“Mo’ Meta Blues” by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is a different type of autobiography. If Questlove has accomplished anything with this book, he has succeeded at empathizing through music. This is to say that he has managed to relate almost every monumental moment in his life to specific songs, as well as speculate about the artists who created them. The parallels he draws between the tracks and his life are amazing and very much interesting to read as the book progresses. That said, the vast majority of his stories are told from the perspective of the records he listened to during the experience.
I am biased, however. The Roots are a band that has taught me a million and one different lessons since the first time I heard “The Next Movement.” It was a whole new look at hip-hop with pure, unadulterated content that wasn’t dressed up in a million-dollar package.
If you ever see the video for “What They Do,” you’ll understand what I mean.
This book is not just for the hardcore fans of The Roots or Questlove, though, it’s a story that not only debunks most of the myths of hip-hop, but also catalogs the struggle that Questlove and The Roots have endured over their 20-year career.
The book doesn’t begin with the formation of The Roots, but rather with Questlove’s experiences on tour with his father’s “doo wop” band “Lee Andrews And The Hearts.” It’s an extremely interesting account of events, simply because you seldom read about a child living with musicians and being on the road. These events detail Questlove’s experiences on these tours and the lessons that he learned and would later employ when with The Roots.
It’s strange to imagine that anyone would remember what was playing in the background when their parents told them that they were going away and wouldn’t be back for an extended period of time. But, Thompson connects that moment with Bill Withers 1974 album “+Justments.” Aside from being amazed by his recollection of his earliest memories, he is also able to draw some history about the release and what the artists were going through themselves.
Fast forward to early 90’s and you begin reading about the earliest incarnations of The Roots, and the early freestyle sessions, where they would pass popcorn out, and people would gather around (a ritual that would lead to the formation of “Pass The Popcorn”).
The rest of the book documents the album campaigns that followed their debut record “Organix,” and all the touring and industry mishaps that occurred. It expands on the relationships that Questlove has made with other artists throughout his career ranging from Q-Tip to Mos Def (Yasiin Bey). It’s interesting to read about these experiences and the induction of newer talent such as Jill Scott, Eve, Musiq Soulchild, and even India Arie.
As a young musician, I studied liner notes written by Thompson because at the time I felt like he was the only person publicly dissecting his own songs or at least writing critiques on the experience of being in the studio.
I poured over those liner notes like a grad student, and was even more frustrated as The Roots grew in popularity. I began to see less of the notes. That kind of documentation becomes less and less important as you sell more records I guess. If I am not mistaken, Questlove addresses that in the book.
As a fan of The Roots, what was more interesting and reaffirming (for me) was the validation of my suspicions of previous Roots albums. After The Tipping Point was released, I pretty much went on pause with this band. For whatever reason, this album did not have the same spark as their previous efforts “Phrenology” and “Things Fall Apart.”
It had the feel of the traditional music industry lag – where a band that has just experienced success attempts the same musical formula and is met with grandiose applause for a subpar product. I felt the album was missing something genuine.
It was great to finally get this negative feeling reciprocated from the other side of the recording by Questlove, who labels that album’s campaign as “…the second time in the group’s history that I was asked to take a backseat in the creative process.” This particular story documents their first experience dealing with label representatives, who believed they could mold The Roots into a product. Not only did it reaffirm my suspicions about the album, but also my suspicions on how the music industry handles its talent, as well as how music is pitched to us on a commercial value level.
Moving past that, the rest of the book chronicles The Roots extensive touring, and their more recent induction as the house band for Jimmy Fallon and the mishaps that happened when they first took on responsibilities as Fallon’s backing band. Anyone, who caught The Roots rendition of Fishbone’s “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” during the walk-on for Michele Bachmann, knows what I’m talking about.
Overall, I really believe that Questlove is the Don Cornelius of our generation. He has enough of a background in recorded audio and interest in music to speak to a vast majority of genres.
If that’s not enough he also has a book coming out about “Soul Train” – a show that he is an absolute junkie for. I found that “Mo Meta Blues” was an unequivocally well written product when compared to a lot of the traditionally formatted biographies you read. It doesn’t allow Questlove’s interpretation of events to get skewed because it also includes commentary from Roots manager Richard Nichols. More importantly, I believe Questlove does an amazing job narrating the story of his life, as well as explaining The Roots. Anyone who thinks they are just another “hip-hop band” making music for the sake of making music will be pleasantly surprised at just how many questions can go into a hip-hop record.