Ahmir Thompson might be the most famous musician of his generation. Except that he isn’t really known as a musician, per se.
Yes, he’s a fine drummer. Yes, he’s kept his band, the Roots, alive and viable through all manner of life events, hip-hop permutations, and music-industry shenanigans. Yes, he’s made a name for himself as a celebrity DJ with voluminous musical taste (and a music library to match).
But he’s also known for his incisive intellect, willingness to weigh in on all manner of topics, and consider how those topics affect and drive his music. He wrote detailed liner notes for the Roots CDs. He launched a website, okayplayer.com, to unite the far-flung community that emerged around the band, and started blogging not long thereafter. He’s also gained notice as a prolific tweeter, most notably live-tweeting as New York City police were rousting the Occupy encampment in Zuccotti Park.
As if all that isn’t enough, his is the most iconic afro since Angela Davis.
So while his primary job is musician/bandleader, that’s only a part of who he is, and possibly the last element of his makeup that many would identify. In reality, he’s become a brand, with a distinctive voice – smart, inquisitive, sardonic when needed, biting when warranted – that doesn’t much exist anywhere else in pop culture today.
His brand presence is so strong that it just seems simpler to use the shorthand of his nickname and leave it at that. Call him, then, Questlove.
And his memoir Mo’ Meta Blues is everything you’d expect from a book Questlove would write: smart throughout, funny at times, and infused with structural twists on the norm, with dashes of insight and perspective on the ever-evolving state of the hip-hop world unlikely to be expressed anywhere else within it.
The book begins with one of those twists – two, to be exact. The first chapter is a dialogue between Questlove and Roots co-manager Rich Nichols. More than just a business guy, Nichols has served as the band’s mentor, advisor, and cheerleader. Questlove makes a point of including his voice throughout the book – who ever heard of a memoirist sharing the stage with anyone? But Nichols’ counterpoints – as a dialogue with Questlove, and footnotes to his descriptions and accounts – amplify the methods behind the band’s madness.
Twist number two is chapter two, the first instance of co-writer Ben Grossman taking the stage. Periodically, Grossman steps into the flow to talk about the process of making the book happen, and set the stage for the next few chapters. They don’t interrupt the flow, but serve as palate-cleansing section breaks, giving the reader an outside perspective on Questlove and his work, even as Grossman has obviously helped shape how Questlove explains it all.
It’s only with chapter three that Mo’ Meta Blues takes on the pacing of a traditional memoir (but with yet another quirk: each Questlove-penned chapter begins with a question). Much of the storyline from here on out will be old hat to longtime Roots followers. Questlove was born into a show biz family: his father was doo-wop singer Lee Andrews, his mother was a singer, and much of his youth was spent on the road with dad and the family. He started playing drums around age seven, and eventually graduated from Philadelphia’s High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. While there, he met a kid from a troubled family life with a unique gift of gab, Tariq Trotter. Their impromptu jams became lunchroom favorites, and a few years after high school, they started playing on the streets of Philly, exhibiting the omnivorous dexterity that categorizes their work to this day.
Mo’ Meta Blues follows the Questlove/Trotter (aka Black Thought) partnership through its various names before they finally became the Roots. Nichols advises the band to stay the course through the lean early days before they got a record deal. Questlove chronicles the making of, and some of the backstage stories behind, the band’s early albums. At times, Questlove is a little too presumptuous about his book’s audience: for example, Roots fans are probably familiar with rapper Malik B’s longtime drug problems, but when Questlove refers to him once and then never again, non-fans will be left with more questions than answers.
In any event, Questlove smartly moves through the timeline of the band’s ascent towards fame and fortune in hip-hop at the turn of the century. But he and Nichols also stand as detached observers of that era, when it appeared to them that the Roots’ artistic direction was moving on a different track from the rest of hip-hop, even as they finally started having some hits (“You Got Me,” “The Seed 2.0”). Questlove is candid when talking about his other artistic pursuit of the era, his production of D’Angelo’s Voodoo, and the strains it put on the band.
Mo’ Meta Blues casts the 2004 album The Tipping Point as, well, a tipping point in the band’s course. It was an artistic and commercial disappointment, and Questlove talks about how the band struggled in the aftermath. But in retrospect, that may have actually freed them. He talks about how hip-hop was moving in yet another new direction, one more characterized by Kanye West’s outsized personality than the Roots’ quieter, restless intellect.
By not trying to go down the emerging path of mainstream hip-hop but instead sticking to their guns, the Roots found a space where they could make the music they wanted to make. Indeed, their last four albums – Game Theory, Rising Down, How I Got Over and undun – could not have come from any other hip-hop act. Few would have dared the stylistic choices and pungent commentary of those cd’s, let alone be willing (or allowed by their labels) to live with not selling gazillions of those units.
Questlove the obsessive music nerd shows up from time to time, but mostly in the contacts with his two musical heroes, Prince and J Dilla. Those accounts are part of the memoir’s other thread, the amazing amount of people he’s come across throughout his career, all the way up to the Roots’ current gig as Jimmy Fallon’s house band. The book concludes with what is probably the most epic and eclectic list of shout-outs (all of them personalized) since Stevie Wonder’s honor roll in the liner notes to 1976’s Songs in the Key of Life.
Mo’ Meta Blues strikes an easy-going balance between its two audiences; serious Roots fans, who won’t learn a whole lot of new things here (if anything, they might be curious as to what Black Thought thinks of all this) but will enjoy reading about it all anyway, and those who know Questlove only as a guy on late-night TV with big hair and a beat. To a certain extent, his own notoriety exists on a parallel track from that of his band (and can we please give them massive props for logging 20 productive years and counting in the modern pop music landscape with their artistic souls intact?). But his sprightly-told memoir shows how intertwined those tracks are. There would be no Roots without Questlove, simply put, and no Questlove without the Roots.