Questlove’s Family Affair

(I wrote this last summer, when the drummer Questlove’s autobiography came out, but my piece slipped through the cracks, so I’m posting it now.)

In Ahmir Thompson’s memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues, the drummer writes about his decision to go by his better-known moniker, Questlove. The name, he writes, combined “a mix of substance and style;” so does his book. Mo’ Meta Blues includes some normal career description, but several years are described largely through the records he remembers listening to at the time. He also throws in interviews with (and interjections from) the manager of his band, as well as emails from other people involved in the writing and editing process. Musicians take note: most of the time, Questlove manages to spice up a form that should be interesting — after all, few people have an artist’s breadth of experience — but too often ends up boring, repetitive, and predictable.

Not that Questlove throws the whole musician’s autobiography playbook out the window (for another interesting experiment in music memoir, read the book-length interview of the artist Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy). “[E]very music memoir has the same shape,” writes Questlove, “[i]t starts off with a simple statement about childhood: ‘I was born. . . My dad did this.’ But I don’t want to start that way. I can’t start that way. I won’t.” But of course, he does.

Questlove also has a somewhat standard male-musician moment: a break with his father, the doo-wop singer Lee Andrews. Pops “believed that music died as a result of two crucial punches, one in 1973 and the other in 1979.” 1973 brought James Brown’s album The Payback, where the shortest song clocked in at just under six minutes, causing Pop Andrews to inquire, “where are the hits?” And in 1979, along came Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants—which Andrews viewed as “too abstract, too spacey, too private.” Music may have died for dad, but it broke wide open for Questlove, who considers his exposure to these musical documents “birthright moments.”

 

In a few places, the “meta” part of Mo Meta Blues goes awry. The emails that pop up periodically from the book’s co-writer, Ben Greenman, to the book’s editor, Ben Greenberg, are unnecessary. Greenman writes about “intellectual and cultural isometrics” and “finding there’s a Doppler effect in personal memory”; these belong in a less interesting memoir. Towards the end of the book, Questlove allows himself to string together phrases like: “Maybe life’s a circle. . . my drums are circles. . . But drumsticks are straight, and there are times when life seems like an arrow. . . Music has the power to stop time. . . also keeps time. . . conserves time and serves time. . . will the circle be unbroken? That’s not the only circle that’s a question. . . Lines are statements. Arrows are especially emphatic statements. They divide and they define. . . What does that mean? What doesn’t it mean?”

This doesn’t quite stop time, and it doesn’t make for exciting reading either.

Back to the beat: Dad wanted Questlove to be a professional studio drummer like Bernard Purdie, who kept “‘food on the table’” playing “‘the 2 and the 4’” for Aretha Franklin and Hall & Oates, among others (he also played on albums for James Brown, so I imagine Purdie might have played the 1 every now and then, but the story’s better as is). Mom and Dad also spent most of 1982 finding and destroying Questlove’s hidden copies of Prince’s 1999 album — readers may gasp when they find out how dad snapped the first record of that exceptional double album over his knee — because of its risqué content, so the two parties did not always see eye to eye.

At the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, Questlove met his future platonic life-partner Tariq Trotter, who liked to rhyme, picked up a few band mates, busked for a while, adopted the name the Square Roots, un-adopted the “Square” (because seriously, who wants to be a square, except for a folk group that called itself the Square Roots already), and released a first album, Organix in 1993. Questlove places the Roots as the “Third group of that Second wave” of Native Tongues-influenced hip-hop, after Arrested Development and Digable Planets. The first wave of the Native Tongues — the Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, and De La Soul — mined a wide range of music for beats to sample, especially jazz, and ignored the mainstream’s turn to the aggressive rap epitomized by Dr. Dre’s 1992 album The Chronic. These Tongues’ groups could be groovy, goofy, political, and abstract, sometimes all at once.

As a musician, Questlove plays two roles. There is Questlove the drummer for the Roots, carrying the torch for the role of the band in hip-hop, anchoring the only group still standing from those first and second waves. And there is Questlove the enabler, who connects like-minded musicians — usually not rappers — and helps them achieve the hits and fame that often elude the Roots.

The two halves of the artist are connected by an emphasis on the collective. He associates 1971, the year he was born, with Sly and The Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On, and that album’s single, “Family Affair,” seems fitting for a man who has spent most of his life in a hip-hop band and admits that the first time he listened to D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar, he knew he “could really get a movement going.” What if one year-old Questlove had instead been formed by another song on Sly’s brooding, unhinged, drug-addled masterpiece, say, “Spaced Cowboy,” where Sly growls, barely discernible, “was on my last leg/ I couldn’t even borrow my friend’s extra peg.” Then perhaps we would know another version of Questlove, pursuing a solo career without thoughts of group or community.

 

Despite the tensions that have existed between the drummer and Black Thought, the Roots’ deft but often heavy-mouthed rapper, since the band’s first recording, the Roots persist as an ensemble in a genre dominated by lone artists, or maybe twosomes. Few rappers, let alone hip-hop bands, have lasted 20 years and recorded 11 studio albums (plus collaborations with John Legend, the soul singer Betty Wright, and Elvis Costello). And Questlove’s other enduring contribution to pop — aiding and abetting the neo-soul movement that arose in the second-half of the 90s — came about at least partially through label-funded jam sessions at his house with any number of soon-to-be successful artists. Questlove played on and produced albums like D’Angelo’s Voodoo, which debuted at number 1 on the pop charts and went platinum, and the first two Erykah Badu albums, Baduizm and Mama’s Gun, which peaked at number 2 and 11 respectively (both went platinum or beyond).

