Roving thoughts and provocations

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Questlove’s Outward Blues

Phil Knott/Corbis Outline
Drummer Ahmir Thompson, known as Questlove, June 1, 2008

Early in Mo’ Meta Blues, Ahmir Thompson tells how, as a child, he ran into Kiss in a hotel elevator. The eight-year-old obsessively collected the band’s albums and could recognize the members without their costumes; his father, a doo-wop singer, was performing at the same venue. “I was excited and terrified and generally overloaded,” recalls Thompson, who is now also known as Questlove, and is the hulking, six-foot-two drummer of the hip hop band the Roots. “I let out the most high-pitched, blood-curdling scream you can imagine. I dropped the soda and ran so fast that I went past the elevator three times.”

As an eccentric childhood story, this is amusing, but then you also have to consider Questlove’s world, hip hop, and its pronounced bravado streak. His book is a hip hop memoir, a now distinct genre within America’s wider memoir boom; Ice-T, Jay-Z, and Prodigy have titles out, and more are coming. But Mo’ Meta Blues is, from what I can tell, the first not by a rapper, and that is just one way that it stands out. The story is frequently interrupted by dialogue and sections framed by favorite records (playlists are appended), and every chapter proper starts with a question—“What do you do when just listening to the music you love isn’t enough?”; “When was hip hop’s funeral?” According to Questlove, hip hop was buried at The Source magazine’s awards night in May of 1995, when, among other things, Nas’s Illmatic—a rare work of straightforward hip hop perfection, devoid of shiny R&B hooks—lost in every category.

Reflective and self-deprecating, Questlove says he’s tasted little of the glamor, calling the poor groupies who followed his band “those five guys who wanted to smoke a blunt and talk about recording equipment.” Instead of tales of gritty street life, we get to hear about nose-diving in conversation with Prince: “I was making noise, but it wasn’t exactly speech. It was a kind of gurgling noise, alternating with high-pitched squeals…Out in the street, I was kicking myself in full view of my girlfriend.” (Happily, Questlove is later invited to his idol’s birthday party; roller-skates are involved.)

In some ways, Questlove’s unique perspective is grounded in the period when the Roots came into their own. In the mid-to-late Nineties, rap was charged with a moral debate about the responsibilities, if any, the music might have beyond entertainment. “Somehow the rap game reminds me of the crack game,” Nas rhymed in 1994. As hip hop and drug dealing became increasingly intertwined, a verbal rift opened up between so-called players (synonymous, often, for drug slingers) and alleged player-haters (basically anyone who would question them). The barbs were aimed at tendencies rather than at specific performers, but it was a serious argument about real-life violence and hip hop’s complex relation to it, and a listener could usually tell who stood where. At one pole, you had people like Jay-Z, whose self-defensive gangster ethos could be read in song titles such as “Can’t Knock the Hustle” and “Can I Live?” At the other, there was the indignation of those like Black Star, De La Soul, and Outkast, whose “Return of the ‘G,’” from the duo’s classic 1998 album Aquemini, begins:

It’s the return of the gangsta thanks ta’
them niggas that’s on that blow
that run up in yo’ crib which contains
your lady and an 8 month old
child to raise plus you true blue ‘bout this music but
they do not want to hear it
because they’d rather be bouncin’ and shootin’ and killin’ and bouncin’
and shit get down

The Roots couldn’t help but be part of this equation. The band’s name looks back to earlier hip hop and funk and soul. Black Thought, the band’s most prominent rapper, was from a tough background, but his moniker was hardly that of a thug; and the name “Questlove” alludes to A Tribe Called Quest, the much-loved Afrocentric and bohemian hip hop act born in the late 1980s. With the Roots’ first studio album, featuring jazz-singer Cassandra Wilson, a spoken word piece, bagpipes, and a skat song, the band marked itself as part of a similarly broad-minded tradition. Gradually, the band’s distance from rap’s commercial center grew explicit. With its humorous parody of then-reigning gangster rap cliches—bikini babes, mansions, menacing goons—the music video to the Roots’ song “What They Do” inadvertently stung the hardcore rapper Notorious B.I.G., the unlikeliest of Roots supporters, and helped earn Questlove the ire of mogul P. Diddy.

