So begins the mid-life memoir of Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove. Thompson, whose drumming with neo-soul outfit The Roots and, consequently, on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon has catapulted him to fringes of the American musical conscience, a place which seems hard-earned and well-deserved, yet perhaps not entirely desired. The dedication, directed toward Roots co-founder Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, sets the tone for an exploration of Thompson’s ego, which rides a strange line between pretension, generally about the history of the music he loves, and modesty, generally about his own career and the experiences which have made him who he is.
From the outset, Mo’ Meta Blues differentiates itself from other musical autobiographies in a number of ways: for starters, Thompson allows The Roots’ manager, Richard Nichols, to have a say in bold print over the course of Thompson’s life, first in directly addressing chosen topics and then, when that seems too cumbersome, in footnotes. Nichols’ reactions to the events Thompson describes, both within the context of The Roots and outside of it, provide a sometimes hilarious and nearly always poignant counterbalance which gives context, background and shape to the scenes Thompson sets.
“I don’t want it to be your average book,” Thompson writes on the very first page, and he manages to adhere strictly to that goal. Through the observations of Nichols and the ongoing email chain between Ben Greenman, the book’s co-writer, and Ben Greenberg, the book’s editor, the audience gets a view of the writing process for Thompson and the people surrounding him. For someone who takes on perhaps the most hands-on responsibility of anyone in popular music, Thompson’s efforts in expressing to the audience exactly what he wants to say, and how he wants to say it, is surprisingly concise and enjoyable.
Throughout the majority of the book, Thompson portrays himself as someone who bore witness to the historic events in pop music happening around him, from the birth of hip-hop following “Rapper’s Delight” to the uniting nature of Prince’s music to musical trends which shaped the approaches The Roots took with each of their albums. He is painstakingly careful to note the influences in his own life, starting with the music his mother and father listened to and played in their band. The vast record collection he has amassed would make the Library of Congress look like an f.y.e., and it is worthwhile to note how Thompson, like so many of us mere mortals, descends into his music during times of triumph and, especially, of tragedy. In particular, he notes his responses to 9/11 and the deaths of Michael Jackson and his close friend and collaborator, J Dilla, as being tumultuous times in which he channeled his frustration into his work.
“When was hip-hop’s funeral? I know exactly when it was, because I attended it – the second Source awards, in May of 1995.”
Grandiose statements like that attract the reader because it feels like we are getting an insight into a foreign world. In this case, he discusses the increasing East Coast-West Coast tension and how people like Nas, Dr. Dre, Suge Knight and Puffy played into a war that was boiling over and would eventually culminate in the shooting deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. But Thompson’s reminiscing is not always that hopeless; he revels in anonymity when one of David Letterman’s producers asks him to be a proxy at the Emmy Awards for a skit to appear on the show, the producer blind to who Thompson actually is. He discusses times when he called the police on his own home in Philadelphia in an attempt to rid his living room of the musicians who congregated there and gave rise to neo-soul. In another instance, Thompson recalls a ridiculous night The Roots spent in Denver with Tracy Morgan, whose antics affirm the suspicions many of us have about him watching 30 Rock.
Around every turn, we see a man who strives to create and maintain personal relationships and reconcile them with his arduous, hectic workload. His evolution from family band drummer to premier hip-hop producer and DJ is marked by professional and personal shortcomings, almost none of which are his own fault and almost all of which simply motivate him to work harder. To be standing on the edge of pop culture for as long as he has been is a rare occurrence for any person, and Thompson manages to process his experiences beautifully for the reader. If for no other reason than the fact that he has essentially worked with every major musician of the last two decades, in some capacity or another, Mo’ Meta Blues is well worth the read, and the hidden treasures of Thompson’s life, one spent revolving at speeds of 33 1/3 and 45 revolutions per minute, reveal some of the facets under the most recognizable afro in pop music.