Sunday, September 1, 2013

Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove

Written by Ahmir 'Questlove' Thompson and Ben Greenman

I'm not sure I can adequately express the depth of my respect for Questlove and The Roots.  I've been following their music for over fifteen years, and have almost always been impressed with each new album or concert.  More than that, though, Questlove has, through his writing on Okayplayer and other media outlets, been a teacher and guide through music, race, and just about any other topic he decides to talk about.  I remember his eulogy for J. Dilla moving me to tears.

Anyway, although I never read celebrity memoirs, I couldn't wait to sink my teeth into Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove.  Quest does a great job, in many ways, of situating himself and The Roots in the various historical eras of hip-hop, showing how the band grew from the music that he and Tariq 'Black Thought' Trotter were listening to in high school, and how industry forces and trends, and their own inter-group dynamics, have shaped them over time.  He also explains the rise and fall of neo-soul, and a number of other things that I hadn't always put together as being related.

What he doesn't do, for which I'm thankful, is 'tell all'.  He never once names the girls he's dated, or shares salacious information about others.  When he does talk about other famous people, it is usually self-deprecating, like telling about the time he first met his idol, Prince, or the story of being at Lyricist Lounge when Mos Def dissed Puff Daddy on stage, only to later find him in the audience.

Quest comes across as a little awkward, and not always aware of how his actions are going to play out, which is a very honest and risky level of truth for a book like this.  I'd always admired the man, but having read this book, I now really like him.

There are a few things missing from this book that surprised me.  At its heyday, the Okayplayer website was a huge force in hip-hop, and served as my introduction to a lot of great music.  While the site is mentioned here or there, Quest never gets into a lot of detail about his role in forming that site, which is something I'd expected to learn a little more about.

I did come away from this book with an even greater understanding of music.  I found myself constantly cueing up videos on Youtube while reading this book, listening for the drums Quest talks about, or just satisfying my curiosity.  I didn't grow up surrounded with music the way he did, and so feel like I have to play catch-up in some key areas.

It's impossible to discuss this book without talking about the 'meta' material in it.  Really, this book is written by three people: Questlove, Dan Greenman, his co-writer, and Richard Nichols, the band's co-manager.  Some chapters are structured as a conversation between Quest and Rich, and they are pretty entertaining.  As the book progresses, Rich moves into the footnotes, sometimes adding more detail to a story Questlove is telling, and at other times flat out contradicting it.  His contribution to the book is great.

Ben Greenman, I'm not so sure of.  From time to time, he includes an e-mail to his editor, Ben Greenberg, about the direction the book is taking, or about some aspect of his job in the book.  None of these (short of the first one explaining that Rich is the bold text), add anything to the book, except for making it obvious that there is a co-writer involved in the process, who we know nothing else about.  I found myself reading into his presence (is it ego?), and later, that made me very conscious of the fact that despite the text being in first person, I never really knew whose words I was reading.

Regardless, this book is a solid document of a band that has had an important place in my life, and the world they've lived in.  I'm sure it could have been a lot longer and more detailed (the last two albums barely get a page each), but as it stands, it was always entertaining, and very educational.

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