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Book Club: Mo’ Meta Blues by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

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Each month, our Aux. Out. Book Club reads and discusses either a canonical piece of music writing or something fresh off the presses. We kicked it old-school this month with the recently released memoir Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Ben Greenman. Whether you know him as the drummer for hip-hop icons The Roots, your music appreciation professor, or just that big dude with the giant afro in Jimmy Fallon’s house band, Questlove’s world is guaranteed to collide with yours in one way or another. Read on to see our club’s reaction to Mo’ Meta Blues.

Book Club Members:
— Matt Melis, Senior Editor at Consequence of Sound
— Paula Mejia, General Manager at WRGW Radio, Staff Writer at Consequence of Sound
— Rachel Bailey, Associate Editor at Georgia Music Magazine, freelance writer for Paste, Aux.Out.
— Steven Arroyo, Staff Writer at Consequence of Sound
— Henry Hauser, Staff Writer at Consequence of Sound

Breaking the Music Memoir Mold

Mo Meta Blues use

Matt Melis (MM): At the beginning of Mo’ Meta Blues, Questlove talks about how music memoirs are very formulaic, paint-by-numbers affairs: I was born at this time and in this place, my dad and mom did this, and I magically fell in love with music in some serendipitous moment. He’s consciously trying to avoid telling that story here. So, does he succeed in breaking the tired mold of the music memoir?

Henry Hauser (HH): What I thought was hilarious was that he said that he skips to chapter three in a music memoir to avoid the “I was born in” or “My dad did this,” and in chapter three of his book, he starts verbatim with that exact kind of line. In that way, he’s not really breaking the mold of a music memoir. He’s identifying the clichés and challenging them.

What really caught my attention, though, was the central theme that Ahmir channeled throughout the whole book. He ties into his early life, his time with the family band, his time with The Roots, and all the side projects (even the gig with Fallon)these themes of artistry versus commercial success—trying to capture a certain audience versus trying to capture a broad audience. How he consistently strung that theme throughout the whole memoir definitely elevates it above the “humble beginnings, rise, bling, fall” rubric he’s trying to avoid. So, that’s what differentiated it for me from most of the other music memoirs out there.

Rachel Bailey (RB): I think it was interesting that they set out to reveal how these books come together within the book itself. It’s sooo meta, man. There’s that great last bit when Rich’s [Richard Nichols, The Roots’ co-manager] voice is in dialogue form still, and he says, “It’s too flat-footed when I want to be arch,” so he becomes a footnote. And his footnotes are a constant reminder that a memoir is not what it seems to be. You can get caught up in the voice of the person writing and their version of the story, and it’s really easy to assume that’s the only truth. This memoir really knocks down some of the mirages of the form.

Steven Arroyo (SA): I don’t really think he was out to solve the problem of how a music memoir should be written. It was more that he wasn’t interested in that at all. I really like that transition. Rich saying, “I don’t really like my voice right now. Let’s make me a footnote.” And it added a level of humor to the whole thing. Rich wasn’t just an alternate voice. He had some of the strongest quotes of the whole book.

Paula Mejia (PM): I was most interested in the struggle that Quest had with himself throughout the whole book, because I’ve always been fascinated with him because he has his hands in so many pies as a DJ, as a producer, as a musician, and working on Fallon, so I’ve always wondered about people who are highly motivated and potentially a little crazy like that—how they work to fit that all in their mind.

MM:  And with all those pies cooling at the same time, what struck me most was the absence of ego in Mo’ Meta Blues. Paula and I have both been doing the club for a few installments now, so maybe this is something that would resonate with her. We read R. Kelly’s Soulacoaster: Diary of Me, which has this almost self-deifying solipsism…

PM: …Whoooohhhh yeah.

MM: Then we read Touré’s Prince book, which bestowed icon status on Prince as part of the book’s premise. And here you have a memoir with the absence of that ego. Really, it’s about someone who fell in love with music at an early age and subsequently went on to have a career in it.

