How to write a memoir, how to be a genius and other lessons from Questlove the Great

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This photo isn’t from a Roots show. I promise that I’ve been to both a Roots concert and to see Questlove DJ in the past six months, but I was too overcome by genius at both events to snap pics.

Is there anything better than a music man? I read Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s memoir Mo’ Meta Blues during my vacation last week and it confirmed the things I already thought about Questlove and The Roots. Questlove is a better musician than you are. He may not be as cool as you but he has access to cooler things and people than you do. He’s definitely smarter than you.

Mo’ Meta Blues isn’t a rock & roll autobiography so if you’re here for the cocaine overdoses and hot groupies, look elsewhere. While there are members of The Roots who aren’t as square as Questlove and who have probably snorted blow out of a stripper’s bellybutton, Questlove ain’t telling. This memoir is about music. About the impact that music had on young Ahmir, and about the impact Questlove has had on music through The Roots, through his production work, and most recently through your TV screen on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

I say this a lot, but I think that when history looks back on our time, the voices in hip hop will be the ones that are left and they will shape how history understands us. Even beyond the lyrics of hip hop (which are the best, truest, form of poetry about America in the last 30 years) the music behind hip hop is our generation’s contribution to melodic history. Who are our great musicians? Not lyricists, put that aside for the moment, but people who do the most with the art of sound. Pharrell Williams? Dr. Dre? Rick Rubin? Timbaland? And Questlove. An inside look at how one of your generation’s musical geniuses came to learn about music is reason enough to read this book.

Questlove worked with a writer, but Mo’ Meta Blues isn’t ghostwritten like other celebrity memoirs. The writer Ben Greenman is an active participant in the story and it is clear you are reading his understanding of Questlove’s understanding of his life and history. That’s a brave angle and it offers a richer perspective on the writer and the subject than one might get from the usual autobiography that a famous person with a full-time job claims to have written in their free time.

Further Reading:

If I haven’t convinced you that the memoir of the drummer from a great, if commercially unsuccessful, hip hop ensemble is worth your time, start with this 2012 profile in the New Yorker and I promise you’ll be dying to read more.

Like I’ve said, Mo’ Meta Blues is strictly about music but Questlove is more than a musician. He has some interesting things to say about the intersection of race and hip hop and I encourage you to read his essay series in New York Magazine on the subject.

To learn more about hip hop as a musical style and its American roots, check out the excellent documentary Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap (sometimes just called The Art of Rap).

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