I’m roughly two weeks into my move to the South to begin this PhD program, and in the mail comes Mo’ Meta Blues [The World According to Questlove]. It was a going away gift. I think it’s a memoir. It seems the author [and co-author, Ben Greenman] are confused—or intentionally deliberate in stating so by stating it’s not [or might be]. It’s a book about Questlove, as memoirs tend to be about the people who write them, but interestingly, it isn’t just about him. It’s about his band, The Roots; it’s about collaborators: Erykah Badu, Q-Tip, Jay Dilla [RIP], Common, Mos Def, James Poyser, D’Angelo [The Soulquarians]; it’s about Art and culture; it’s about music; it’s about family; it’s about the nature of memory [with clarifying footnotes!]; it’s about being left of center; it’s about a book—it’s about itself as much as it is about anything previously listed. I also feel like it’s as much about the read than it is about any of those things. I realized about halfway through the book that it’s also about me.
But I should have expected, from a book with ‘Meta’ in the title, self-reference.
It’s an enjoyable read. I have been a fan of The Roots since the video for “What They Do,” which came during the time when my brother and I were still fighting for the remote control after school. ‘Rap City’ was on at the same time as ‘Jeopardy!’ and I was more a fan of Alex Tribek and trivia than I was of the trivial pursuits of rappers. It was 1996—I was sold on ‘the right kind’ of rap music, and even writing rhymes of my own, competing with my siblings and friends to craft the best battle rap in a notebook we all passed around. Our school had kids who wanted to be rappers [we thought of them as posers, primarily because there was no way they actually did and possessed the things they wrote and rapped about] and us [kids who had little in the way of experiences and material items to brag about so we had to either write rhymes about our ability to write rhymes or take aim at the posers and expose them for what they weren’t]. “What They Do” was an anthem of sorts for us. We would never, ever, do ‘what they do.’
Questlove spends some time in MMB filling in inquiring minds on the conditions that created the affable Afro’d introvert we’ve grown to respect and admire. One of the more interesting aspects of his history is his famous father, Lee Andrews, of Lee Andrews & the Hearts, and the seeming predestined nature of Quest’s future as a drummer and music aficionado. Also interesting are the asides—the book doesn’t focus squarely on just Questlove. This book is co-authored, and there is no pretense presented that prevents a reader from understanding this as fact. Co-author Ben Greenman’s emails to editor Ben Greenberg detailing his concerns with the progress and shape of the project add to the narrative, as do the interruptions [and clarifications] from Roots co-manager Richard Nichols. Not only are these welcome disruptions in the narrative, they help bring the bigger picture into focus. The book doesn’t read nearly as egocentrically as it rightfully could [and, in some ways, should].
More than anything else, though, reading Mo’ Meta Blues solidified a notion I’d already previously entertained—Questlove would be an interesting person to have a conversation with on just about any topic, but especially music, culture and Art. I’d also like to hear more celebrity stories. I’m not much of a fan of dirt dished on celebrities’ dreadful deeds, but the stories about hanging out and working with the likes of Prince, Al Green, D’Angelo and Dave Chappelle seem like only the tip of the iceberg. I suppose I’m interested more because I’m a fan of many of the people Questlove has worked with than I am with the folks TMZ chooses to trail.
An interesting aside: On page 243, there’s a sentence that made me pause. He’s talking about the Game Theory album, and writes [sort of defiantly], “We had said our piece and found our hill to die on.” Previous to that there is a reference to a note about Hip-Hop being “dead” [or not]. This caused me to pause, and my pen moved, so I wrote this:
Quick Questlove story: So, I’m in Chicago, at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs [AWP] Conference, feeling awesome because I was able to attend the conference and stay at the Palmer House free of charge. I was Writer-In-Residence for a literary journal, and this was one of the perks. I’d also just submitted the manuscript for my new book, and took the opportunity in The City to get a photo shoot out of the way. Outside of the hotel, while we were holding up traffic trying to get shots in the middle of the street, we see an Afro emerge from a car. Shaun, the photographer, says, “Watch this.” I don’t know what I was thinking he would do, but I prepared myself for the worst. Shaun didn’t, as I initially thought he would, try to give him any of my CDs or ask him for a blurb for the book. He just told him that we were doing shots for a project and that we were big fans and asked if he wouldn’t mind posing for a picture. Questlove obliged. I don’t think I even said anything to him. I was kind of speechless—rare if you know me—but I didn’t really have anything I felt was adequate to say. Questlove shook our hands and headed upstairs. We suspected he was DJing somewhere in the building later that evening. We were stuck for a moment because no one else on the street or in the lobby caused a commotion, so we spent the next few minutes asking strangers if they’d seen what had just happened. That’s the story—nothing any more [or less] awesome than a photo and a moment of…awe. Anyhow, he was cool, and that was cool. And the shirt I’m wearing on my book cover is the shirt I’m wearing in the pic with Questlove. What’s more Meta than that?