Questlove Takes On The Cockeyed World

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When Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s memoir Mo’ Meta Blues was released last month it immediately jumped to the top of my stack of summer reading. For me, it has been a summer of memoirs. I read Mo’ Meta Blues on the heels of two classics: Dust Tracks on a Road by Zora Neale Hurston and Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues.

Questlove’s account of his life exhibits Hurston’s keen eye for detail and Holiday’s nonchalance. The book shares its sense of timing and humor–its finely tuned ear–with both writers in equal measure. It doesn’t come with a CD, but is scored in the spirit of a Johnny Pate soundtrack. The prose is breezy and entertaining, and the networks of references are dense and intricate.

The dust jacket previews the kind of genealogies traced within. The cover image refers “with apologies” to Milton Glaser’s silhouette of Bob Dylan, which itself points back to Marcel Duchamp’s self portrait in profile.

Duchamp Self Profile    GlaserDylan    QuestLoveMoMeta

This play of references is not juxtaposition for juxtaposition’s sake. Rather, Questlove’s experimental aesthetic forges more organic connections to the past. His modernist sources are the Black Arts Movement and pop art. Both movements critiqued the culture industry using a vanguard aesthetic drawn from the landscape and vocabulary of everyday life. Likewise, Questlove’s insights about the music business in general, and the politics of black music in particular, result in a nuanced and provocative look at connoisseurship, authorship, artistry, fandom, and fame.

As for hip hop, the memoir is part love-letter, part manifesto. There are pet theories about hip hop’s five-year cycles, or how Stevie Wonder’s appearance on the Cosby Show marked the birth of the genre. These hypotheses are steeped in a sophisticated understanding of how corporate media defines and controls the domain of so-called popular music. Questlove explains that The Roots are the last of an old-guard in the music business. They got the last of the “development” record deals. They are essentially the last group in a sea of solo acts.

Still, The Roots are a fixture of hip hop’s vanguard. Questlove calls back to jazz innovators like Sun Ra and Rashaan Roland Kirk, who fused diverse source materials in their search for new sonic terrain. Especially when he recalls collaborations with D’Angelo, the memoir waxes poetic about the new sound they were chasing: “It was out of step with the times but in a way that made it seem like he was stepping into uncharted territory” (137). As D’Angelo’s “co-pilot” for the album Voodoo, he writes that they found an “alternate world of sound, where human error was perfection, where warmth and organic playing mattered more than precision” (154).

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The vital intellectual life of black music is the pedal tone, but the book fulfills the same three-part function as each Roots album. It works simultaneously “as a personal statement, as a statement about hip-hop, and as a statement about the world” (257). Questlove lives and breathes the world of sound, so it’s no surprise that the individual details of his experience resonate with broader shifts in music and the winds of global change. This is the blues impulse that drives the memoir: the synthesis of the personal, political, and philosophical dimensions of American experience expressed in sublime and tragicomic tones.

“When people think about blues,” Questlove writes, “they think of personal music” (238). Ralph Ellison, after all, defined the blues as “an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.” But what we have here is a Meta-Blues–a blues about the blues. The book’s title takes its cue from Spike Lee’s film Mo’ Better Blues, especially a conversation between the characters Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington) and Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes) in which they discuss issues of audience and experimentation–“how to stay true to our idea of our music and also be appropriately inviting to audiences, how to court audiences without compromising the music we were making” (166). The memoir details the quest to reconcile this dialectic through interpretation and improvisation.

This perennial conflict is the crux of Amiri Baraka’s concept of black music’s changing same–where “the spiritual and free and soulful must mingle with the practical, as practical, as existent, anywhere.” Questlove offers a precedent in the case of a singer named Minnie Wallace, who is a “kind of shadowy figure in the blues, not very prolific, not a major artist, but she wrote a song called ‘The Cockeyed World’ about the 1935 invasion of Ethiopia.” Questlove explains, “Wallace’s song is a kind of strange reverse view of that Afrocentric moment: it’s from the perspective of a woman who is lamenting the way that the situation in Ethiopia is taking her husband or boyfriend away from her, or at the very least directing his attention elsewhere” (238). She recorded the song nine days after Italy’s invasion.

The link between Wallace’s song and Mo’ Meta Blues exists in the dynamic tension between the popular and vanguard strains of black music–the simultaneous inward and outward gesture of the blues. The book’s polyvocal narrative resists a totalizing view, even of a single life, so readers will find fewer answers than questions. For instance, Questlove asks “How can society give us the tools to change ourselves but not, at the same time, treat the self-hatred that makes us run away from our true selves?” (168). Such self-conscious intellectual and musical eclecticism fulfills the postmodern promise of hip hop. The contradictions of the music industry, the frenetic pace of media, and the proliferation of technology fuel the perpetual engine of style.

The memoir is a remarkable testament to the perseverance of creative integrity and intellectual versatility in contemporary black music. Questlove unapologetically declares, “I didn’t know how to make pop music. I only knew how to make smart music” (207).