The Commercial Appeal
A riff on rap, race and inspiration
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is a drummer, a producer and an allaround creative dynamo who’s helped make some of the finest hip-hop and soul albums of the past two decades. He gained a new constituency in 2009 when he and fellow members of the Roots debuted as the house band for “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.”
Four years later, Questlove keeps padding his fan base – this time with the publication of “Mo’ Meta Blues” (Grand Central, $26) an ardent riff on rap and race, fandom and inspiration and a life lived onstage.
Questlove’s story, co-written with Ben Greenman, begins in a small house in Philadelphia and ends in a Manhattan television studio. There are many side trips. One follows him into a recording studio, where he’s one of several producers engaged in a test of wills with an angry Al Green. Another finds him in a closed roller rink at 2 a.m., watching as Prince shows off custom-made “skates that lit up, and the wheels sent a multicolored spark trail into your path.”
Questlove, 42, grew up in a music-centric household – his parents fronted a touring doo-wop band – and his boyhood recollections make for a vivid set of opening chapters.
At 5, he tap-danced on TV, an appearance that made him a target of “complaints from other kids’ parents because their daughters were hidden behind my afro.” He was 8, and “excited and terrified and generally overloaded,” after bumping into monster-makeupwearing members of Kiss in a Buffalo hotel. And in his teens, he interned at a record label, learning how to massage sales figures by promising concert tickets to music store owners.
Questlove and high school classmate Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter began assembling the group that became the Roots in the late 1980s. In the ’90s they won a Grammy and released back-to-back albums that sold about a million copies apiece.
But the band, a hydra-headed collective given to name-checking Chinua Achebe and Malcolm Gladwell, never meshed with the era’s dominant hip-hop trends. At a certain point, Questlove recalls, some detractors started suggesting that the Roots “weren’t black enough.”
‘’I have a giant afro. I weigh over three hundred pounds. No one, upon first seeing me, thinks I’m not black enough,” he writes. “And yet, in interviews, I’m still going through that whole speaks-so-well syndrome.”
A longtime fan, Fallon handpicked the Roots when he was taking over Conan O’Brien’s old job. Since joining “Late Night,” Questlove and his bandmates have assumed a central role.
Questlove’s truly original way of seeing, and hearing, the world, and his ability to convey this on the page are the qualities that make “Mo’ Meta Blues” such a vibrant memoir.
For instance, when he’s writing about slavery’s influence on traditional African-American music, his prose takes on a bluesy lyrical cadence: “And then there was money in the songs, or the want of it, and love in the songs, or the want of it, and pain in the songs, or the want of it.” And when he’s discussing rap, he offers a wonderfully counterintuitive take on its history: “hip-hop was changed forever by the episode of ‘The Cosby Show’ in which Stevie Wonder’s driver crashes into Denise and Theo.” Wonder used his electronic keyboard to demonstrate a basic sampling technique, “and in response to it, in awe of it,” Questlove says, “an entire generation of talented, ambitious black kids leaned forward in their chairs to the point of falling out.”
At moments like these – and there are more than a few of them – “Mo’ Meta Blues” feels less like a pop-star autobiography than a wise and observant book by a truly original artist.