The Man Who Helped Questlove Make 2021's Best Documentary
Joseph Patel produced stories for and on some of the best in music. Now he’s on the verge of landing his first Oscar.
In 1996, the now-defunct hip-hop magazine Rap Pages published The Roots’ very first cover story, written by Bay Area scribe Joseph Patel. Twenty-five years later, Patel is an accomplished visual storyteller living on the intersection of culture and music. His résumé boasts media brands like VICE and Vevo. This year, he added another accolade: relinking with The Roots’ afroed music leader Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson to help birth the drummer’s directorial debut.
Released in June, Summer of Soul is a documentary about the famed Black Woodstock, an epic Harlem concert that took place back in 1969, featuring the likes of Nina Simone, Hugh Masekela, and David Ruffin, to name just a few. In dazzling technicolor, the film splashes browns onto the interdependent void of Black and American music history. It unearths an undeniable treasure of forgotten history and has since won Sundance along with several other prestigious acknowledgments. It’s now positioned for an Oscar nomination. That makes the film’s top producer, Patel, one 2021’s champions of motion picture.
Today, Patel, the mind behind MTV franchises like My Block, several VMA broadcasts as well as documentaries for unsung maestros like Scott Storch, is in a great space. Less than two weeks before the end of a life-changing year, he takes a breather to reflect on professional fortune, an upcoming Sly and the Family Stone documentary, and how Summer of Soul winning an Oscar would illuminate future Black history.
LEVEL: Your first cover story as a journalist was also The Roots’ first. Was that initial encounter the beginning of your relationship with Questlove?
Joseph Patel: As many of us [music journalists] have come to know, once you meet Ahmir, he’s just like one of us: He’s a fan. He knew my byline and pieces I had written. So we just geeked out over music. After the interview, I ended up hanging out with him for like 10 hours; actually, the whole weekend, like off the clock. In a lot of ways, Summer of Soul is the result of that 25-year relationship.