July 02--Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove
By Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson & Ben Greenman
Grand Central, 288 pp., $26.
Rarely has a musician felt so compelled to explain himself as Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson.
The funky Philadelphia drummer with the outsize Afro who is the face of the Roots is a prodigious elucidator. He's a hip-hop thinker with historical perspective for whom the standard impulses for an artist in a commercial medium -- to be rich, to be famous, to make great art -- are equaled by another compulsion: To be understood.
So it's a good thing that in 2009, after a decade and a half of making challenging, very good records and proving themselves to be the greatest live hip-hop band in the world, the Roots took the job of house band on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.
That turned out to be the savviest of career moves. (This week the workaholic band is only a tad busier than usual. After headlining the Borgata Hotel & Casino on Monday, Questlove will perform Wednesday in a rare gig as a duo with soul singer D'Angelo. Then on Thursday the Roots will fill its annual role as backup band for the Philly 4th of July Jam, this year featuring John Mayer, Jill Scott and Demi Lovato and televised on VH1.)
The Fallon job gave the Roots the invaluable outlet of a nightly national TV perch to demonstrate their wide-ranging abilities. It also built the Questlove brand in particular as the Internet's leading music geek, a pop-culture omnivore whose minute-by-minute observations are shared with his 2.6 million Twitter followers.
And so, with that growing audience in place, it's now time for a book.
And an excellent book it is: The aptly titled Mo' Meta Blues is a memoir that, on the one hand, tells Questlove's story of a life of music in fairly straightforward fashion.
It's a tale of growing up in a West Philadelphia home immersed in music, and of time spent on the road with Questlove's father, doo-wop singer Lee Andrews, and mother, Jacqueline. (The most adorable of a series of isn't-he-cute? photos in the book captures the 5-year-old Thompson with a pair of drumsticks in hand and a 'fro as big then as it is now.)
From there, we're off on a journey that will eventually include a roller-skating party with Prince, collaborations with D'Angelo, Dave Chappelle, and Al Green, and almost getting fired from the Fallon show after playing a bit of Fishbone's "Lyin' Ass B-" as walk-on music for show guest Michele Bachmann.
But the Roots' story begins in earnest at Philadelphia's High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. That's where we meet Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter, after the future Roots rapper gets caught doing forbidden things with a female classmate in a CAPA restroom.
Soon, the instinctive rapper-front man and the more self-conscious, analytical drummer-producer are on their way, first as the Square Roots and then, due to a fortuitous conflict with a local folk band, as the Roots. The name change, Questlove writes, turned out to be crucial, partly because "it created the impression that we were music conservators, that we respected the past and kept a stubborn hold on the funk and soul that had come before us."
The Mo' Meta Blues title is an intentional nod to a pop-culture reference point, Spike Lee's 1990 jazz movie Mo' Better Blues.
Characters played by Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes have an argument that spotlights a quandary facing the Roots themselves. As Questlove puts it: "How to stay true to our idea of our music and also be appropriately inviting to audiences." And it gets at the strategic ways in which the Roots' battle plan is conceived by Questlove and the band's longtime manager, Richard Nichols.
In the Roots' world, a title can never have only one meaning. And Mo' Meta Blues is so named largely because of Nichols, whose presence is felt throughout the book, usually through footnotes that comment on Thompson's observations. Questlove's coauthor, Ben Greenman, describes Nichols thus:
"You know how in comic books there's a supervillian who's a giant brain in a jar . . . [who's] in control of everything? Rich is like a non-evil version of that."
Greenman also includes e-mails written to his editor, Ben Greenberg, while working on the book. Those interludes are not always rewarding but they allow Greenman to quote tossed off Nichols-isms such as "as you get older, feelings are harder to come by."
Questlove (or as he's known, ?uestlove) also quotes a lot of music critics -- including this one, in a 1996 review of Illadelph Halflife that appeared in The Inquirer. Sometimes, as he takes you through the Roots' career, album by album, Rolling Stone by Pitchfork review, you worry that he spends too much time seeking approval from without, rather than having the faith in his own gut. (In the band's creative dialectic, that's Trotter's job.)
He also makes for a pretty fair critic himself. For instance, his recollection of Trotter -- suggesting that his fashion choices in the early '90s might have been the result of "trying to be white" -- sets him off on a sharp mini-essay about authenticity and the blues, with well-made points about Johnny Winter, Howlin' Wolf, and Captain Beefheart. He's particularly astute, and honest, in enumerating the ways he perceived the rise of Kanye West to be a threat to the Roots.
Another way in which Mo' Meta Blues is rewarding: It's got tons of music in it. Early on, Questlove -- who, as his bio puts it, "has been known to DJ damn near every night of his life" -- considers focusing on one record released each year of his life. He rejects the idea, but includes sections called Quest Loves Records, which highlight albums such as Sly & the Family Stone's 1975 There's a Riot Goin' On and 1985's Jesse Johnson's Revue.
Questlove is unique in that he's widely considered to be the Roots' leader, and in fact charts the group's direction as a songwriter-producer and conceptualist. But he doesn't write lyrics or sing them or rap them. He exerts control through collaborative means, and then shapes the way the music is received by telling us what he was thinking as he created it.
Talking about a particularly memorable night as a DJ in 2001, he notes how satisfying it was to have the music -- and the crowd -- under his control. But even then, he can't help but give credit where it was due. "It wasn't a Roots show," he writes. "It wasn't a D'Angelo show. It was my show, and it wasn't even exactly that. It was music's show, with turntables as a conduit."
A Rare Duo
Questlove & D'Angelo at the Theater of Living Arts at 11 p.m. Wednesday. Tickets: $47.
Information: 215-922-1011, www.livenation.com.
Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.inquirer.com/inthemix.
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