Heavy Mental Drummer: Questlove’s Almost Memoir
You are unlikely to find another book that can boast of endorsements from both Cornel West and Fred Armisen. The odd combination—the socialist philosopher and author of Race Matters; the subtle, musically inclined comic actor from Saturday Night Live and Portlandia—is only appropriate for a memoir from a man whose career and life in the arts is as diverse as Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s. His shift from drummer in the progressive rap band the Roots (the “last” rap band, according to Thompson) to bandleader, with the same band, for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon—from Allen Ginsberg to Lawrence Welk (albeit an infinitely hip 350-pound teddy bear of a Lawrence Welk, with an Afro)—is plausible only because Thompson has never been just one thing. He is a pastiche of influences, including soul music, Saturday-morning TV, Christianity, gangster rap, John Kennedy Toole, the Sugarhill Gang, and Risko illustrations, to name a few. It’s these myriad interests that allow him to straddle the borders of many nations in the game of Risk that is the modern entertainment industry and have occasioned the diversity of his life’s work.
Since forming the Roots with Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter in the late 1980s, Thompson has released 10 records with the band; produced records by D’Angelo, Common, Al Green, and others; recorded with John Mayer and Christina Aguilera; toured with the everyone from the Fugees to the Dave Matthews Band; written and arranged for other major artists; worked in films and on Chapelle’s Show; started a full-time day job as Fallon’s bandleader; and deejayed countless gigs (and I mean countless; he deejays almost every night of the week).
It’s the last task that provides the most insight into this strange, compelling book he calls a memoir. There are exhausting arguments over where, in music, the act of creation versus interpretation begins, but with the postmodern act of deejaying, it is the act of criticism that is inextricable. You choose to play certain songs, mess with them, gauge reaction, and move on to your next choice. Thompson’s life is as much about editing as it is about playing, so we understand when, in the book’s first pages—a transcribed interview—he tells us this will not be a normal memoir; he has to think about how to do this—and he has to tell us he’s thinking about it.
Instead, we get a bricolage: stories from Thompson’s life; lists of songs (each one representing a year of his life—with any luck, someone, somewhere, is compiling these into a torrent or Spotify list); a critique of hip-hop; discussions with the Roots’ longtime manager—as well as their intellectual and spiritual guide—Richard Nichols; a questioning of art’s value in changing media landscape; emails between his co-writer, New Yorker editor Ben Greenman, and the book’s publisher; and an insider’s look at the music business. Whoa. It’s a lot. But Thompson has both the smarts and the timing to carry it off, with a great deal of help from the meta-theater referred to in the title.
That title is a riff on Mo’ Better Blues, a 1990 Spike Lee film in which Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes play jazz musicians Bleek Gilliam and Shadow Henderson respectively. A sample of dialogue from the movie will be instantly recognizable to anyone who owns the Roots’ breakout album, Things Fall Apart, for which they won a Grammy: Gilliam, who is experimenting with new, more challenging jazz, is lamenting that fellow African-Americans are not supporting their music. “If we had to depend upon black people to eat, we would starve to death,” he says. Henderson, who favors playing more accessible music, replies, “That’s bullshit ... The people don’t come because you grandiose motherfuckers don’t play shit that they like. If you played the shit that they like, then people would come, simple as that.”
This debate, which comes down to entertainment versus art, is the quintessential rub for Thompson, both in his approach to rap music—this expression of black thought, pardon the pun, that became a force of white commercialism—and in writing this book. He can’t just do what other musical stars have done; he refuses to just give his audience just what they want. He can’t just play the hits. That’s not what a good deejay does.
And this isn’t to say that Questlove—whose band made songs that examined issues of education and attacked commercialism and misogyny while the rest of the rap world celebrated gun violence, Alizé, and “bitches” not being one of the 99 problems in their lives—is some kind of music snob. He’s certainly not. He loves all kinds of music and is encyclopedic on the subject. His memories are divided up not so much in years but into Stevie Wonder releases, Kiss album art, Rolling Stone reviews, and endless references of “the first time I heard.”
In fact, it’s Thompson’s complete involvement in music that will present the greatest challenge for the reader, especially one not well versed in hip-hop. Mo’ Meta Blues is more Thompson’s story about music—punctuated by his impressive endowment in cultural knowledge, pop and other (his reference points range from Monty Python to A Confederacy of Dunces to Malcolm Gladwell)—than it is a story about Thompson. And this is perhaps the point: he loves music more than himself; his life has been about almost nothing else.
Born in West Philadelphia to a father who was a doo-wop singer, as a toddler the future deejay was obsessed with spinning objects: bike wheels and, of course, records on turntables (he says that at 8 months he could tap back rhythms his parents played to him—a claim that, while conceivable, could be followed by a rim shot). His parents were deeply Christian, but music and art were the prevailing godheads. They gave him the Ohio Players’ album Honey—with cover art featuring a naked woman, a spoon, dripping with honey near her mouth—for his 5th birthday. They toured the country as a traveling soul act, with his parents exposing him to everything from Benny Goodman to the Beatles to Bread. Despite the Partridge Family lifestyle, his home life was settled. His parents placed him in private school and then the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, a West Philly Fame academy where the shy, Christian Thompson formed the Roots with Trotter, a salty, supremely talented rapper from the other side of the tracks. In high school Trotter and Thompson lost a talent competition to the boys who later became Boyz II Men.