And who can’t relate to how music woos Questlove as a boy? Playing record store. Liking records based on what their labels look like when they spin on a turntable or in a CD player. (Some spin cooler than others.) The Columbia House 12 records for a penny deal, which you only find out how expensive it really is later on. This whole process of gradually falling in love with music in different ways and reading album reviews and keeping those clips like they’re sacred artifacts are all things I totally did.

Though, there were certain times where I wanted to say, “You are ?uestlove. Your name does begin with a punctuation mark (sometimes). It’s okay to bask a bit.” But I think I really fell in love with the book because it was all about someone engaging with music in a way that any of us might.

questlove 1

SA: I was definitely a fan of the acknowledgement up front—you talked about the absence of ego—of “I’m not an author. I’m a music geek first and a musician second.” It was definitely in reference to how a lot of music memoirs are done. Like, how he wanted Rich to play this prominent role in the book. And I loved every single thing that Rich wrote. He was there to call bullshit whenever Quest was telling a story that tended towards how he wanted the story to go instead of how it actually went.

I think about one of the more popular rock memoirs, Anthony Kiedis’s. I read that and as much as I was entertained by it, I kept cringing at all of these stories he told that were so obviously dubious. I remember thinking that I really wished there was an alternate voice there to counter those parts where it’s like he’s defending himself in court and not telling the stories that need to be told.

HH: It’s interesting how he gets the ego out of the way up front. He identifies the name ?uestlove in the context of anonymity as the ultimate form of ego gratification. So, it seems he puts that right out in front there. It’s in his name, and he decides that he’s more or less a selfless artist in that way.

In addition to giving the book a balanced quality, Rich breaks up the narrative as well, which I thought was really effective. In the Rich sections (and footnotes), breaking up the narrative is really good for keeping it fresh. You can kinda see that in Roots albums as well – using different genres or throwing in a snippet of spoken-word poetry to break up the album. So, he channeled that from his music as well.

PM: Also, thinking about the footnotes and the Ben Greenman sections—I think he writes for The New Yorker, but I don’t know—but, yeah, I think that really helped to give the tale of his entire life perspective because when someone tries to tell their life story in a certain way–and I’m definitely thinking of R. Kelly—things can get very exaggerated and a little ridiculous. But what he portrays himself to be in this book is incredibly humble, and he does get the ego out of the way, which I think is great because I think it’s important to acknowledge it, move past it, and get to the real meat of the story. But, yeah, I thought that was effective in giving the reader some perspective. There are several sides to the story, and then there’s the truth, and I think that really hones in on what the story is about.

It’s a Family Affair

questlove as a kid Book Club: Mo Meta Blues by Ahmir Questlove Thompson

SA: What I was really interested in had a lot to do with Quest’s dad [singer Lee Andrews]. Quest really hit his stride in chapter 13 when he started going into these longer ‘graphs and got kinda on a roll of ideas. This is the part where he mentions the Spike Lee film [Mo’ Better Blues], the book [Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe], which I now know is a novel about a Nigerian man who comes home and sees that all the customs that made his culture so distinct had been washed away. I loved how that was reflected in Quest’s relationship with his dad. He painted such a vivid picture of him as this fine, hardened, professional dude who came up in the doo-wop era and just kinda had this perpetual chip on his shoulder and learned all the tricks of the trade just to get a slight edge as a professional (how to wear a suit, shake a hand).

There’s  that part with the James Brown album—this really forward-thinking album—and Quest’s dad’s only reaction to that was, “Where are the hits?” That was the only kind of response that he could fathom out of hearing something like that. So, Questlove starts his own career, and his dad just doesn’t speak that language at all.

There’s that scene where he refers to his dad as the Wizard of Oz. That was such a heartbreaking part. I read in this one interview where Quest said that maybe the most gratifying part in his life was the day that his dad told him, “I get it now. I see what you were going for all these years.” And that was completely left out of the book, and I don’t know why. He didn’t really talk about his dad at all in the second half. I really wanted to read about that resolution.

