There's a moment in Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove when Ben Greenman (the book's co-writer and the co-manager of Questlove’s the Roots) makes the observation that the Roots is one of the few bands – perhaps the only band – left in hiphop.
Actually, strike that. It was Questlove who said that, on page 4, in a question & answer session with his other co-manager Richard Nichols. These moments of organized confusion are common in Mo Meta’ Blues, which is structured more like a jazz jam session than a traditional memoir. Voices chime in like instruments, creating riffs and variations on Questlove’s memories. At 40 years old, the musician is looking back on his life and taking stock. But because of who he is and the period of the timeline he’s lived through, the book is also about taking stock of the state of hiphop. When Questlove’s co-manager Richard Nichols puts him on the spot, demanding “Tell us why your story matters”, Questlove explains:
Because we're the last hip-hop band, absolutely the last of a dying breed. Twenty-five years ago, rap acts were mostly groups. You had Run DMC and the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy, and you even had bands of bands, like Native Tongues collective, which was three loosely affiliated groups: De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and the Jungle Brothers. I grew up looking at that model, at the sense of community and of a larger purpose. Even the negative things that came out of that arrangement, like competition and tension and sibling rivalry, were productive – that's what you get when you group. But today it's all solo acts. Maybe it's simple economics. Everyone thinks, “I'm Michael Jordan and I can do this on my own and pick up the check.” And maybe you can't blame people for that. The system isn't set up to think about it, not at all. New acts worship the star system because they see the highlight films, and that's all they can see, because that's how the experience is packaged. Solo acts are also easier for labels to deal with: they're easier to control, and you don't need to do any dividing and conquering. Even if I think of this as my book, it's never only my story. It's the story of other musicians, of other hip-hop groups, of other minds. The Roots is literally the last band on the caboose of that train …
Longevity. I am roughly the same age as Questlove, and I remember when rap and hiphop were new. They were so new that some radio stations in New York City -- yes, in New York City -- said flat out they’d never play a rap song. Back then, “YO! MTV Raps” was the closest thing MTV had to a reality show. Whatever hiphop was, parents hated it. It was so different that no one really knew what to make of it.
Today, hiphop has gone beyond mainstream. It’s become an entire genre, like rock-n-roll, jazz or country. It’s taught pop a few things about production values. But that’s not how it was when it started.
The Roots formed in the mid-80's, after Ahmir met Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. As Questlove tells it: Tariq was in trouble. Ahmir was trying to get a girl. (This dynamic, by the way, repeats itself throughout the book). LL Cool J, Run DMC, Fat Boys, World Class Wreckin' Cru (featuring young Dr. Dre) and Mantronix all released albums in 1985. The Beastie Boys released Licensed to Ill in 1986. Public Enemy’s first album dropped a year later. The Roots witnessed hiphop’s birth, its transition into mainstream and everything that came after. They got to be a part of it.
So, if anyone has the authority to discuss the history of rap and hiphop, it is Questlove. But he never makes the mistake of pretending to be a solo act. Questlove may have the drum skills, but Black Thought always led the group’s lyrical visions. The level of respect Questlove holds for Tariq is apparent when he describes a freestyle video the Roots released online. Tariq improvises rhymes as Questlove points to objects in an alley.
It's gotten some currency online as proof of his talent, and it was certainly a moment where he was in the zone. But for me, I don't need that as proof: I go right back to CAPA in 1988, watching Tariq dismantle kids at the lunch table, to the point where other guys wanted to fight him. I saw the power of words wielded in that way. He was amazing.
And, while this might be Questlove’s book, the dedication page reads: “... well Tariq?”
This author’s lack of ego is one big reason the book has hit the bestseller lists. Mo' Meta Blues is a smart, well-written, thoughtful examination of a man’s -- an artist’s -- life within the context of a cultural movement. Other musician memoirs are too often just self-indulgent extensions of the author’s therapy. I was personally very far from this book’s target audience when I started reading it, and yet I couldn't put it down. It’s funny, entertaining, insightful. You don’t need to be a music nerd to enjoy this book, and it might help turn you into one.
Since finishing Mo’ Meta, I've been downloading the Roots albums, watching videos of the group online, DVR-ing “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” (which features the Roots as the house band).
While this book includes a fairly straightforward narrative about Questlove’s life and musical influences, it also features a series of question & answer sessions with Roots manager Richard Nichols. At times, Rich footnotes and “corrects” Questlove's memories. There are also several of Ben Greenman's emails to the book's editor, Ben Greenberg -- which caused the confusion I mentioned at the beginning of this review and which had nothing to do with their names. Add in, also, Questlove’s playlists, which are divided into years and all from the period of his life before he went “professional” (though the term “professional” is relative, as music was always a part of his life. His father was a successful musician, and not only Questlove but also his mother and sister became part of his father’s group).
Questlove's career has always been about collaboration. And while frustrations are a part of all creative relationships (though, for a music industry memoir there is a surprising lack of animosity and backstabbing here) his relationships remain strong to this day. And not only with the core group, the Roots. Questlove talks about being part of a conscious community that extended outwards to include Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Q-Tip, The Fugees, Eve and even Jimmy Fallon. He talks about roller skating with Prince (in one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read), collaborating with Jay-Z, and tense moments when the Roots worked with P. Diddy. He’s very humble about the place he and the Roots have carved out for themselves in the industry. It feels as if he's spent his life looking for and building something bigger than a band.
Somewhere along the way the Roots made the decision not to identify themselves with a specific lifestyle or persona. This means they’ve never had to worry about outgrowing an image, which helps to explain their longevity, and their long-lived credibility. (In a footnote Rich makes the case that it was the Roots' artistic authenticity that attracted Jay-Z when he chose them to back him on MTV Unplugged).
Mo’ Meta Blues ultimately does more than explain why the Roots are considered legendary, and why they're still important after more than 25 years. It's a generation defining book. For those of us of a certain age, it helps us to understand and better appreciate the music that was playing in the background as our lives were happening. Even if we weren’t necessarily listening to it at the time.
Tara Olmsted has previously reviewed a memoir about Che Guevara on Literary Kicks.