These constructions of Thompson’s early life are not without their charm, but they are the book at its weakest and feel as though they are something he knows he has to do. He just wants to talk about music, and someone is making him talk about himself. In a November 2012 issue of The New Yorker, Burkhard Bilger wrote a memorable profile of Thompson, set against the tension of a potential comeback of the troubled artist D’Angelo, whose music Thompson produces. If you want to know about Thompson, read that story. If you want to know what Thompson thinks about music, read Mo’ Meta Blues.
In Bilger’s profile, Questlove emerges as conflicted artist looking for affection—and we gain some insight into what makes the other members of the Roots tick as well. Mo’ Meta Blues offers little such characterization. With the exception of Trotter and Nichols, the other members of the Roots might as well not exist. Q-Tip, an artist whose group, A Tribe Called Quest, was a leader of the progressive hip-hop movement, is in almost every chapter, but we never learn a thing about him or their friendship. We get a sense of Thompson’s father as a Joe Jackson figure—whippings are mentioned—but Thompson doesn’t explore much further than that comparison. His mother gets little ink. This may be on purpose, and that may be what “other” memoirists do, but its result is frustrating nonetheless. He informs us that, when listening to records, it is the beat he hears first, that it has primacy over the melody or lyrics. And this is fine. But it’s not an excuse for denying us something more textured and full than a rhythmic backbone, no matter how sophisticated those beats might be.
He’s similarly stingy with his dish. There are some great moments, like a late-night scene in a Denver hotel suite with Tracy Morgan that may itself be worth the book’s purchase price, as well as a confrontation with Sean “Diddy” Combs shortly after the death of Biggie Smalls (Biggie—Diddy’s BFF— had declared beef with the Roots).
The Diddy incident is an example of the book’s best moments: when Thompson’s criticism and personal story unite, where his ethos and values run up against the challenges of the real world and the music business. Thompson, who also spells his moniker ?uestlove, is very fond of asking questions in his narrative. And there may be no better person to ask whether musicians are always playing some sort of character or what it means to make albums in a business that lives for hit singles. He’s both a thread in our popular culture’s fabric and a lathe in the loom, and the angle from which he delivers his expertise makes for a convincing telling.
Yet there are some glaring gaps. Thompson may be too shy to go into his feelings about Q-Tip or his mother, but he’s doesn’t seem to hold back on his musical taste. He clearly and quite eloquently elucidates his problems with commercial hip-hop, but—with the exception of a single swipe at 2 Chainz, a minor player—he gives Dirty South rap (a style heavy on materialism and misogyny that has dominated hip-hop for much of the last decade, with stars like Lil Wayne, Ludacris, Rick Ross, and Gucci Mane) a total pass. Several times he mentions a hip-hop manifesto, authored by himself and Nichols, but we never get to see it or even an excerpt. In the late ’90s he convinced the label to give the Roots equipment and a chef so that they could conduct jam sessions and barbecues at Thompson’s South Philly home. Here, an amazing cast of characters, future stars of hip-hop and R&B, show up to party and play: India Arie, Eve (who was stripping at the time), Jill Scott, Bilal, and Beanie Sigel. But we hear only the names and no stories.
If these lapses are frustrating, they are also forgivable. Questlove is so likable throughout, so thoughtful and knowledgeable, that we end up thanking him. Musically, intellectually, aesthetically, Questlove emerges as one of the good guys. Even from Jimmy Fallon’s bandstand (a position closer to the mainstream may not exist) he represents the musically complex, progressive, informed quotient of not only hip-hop music, but of entertainment.
The move to that position—which would have been apostasy in hip-hop’s headier days—is explained gently and rationally. Fittingly, Thompson is interested by what he can do with music—the controlled environment of Late Night appeals to him in that sense—but he’s also interested in the larger effect he can have working a day job, working in front of millions, working the room in a whole new way. Without sanctimony, or too much nostalgia, he moves on and in painstaking detail, and no small amount of affection, shows us how hip-hop has moved on too.
As Thompsons sings us his song—or, in this case, pounds out his break beats—he creates a chronicle of a career that will be intriguing to both fans of hip-hop music and those interested in the larger culture currents in which it swims. Moreover, it cements Questlove as not only one of hip-hop’s philosophers, but as one of the pop culture’s most deserved tastemakers.
As Fallon moves into Jay Leno’s chair and Thompson moves with him—he is also teaching at NYU, deejaying constantly, producing more records, opening a restaurant, and appearing in commercials left, right, and center—Mo’ Beta Blues serves as a map to not only where Thompson and hip-hop have been, but where we might be going. It can help to look at this book next to a viral hit from Late Night. Uploaded in June 2012, when Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” was all the rage, it features the Roots, Fallon, and Jepsen in a dressing room, where they play a version of the song using children’s percussion instruments (Thompson was on the kazoo). One can’t help look at the massive, head-bopping artist, engulfed in candy pop and silliness, as he occupies that very singular space at the congruence of hip-hop, popular music, comedy, new media and old—of beats, laughs, hooks, and clicks—and ask a question of our own: what’s next?