How Questlove and Oscars Producer Jesse Collins Are Changing Music at the 2021 Academy Awards

Normally, for an interview like the one Variety did on Tuesday with Oscars musical director Questlove and show producer Jesse Collins, the reporter can ask at least somewhat informed questions. But so little about the show has been revealed in advance that the interview ended up being almost an investigative piece — and a fascinating one.

The conversation below reveals a great deal about how the show’s music will work, but the basics are this: Questlove is both the show’s musical director and, as he was last year, the in-house DJ. Except this time, he will be DJ-ing music that largely was created specifically for the show, pre-recorded by his group, the Roots, along with other musicians. There will be no orchestra in the house — as DJ, Questlove will be filling that role — although a string section was used for some of the pre-recorded music.

The musical performances of Best Song nominees will take place during the pre-show: Not because the Oscars want to downplay music, Collins insists, but so they can give all five songs proper shine via full performances and brief interviews with the artists. As usual, the the Best Song award (and presumably Best Score) will be awarded during the show, Collins says.

The two bring remarkable pedigree to their roles. Questlove is co-founder and drummer of the Roots, musical director of “The Late Show With Jimmy Fallon,” an author, director of the recent “Summer of Soul” documentary, an adjunct professor at New York University and possessor of one of the most vast musical memories in the world. Collins is an Oscars and Grammys veteran who, in the past year alone, produced the remarkable 2020 BET Awards — which were the first major music awards show of the pandemic, a remarkable fusion of music, humor and social justice — as well as the Weeknd’s Super Bowl Halftime performance and a producer role on the 2021 Grammy Awards. He is producing the 2021 Oscars with Steven Soderbergh and Stacey Sher.

Somehow, these two chronic multitaskers found time to speak with Variety for 25 minutes on Tuesday about how Quest will work tributes to great film composers into the show’s music, why hip-hop fans will find all kinds of Easter eggs in the Oscars, and how a DJ will replace an entire orchestra.

So little has been revealed about the way the Oscars will work this year — Quest, are you going to be physically at the show?

Yes, I’m gonna be there, I had to casually drop an “Oh, by the way, I need three days off, guys” [to the people at his day job at the “The Tonight Show”]. (laughter)

So, like last year, you’ll be getting on a plane to fly back to New York right after the show so you can be on “The Tonight Show” the next night?

Something close to that, yes. I’m used to it and I actually welcome it. The last time I was on an airplane was actually the Oscars last year, with the exception of one Roots show in Connecticut. I took a year off [from traveling], which was great, and if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have had the time to give love and care for the movie I just directed.

What does being musical director of the Oscars this year entail?

I’m handling pretty much all of the musical elements — the production, including the scoring of original music, and as DJ, I guess I will be the lone orchestra.

So you’re going to be DJ-ing original music?

Well, because of Covid we’re taking precautionary measures, so the Roots [recorded] all of the musical cues [for the show] ahead of time, like a month ago. We just knocked out about 50 or 60 musical cues, and I will DJ those songs from the stage. At least I think I am, right Jesse?

Collins: You’ll either be on the stage or in the parking lot — it’s all the same, right? (laughs) No, we have a special space for you inside the room.

So Quest, will you be DJing entirely original compositions during the show, or versions of other people’s music as well?

A mix of both — it’ll be what you would normally have at the Oscars: bumpers, [lead-ins to] commercial breaks, things like that, I’ll probably also just DJ to keep the room lively during the commercial breaks. The one thing I’m a little disappointed that I won’t be able to do is my favorite all-time thing, which is the play-off music when the speeches get too long. (laughter) I’m not allowed to do that. They were like, “No, you can’t interrupt speeches,” so if [8-year-old Alan Kim from “Minari,” who cried when accepting a Critics’ Choice award last month] won Best Supporting Actor, I would just interrupt his speech. (laughter) Not really. But one day I’ll cross that off the bucket list.

Can you talk about some of the non-original music that you recorded?

I don’t wanna spoiler-alert anything, but at this point it’ll probably be 80% original music. I want to give acknowledgement to a lot of the iconic film music that has gone under radar — a lot of the great Hollywood musical composers who basically haven’t gotten their flowers. Everyone knows John Williams because he did “Indiana Jones” and “Star Wars” and all that stuff, but there’s a whole slew of people like Peter Thomas [Edgar Wallace films], Lalo Schifrin [“Mission Impossible,” “Dirty Harry”], Bill Conti [“Rocky,” “The Right Stuff”], Keith Mansfield [“Loot,” “Taste of Excitement”], Piero Piccioni [“Swept Away”] — names that most people don’t necessarily know, but people who stay for the credits do, like I did when I was kid. I want to make sure they’re included too. In those 60 songs we recorded, we covered some classic, classic composers from Hollywood and across the world.Your musical knowledge is so vast that you’re a bit of a music-geek savant — so you’re applying that knowledge to film scores as well for the Oscars?

Yeah — for hip-hop producers, obscure film scores are such a great source of [sampling] material. And since I’ve joined “The Tonight Show,” we’ve done about 7,000 songs in the last 12 years, so I’ve seen how instrumentals can build up over time. This is a life lesson — everything I’ve learned in my life I’m using now, things that I thought were that part of the brain that you call useless knowledge, I’m now manifested a way to make a living and a career from.