PM: I wanted to see not necessarily that he resolved things with his dad but that they came to terms on something. I was always waiting for that to happen, and it just never did, which was disappointing. I agree that he did a great job of painting this very visceral portrait of his father, but it didn’t completely get fleshed out, and I really would have liked to have seen more, because he did have such an interesting family dynamic.

SA: One of the strongest quotes was Questlove quoting Rich: “As you get older, feelings are harder to come by.” And again, I was interested in Quest’s family life and relationship with his father, but also the idea of what happens when the game you’ve dedicated your life to kinda turns on you, and you don’t feel like you’re a part of it anymore. I just think how hard it must have been for a guy like Questlove to crack his hardened father.

MM: That relationship is interesting. You have that moment where his father crumbles after Questlove’s mom leaves him. He’s a broken man, and Quest treats that moment with a generous, warm touch in this book. The father really morphs throughout, from the cool dad to the overly conservative Christian dad who confiscates records to the guy who demands a cut when Questlove comes into some money for the first time. It was a strange relationship.

lahearts1 Book Club: Mo Meta Blues by Ahmir Questlove Thompson

HH: It’s very interesting the father relationship and how it actually mirrors the novel Things Fall Apart, and even the trilogy by Chinua Achebe. You have the father who stands for all these things that at one point were the only values in the community, and the world’s changing very quickly around him. The father responds not by trying to change himself or by understanding but by becoming more and more entrenched in his views. Ahmir captures that pretty well when he says, “My father is one of those people who when he’s wrong, he’s more right.” You can see that in a lot of Achebe’s novels, especially Things Fall Apart, and it’s the same relationship that Quest is having with his father.

MM: Do you see Questlove, then, as the opposite of his father, Lee Andrews? His father became more and more entrenched in his ways as the world changed around him, and Quest talks about how the game of hip-hop has changed and the ways he found to roll with the punches. The Roots have changed, and they’re on Jimmy Fallon. Who would’ve ever thought a hip-hop band would do that? So, do you see him as learning from his father’s experience?

HH: I hadn’t thought about that: the father as a cautionary tale. If you stand so firm and so tall, eventually time is going to get you, and you’re going to break and become a shell, or you could roll with the zeitgeist and push it and try to channel or mold it and be very vigilant of what’s going on around you. Consuming culture gluttonously, as Questlove does. It seems like that’s almost a way to prevent that type of outcome. If you’re consuming everything and giving everything a fair shot, nothing’s going to catch you by surprise, break you, and leave you by the wayside.

PM: In terms of how his relationship with his father paralleled the novel… I was supposed to read the novel in high school but never did—secret. It’s interesting because we’re always trying to dispel the notion that we’re like our parents, but in a lot of ways, we tend to do things in the same way, or we at least, subconsciously, take that in some sort of form and channel it outward as we’re growing up. I think a cautionary tale is a good way to put it, but doo-wop did punctuate a lot of Questlove’s life and still does to this day, so I think that even though the relationship with his father was strained, it’s still very present in the front of his mind and probably dictates his actions.

Rap, Race, and Reality

questlove race section

RB: I was especially drawn to the parts that put the story of The Roots into political and cultural context, especially the discussion of what it meant to be Black—all while never really beating the reader over the head with that conversation. That was really interesting to me as somebody who lives in the South, where we don’t really talk about race much. There was a real patience and pathos he brought to the discussion of people who didn’t understand their music, their Blackness, or what they were trying to say politically. He weaves all that cultural context in with his story so well.

MM: And it didn’t seem like he set out to talk about race, but reality makes him talk about it. It surfaces whether he wants it to or not. Multiple times in this book he gets pulled over for DWB and sort of realizes that everything can come crashing down in an instant. But there is an internal battle as well throughout: Am I Black enough? Is the music I like Black enough? Are The Roots Black enough? And some of this pressure seems to be coming from the Black community. He brings up the paper bag test, which he fails miserably given his dark skin.