 

In contrast, the Roots have never gone platinum, and the absence of hits has haunted Questlove. He tells a story of an early career trauma at a club where there were “a hundred people on the floor, dancing. . . but the second ‘Distortion To Static‘ [an early Roots’ single] came on. . . the whole place just cleared. There was only one girl left. . .” In an interview with the writer Toure back in 2003, Questlove lamented, “I walk past a couple. Guy stops in his tracks, girl keeps on walking. Guy looks back. He says, ‘Questlove?’ I turn around. He says, ‘Ohmigod!’ The girl keeps on walking. He’s like, ‘Baby wait! It’s Questlove from the Roots.’ She’s like, ‘Who?’” (He narrates a similar story in Mo’ Meta Blues, and comments repeatedly about how all the Roots’ groupies are dudes.) Toure succinctly summarizes this story back to his interviewee: “you’re respected, but you want to be loved instead.”

Why did the Roots never manage platinum or top thirty status? Questlove calls himself a “music snob who takes up the ‘wrong’ records,” and even says at one point, “I didn’t really know what pop songs were.” The Roots’ manager supports this theory, especially in the group’s early days, by noting “I don’t think early on you guys realized how little pop sense you had.”

There’s also discussion about “how arty you’re allowed to be when you’re black.” Questlove notes that after the Roots’ Things Fall Apart album, “critics were starting to knock us for being too thoughtful,” specifically “middle-class black writers” who “bash us for what they perceive as a lack of street credibility—not our street credibility, mind you. . . the street credibility that they get (or do not get) . . .” But Questlove has helped other black artists—mainly singers—make music that has both performed well commercially and been considered artistically vital.

 

So it seems likely that something about the group’s dynamic precluded hits. In a New Yorker profile from 2012, Questlove noted, “I’m thinking about Slate and Pitchfork — all the stuff that Tariq doesn’t give a fuck about. I’m looking at Tariq: Fucking barbershop! They’re still busy arguing about Jay-Z, Biggie, or Nas. He’s trying to please a demographic that ignores him. I’m trying to please a demographic that’s hard to please.”

This tension appears repeatedly in the book. Instead of jumping instantly when an opportunity to work with Blueprint-era Jay-Z appeared, Questlove wondered if it would “be a train-wreck” that destroyed “our legit indie rep” (the Roots did eventually back up Jay-Z, a smart move on their part). The gang drove down to Virginia at one point to work with the producer Pharrell near the height of his musical powers, but nothing came of the session; Questlove wasn’t satisfied with the tracks Pharrell produced.

This conflict also plays a part in the Root’s current incarnation as Jimmy Fallon’s late-night TV band. As Questlove tells it, he was initially reluctant to join the show, but Fallon made the group laugh and relieved intra-personnel conflict. “I saw something I thought I would never see,” writes Questlove, “. . . I was in an interview and when I got out I saw Jimmy with almost the whole band. . . making a huge human pyramid. Everyone was laughing.” The band’s “[r]elationships, while never exactly toxic, were not always open. . . Jimmy had the ability to turn us all into thirteen-year-olds.” (In a good way.)

To some extent the barber-shop vs. critic split has even come up in the reaction to Mo’ Meta Blues. In the New York Times, Dwight Garner wrote in his review that, “I suspect I’m going to be listening to more Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Prince, the Isley Brothers, Rufus, Public Enemy and D’Angelo than I have for a long time.” This will certainly be healthy for Garner, but it is comments like that which caused Questlove to tweet: “For all these music converts I’m gettin (‘imma buy every album in #MoMetaBlues’) I sure hope yall mean @TheRoots records too.”

Critics almost always give the Roots solid-to-good ratings. If you believe in stars, or grades — and Questlove believes in them with a fiery passion — Bob Christgau has graded their last seven albums, in chronological order, as B+, A-, A-, A-, A, A, and B+. The New York Times tends to commend the Roots in a backhanded fashion. Jon Pareles once wrote that, “[n]ot every project is a masterpiece, but the ambition runs deep and true;” Jon Caramanica calls the group “hip-hop workhorses, known for precision and tenacity, if not hits and magnetism.” The website Pitchfork has given recent Roots projects scores of 8.1, 5.4, 7.7, 7.8, 8.1, and 7.3.

But perhaps the biggest triumph for the Roots would be to please both demographics, to unite the critics and the barbershop. Combining what Pareles refers to as their “determination to tell unvarnished stories” with a big selling-work would be worthy of many of Questlove’s idols.

Throughout Mo’ Meta Blues, Questlove keeps the focus on music, serving to remind us that one of the most interesting things about musicians is often their art. And his art continues to develop — the most recent Roots’ album, Wise Up Ghost, is a collaboration with Elvis Costello, another talented musician who never had much luck on the charts. Questlove may be blue. But he’ll always have good company.

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