Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove
by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Ben Greenman
Grand Central Publishing; 288 p.
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is thinking. A lot. That’s the takeaway from the Roots’ drummer/music producer’s memoir Mo’ Meta Blues; that’s what he wants you to know. Co-written with The New Yorker’s Ben Greenman, the book is a telling of Questlove’s story from childhood to these very Jimmy Fallon days, chronicling his affair with music from the tender toddler ages onwards. Instead of being a straightforward telling of his story, though, Questlove wanted to do it differently. (That’s another thing he wants you to know). The book is interspersed with emails between Greenman and the book’s editor, Ben Greenberg, and conversations between Questlove and The Roots’ eclectic and highly knowledgeable manager, Richard Nicholas, who starts off a prominent voice and dwindles (by his own accord) to footnote asides.
Questlove’s story, especially his childhood and the beginnings of The Roots, is very engaging, and the book quite well written. Growing up in a family where music was the moneymaker (his parents were in his father’s traveling band, Lee Andrews and the Hearts), a career in the field was obvious and a life surrounded by sound even more so. Questlove’s journey began with soul, funk and his father’s doo-wop, with his favorites including Stevie Wonder and Rufus. One of the most poignant explanations of his relationship with music was how he listened to it – not for the melody or the lyrics but for the nuances inside the song that nobody else heard. Throughout various private and public school years, music was a constant. Growing up, certain records and artists shaped Questlove’s understanding of the art form. These include Sugarhill Gang with “Rapper’s Delight”, Prince’s 1999, Prince’s Purple Rain… Prince is a recurring theme here.
The Roots officially started their journey in the early 1990s, but Questlove and the band’s wordsmith lyricist, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, had been improvising since their time in the high school lunchroom. Questlove goes into the musical and emotional mindset behind every album. Organix was the first — a most hopeful, indie hip hop release. Things Fall Apart was the height of their neo-soul period, when the band was finding its hits. Phrenology was the group’s experimental album. He also chronicles the intimacy of his musical relationships with D’Angelo, whom he helped create the Grammy-winning album Voodoo, and prolific hip hop producer J Dilla (De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, Common). He talks about the Soulquarians, too, an artist collective including Erykah Badu, Common, Q-Tip and others who often worked together and inspired each other. He goes right into today, when a faux pas after Michele Bachman’s visit to Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and joking about Tina Fey almost cost him his job.
The book engagingly captures Questlove’s habit of talking in a million directions but still keeps a straight course. It illuminates nuances in the hip hop world and includes numerous fantastic playlists. That said, sometimes Questlove’s questioning gets to be a little much, and we are saturated with what feels like an attempt to prove how much of a thinker Questlove really is. Toward the end, he reflects on a song by A Tribe Called Quest:
What does that mean? What doesn’t it mean? What is the role of the artist? What is the chance that an artist will actually create something new, something lasting? What is the responsibility the artist has, if any, to old forms, to old questions? What is community?
Sometimes, too, the book’s name-checking gets a little tedious (we get it. Questlove knows a lot of famous people). Also, on a side note, where are all the women in his hip hop world? TLC? Missy Elliot? Nicki Minaj? Even (non-hip-hop) collaborator Fiona Apple is missing. Minor criticisms aside, though, this was a great read. Well written, engaging and, for a music lover, a pot of funk and soul and hip hop gold.