RB: Obviously, he wrote this long before that essay he wrote after the Trayvon Martin verdict about getting on an elevator with a white woman who seemed frightened by him. But it seems, with that essay and some of the stories in this book, maybe he’s finding the desire to talk about race a little more. And he’s so qualified to do it, because it’s so difficult to find an opportunity to talk about other people’s experiences without it being really fraught with anger or fear. And he talks really honestly about the experience of being pulled over or how confusing it is as an artist to try to appease other people’s ideas of your racial identity while you’re still making art. He talks about how up until a certain point in The Roots’ career, it was important to them that Black people liked their music—and you can see how that might interfere with the creative process. And they reached a point where having their music make a statement about their racial identity wasn’t so important…

MM: …where maybe they became just a band instead of a Black band. Did they change, or did their audience change?

RB: Well, it seems like The Roots have accepted that art hip-hop label they’ve always been stuck with, and maybe that’s in large part due to Questlove’s influence. They seemed to accept the type of music they make, and maybe after so many years of trying to attract a certain type of fan, they realized they should just love the ones they’re with.

MM:  I know Henry recalled Questlove’s comparison of his childhood Beach Boys records to a porn stash. Those were just things a Black kid couldn’t listen to. It made me think of a comment Chuck D made after sitting at a table at the Rock Hall of Fame inductions with Smokey Robinson and Carole King. Race and genre didn’t matter at that point. As a songwriter himself, he was just blown away to be sitting next to those two. And I get a similar feeling about Questlove. Being such a prominent lover of all types of music, is he someone who helps make it okay for people to listen to whatever they dig? Does he help free us up from the pressure of being tied to certain types of music based on others’ notions of who we are or who we should be?

RB: He spent so much time talking about records that he loved, giving equal time to, say, Public Enemy and then other artists you wouldn’t think of as Black. And I do think there was an element of sort of leading by example to show that music can transcend all types of barriers.

He talks a lot about how music is used to construct our identities. There’s that anecdote about going out to eat with a friend at a soul food restaurant, and she chooses home fries over grits, and he gets defensive. “Why didn’t you get grits? I don’t want them. I’d rather have home fries. But it’s grits!” And he realizes that he was doing to her exactly what he resented people doing to him in terms of judging his musical taste. And he talks about how Black journalists were sometimes cautious of hyping The Roots because that would be a “predictable Black move.” He just dusts the surface in a lot of different ways about how we use music to construct our racial identities.

Prince Moments

(Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures)

PM: What did you guys think of Questlove’s relationship with Prince? Because that roller skating party was weird.

MM: Eddie Murphy (of all people) is there with Questlove, and Prince confiscates Quest’s phone so he won’t record Prince roller skating.

SA: Hysterical. One of my favorite anecdotes of the whole book. The skating place in the middle of the night and Prince’s bizarre skates. But I think we’ve all had similar experiences with meeting and talking to musicians we admire—ones that definitely paralleled going up to Prince and saying, “I just wanted to say that I think that one thing you did is the greatest whatever of all time,” and the whole room just goes quiet.

PM: So, now we have to all share that experience that you just mentioned, with our respective idols.

SA: When I interviewed Alan Palomo from Neon Indian, at some point I said something about us both having totally boring first names and very Hispanic-sounding last names. It felt every bit as terrible as the Prince thing.

PM: So, I met Thurston Moore at SXSW this year, actually, right after he played the CoS showcase at The Parish. I waited around until after everyone had left, and I went up to him. Dude’s about 6’6”. He’s super tall. And I went up to him, and I just gave him this massive hug, and he was so taken aback. He’s like, “Well, hi,” and I was like, “Uhhhhh.” I never get tongue-tied either. And Thurston, he’s definitely not a cuddly person by nature, so he just patted my back once or twice like, “Okay, who’s this crazy girl? Let’s get her out of there.” It was totally worth it, though.

prince 2013

RB: A friend of a friend of mine here in Athens did that to Michael Stipe at a show at the 40 Watt, kinda shimmying up to him over the course of a couple of songs. And she goes in to kiss him on the cheek, and he like ninja move flips her on her back and just leaves the club.

