Books: Mo’ Meta Blues, by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (2013)

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I used to think that I was crazy. Or at the very least, sort of abnormal. Records would make their way onto the turntable and even before a note was played, images of the album’s purchase point and what I was up to at that time would float into my consciousness. Example: Elton John – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: Purchased at King’s department store, Middletown, Connecticut. 1973. My first record. Listened to it non-stop when not outside having adventures with my 7th grade buddies on our banana seat Schwinn bikes.

I mean, what sort of person remembers this stuff? And what is wrong with us? And why does it seem like there are so few of us? After reading Ahmir “Questlove” Thomson’s excellent Mo’ Meta Blues, it turns out that those questions do have an answer…and that I am not alone.

You may be familiar with Questlove as the drummer of the hip-hop collective The Roots. Maybe you’ve seen him and the crew burning it up as the house band (and much more) on The Late Show with Jimmy Fallon. You may even know of his role as the producer of D’Angelo’s landmark album Voodoo. While all of these things are true, I know him as a fellow member in the Brotherhood of Music Obsessives™

Mo’ Meta Blues, being a memoir, does touch on all the important milestones — Thompson’s upbringing in West Philly, his on-the-road adventures with his show business parents, his hilarious meeting with Prince (it involved roller skates), the history of The Roots — but it’s the constant infusion of his love of music that elevates the book far above most biographies in the genre. With each anecdote of discovery, burned-in association, and life-changing moment, Questlove shows us that the man he has become would not exist without music.

Memory Mappings

Music was being played continuously in that West Philadelphia house, with the majority of Questlove’s early memories mapped to the output of the radio, the turntable, or his favorite television show: Soul Train. Curtis Mayfield was playing a particular part of “Freddy’s Dead” on the TV as a young Ahmir slipped and fell onto a hot radiator. “Even now, when I hear it, it traumatizes me.” Twelve pages into the book and I see that that we have this in common, that connection of music to events.

First “Important” Albums

Questlove’s dad had no use for the direction taken by James Brown and Stevie Wonder on the albums The Payback and Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants. He handed them down and they opened new worlds to him. This happened to me with Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. I heard that and I felt like a different person.

Rapper’s Delight

The phenomenon of everybody talking about new piece of culture is a rare one, these days especially. “Rapper’s Delight” was indeed a game-changer. I’m not sure this ever happened to me but the idea of such a powerful shared experience contains a lot of resonance.

The Influence of Bill Cosby on Hip-Hop (no kidding!)

What? In one episode, Steve Wonder made use of a sampler. Questlove tells us what this was a watershed moment in hip-hop. Kind of amazing.

The Music-press Nerd

Chapter five begins: “What do you do when just listening to the music you love isn’t enough?” He then goes on to talk about how he papered his walls with hundreds of reviews from Rolling Stone. I wish I’d take a picture of this, but on the back of my bedroom door I created a huge collage of photos from the magazine, bordered with the small album covers printed with the reviews. I guess music nerds from central Maine and West Philly have some things in common.

A word of warning: one reading of Mo’ Meta Blues will have you lusting after a pile of records that you never knew you wanted. Questlove’s true love of music runs wide and deep…and his interests range far outside of soul and hip-hop. I now have a “want” list that contains entries from soul, neo-soul, hip-hop, pop, rock, and jazz. I may have to send him a bill. Or maybe I’ll just shake his hand at the next Obsessives meeting.

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