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FYC : The Art Of…The Song – Questlove on Detroit’s “It Ain’t Fair”

In a brand new series for Awards Daily, The Art Of will feature filmmakers and creatives. focusing on a specific aspect of a movie that is in awards contention. Lady Bird’s Greta Gerwig, The Beguiled’s Sofia Coppola, Darkest Hour’s Joe Wright are all lined up for the series so stay tuned as they take us inside their process and inside their films.

In the first of the series, Questlove and I sit down to talk about the songwriting and music process behind “It Ain’t Fair” from the movie Detroit.  Questlove and I meet in the Viceroy Beverly Hills.

Detroit was called “Untitled Follow Up to Hurt Locker By KB.” That was all he knew when he was approached to write the song. At that time, the film still didn’t have a title. “She said, if you will, I’d like you to screen something for me and I’ll give you 48 hours to process it and get back to me.”

Questlove — a music producer whose credits include Hamilton, working with Elvis Costello, John Legend, and Amy Winehouse, as well as working with The Roots since the ’90s — thought he would need less time to come back with something for Bigelow. But he would need those 48 hours to process what he had seen.”The last time I needed that much time to process something was when I’d gotten a preview of The Birth of A Nation.”

Director Kathryn Bigelow gave Questlove carte blanche on the song. That carte blanche allowed Questlove and The Roots to do what they as great musicians do, create a song that would evoke emotion. “It Ain’t Fair” is the eight-minute song that resulted from their reaction to the film.

Questlove says he approached the mindset of those people who know what’s happening in the society but don’t want to leave their comfort zone. This is a song where “Bilal’s vocal is soft and gentle and it goes to a boil and Tariq is in your face. It’s important to show that juxtaposition.”  He adds, “The a capella is the appetizer and slowly gives you the sugar with the medicine and by the 7th minute, it turns into anger.”

Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter and Questlove’s relationship dates back to high school and while Questlove was figuring out who could write the searing lyrics for the song, it was Tariq who stepped forward and came up with the first verse in 30 minutes.

“People swear they woke/ but they’re walking in their sleep”

The original plan was to parallel the narrative of the story, the song following what we see on screen. Instead, they wanted a song that would live beyond the film. “It Ain’t Fair” is loaded with lyrics that are confrontational and speak the truth.

“Every day I wear a mask like an umpire/Guess a nigga gotta laugh to keep from crying”

Questlove explains there’s more to this line than meets the eye. It’s about code-switching he explains, a code to survive. A code that as a young boy you’re taught and learn just to live.

“Writing and crafting the song was a task. Executing it was the hardest part.” Questlove says. The Roots most powerful records, Things Fall Apart and D’Angelo’s Voodoo albums are among those recorded at the Electric Lady Studio in NYC where he typically works, but “It Ain’t Fair” needed an authentic home. Daptone Studios in Brooklyn was that home. It was where Amy Winehouse recorded Back to Black, Sharon Jones recorded Dap Dippin’ with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. It was the perfect venue to provide that Motown 1967 vibe to the song.
Questlove brought his band that included 19 musicians, string players, vocalists, and himself, as well as sound engineers to record the song on an 8-track.

Questlove explains in order to record a sound that was authentic to the era, he and the band recorded the song and produced it without any of the modern technology that was easily available to him. 18 takes later, the song was finally captured.

The end result is an explosive song led by Bilal’s powerful vocals, packed with raw and emotional lyrics. Listen to the powerful song and Questlove as he talks through the process of recording “It Ain’t Fair” from the movie Detroit and consider it for Best Original Song.

Listen to Questlove below:

It Ain’t Fair