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.

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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).

A Brand New Beggar

A.L. Nielsen’s new book of poetry has recently made a brand new beggar out of me.

“Moving, moving around / I’ve been travelling from town to town…” Prilly Hamilton sings in the first verse of the song that lends the book its title. So too, Nielsen’s new work takes place en route. From the opening pages, we are suspended above vast empty spaces: “Bursts of land so flat / You want to put anything other / Than yourself down there.” Even as the poems jet-set across continents, they have a way of doubling back on themselves–retracing their steps or covering their tracks. This recursive movement is evident in the lines’ syncopated twists, the poems’ deep irony,  and the slippage between location and dislocation.

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Motifs of space, travel, and distance span the book, which contains poetic suites oriented around two very different places: Kansas and Ghana. The section on Ghana is restrained, even imagistic. The language is laden with tropical humidity and the weight of history:

“At Independence Square
The Black Star arches above
America’s Independence Day”

While densely layered, the section is buoyed up by poignant turns. I vividly recall the “Lizard doing his morning pushups” at Big Milly’s Backyard in Kokrobite, for instance.

Many visitors to Ghana hear at least one song that remains connected to a particular West African memory. I will forever associate Arrested Development’s “People Everyday” with the rusted-through floor of a cab barreling into the countryside one night; I can just as clearly hear “Muddy Waters pouring / From seaside speakers / Sounding / Homecoming baptism.”

The book is highly allusive; it traces an intricate constellation of references including poets George Oppen, Charles Olson, Melvin Tolson, and Gil Scott-Heron; experimental composers Sam Rivers, Frank Zappa, and Sun Ra; and even Bertol Brecht makes an oblique appearance. In another context, Nielsen links Amiri Baraka’s politically-committed, vernacular experimentalism to Brecht’s. He calls it Baraka’s “social realism of the blues” (Black Chant 197). The analogy speaks to what we have here: a vanguard poetics “Punched out of Belgian mud.”

In that spirit, the section “from Kansas” addresses America’s history of popular dissent, racial conflict, and civil war, and reminds us that–quiet as it’s kept–Kansas was an important front in the struggle to end slavery. Between the Jayhawkers’ guerrilla raids and the pro-slavery retaliation that resulted in the Lawrence Massacre, Nielsen finds “Roiling plates / Planes of / Climate change / Antebellum broiling.” Such continental drifts and divides fracture the poetic landscape.

Yet the poems’ rhythmic cadence and phrasing give them an insistent musicality: “From discrepant depths / Rhyme hidden so deep as to be beyond layered lime.” These poems are at once bitingly satirical and delicately wrought, demonstrating a deftness and lyricism that begs to be given voice through performance.

Later this month, A.L. Nielsen will read at the Poetry Project on Monday, March 18 at 8:00pm with Evie Shockley. Shockley’s own recent book, the new black, is a stunning collection of poems about which I have more good things to say. She has praised Nielsen’s book for the “wicked wit he often turns on politics and culture” and notes the book’s playfulness and intimacy.

I highly recommend acquiring a copy of both A Brand New Beggar and the new black. Right now–for a limited time–Steerage Press has made available a kindle edition of A.L. Nielsen’s book for just $0.99.

In the Studio with Ghosthouse

The Chicago-based Electro-Funk outfit Ghosthouse is not afraid to put in some overtime. Consider the evidence: the single, “9.2.5,” from their recent self-titled album extends Dolly Parton’s workday blues to a whole new job market. It’s helped me more than a few times to keep on pushing through a long afternoon or a late night.

I was on something of a working vacation last month when I hit the studio with my younger brother, Chuck New, producer Jimmy Con, and drummer Dylan Hyde Castle. I watched the trio put some finishing touches on a new track, called “Look Around,” which they’re already featuring in their live set. The recording will be on their upcoming EP, slated for release this spring.

“Look Around” casts its gaze across the pond for inspiration. Drawing on New Wave and post-punk Brit-pop of the early 80s, the song partakes fully in the synthesized excesses of the New Romanticism. Ghosthouse indulges Duran Duran’s upbeat hooks, but with the same subtle sneer as Bowie’s sardonic celebration of “Fashion” and “Fame.”

Chuck’s lyrical delivery lends the song a sense of theatricality; Jimmy’s production is a throwback that sacrifices nothing in the way of relevance. Dylan holds four to the floor and turns out a nouveau-disco anthem. “Look Around” also features Katie Ablan, who takes the song from the East End to the West, from the street to the posh. Break out the skinny ties, pop your collar, and roll up your blazer’s sleeves, it’s time to dance like high-schoolers in a John Hughes film. This is synth-driven New Wave at its best.

Ghosthouse’s New Wave pedigree is certifiable, too. Another soon-to-be-released track, “Empty Bottles,” features Mars Williams on saxophone. Williams played with the  Psychedelic Furs in the mid-80s, but came through the ranks in Chicago playing jazz and experimental music; he studied with Anthony Braxton during his time with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).

Williams’ versatility syncs perfectly with Ghosthouse’s irreverence toward generic and stylistic boundaries. Their sets cover plenty of terrain, from earnest ballads to dance-floor motivators, and they do it all with a cheeky sense of humor (see “Virginia is for Lovers”).

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“Stop Drop & Roll,” for instance, might be a safety dance for the new millenium. It combines the requisite immodesty of a song with its own choreography with the authentic funk that separates Ghosthouse from the mostly disposable pop that dominates the airwaves. Who else could transform a lesson on fire safety into the next dance craze?

Amidst the vintage compressors and road-weary P- and J-Basses, “Look Around” began to take shape in the capable hands of engineer Andy Shoemaker. During the mixing and playback, I couldn’t help but recall the legends who had preceded us in that studio: Buddy Guy, George Duke, Koko Taylor, and Magic Slim all worked there. Rax Trax is a Chicago institution.

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If you missed Ghosthouse when they headlined the Metro earlier this month, you have another chance to catch their act tonight as they support their fellow synth-scions, falsetto-freaks, and throwback-artists, the Nashville-based Cherub.

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Check them out at ghosthousechicago.com and keep your eyes and ears open this April for a new EP from Ghosthouse.