Mo’ Meta Blues
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Ben Greenman
One of the most admirable acts of the last 20 years has to be the Roots, a hip hop band that is really the last of its kind remaining, that sticks true to its convictions even though they now have a cushy gig on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Arguably the brains behind the operation, drummer and producer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, not only has piloted the group to gradual greater and greater successes, but has taken on a variety of other notable projects over the years, from producing D’Angelo’s modern touchstones like Voodoo and Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Pt. 1 and 2 to musical director on the Chappelle Show. Questlove’s new memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues, is a refreshingly creative memoir that not only gives great insight into who Questlove is but also tells numerous insider stories that are fascinating and humorous.
The book begins by talking about what kind of memoir it’s going to be (part of how it gets the “Meta” in its name), alternating chapters between Questlove talking about his life (with footnotes from long-time manager Richard Nichols) and chapters of co-writer Ben Greenman’s memos to the publisher about how the book is coming along. The meta aspect combined with a book-long analogy to Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues is how Questlove’s memoir gets its unusual title, but don’t be fooled too much, the book is still essentially about Questlove’s life and the Roots. Questlove does try to avoid the music memoir clichés, from that magical moment the artist discovers they want to be a musician, to all the sex and drugs that litter most rock biographies. Instead, Questlove, who himself was raised on nothing but food and records, focuses on the music, talking about the albums/songs that mattered most to him, and focusing on the music they created and the thought behind it.
Questlove is a walking jukebox, who beyond being one of the finer drummers around today, is also one of the most renowned DJs for his endless musical vocabulary. So hearing him talk in very nerdy terms is illuminating and entertaining, from getting giddy about Stevie Wonder’s lesser known catalog to meeting Prince for the first time, running out in fear, to come back and nerd out to him over a rare Prince cut. He also talks extensively about what makes a great DJ, and discusses how growing up traveling with his father, who is the famous Philadelphia doo-wop singer Lee Andrews, also taught him a ton about music.
Another bit I found interesting was an admission Questlove made about the Roots and why they have never had the huge hit and broke out like so many of their peers. Questlove growing up always focused on the more hidden aspects of records, and because of this him and Blackthought never had the same knack for great melodies that so many of their peers like the Fugees and Alicia Keys do have. I found this fascinating because I have always loved the feel, production, and small aspects of the Roots albums, but outside “The Seed 2.0” which is a remake of a Cody ChestNutt song, the Roots lack immediately catchy melodies like so many other neo-soul acts.
One thing I didn’t care for about Questlove and his book is how much he focused about caring about and memorizing album reviews. While it is something else to geek out over, you don’t like hearing an artist cares and even believes the reviews, you want said artist to create what they want to create regardless of what people think (like Neil Young). While I realize this is just an element of Questlove’s geekdom and as a music critic myself I should consider it cool that artists do care, I sort of wish they didn’t.
The best part of Questlove’s book is recounting any number of fascinating stories he has lived out. From meeting Tariq “BlackThought” Trotter outside the principal’s office in high school, to attending an exclusive Prince roller skating party with Eddie Murphy, Questlove has come away from his 20-plus year music career with some of the most interesting stories. So I absolutely recommend reading Mo’ Meta Blues, for the amazing stories and insight into the best live hip hop act around. It’s easy to read and entertaining throughout.