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How Will Ferrell and ‘Anchorman’ Saved Boots Riley’s Life

You could call it a meeting of the multi-hyphenates.

Musician, activist and “Sorry to Bother You” director Boots Riley sat down for a chat with DJ, producer, author and “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” musical director Questlove for a wide-ranging chat at the Tribeca Film Festival Tuesday night. During the conversation, the two touched on everything from why Questlove love/hates Blueface’s hit “Thotiana” to how Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” inspired Riley to get serious about hip-hop.

See below some of the key highlights from the conversation, which was moderated by writer Ben Greenman.

Will Ferrell Saved Boots Riley’s Life

When asked what he’s a fan of that may come off as surprising, Riley revealed that he is a loyal fan of Will Ferrell. “If Will Ferrell’s in it, I’m watching it,” he said. “It doesn’t mean he doesn’t make bad movies, because everybody does, right? But I’m there. I’m watching it.”

He went on to recall a horrible bus accident with his Oakland hip-hop group the Coup. Though everybody survived, he said the bus went off a cliff and crashed about 35 feet down. In the area where they slept in their bunks, Riley described that they had “‘Star Trek’ doors” that didn’t open when the power was out. Before the crash, Riley was planning on going to bed in that very area — where he would’ve been trapped without power — when he made an important discovery: a few of the people on that bus hadn’t seen Ferrell’s “Anchorman.”

Fatefully, someone had a DVD of the comedy and they started watching it instead of going to sleep. “So I always say that Will Ferrell saved my life,” he said.

Answering the same question, Questlove pointed to Blueface’s hit “Thotiana.” “The song’s so technically horrible that I think it’s genius,” he said. “I need to know that he did that on purpose.”

Questlove Considered ‘Dave Chappelle’s Block Party’ His ‘First Funeral’

Looking back at a darker moment in his success, Questlove remembered filming the documentary “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party,” which in addition to the Roots featured performances from the likes of Kanye West, Mos Def and Erykah Badu. Questlove described the period around 1997 as when the Roots were “fresh and new,” “and the one thing that none of us ever expected was success,” he said. “And then we got the success around ’99, 2000. And we didn’t pay it forward.”

Skip ahead to 2004 during the filming of the documentary, and Questlove found himself in a very different place. He watched West do the soundcheck for his “Jesus Walks” moment and said “he had such a new energy about him that just brought the audience alive.”

“I was like ‘Oh, no.’ It was like a ‘Sixth Sense’ moment. Like, ‘I’m dead! This is it for me. I’m no longer the spiritual epicenter of this clique. He’s about to be,’ ” he recalled.

Shortly after that moment, the Roots received a “scathing” Pitchfork review on their “Tipping Point” album (Questlove even remembered the dismal score: 5.4) He said it essentially gave critics the greenlight to take the gloves off. Luckily, the group got “a new lease on life,” Questlove said, in joining “The Tonight Show.”

The Moment Where Riley Saw Hip-Hop’s ‘Power’

Riley remembered that during his time with activist group Progressive Labor Party, they headed to the Double Rock neighborhood in San Francisco to spread their message. One day, they were told a story about something that had happened just the day before. Two 8-year-old twin brothers, the people said, were stopped on the street by police and accused of selling drugs. The cops started taking the boys into their squad car and their mother, a woman named Rossi Hawkins, saw this and tried to stop them.

The thing is, Riley said, just a month prior in the same neighborhood, the police had apparently beaten a man and drove him around in their squad car for hours until he died. The community, not wanting that to happen again, gathered with the intent of stopping them from taking the boys. Once the cops started firing guns into the air, Riley said, the crowd started running away, but at one point turned back around, and the whole altercation ended with the police without their guns, their car turned over and Hawkins and her sons being taken to the hospital.

On the moment when everyone decided to turn back around, Riley said the group agreed on a key detail.

“See, this was the summer of 1989, and the biggest hit on the radio was ‘Fight the Power’ by Public Enemy,” he said. “Somebody started chanting ‘Fight the power! Fight the power! Fight the power!’ And everybody started chanting it, and everybody went back. And so, at that point, what was ‘Oh, maybe I’ll make a record one day,’ was ‘I need to learn how to rap better and I need to do this.’ I could see that it was able to be a rallying cry, that that’s the type of thing we needed.”

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