove