Questlove: Music Is History (2021) | featured image

Questlove Drums Circles Around Music History

Circles are central to Questlove. He loves a circular connection and a sidelong glance. Circles overlap and connect in his artful book, Music Is History.

Music Is History
October 2021

“Tradition demands constant change.”

– Charles Mingus

Questlove—self-described as shy, insecure, and anti-social—has emerged from being a drummer, bandleader, and producer to also become a roving, joyous educator. Even the cover of his newest book, Music is History, reflects Questlove’s persistent curiosity and fierce talent for finding and making connections over time. Look at the question mark drawn into the rainbow of Questlove’s hair on the cover of his 2013 memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues, and then at that same color scheme bouncing off the cover of Music is History. That artwork, sourcing back to Bob Dylan’s psychedelic curls on Milton Glaser’s iconic 1966 poster, is itself borrowed from artist Marcel Duchamp‘s 1959 self-portrait. This stacking of references is central to the method of Questlove’s book. He loves a circular connection and a sidelong glance.

Questlove shares his playful storytelling method with his frequent media and interview partner Neil deGrasse Tyson, originally popularized by cultural historians like James Burke, who hosted TV’s connect-the-dots series, Connections (1978), which tied music, history, technology, and social movements into spiraling circles of information. Indeed, circles are central to Questlove: circular drums, circular records, circles of friends. He partnered with Les Ateliers Courbet gallery founder Melanie Courbet to design his own musically themed “Lazy Strobes” tableware, a Lazy Susan that is modeled after the disc design that DJs use to calibrate their turntables to a perfect 33 and 1/3 rpm.  

Circles. Spheres. In Music is History Questlove observes, “…it’s hard to imagine a definition that didn’t extend to Thelonious Sphere Monk: coolest first name, even cooler middle name. By 1974, Black Cool was a foundational part of American culture…” While Questlove was working on his essay, originally for New York Magazine, on the dissipation of Black Cool during the hip–hop era, he had to change his question from What is Black Cool? to Who is Black Cool? So he shopped around a list (he likes making lists) of seven names—Angela Davis, Betty Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Lena Horne, Marvin Gaye, and Richard Pryor – none of which his friends and associates could agree upon. His final cut: Miles Davis, Muhammad Ali, Pam Grier, and another name he withholds until the end of his chapter. We’ll leave it unspoiled here, but it’s an interesting trip that concludes with Black Cool dicing out to be the difference between letting someone and making someone approach you.  

Then, of course, there are the playlists that he generated for his second income as a DJ.  Monumental playlists which he used to court the Obamas. President Obama didn’t fully appreciate the list made for him (he and Questlove share a speaking cadence) but First Lady Michele Obama did. Let’s jump from lists to history to persistence. Making lists saved Peter Roget from a lifelong depressive streak, giving the world Roget’s Thesaurus. Roget, like Questlove, was a man of many curiosities.  He presented a paper at the Royal Society about an optical illusion: carriage wheels viewed rolling on the street through the vertical slats of a Venetian window, which would become known as persistence of vision. Questlove, too, champions persistence of vision – albeit of a different sort – of memory, of music, and potentially of playlists.

Recently, in conversation with Terry Gross on her NPR program Fresh Air, Questlove recounted a childhood injury, suffered when he was two. Hurrying to get out of the bathtub, he burned his leg on a radiator, and soon after that moment that his flesh seared into that train track pattern until he was 16, he remained dismayed by the resonance of Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead” (from Super Fly, 1972) playing on Soul Train. In particular, he has not been able to hear the key change that serves as a bridge for crossing the hump at the two-minute mark, or perhaps any key change since, without recalling his injury. Gross wondered his PTSD was the reason he gravitated away from diatonic instruments to the drums. Questlove laughed, commenting that she had made a good observation. 

Many musicians and listeners mock that sudden modulation as a poor trick, “a truck driver’s gear change” (e.g., grinding). But a case can be made for the appropriateness of this musical lift in “Freddie’s Dead”. After Freddie is struck by a dirty cop’s bullets and then by a car, pain drives Freddie out of his body just as pain drove Questlove back into his body. Granted, it’s not nearly as harmonically sophisticated as the half-step key change in 1930’s “Body and Soul” the most recorded jazz standard in history. But “Body and Soul” got there first, proving that the separation of the soul from the body, if you will, is a mere half-step. It takes only the smallest degree, diatonically, to float the soul out of the body.

My heart is sad and lonely
For you I sigh, for you dear only
Why haven’t you seen it?
I’m all for you, body and soul.

I spend my days in longin’
And wondering why it’s me you’re wronging.
I tell you I mean it—
I’m all for you, body and soul.

(Here, the soul leaves the body)

I can’t believe it
It’s hard to conceive it
That you throw away romance.
Are you pretending
It looks like the ending
Unless I could have one more chance
to prove, dear

(And the body reclaims the soul)

My life a wreck you’re making
You know I’m yours for just the taking.
I would gladly surrender myself
to you, body and soul.

– “Freddie’s Dead”

“Freddie’s Dead” is of the many tunes that Questlove cites in his year-by-year account. Each chapter in Music Is History begins with a kind of ticker tape or circling digital signage of headlines from that given year: disasters alongside human and animal triumphs, with a particular emphasis on the success stories of Black Americans“Barbara Jordan gives the keynote speech at Democratic National Convention; Hank Aaron hits his 715th home run, surpassing Babe Ruth; Blacula is released; vs. white embarrassments: Nixon resigns; Calvin Parker and Charles Hickson are allegedly abducted by aliens; Rocky launches Sly Stallone’s career.” The Questlove Time Machine moves from historical figures to sidemen, to singers, to classmates, to backstories, to events in his personal exploration of chronology. 

Through it all, Questlove is often on foot, narrating a path, both shaggy-dog and direct, and sometimes going in reverse: he runs for his life from the Source Awards, D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar, is pressed into his hand; he and his girlfriend hot foot it out of Tracy Morgan’s Felliniesque party when Tracy takes off his shirt, signaling everyone else to follow suit; Questlove even calls the cops on his own loud house parties so that he can get some rest from what he refers to as significant work-shopping among emerging artists, the experimental Soulquarians. Questlove repeats several stories from his earlier books—the childhood radiator scalding, the 1995 Source Awards, Kurt Cobain’s suicide, 9/11, Obama’s quiet dismissal of Questlove’s White House DJ set—but in each case, they mark the time signature of his narrative.

and those who have never seen blood awake

can drink it browned

and call the past an unrepeatable mistake

because this circus of their present is all gravy.

– Alan Dugan “This Morning Here” 1961

These lines play against Questlove’s statement, “history both repeats and predicts itself”, but the poetry of Alan Dugan (also an Aquarian), while pointing to the conspiracies currently mainstreaming around us, counters Questlove’s optimism. Still, how much history is too much?  Questlove: “if history is only what’s seen, what do we call the rest? …When you’re researching an artist or a year, how do you know when you’ve seen enough, when you’ve unearthed enough facts…”

Film historian, William Routt, writes about damned or trash cinema, saying that everything should be watched (“the movies that everyone knows are no good: the cheap, the stupid, the boring, the inane”) and that before a film is dismissed it deserves a second look to see how it may succeed. Poet Jay Wright will ask you, from another peak of the range, to look at how an accepted masterpiece, say, Paradise Lost, fails? 

Questlove takes both approaches and doubles down on our era to reach an impressive balance.  Every piece of soul, hip-hop, neo-soul that Questlove mentions is, at a minimum, interesting, let alone the glories of J. Dilla and D’Angelo. But much of the white pop he cites reveals musical weakness or shallow thought. Questlove’s sense of mischief can easily account for his putting a finger on the scales of music history, reflecting the same impish balance of black vs. white headlines used to preface the years.

He also offers guidance. “In the Roots, when we thought of titles for our albums, we wanted them to have three layers of meaning: to refer to something that was happening within the band, something that was happening in the hip-hop world, and something that was happening in the world in general. I have tried for a version of that here.” Let’s think of Questlove’s approach as a Venn Diagram with the three colored circles—blue, orange, and lavender—intersecting in the middle around Questlove. Bearing in mind that all historians play favorites—his book more than succeeds.  

But perhaps the Questlove Venn Diagram should be manufactured. A seemingly impossible 2D/3D object that Questlove could play its water-glass rim with his finger. What would it sound like? An eeriness like analog/digital grit? Or an eeriness like Tony Williams singing “There Comes A Time”, a voice Questlove describes as coming pitchy from the Grady twins in Kubrick’s The Shining. A song, released in the year of his birth but heard again at the beginning of his music career. Played by a college DJ and the Roots’ mentor and manager for more than two decades: Richard Nichols, who died in 2014 from leukemia.  “I love you more when it’s over.”