Polymath bandleader Ahmir 'Questlove' Thompson chronicles his life in beats.
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But "Mo' Meta Blues" is even more extreme. Quest twice pauses his memoir early on to debate and interview the Roots' manager, free-jazz intellectual Rich Nichols, who then withdraws – more effectively, I think – into dozens of footnotes, some of which directly contradict Quest's recollections. One-paragraph album reviews – of Sly's "There's a Riot Goin' On," the Police's "Synchronicity," Sheila E.'s "The Glamorous Life," Ice Cube's "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted," and many others -- dot the first half. And every so often the narrative pauses to reproduce the emailed second thoughts of collaborator Ben Greenman to editor Ben Greenberg.Skip to next paragraph
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"Ahmir has, for the most part, always been surrounded by other voices," says Greenman in the last of these, continuing: "He's reiterated that several times now: how Tariq represents the red-state constituency (street cred, the barbershop crowd) and he represents the blue-state constituency (art-rock, record nerds, and the avant-garde). But he doesn't say it to privilege one over the other, at least explicitly. He says it to privilege the synthesis."
This principle accounts for most of the mess in this wittingly messy book; my only complaints, really, are that it rushes the ending and that although Questlove brags that the Roots are "an actual group," he – unlike the more hierarchically inclined RZA, notice – doesn't really explain who constitutes the group and how its parts mesh. Only his old partner Tariq, with whom he admits a troubled relationship, inspires detailed commentary, and although Quest regrets several times that the Roots have never shown the go-for-the-gut instinct smash singles generally require, he doesn't really expand on why.
Thus he fails to address my tentative theory of the Roots, which is that early on they bogged down in jazzmatazz keyboard beds that happen to be a pet peeve of mine, only later evolving toward a more guitar-oriented approach, with keyboards evoking piano rather than organ. Nor, more understandably, does he address the delicate question of just how major a rapper Black Thought might be.
Without doubt Tariq is an exceptionally deft rhymer with the rare gift of representing the street and the barbershop within the constraints of the "conscious" mindset. And without doubt he's got a nimble flow. But I'd say his grit lacks "sound" – the vocal charisma that attracts casual listeners not just to world-historical rappers like Chuck D and Lil Wayne but such déclassé hitmakers as Soulja Boy and Flo Rida and even overachiever West, who's still accused occasionally of barely being a rapper at all.
On the other hand, maybe Questlove just thinks it's diplomatic to leave the obvious yet remarkable truth unsaid – that the Roots are dominated by their anomalous drummer. Tariq is the wordsmith, but in the public realm Ahmir has always been mouthpiece-in-chief – the leader, just as he is with Fallon. Not for nothing did the great lost profile writer Touré partition his 2004 "Believer" Q&A with Q off in its own section of his "Never Drank the Kool-Aid" collection, which he designated "Microphone Fiend," an honorific for "rapper" that goes back to the great Rakim himself.
And although it's no surprise when a beatmaker defines hip-hop music, that's because in hip-hop "beats" really means "music" – not just rhythmic movement but all manner of soundscapes, change-ups, hooks, and decorations. Questlove is merely a drummer. Yet over the years it's his sound that has come to ID the Roots' music.