June 22--Nobody in hip-hop has had a career like the Roots. This might be because nobody has tired to have a career like the Roots.
A band of hip-hop lifers in a pop industry that no longer takes the time to develop acts (and thrives increasingly on solo rap artists), careful album-smiths in an era where singles rule everything around us, incapable of writing a pop hit when they try (even they will tell you the success of the amazing 1999 single "You Got Me" was a total accident), the Roots were an anomaly even back when they started in the early '90s.
Still making records, still a force to a certain strain of hip-hop fan, they are best known now as the house band on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," where their astounding musical chops have made them not just an integral part of the program but aided in making that show the best venue for live music on late-night talk.
Much of this is due to their drummer, co-founder and enormous-haired leader Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, whose totally excellent memoir "Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove" prompts no less a brainiac than legendary pop critic Robert Christgau to blurb: "You have to bear in mind that (Questlove) is one of the smartest (expletive) on the planet. His musical knowledge, for all practical purposes, is limitless."
Written with New Yorker editor and novelist Ben Greenman ("The Slippage"), "Mo' Meta" avoids a bunch of standard musician memoir traps. Don't look for salacious gossip about musicians Thompson has worked with (dude was at ground zero for the movement that became neo-soul, producing or playing on critical records for D'Angelo, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Common and many more).
And while there is certainly an arc, moving from Thompson the musical obsessive/prodigy from a home of middle-class musicians to hooking up with Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter in high school to taking the Roots through the past 20 years of hip-hop, Thompson plays with structure like he's tweaking a beat.
Greenman is as much a commentator as a co-author, with emails about the book to its editor.
Roots manager Rich Nichols, clearly a scary-smart guy in his own right, gets to footnote here and there. In re: the band bragging before they were seasoned: "Note to y'all: the Zeitgeist ain't a (expletive) bicycle built for two. ... When I get a whiff (of hubris) I'm inclined to pull out Occam's Razor and hack my way through a (person's) loftiness." I am ready for Nichols book.
Thompson is a fascinating guy, a record review nerd who followed Rolling Stone magazine by writer and a rock fan who loved Kiss and the Beach Boys in a time and place where that was considered, um, unusual for African-American kids. Indeed, he was just an obsessive in general: "I'd develop a deep relationship with a thing, whether it was Soul Train or a record on a turntable," he writes. "But that led to a secondary worry, which was that I was falling inward into some kind of trance." (Autism wasn't a well-known diagnosis then, but he notes his parents took him to a doctor because he was "eccentric.")
"Mo' Meta" takes us from Africa ("the world of proto-breaks, an intimate connection between rhythm and movement, between time and life. Drums, heartbeats, human clocks, dancing with your knees bent") to slavery and blue notes and "then there was electricity, and then there was swing time, and then there were the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots singing in four-part harmony in and around Cincinnati, refining the fifties progression, and then there was my father's group putting out singles in Philly."
This is all in about two pages; yes, he calms down, but not much.
As befitting an egregious record nerd, Thompson devotes a few chapters to playlist making and noting the records that changed his life:
On Stevie Wonder's "Songs in the Key of Life": "On the first day of school, our teacher told us to have our mommies and daddies buy us this record. We went to "Love's in Need of Love Today" to learn about harmony. That record was my textbook."
On Prince's "1999": "It was difficult to keep Prince records as my parents became more religious. One Saturday, the radio was on, and I realized they were about to play the sexy part in 'Lady Cab Driver,' so I ran to the kitchen and shattered a bowl."
On De La Soul's "De La Soul Is Dead": "Every song knocked me out: 'Pease Porridge,' 'Let, Let Me In,' 'Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey).' Sitting there, I told myself to cherish that magical moment, because there was no guarantee that I would ever know when it felt like that again."
I could read this stuff all day and so could a lot of other folks: critics, musicians, fans of late-night TV.
And yes, there are anecdotes from Questlove and D'Angelo meeting at The Source Awards to the Soulquarian jams that led to the creation of neo-soul to thoughtful commentary on the Roots' complicated relationship to pop music's view of blackness.
(One's heart breaks a little at his story about the video for the 1996 single "What They Do," a brilliant parody of blinging rap videos; the Notorious B.I.G., a Roots fan and maybe the greatest rapper of his generation, thought they were making fun of him personally and got his feelings hurt. Biggie died in 1997.)
But mostly you get Thompson's enormous brain exploring his music, his odd life, his place in the world. Long may he play, DJ and write.
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