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Mo'Meta Blues

Polymath bandleader Ahmir 'Questlove' Thompson chronicles his life in beats.

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Although "Mo' Meta Blues" could say even more about drumming than it does, it perfectly complements "The Wu-Tang Manual," which details the painstakingly makeshift production strategies the young RZA devised back when the leap from the two-second snatches of a Casio toy to the 10-second capacities of the Ensoniq RPS made it seem as if "you could do practically anything!" Read those pages and you'll never equate sampling with theft again.

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But for Quest it was different. Coming from a strict, traditional R&B family, and a drummer long before Afrika Bambaataa saw the inside of a studio, young Ahmir Thompson was compelled to figure out ways to play hip-hop breaks live. That's how he hooked up with Tariq, who would order him to tap out a famous break in the lunchroom so he could rhyme over it. As the Roots began to play out, Questlove realized that a lot of what he did on his kit was too fancy for hip-hop, and mastered the metronomic snare hits that remain a signature.

But that didn't satisfy either, and in the late '90s – inspired above all by the much-mourned beatmaker J. Dilla, but with plenty of auxiliary input – Quest came to realize that the best hip-hop was by then striving to reinsert what he calls "human quality" into its rhythms. Thus ensued his alliance with D'Angelo, who in 2000 released the Questlove-produced "Voodoo," widely regarded as the greatest R&B album of the post-Prince era, and the occasion of a tour whose Radio City stop I remember as topping even the best Youssou N'Dour I've seen, and I can offer no higher praise. Questlove dominated that amazing band too.

As a showbiz kid, Questlove is careful to salt his book with starbait – subbing for David Letterman at an awards ceremony, roller-skating with Prince after hours, furnishing Dave Chappelle's music for a season, retreating as Tracy Morgan gets freaky. He tells how in early 1997 Nichols convinced Geffen to cater an ongoing jam session at Quest's West Philly home that attracted a cornucopia of then-unknowns who included Jill Scott, India.Arie, Eve, Bilal, Musiq Soulchild, and Jazmine Sullivan, every one now a name artist.

But he also uses his latest soapbox to wax philosophical, topping the book off with one of those musings on the mysteries of memory that promise to become as unwelcome in memoirs as "That's Life" and "Feelings" are in sets by Michael Bublé wannabes. He also holds forth on politics, where he's an outspoken left Democrat who got into big trouble with NBC by deciding that the right walk-on for Michele Bachmann was Fishbone's insufficiently obscure "Lyin' Ass Bitch."

Before that, he had treated his two million Twitter followers – this guy was made for Twitter, and for once that's a compliment – to regular updates in re Zucotti Park. "People liked to say that the Occupy movement was like one big protest song, but the grievances weren't always specific enough for that," he says. "Sometimes it sounded to me like one big blues song."

Just before he waxes metaphysical on us, Questlove reflects: "Part of me would just like to relax and have one job that pays me the amount I need to survive. And another part of me wants the creativity that comes out of struggle and frustration and fear."

He's clearly ready to use his celebrity for whatever it's worth. But just as clearly, attaining yet more celebrity isn't part of that agenda. While sucking up 40 hours a week eight months a year, Fallon somehow leaves him enough time to produce, DJ, teach, tour, and record with his band. So far the result has been the Roots' most substantial and then their most ambitious album: 2010's "How I Got Over," an exceptionally soulful and straightforward exploration of middle-class, middle-aged anxiety, and 2012's "Undun," a first-person portrait of a small-time crook.

As a showbiz kid, Questlove admires Paul Shaffer. But with all due respect, Shaffer is Ed McMahon by comparison.


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