Mo’ Meta Blues
By: Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson & Ben Greenman
It’s been quite a while since I’ve sat down and really pontificated on a good book I’ve read; these articles don’t just serve as a springboard from which I launch my thoughts with whoever reads them. In a way, it helps me as well, essentially boiling down to the essence what it is I really like about a particular book, TV series, or animation show; which brings us to today.
To understand my excitement for this book, I first must establish a bit of context first.
I have a bit of an obsession when it comes to Hip Hop.
The biggest thing to understand is that when I say “Hip Hop” I mean more than just the notion of people “rapping” on a selection of music (whether through live instrumentation or a produced beat). I’m speaking on the entire culture itself that was first birthed out of the South Bronx in the seventies. The notion of artistic expression through rap, dj-ing, break dancing, and crafting street art all combine to form Hip Hop. The constant innovation and its humble beginnings into a dominant force in popular culture today speak volume of its influence, regardless of your preference of it.
I spend a great amount of my day, not only listening to music from a growing variety of artists but then finding myself taking what was said and breaking it down, trying to derive a greater meaning. A metaphorical “peeling the different layers of the onion” per se; and it’s not like I don’t enjoy rock, jazz, blues, or even barbershop quartets (really love barbershop quartet music). There’s just something about Hip Hop in itself that could spawn countless articles
So why bring that up?
Mo Meta Blues is insight into the mind of one of my favorite luminaries within not just the realm of Hip Hop but in all of music itself. Ahmir Thompson, known as Questlove, is one half the founder of The Roots, a rap band famous for live instrumentation instead of computer production and a expansive subject matter covered in well thought out songs by an extremely talented MC (the term given to a lyricist in rap).
It’s pretty easy to see I’m a fan of their work right? So purchasing this was a no brainer for me. Even though I usually abhor the memoir genre; but that is mostly because I’m bored with that genre of novels. Within that large swathe of titles from people trying to cash in on a quick fifteen minutes of fame, there is rarely any metaphorical cream in the bin of crop that makes me want to pick up a book and read. To put it quite simply, the stories presented are uninspired or are just not vivid enough to warrant an entire novelization.
The title itself is based on Spike Lee’s movie Mo’ Betta Blues. More specifically it derives from a scene between Denzel Washington’s character Bleek Gilliam and Shadow Henderson (played by Wesley Snipes) as they go back and forth on the notion of black people not supporting “their” music versus the fact of not making music that people want to hear and support in the first place; a topic very much related to The Roots and their perceived lack of mainstream appeal versus other acts.
So there had to be something different about Mo Meta Blues right? At the end of the day, it was still a memoir and there had to be a predictable formula right?
This tale encompasses a rather interesting narrative. Although told pretty much chronologically, from Quest’s origins, to the early days of The Roots and their establishment as a musical brand, there are several sidetracks that take place, although never out of order. Questlove’s life shares a symbiotic relationship with music at its most primal level. Even at his youngest, there was some semblance of rhythm, with him and his sister traveling with his father (a famous Doo Wop singer) and his mother (a singer and dancer) while they toured. As early as three, he was placed in front of a drum set and something just “clicked” for him.
But even Quest’s presentation of his varied forty-two years is off the beaten path. He describes himself as a “peculiar 6-foot-two walking Afro; and that is also a word that I can use to describe this book: Peculiar.
In Philadelphia, while other kids were busy playing outside and on the block, Quest was inside, listening to vinyl records and recreating sequences on his drums. As early as ten, he was pouring over publications like The Rolling Stone, seeing the process behind their album reviews and hanging them on his wall. His fascination ran deep.
The origin of The Roots started in high school with Questlove meeting Black Thought by chance in the principal’s office right before he was suspended. Each one was fascinated in the other. With Questlove, he saw this brass young boy, possibly hoodlum, who was so opposite of him and Black Thought saw a very conscious and eclectic guy, carrying around a small Casio keyboard (utilized early on for its ability to sample). This coincidental encounter molded into them seeing each other for their abilities and performing on street corners in Philadelphia and at local talent shows. These humble beginnings evolved into gaining a full band and eventually traveling overseas and touring. Building a sizable buzz and following of fans they were able to turn this into a full blown record deal and the rest was history.
Of course there is much more to the “story” of Questlove than this, but it provides a suitable start to a long and storied career that still continues today; and there are many stories, some more outrageous than others. How do you even explain going roller-skating with Prince at two in the morning at an empty rink? You’ll just have to the read the book to find out.
Outside of all these fascinating anecdotes lies another factor to the book that makes it stand apart from the memoir genre: the fact that he’s not the only one telling the story.
While only Questlove can provide the details to the most intimate parts of his life, such as his heated fistfight with Black Thought or even more recently, his reaction to continued racial profiling by the cops (even with his enhanced notoriety on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon), it can sometimes help having an outspoken voice to balance out the measured tempo and terseness.
That voice is Richard Nichols, the band’s co manager since the very beginning. What’s fascinating to see is how their stories of the same event can sometimes correlate or differ, with wildly varying opinions. It’s an interesting dynamic, with Questlove’s story taking up the majority of the pages and Rich’s notes on certain events being included on the bottom of the page like footnotes.
It’s unapologetic, heartening, and even uncomfortable at times but one thing Mo Meta Blues isn’t is dull. Free of the stereotypical glitz and glamor of simply providing a swansong of groupies and drugs, Questlove provides a one of a kind view into the mind of a man who didn’t just grow up around music or get involved with it. He truly lives it every day of his life.