But I was at SXSW as a Paste intern, and I got it in my mind one afternoon that I really wanted to interview Andrew W.K. in a pedicab when he was going from one venue to another. So, my editor who helped set this up thought it would be a great idea to ask him how to party at different kinds of events: How do you party at a pool party? At a bar mitzvah? And my editor told me to ask him, “How do you party at a wake?” So, I ask him, and at first he doesn’t understand. He’s thinking a wave like the ocean, and then partying when you’re awake, and this is getting more and more awkward. So, I go, “No, like the Catholic thing when somebody dies.” And he goes, “I knew somebody who died once.” And he starts talking about this kid—like the only person he’s ever known who died—and starts crying in the cab. And I’m sitting next to him. Do I touch him? Pat him on the back? When we arrived at the venue, he just zipped out of the cab as fast as he could and would not look at me.

HH: Back in ’08, I went to a Delta Spirit show in a little bar in Ithaca. I met the guys, and they convinced me to buy an EP by pitching it as colored vinyl, which I’m a sucker for. I get home, and it’s regular vinyl, so I email the tour manager, and he replies, “Oh, you fell for the joke. It’s a running gag with the band. They try to sell it by saying it’s colored vinyl.” Two years later, they got me again on the next album. Same thing. They said, “This time it’s really colored vinyl,” so they’re tricksters.

MM: It was back in the early 2000’s at Purdue. We never got any good bands in. IU down in Bloomington got all the best shows. So, Counting Crows come, whom I had been big into back in high school, and I got to meet Adam Duritz. And I’m waiting to meet him and trying to figure out a way to really convey how much I appreciated them playing Purdue. And I thanked him and said something like, “All we got here this year was No Doubt,” and he gave me a quiet thanks and an awkward little handshake. It felt like I had insulted friends of his or maybe a band he was actually into. God, I came across as a negative prick.

Back to The Roots

the roots Book Club: Mo Meta Blues by Ahmir Questlove Thompson

HH: One of the central themes running throughout Mo’ Meta Blues is the tension between commercial success and artistry—between playing for the people and crafting art that satisfies one’s own creative impulses. The title is a reference to Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, a flick that really highlights the fine line between courting an audience and catering to it—challenging fans to expand their horizons and sometimes going so far off into the horizon that you alienate them. And I wonder what everyone thought about Ahmir’s struggle throughout The Roots’ history to reconcile these desires.

SA:  I always thought The Roots straddled that better than most bands out there. There was the one album, The Tipping Point, where they just gave in and settled for their record label’s expectations, and they were miserable during that experience. The label blowing all that smoke up their asses, and finally they were like, “Hey, things were great before this happened. Let’s go back to that.” I’ve listened to The Roots for quite a few years now, and I always just thought that they handled that much better than a lot of artists, all of whom struggle with that same problem.

PM: As someone who’s not as well-versed in The Roots discography, something that’s always interested me about them as a band is that they have this universal appeal. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who dislikes The Roots. And I live on the east coast near Philadelphia, so you have the Philly love. They have the Roots Picnic and bring together a lot of great bands for this awesome event. But the love just doesn’t stop there. I think there’s something for everyone there: the neo-soul, the doo-wop, the hip-hop, of course, and instrumentals. They do a really good job of translating those elements into something that has mass appeal.

