Mo' Meta Blues
To say Ahmir Thompson is one of the most important figures in American culture today would be an understatement. He’s better known as Questlove, the leader of The Roots --- a neo-soul hip-hop group comprised of live instrumentals with politically and intellectually charged lyrics. He and The Roots are the house band for Jimmy Fallon, he’s a music producer, a black rights activist, and an overall cultural socialite who seems to be buddies with everyone under the sun. MO' META BLUES is Questo’s recently released memoir --- a look back on the ups and downs of his musical career that takes detours through musical criticism, anecdotes from The Roots’ manager and the book’s editor and questions the big issues in life.
Questlove was born into an artistic family in Philadelphia --- his father was Lee Andrews, the leader of Lee Andrews and the Hearts, a doo-wop group with several hits. His first few years of life were spent touring the nostalgia circuit with his parents around the country. When they finally settled back down in West Philly, Ahmir wasn’t quite adjusted to the hardened life in his neighborhood --- he wore thrift shop clothes, sported a huge afro, and “spoke white.” Luckily, he had music to fall back on --- as an indoorsy-type kid, he’d obsess over records, absorbing every detail in each recording and practicing his drums fixatedly. So, while urban blight decayed his surroundings, within his own home, Ahmir had a protective chrysalis of Prince, Stevie Wonder and The Jacksons.
Despite his ups and downs as an aspiring musician, one thing always remained the same --- Questlove’s love of music.
His love of records never faded. Throughout the novel, Questo takes each year of his life and looks at memories wrapped up in a musical release, be it Prince’s album 1999 --- an album that his conservative parents confiscated about eight times --- or Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-tang (36 Chambers). To hear someone so respected in the music community fawn over his heroes is refreshing and oftentimes provides insight into the artist himself. These micro-reviews also serve as a podium for his near-encyclopedic knowledge of rock, hip-hop, jazz, soul, pop, what have you. His enthusiasm for music keeps information that only music nerds would find interesting relevant to all readers.
The story of his career unfolds only after Questlove meets Tariq, better known as Black Thought, the MC of The Roots in high school. Their artistry played off one another’s different upbringings --- the more street-wise Tariq crafted lyrics that the “guys at the barbershop” would appreciate, while the bookish Ahmir kept his music leaning further left politically while experimenting with the boundaries of hip-hop music. They started by playing as street musicians, eventually working their way up to bigger and better venues and signing with Geffen records (the label that had just put out Nirvana’s Nevermind).
Despite receiving a record contract, things were still difficult. Questlove defined the positions of hip-hop groups at the time as the haves and the have-nots --- the big ticket acts like 2Pac, Biggie and Puffy (or whatever he goes by these days), and the smaller acts like Outkast, Nas and The Roots. At the time, Questlove developed a kind of disdain for the mega-wealthy hip-hop artists, even critiquing the Hype William’s music video excess in The Roots’ “One More Chance” video, which started beef between Puffy and Biggie. Through his music-as-art stance, he formed a group of like-minded, brilliant black musicians called The Soulquarians, which included the likes of Erykah Badu, Mos Def, J Dilla, D’Angelo, Common and Q-Tip.
His position as an artistic outsider allows him to ruminate on certain issues within the music industry. In one section, he tries to unravel the ways in which commercial success and artistry are often polar opposites, critiquing hip-hop that does nothing to advance the position of African-Americans. In addition, Questlove tries to untangle black identity in the 21st century, and explores why some critics were afraid they’d lose credibility if they endorsed The Roots’ cerebral music over trite, “blacker” gangster rap. These are only a few examples of the philosophical underpinnings found within MO’ META BLUES amongst many, which add potent depth to the book.
Despite the fascinating material found within the memoir, there are a few bumps that detract from its overall impact. Firstly, the memoir feels lopsided --- the first half of The Roots’ career takes up the largest portion of the book, while their more recent years seem rushed through. Now that The Roots have become a household name, there has to be more that could have been written about. Secondly, the asides with the editors of the book and The Roots’ manager are very distracting. Their quips could have been cut with no harm to the end product whatsoever.
Ultimately, MO' META BLUES is an endearing and very readable music memoir. Despite his ups and downs as an aspiring musician, one thing always remained the same --- Questlove’s love of music. His dedication to craft and history is palpable as the reader traverses through the life and times of one of the greatest hip-hop visionaries of all time.
Reviewed by Anthony Landi on June 24, 2013