Jesse, why are all the Best Song performances taking place in the pre-show instead of the main show?

The Best Song category will be awarded during the main show, but the nominated-song performances are in the preshow: That gave us an opportunity, as we strive for a three-hour Oscars, to give out over 20 awards, and instead of picking out two or three of the songs or turning it into some kind of mega-mix medley, we’re able to do full performances — you get the entire song. We’ll build the creative [treatment of the performance], pre-tape it and shoot it in a Covid-safe yet entertaining way, and before that performance, [the artist] will do an interview where we’ll talk about the song, and then throw to the perfomance.

So it’s actually a way of giving more shine to the songs, rather than having to condense them for the main show?

Yes, yes, exactly: How do you do all the awards and then cherry-pick out of the nominees, “Okay, you get to do the whole song, you get 45 seconds, you get a minute and a half”? This was an opportunity to put the performances in the pre-show and let those songs stand on their own merits, and all of the artists were excited about it. There will be a lot of music in the show.

Quest, you DJ’ed the Oscars last year, is it the most strait-laced audience you’ve ever worked?

Definitely not — I know the Oscars might have a rep for being the stuffy, uptight room, but I’ll say that some of the most adventurous, wildest moments of my DJ career have been Oscar associated. Either the actual show or the Governors’ Ball or, probably the best DJ set of my life was the Jay-Z/ Beyonce Gold Party. I’m gonna miss not doing that this year.

Why was it so great?

You were sort of on point with the whole savant thing: I treat DJ gigs, and all of my music stuff, like CSI episodes: It’s like I have a diagram with a bunch of yarn and connect things, and that’s how I pick music. It starts with a song and then I have to figure out the tone and the key and [beats per minute] and the mix and all those things that an average person would say are overanalyzed. But that night, everyone stopped dancing and was like, “Wow, he’s teaching a musical lesson right now, this isn’t just random music.” That to me is the payoff.

And even with this Oscars show, a lot of hip-hop heads will be like, “Wait, I know that sample!” They’ll realize that half of the hip-hop catalog that we’ve fallen in love with comes from library music scores of these composers from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

On that note, are there any subtexts we should be looking out for with song titles or lyrics or anything?

I’m not getting that deep into it. Initially, I was thinking maybe I should do what I do on “The Tonight Show,” crafting very specific walk-on songs for guests, but that’s risking being a little too self-indulgent. So I’m just gonna serve what the night calls for.

We’d heard an orchestra is recording this week before the show — so will there be orchestral music too?

This will probably be the first Oscars where there is an absence of lush stings, if you will — not to say that I eschewed that completely, I [used] a string section for some moments. But for the most part there is going to be a sonic difference in how people are used to hearing the Oscars. Usually there’s the sound of a piano and 12 violas and cellos — it’s not that this year.

So will there be any live music, apart from you DJ-ing, during the show?

Uh, you can answer that question, Jesse, I actually don’t know!

Collins: The live music performances, as we understand performances to be, are in the preshow. You see how I did that? (laughter) We’re still trying to figure out … it’s funny, you prep and prep and prep for months and months, and then all of a sudden, amazing ideas come in, and “Oh, let’s do it this way.” The show is still churning, but we are definitely trying to incorporate as much music in the show as we can, and do it in a different way.

Jesse, between the BET Awards, the Super Bowl Halftime show and the Grammys, you’ve worked on some of the most innovative musical events of the pandemic. How will they inspire the Oscars?

Collins: Those shows definitely are an inspiration in that they were all based on not trying to reinvent, except in that that we have to do the show differently and try to push the creative envelope. With [fellow producers] Steven [Soderbergh] and Stacey [Sher], it’s going to be a very, very different Oscars — it’s not going to look like any one that’s happened before. It’s going to feel different out of the gate, and Quest is another big piece of the puzzle of making it sound, feel and flow differently.

Questlove: Because I know Jesse’s not gonna ringing his own bell, I’m just going to say that for me, as a creative, a lot of us were super-super panicking at the beginning of Covid last year — and the BET Awards were a wakeup call for me. Watching that alone literally took me out of my stupor of panic, as far as what is the new [model]. I think most people watch awards shows with tomatoes in hand (laughter), like, “Let’s get ‘em!” And an hour into the BET Awards, me and my group of nine friends were like, “It’s not bad, right? I like this!” And after an hour and a half, we were like, “Yo — this is great! I would not be mad if this were the new standard!” After it was over, I talked to my manager for like two hours, saying “What’s my version of this?” BET figured out how to write a whole new standard, and maybe decades from now we’ll look back and Jesse will be written in the books as one of the first people to do that. I know he’s deflecting by laughing, but seriously, he’s already reinvented the wheel — he was the first out of the gate to set a new standard.

Collins: I’m laughing because it started with Quest: That [all-star performance of Public Enemy’s 1989 hit] “Fight the Power” that opened started the show? He put that together.

Questlove: I forgot I was a part of that!

Collins: (Laughing and laughing) You don’t remember all those calls and text messages? “Chuck’s gonna do the first eight”? “I just got YG’s verse, I’m sending it to you”?

Questlove: I can’t believe I just gave that whole answer and totally forgot that!

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