MM: One of the theories he puts out there about hip-hop is that the game changes every five years, and the people on that top peg get recycled, and someone else takes the throne. But they’re a band who have survived those cycles to the point where they can do pretty much what they want. A guy like Jay Z comes along years ago and passes them by in that pecking order. A few years later, The Roots don’t have a label, and Jay Z says, “I don’t wanna be the one who kills The Roots. Guys, go make an art album. I don’t care what it sells.”

Another case in point, Jimmy Fallon. Now, everyone’s used to that. But I still remember thinking, “What the hell are The Roots doing on late-night television as a house band?” But it’s like Paula said. They’ve found that place where everyone digs them on some level. They can kinda do what they want. After years of just trying to find an audience, they’ve found a bunch of them it seems.

Any thoughts on Quest’s relationship with Tariq Trotter (aka Black Thought)?

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PM: This might be me speculating, but I think that he might have been suppressing some of the conflicts between him and Tariq, because they seem like such polar opposites. Which, in that kind of medium, can mesh but can also lead to some pretty bad clashes, I imagine. A lot of that was glossed over.

HH: I wonder how much the tension with Tariq manifests itself in Ahmir’s various side projects, not that he’s driven away from The Roots, but maybe that would create enough distance so that things don’t devolve into the type of fistfight that happened in the first third of the novel.

PM: Maybe. Ahmir seems like a pretty lonely person, just by definition. So, that may have just been needing his own space. But that is pretty interesting. I hadn’t thought about it that way in terms of like, “We will work together in a certain capacity, and we’ll take time off to work on our own projects to give each other space, too.”

SA: It was around the time Things Fall Apart hit it big, and Questlove was working on Voodoo with D’Angelo. Quest says something like, “Yeah, we kinda ushered in this whole neo-soul thing, but because I was off doing other things, we never got to do a new Roots album. And by the time we hit the studio again, people were kinda over it.” And he recognizes that the rest of The Roots must have been pretty pissed, but he quickly moves on. Especially given Black Thought’s background as a naturally hungry dude and creator, he must have really, really wanted Quest back in the picture so that they could capitalize on this thing that really they started themselves.

PM: He said toward the end of the book that Tariq got to this point where he needed to be in a very specific recording studio, a very controlled environment, to write music, and Questlove mentions pretty offhandedly that he only can create in very uncomfortable spaces. And he just kinda drops that in there, and I just remember that, like at several points in the book, my brain kinda exploded in a way, like that makes so much sense, and I wish he would’ve talked about that a little more.

Final Verdict on Mo’ Meta Blues (Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down)

SA: I would recommend it to CoS readers in no small part due to his thoughts on analyzing music, criticizing music, and music reviews (like those found in Rolling Stone or Pitchfork). Our readers all have thoughts on those things. So, thumbs up. Definitely.

PM: You have to be incredibly invested in a very niche part of music to be interested in devoting your time to a book like this, but it is really fascinating because he doesn’t just have the perspective of an artist or a producer. There’s an A&R perspective and a critic’s perspective, too. He ties it all together very well to create this holistic picture of how the music industry has changed and how that’s been formative in his own life and how music has punctuated his development. I think that’s fascinating, so two thumbs up for me.

RB: Two thumbs way up. Questlove has written a memoir that illuminates his own career, the evolution of hip-hop, the state of race relations in America, and the hidden tricks in the form of the memoir. All while telling an interesting story with a lot of pathos.

HH: I think the different thirds of the book keep it fresh by going after different things: childhood and family relationships; how The Roots became the icons we know them as; and commentary on hip-hop, rap, and cultural community going all the way from D’Angelo and Jay Z to Jimmy Fallon. I’d also recommend it for Ahmir’s amazing rock criticism. Those tidbits throughout were just delightful. Thumbs up.

MM: Reading this book is the closest you’ll ever get to sitting down with Nick Hornby’s Rob from High Fidelity and talking mixtape philosophy or how records and memory correspond. After this read, I’m seriously considering growing out a fro. Thumbs up from me makes it unanimous.

mometta Book Club: Mo Meta Blues by Ahmir Questlove Thompson

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