Review by: Pete Andrew
Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove
By: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Ben Greenman
Grand Central Publishing, 2013
The Roots saved me.
Years ago, when I was but an impressionable young man, my first tastes of hip-hop led me down the path of artists like Lil’ Jon and his merry band of Eastside Boyz, Da Backwudz (remember this song?), Trillville (a squeaking bed? How subtle.), and the like. In one’s formative years, one’s musical milieu is of the utmost importance, and at first I had only hip-hop’s dredges pumping on my portable CD player. But then an angel appeared in my life, taking the musical form of “Seed 2.0.” That classic Roots song served as the catalyst in my effort to get my hands on everything The Roots ever made or would make in the future. Through The Roots came a love for artists like Kanye West, who in turn led me to Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Common, Dilla, Slum Village and basically every other worthwhile hip-hop act I’ve ever enjoyed. When it comes to me personally – and I’m sure it’s the same or similar for many others – The Roots couldn’t have thought up a better name.
Needless to say, I’m a fan, and I approached the book as such. Hell, I even named my intermittently-updated blog after one of my favorite Roots joints. (This is my one plug, promise.)
When it came to my attention that the drummer of the Roots, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, had co-written a memoir of sorts, I had to buy a copy immediately. Hell, even if Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove ended up as the worst book in recent memory, I can’t think of many people whose coffers I’d rather fill (assuming his coffers can only handle $20, that is).
Fortunately, Mo’ Meta Blues did not end up as the worst book I’ve ever read. Quite the contrary in fact; ?uestlove’s debut effort, co-written by Ben Greenman, serves as a comprehensive look at hip-hop from its origin to the present, as well as an in depth look at how The Roots – hip hop’s resident “gay cousin at a Bible Belt family reunion”—managed to remain relevant in the music industry for two decades when rappers typically come and go quicker than a premature ejaculator who hears his girlfriend’s father thundering up the stairs, wondering why a grown man is in his 16-year-old daughter’s room. Or, you know, something along those lines.
If you think about it, ?uesto grew up at the perfect time to write this book. He recalls exactly where and when he heard hip-hop for the first time:
“I was there when they premiered The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” on WDAS 105.3 on your FM dial. I was at home with my sister, and the two of us stared at the radio the whole time it was happening; it was our equivalent of the old radio drama War of the Worlds.”
Fitting that an individual whose group will one day be immortalized in hip-hop would have such a reaction to the experience, and Thompson recounts where he was and how he felt at some of hip-hop’s most crucial, trans-formative moments. Furthermore, as The Roots established themselves in the realm of hip-hop, ?uestlove and Co. had the opportunity to both meet and associate with countless musical artists, including some of the greats: Alicia Keys, Erykah Badu, Prince, Pharrell, Stevie Wonder. As an insider, he has gathered stories that only someone in such a position could. Jamming in the studio with Pharrell, being “friend zoned” by Alicia Keys – and hey, if you read this book for one storyline, ?uest’s multiple Prince encounters are must-reads. All I’ll say here is that, when reading ?uestlove talk about the one time he went roller skating with the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince (aka “Prince”), it’s not hard to imagine him putting his feet on Charlie Murphy’s couch. Or slapping Charlie Murphy. Or really doing any of the things he’s alleged to have done to Charlie Murphy. Or doing cocaine. You get the point.
Ahmir Thompson is a nerd, and he approaches Mo’ Meta Blues only as a music nerd would. “Nerd” is too weak, too dismissive, actually. Thompson has Rainman-level skills when it comes to his passion. His ability to retain as many artists, songs, albums and real-life situations with so many of the specifics—not to mention the many drum beats he’s got stored up in his iconic afro—is remarkable, and such a display enriches his story telling throughout the book. ?uestlove’s words evoke his readily apparent passion for all things music—for hip-hop, of course, but also for the music he experienced growing up in a strong Christian household in 1970’s and as a member of his family’s traveling band. And he’s dedicated his life to music and, more specifically, hip-hop. As ?uestlove goes through meeting Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter (MC of The Roots), in the principal’s office (another great scene of MMB), the forming of the band, touring, album drops, critical and commercial successes and disappointments (“selling-CDs-from-a-duffel-bag broke”), and working with Jimmy Fallon, the reader is struck with a strong sense of Thompson’s love for true hip-hop and a desire to keep it in its purest form. Arguably my favorite quotation from MMB speaks to that notion, and though it doesn’t actually come from ?uestlove himself (guest “speakers,” such as Roots manager Rich Nichols in this particular case, drop by the book from time to time to lend their thoughts and opinions to the project, which helps to give MMB a unique feel), I’m sure he wouldn’t argue:
“I figure it this way: when Sam Cooke sang ‘a change is gonna come,’ I didn’t foresee that change being one that would allow for niggas to be rapping about ‘busting bitches out wit dey super sperm.’”
When writing reviews, I try to find at least one negative. I won’t nitpick to an absurd degree, but there’s almost always something in art that’s imperfect. And because I’m the authority on these matters—I do have a Bachelor’s degree in English, after all—I strive to find it and point it out for the world to see, because apparently I’m incredibly insecure about myself in every conceivable way and to do so makes me feel better about myself. Anyway, the one place where the author loses me from time to time is in his “Quest Loves Records” segments, in which he outlines his favorite records from years past, predominantly from his childhood. While it’s certainly interesting to get a glimpse into Thompson’s past music life, I found the many lists of many artists (some of whom I’m entirely unfamiliar with) both a bit daunting and distracting. If I one day go back and acquaint myself to these albums, I’ll be happy he included them, but this first time around I just wished that he’d stick to the storytelling.
Still, if that’s my main criticism, chances are the book is pretty damn good.
I imagine the main question any reader wants a reviewer to answer also stands as the most obvious question: Should I read it? Well reader, yes, yes you should. One should not take for granted the chance to read the words of a musical genius and one of the most widely celebrated individuals in the industry today as he speaks on all of the aforementioned topics, as well as race, ingenious ways to hide things from your parents, hip-hop names (including how he decided on “?uestlove”), DJing, the Roots’ beef with Notorious B.I.G. (who knew?), the creative subtleties of celebrity “walk-in” music on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, etc. All-in-all, this borders on a must-read for hip-hop fans. If you’re a Roots fan, it’s an absolute must-read. Of course it is. You already knew that.
Without The Roots, who knows where I’d be in regards to my musical taste. Fellow Roots revelers, where would you be? Rocking snapbacks, popping molly and listening to Drake? Or perhaps Chief Keef, or whoever the hell current serves as leader of misogynistic, ignorant, misguided, drugged out, rudimentary bullshit rap.
So I say it again: The Roots saved us. ?uestlove, always stuck in the back and yet fully front and center, saved us, and Mo’ Meta Blues tells us how it all came to be.