People Who Are Addicted To Music
Whenever I read a book by a musician, groupie, rock critic, producer, record mogul or roadie, on the end pages I keep a running tally of the songs I’m aching to download when the reading is done. Most times, the longer the list, the better the book.
“Mo’ Meta Blues” is the title of a new memoir from Ahmir Thompson, better known as Questlove, the thoughtful and charismatic drummer for the hip-hop/neo-soul band the Roots. He’s also the musical director of “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” and an irrepressible presence on Twitter, where he has more than 2.5 million followers.
If you’ve seen Mr. Thompson, you probably haven’t forgotten him. He describes himself in his memoir as “a peculiar-looking 6-foot-2 walking Afro,” which isn’t far-off. There’s something intense yet beatific about him. He’d probably groan at the comparison, but visually he’s hip-hop’s Jerry Garcia. He presides.
“Mo’ Meta Blues” — the title is a nod toward Spike Lee’s drama “Mo’ Better Blues” (1990), which starred Denzel Washington as a jazz trumpeter — is a busy thicket of musical geekery. It’s a proper memoir in the sense that it eventually gets his story told, all 42 years of it thus far.
But it’s more about the music that’s pricked up his ears, the stuff that’s made him the tastemaker that he is. The end pages on my copy are crammed with song titles; they resemble the back of a popular girl’s senior yearbook.
I suspect I’m going to be listening to more Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Prince, the Isley Brothers, Rufus, Public Enemy and D’Angelo than I have for a long time.
Mr. Thompson grew up in Philadelphia. His father was a pioneering doo-wop singer who later toured on the oldies circuit. His mother was a singer and dancer who ran a clothing store. The whole family sometimes went on tour, like a groovier version of the Partridge Family. From a young age, he sat behind the drums.
At home he was an indoor kid, obsessed with vinyl. Other kids played dress-up or house. “I played record store,” he says. He collected back issues of Rolling Stone and made wallpaper out of the Robert Risko drawings that accompanied the lead reviews.
To this day, when he is making a new Roots record, he admits, “I write the review I think the album will receive and lay out the page, just like it’s a Rolling Stone page from when I was 10 or 11.”
This is among the reasons Mr. Thompson and his book are so likable. He thinks and sounds the way you think you’d like to think and sound if you were a rock star: funny, self-deprecating, a bit awe-struck.
This memoir has the word “meta” in its title largely because of the contributions of his co-author, the playful New Yorker editor and writer Ben Greenman. Mr. Greenman includes e-mails written to himself in the text, for example, commenting on the book’s progress so far.
This stuff verges on the twee, but mostly works. “Mo’ Meta Blues” has an open-mike, improv-night spirit. Even its photos are terrific, largely because the author looked exactly the same at 3 as he does now. He’s his own Mini-Me.
Mr. Thompson gets some memorable things said. He declares that the “single most influential moment in the history of hip-hop” was an episode of “The Cosby Show” in which Stevie Wonder, as a guest star, demonstrated how to make a sample.
Mr. Thompson attended the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, where he met Tariq Trotter, now better known as Black Thought, with whom he would later found the Roots.
He declares about his early financial goals when performing with Mr. Trotter: “We wanted to have enough cash to go down to Wawa and get a quarter-pound of honey-roasted turkey, a quarter-pound of pepper-jack cheese, iced tea or lemonade, and a roll. If you got that for yourself and for a girl, that was date money.”
There are few tales of rock star excess in “Mo’ Meta Blues.” The author, very much still in the music game, is holding back. We can wait for a sequel, perhaps under the title “Mo’ Meddling Blues.”
I don’t believe him when he says that his groupies have mostly consisted of “20-something guys who wanted to know if I really used a Royer ribbon mike on that song.” I’ve seen the bikini girls grinding in his band’s video for its early hit “What They Do (No Subtitles).” Almost the only out-of-control party scene in this book involves the actor Tracy Morgan.
Mr. Thompson discusses the controversy at “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” after he chose an instrumental with a crude title to perform while Michele Bachmann walked onto the set. The stunt nearly got him fired.
In retrospect, he says, he wishes he’d played an instrumental version of Sam Cooke’s song “What a Wonderful World” as Bachmann entered. That song has the line, “Don’t know much about history.”
Mr. Thompson frets about hip-hop’s future, now that only “conspicuous consumption and conspicuous charisma” seem to matter. He declares, “Virtuosity disappeared, and this other skill — a ringmaster skill, something closer to what you’d find in a corporate manager — emerged.”
He suggests that some middle-class black critics go out of their way to dismiss the Roots because of their braininess and ease, “what they perceive as a lack of street credibility — not our street credibility, mind you, but the street credibility that they get (or do not get) from endorsing us.”
He adds: “I have a giant Afro. I weigh over 300 pounds. No one, upon first seeing me, thinks I’m not black enough. And yet, in interviews, I’m still going through that whole speaks-so-well syndrome.”
He can thank his parents for his lovely education. “They wanted to raise a future ‘Jeopardy!’ contestant instead of a future ‘Jeopardy!’ clue,” he writes. They raised that rarity, a kid who could pretty obviously be either one.