But Questlove also describes himself as a “hip hop evolutionist” and aesthetically the eleven Roots albums are quite various: Do You Want More?!!!??! (1995) is laidback and jazzy, while Illadelph Halflife (1996) sounds more distinctly street. Things Fall Apart (1999), a common favorite, brings the group’s avant-garde and boom bap sides into satisfying balance; Phrenology (2002) and later albums have moments of rock and pop influence, and How I Got Over (2010) is a pensive meeting with the blues. As a listener, too, Questlove appreciates the importance of change: “there have been many times when I have stood there open-mouthed before a turntable or a CD player, asking myself if I can be trusted to believe what I have just heard. Usually, if I have to ask, those albums end up being masterpieces, but at the time I never know how to feel.”

With musician parents, Questlove grew up in Philadelphia surrounded by a collection of, he estimates, five thousand vinyl LPs. Drums began at age two, and he can tell you what song was spinning (Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead”) as he burned himself on the radiator. As a teen, he scraped together the money to buy Prince’s 1999 eight times, because his parents kept confiscating it for its raunchiness. He was an immediate casualty of the Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 hit song “Rapper’s Delight,” recalling that for black kids “it was our equivalent of the old radio drama War of the Worlds.” But he also posits a less conventional turning point for hip hop: an episode of The Cosby Show when Stevie Wonder’s driver crashes and the audience gets to see a sampler, that piece of recording hardware that would become integral to the music’s production.

Thus formed in childhood, Questlove was a natural sponge for the extraordinary variety of music that was emerging in the Nineties. There’s a 1993 car trip during which Questlove hears for the first time Midnight Marauders by A Tribe Called Quest together with The Wu-Tang Clan’s raw, blindsiding debut; he calls it “the greatest day ever.” At another point, while Questlove is abroad on tour, a friend plays him a snippet of the first album of the underground Detroit group Slum Village through the phone; hearing it, Questlove asks that more be fed into his hotel answering machine, which he then proceeded to listen to for three hours.

Perhaps it’s to be expected that such passion would produce a natural critic. A performance by Jay-Dee, the producer behind that Slum Village album, sounded “almost like…a drunk, brilliant fourteen-year-old had been allowed to program the kick pattern.” (Meant as high praise, in case you were wondering.) Outkast’s “Synthesizer,” a Funkadelic-inspired riff on cultural crisis and technology—“instant, quick grits, new, improved”—is “a jester at the gallows.” A Public Enemy song, quite simply, “makes you straighten your goddam spine”; really, what more needs to be said? Sometimes he changes his mind: Initially seeing Jay-Z as akin to an antichrist for his materialism and gangster persona, Questlove comes around with Jay-Z’s 2001 The Blueprint, which he listened to “with a trancelike intensity”: “I remember telling [Vibe editor-in-chief dream hampton] that I really liked The Blueprint, and that it felt revolutionary for me to come down off my soapbox and admit it.” Mostly, though, the response is about implications, the broader patterns new records and personalities set in motion. About albums like Dr. Dre’s highly successful and polished The Chronic from 1992, Questlove comments that “good and bad stopped mattering; only effective and ineffective mattered.”

Questlove’s perceptiveness about his surroundings seems partly shaped by the Roots’ years of struggling to gain a foothold. He is frank about years of label strife and fear of “slipping…in the hip hop hierarchy.” A discovery is made: “If you’re going to be left-of-center, then you’re going to have to win.” Interestingly, it’s not just herd-minded record labels and radio that contribute to this law, but also the critics. He says that critics (and middle-class black ones, especially) can be careful about endorsing acts perceived as not lending listeners street credibility, or as otherwise not being black enough. With the rise of Internet journalism, Questlove believed he could detect a new conformity in criticism, as outlets looked to the influential site Pitchfork before responding. (Since Questlove writes his own reviews while working on an album, it’s possible he’s onto something.)

Of course, hip hop now is in a very different place from where it was when the Roots were coming up. With the inescapable celebrity of Kanye West and Jay-Z, the genre has been fully integrated into the mainstream. If there’s little of the impassioned discord of the 1990s, it may be because the industry has moved on; but perhaps it’s also because, in a way, the players have won, and everyone agrees that it’s only music we’re talking about after all. Though too self-aware to be a curmudgeon about it, Questlove is adamant that “something has been lost,” the personal and directly relatable elements that used to make hip hop a kind of “outward blues.” Yet, as he might be the first to appreciate, questions linger. The spirit he describes still lives on in places, whether in a new generation, with emcees like Blu and Kendrick Lamar, or in those members of an older one who bring the music honestly and strangely into middle age. Neither tendency is the central story, but maybe there no longer is one.


Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Ben Greenman is published by Grand Central.

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